How To Improve Your French Vocabulary Fast – 9 Tips
Do you want to improve your French vocabulary and become fluent in French faster? Words are the basic building blocks of any language, and vocabulary is one of the fundamental predictors of someone’s education level, occupation, and social status.
Unfortunately, most French language learners struggle to increase their vocabulary quickly and effectively, as new vocab goes one into one ear.. and out the other.
It’s not that we have difficulties apprehending the vocabulary when we see it. Most people struggle to recall when they have the opportunity to use it, or worse yet, forget to use their French vocabulary frequently enough only to end up back where they first began.
How to Improve Your French Vocabulary Fast – 9 Tips
In this article on how to increase your French vocabulary, I will share with you seven scientifically proven tactics to subdue this strife. With these tips, you will:
- learn new French words faster
- recall them more easily
- remember them forever.
1. Study The Most Common French Vocabulary First
Before you can use any of the learning hacks in this article, you’ll first need a good, practical source list for French vocabulary.
What use is learning vocabulary, that you are not likely to use?
Ideally, much of the vocabulary you want to get to know should be words you will frequently encounter in your day-to-day life.
Whether through watching tv, reading, listening to songs, or paying attention to conversations in the supermarket or while waiting for the bus.
These above mentioned points are fundamental to language learning.
- learning vocab in context,
- learning vocabulary that is personally relevant, and
- engaging with words as pieces you can use to create something bigger, rather than see them as individual pieces of information.
The Importance of Frequency Dictionaries
A core principle of (effective) language learning is that you should learn any language in a way that empowers you to use it at the earliest opportunity.
To increase your French vocabulary fast, you’ll likely need to supplement the words you pick up here-and-there with a more specific list of words you should probably know.
It should then come as no surprise that the preferred source of French vocabulary are lists ordered by the frequency at which the words are used in day-to-day language.
For some reason, traditional classroom and language learning teachers do not use this method. Instead, they go through the language per topic (in the bathroom, at the airport, at the hospital, etc.).
- The goal of a traditional language course is to make yourself able to express yourself in a whole range of different situations.
- Our goal is acceptable French fluency as fast as possible.
The frequency list approach is something I have never seen to be used in a classroom setting. But it is remarkably effective and extremely prevalent among pretty much all successful language self-learners.
Why, you might ask?
In almost any language, learning the 1.000 most common words will make you know 90% of the spoken language. Even just knowing the first 250 most used words will give you a good idea of the conversation. These 250 high-frequency words account for roughly 70% of all that is said!
“Real” fluency generally happens when you know around 2000 words. You will be able to express yourself with confidence on a variety of topics, although you might make mistakes or describe things a bit “off.”
(I have a Russian friend who once asked me for a “tree for tooth.” A toothpick. But otherwise, normal conversation flowed freely.)
If you learn just ten new words a day, getting up to speed in a conversation will take less than 3 month of easygoing, casual learning.
Make no mistake: learning a language is a tremendous undertaking. It is misleading at best when certain language learning companies promise fluency in a matter of weeks or even days. But mastering the core vocabulary of a French will make you very comfortable in any day-to-day situation. It takes high-grade source material, a bit of grit and diligence, and before you know it, you’ll find yourself fluent before long!
2. Learn French Vocabulary in Context
Scientific research shows that the vast majority of your vocabulary is learned passively, through context.
I can’t emphasize this point enough. Learning in context from different situations and sentences holds huge advantages for all of the three aspects of French vocabulary acquisition:
This means that you probably shouldn’t learn by cramming French vocabulary from pure word lists consisting of random, unrelated vocab, without seeing the words being used in context.
At least, not when you want to learn French fast and efficiently.
(And yes, the benefits of contextual learning is exactly why we added French to English example sentences to each entry in our French frequency dictionaries.)
You can imagine words to be puzzle pieces. When the tiny bits are lying scattered around the table, it’s close to impossible to identify them, memorize them or use them for anything useful.
