6 Tips for remembering French vocabulary

Posted by Josh on 27th Mar 2023 in the blog in the category

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Vocabulary is arguably the most important part of any language. You can know all the grammar rules, how to formulate word order, how to conjugate regular and irregular verbs alike – but if you don't know the words in the first place, you won't be able to put any of these skills to use.

The more words you know, the better. In fact, it's estimated that you need to know around 5,000 words to be fluent in French, although native speakers will often know up to 30,000! That's a lot of words, making vocabulary learning a bit of a numbers game.

Unfortunately, learning French vocabulary isn't just a case of looking at a word and moving on to the next. Over the course of your learning, particularly if you practise passive learning, you will be exposed to thousands of words; but you'll find that very few of them will stick in your memory automatically. Being able to commit each word to memory, so that you recognise it when you hear or read it, and are able to use it when speaking or writing French, is a complex procedure that requires deliberate effort, and a major stumbling block for French learners.

You can find helpful vocabulary lists on the Learn French with Alexa website, as well as elsewhere on the web, and often in the indices of French textbooks. Read on for top tips on how to use these list most effectively.

Use words in context

Learning words in isolation might seem, at first glance, like the fastest method to remember them. But that doesn't make it the most effective method; and you’ll soon find yourself in a position where you quickly forget the words you learn, and need to keep visiting and revisiting them, over and over again.

The human brain is a bit like a sieve. Bits of information have a tendency to fall through if they're small and disconnected from other information, and words are a perfect example of this. The best way to stop them falling through the sieve is, therefore, to learn words in context, such as as part of a phrase or sentence. For instance, imagine you encounter the following two words in your studies:

la mer the sea

la mère the mother

Since the words are so similar - as is the case with many words in French - it would be easy to forget one, or even both of them, or to mix them up. But you can help distinguish them and cement their place in your memory by fitting them into the kind of context in which you're likely to use, or encounter, them in everyday French. By building up associations with other related words, you'll be able to stimulate the memorisation process, as well as see first-hand how to use the words in question. For instance

Les pirates ont traversé la mer | The pirates sailed across the sea

Ma mère aime aller à la pêche | My mother likes to go fishing

Many vocabulary lists will include example sentences for exactly this purpose. But if the list you're using does not, then it's a good idea to make up your own sentences with the words – it makes for great practice.

Revisit words

Unless you're a wizard, seeing or hearing a word once is never going to be enough to commit it to memory. In fact, research suggests that you may need to encounter a word up to 20 times for it to stick – although this number will be significantly lower if you employ the other strategies suggested here.

That said, there's no avoiding the necessity of repetition. If you want to speed up your revision, a good trick is to take a highlighter to your vocabulary lists. Highlight in green the words you definitely know, highlight in orange the words that give you pause, and which you need to think about before landing on the translation; and highlight in red the ones you don't know at all. That way, when it comes to revisiting your vocabulary, you'll save yourself a lot of time by knowing which words to prioritise.

Of course, you can use your own colour combinations – any colour association at all can be of tremendous help with the memorising process.

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Say the words out loud

It might sound a little strange, especially if you’re studying in public, but saying the words out loud as you learn them helps to concretise their position in your memory by creating a spoken association alongside a visual or audio association. It also helps you with pronunciation, allowing you to identify the more difficult words to work on before you apply them in conversation – and potentially saving you some embarrassment!

Put the words to use whenever you can

Practice makes perfect! New words are sure to stick if you use them as often as you can. Try to look for ways to employ the words you’ve just learnt, whether that’s writing your thoughts down, speaking with a French speaker, or even speaking your thoughts out loud to yourself. Actively employing the words yourself means you need to focus on how to spell or pronounce them, as well as how they fit into a phrase or sentence, further fleshing them out in your memory.

Conjugate the verbs

When you encounter a new verb in a vocabulary list, what you’re encountering is most likely a lemma. This is the infinitive, or unconjugated version of the verb, and – unless the verb is irregular – should be all you need to know to be able to conjugate the verb into its different tenses and persons.

It’s a good idea to do this when you come across new verbs. You may be able to commit the lemma to memory easily, but find yourself stumped when you come across the same word in the second person plural passé antérieur, for instance. Practising the verb in its different conjugations – either by writing them out, or sounding them out in your head – will help you familiarise yourself with the different versions of the word as you are likely to use and encounter them. While doing so is sure to lengthen your study schedule, the added time will help cement the verb in your memory, thereby saving you time in the long run.

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Test yourself

There's a reason teachers (including Alexa) love to set tests. Sure, they can be tedious or intimidating, but they're indispensable for helping to identify strengths and weaknesses, and for providing you with a sense of your level of proficiency.

The Learn French with Alexa website allows you to take quizzes for each of the vocabulary lists. But it's also very easy to set yourself vocabulary tests or quizzes, and by putting yourself in the position of the examiner, you can tailor these exercises specifically to your own needs. Simply by looking at words without their translation at hand is a good way to test yourself. And if you're using flashcards, you can shuffle them so that the words appear in a random order – trick that can be replicated by randomising Excel cells if you're using a spreadsheet. By confronting the words in an order with which you're unfamiliar, you're forcing yourself to engage with vocabulary in a new context, similar to how you'll come across it in real-world texts or conversations.

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