But once you start to connect even just a few of the pieces, a more significant context begins to appear. Building further on these greater pieces of the puzzle, soon the final result no longer seems to be unattainable.
There are quite a few ways of introducing context into your French vocabulary learning. The most straightforward being to learn vocabulary in sentences. This has several additional benefits:
- It introduces you to several French words at a time.
- It clarifies their meaning, (which may not always be apparent from a simple dictionary translation.)
- It helps you learn languages “clunks”: common parts of sentences you can combine with others to form new ones
Beyond example sentences, you can experiment with learning French words through stories, songs or just from deducing French from situations you will encounter in your day to day life.
For example, preferably to learning weather-related vocabulary on their own, look up a weather forecast online in French. Try to imagine a conversation about the weather next week (a common topic of discussion, worldwide), and how it will influence your fishing trip you’ve been so dearly looking forward to. Use your imagination.
Finally, you can also immerse yourself by slapping the vocabulary right onto your surroundings with cheeky post-it notes.
You might have tried this practice with nouns, but there’s no reason to not expand on this endeavor any further! Adding prepositions, pronouns or adjectives to Post-its is a neat little trick to expand your French vocabulary this way.
e.g., Add to the label on your lamp the French word for ‘hanging,’ the wall with ‘stone,’ and your laptop with ‘my.’
3. Hack Your Memory With Spaced Repetition (SRS)
Although the scientific community is still arguing about some aspects of the learning process, there is consensus on how memories form, and solidify in our brain.
Spaced repetition is such an exciting notion that deserves its own post, but the basic concept is that your memories begin to fade soon after they are formed. Memories disappear into the void unless we are exposed to the information anew.
With each renewed exposure, the ‘forgetting curve’ of that memory becomes longer and longer, until it eventually remains hardcoded in your brain for your whole life.
This is the reason why reviewing what you’ve learned on a regular basis is so critical to productive and efficient learning.
The greatest benefit of using a spaced repetition approach to learning is that it prevents you from wasting time on vocabulary that is still fresh in your memory.
Nowadays, I prefer doing spaced repetition on feeling. I roughly know the intervals thanks to Paul Pimsleur (yes, from the Pimsleur method), and they are not an exact science. There are upper and lower bounds to the intervals. The intervals published in Pimsleur’s paper are:
- 5 seconds
- 25 seconds
- 2 minutes
- 10 minutes
- 1 hour
- 5 hours
- 1 day
- 5 days
- 25 days
- 4 months
- and 2 years.
If you prefer a more systematic approach, you can follow the original Leitner system with old school paper flashcards, or look for a spaced repetition app on your phone (it’s 2018 after all). There is also software available for your laptop of mac, for either online or for offline use. Or both.
Most French language learners use flashcards by adding more and more words to their learning deck, and then reviewing them all combined every day or every week, or ultimately, never at all.
Not surprisingly, provided how exceptionally unmanageable such a heap becomes after a few good learning sessions.
Spaced Repetition Software goes far beyond conventional flashcards by accurately predicting the point when your remembrance of the new French vocabulary is about to fade, based on your past achievements. So at this optimal moment, the software is able to remind you that is time to review your flashcards again.
Theoretically speaking, if you review your flashcards regularly every day, you shouldn’t have to see the word more than just four to five times before it registers into your long-term memory.
4. Make French Vocabulary Meaningful and Emotional
Emotionally intense moments ingrain themselves into your brain. This is why PTSD is so common in soldiers. And you probably have experienced it yourself, losing someone or something that has been very close to you. I bet you still remember it vividly.
During an experiment, neuroscientists quickly showed different words and sentences in front of their subjects, while scanning their brain activity.
Unsurprisingly, in the brain activity scans the subjects’ brain lit up like a Christmas tree whenever the testees were exposed to personally relevant and emotionally stimulating information.
This is due to the release of certain chemicals in the brain. Knowing that emotions impact learning, we can now use this to “hack” our brain.
The outcome of the study can be used to enhance vocabulary acquisition considerably, especially when combined with the previous tip on contextual learning.
Rather than thinking up a rather uninspiring sentence like “The photo is on the wall.” you should try something more like “The photo of my beloved girlfriend fell out of my wallet, right when I got that horrible call.”
The benefits are three-fold.
- There’s now a compelling visual story forming around the vocabulary.
- It is emotionally impactful.
- Assuming you store a photo of your significant other in your wallet, also relatable.
Insert that kind of sentence into your spaced repetition software, and its pretty much guaranteed that you will never forget the words for photo, wallet, or girlfriend ever again.
Summarizing: When broadening your knowledge of French words, try to create a memory of the new French vocabulary in context with people you know, areas you’re familiar with or meaningful events in your life.
5. Create Word Associations for French Vocabulary (Mnemonics)
Once you get a basic knowledge of the language, learning new words and vocabulary gets easier and easier as you build on the previously learned information. You will start to associate new vocabulary with homonyms, common roots, and other components you know already.
But some words don’t seem to stick in your memory. How can you improve your French vocabulary if you keep forgetting the meaning of new nouns or adjectives? And what about proper nouns, like given names and locations? How do you recall what often seems to be a random collection of letters?
This is where mnemonics come in. You might have already heard about these “memory hacks.” You can apply this memory trick to everything you need to remember, be it facts, faces or places. Mnemonics are not solely for language learning but are a very helpful trick to have in your language learning skill book.
For example, memory hackers use mnemonics to remember the numbers of pi. The current record stands at correctly recalling 70.000 decimals, recited over a 10-hour session… And you can do this too!
Creating a mnemonic is a straightforward, three-step process. Let’s take proper nouns (names of places and people) for example:
- Conjure up an image that distinctly depicts the name. This can be a common association (Harry>Harry Potter) or a sound resemblance (Weasly >Weasel), etc.
- Augment the image in your mind and combine it with the person you want to associate it with.If your contact’s name is Seagal, for example, don’t just think of a regular seagull, but imagine an enormous seagull flying over you and defecating on your coat. He lands on the pier and looks you straight in the eye, and instead of looking at a seagulls head, you’re staring back at your contact’s face. Damn seagulls! Make it as grotesque and memorable as possible.
- Visualize the image in your mind a few times throughout the day, and a couple more times throughout the week. This is how you solidify it in your mind via the memory spacing effect.
Voila! If you follow these three simple steps, and you’ll never forget anything, ever again.
Mnemonics are a well known and often discussed topic in the language learning community. This neat little hack can be incredibly powerful for some people, although not everyone is as keen on them. It comes down to your personal preference.
Also, the main takeaway here is to use them as yet another tool in your arsenal of language learning hacks, and not view them as the be-all, end-all learning method.
Like with example sentences, to make this method extraordinarily effective, make sure that your mnemonics are both visually and emotionally powerful–hence the benefit of thinking of a funny visual, and enlarging the object in your memory far beyond natural proportions.
(PS. Our French frequency dictionaries contain 2500 French-English example sentences per book. You could say they are 100,000 word French to English bilingual books!)
6. Read French Regularly
Reading has several benefits for language learning. Reading fiction and non-fiction alike possess all central characteristics of productive vocabulary learning:
- It exposes you to previously learned vocabulary at regular intervals.
- The vocab is woven into the context of a bigger story.
- Personally relatable once you identify with the characters (fiction) or it is a matter that involves your interests, like reading about hobbies, politics, history, etc. (usually non-fiction)
Above mentioned facts demonstrate why reading French texts is one of the most effective techniques to develop your vocabulary.
The stereotype might characterize bookworms as a tad dull and often lost for words, but studies have, in fact, repeatedly established that regular readers possess a larger active and passive vocabulary, and are much more expressive than less avid readers if you give them a chance to speak.
Tips to get the most out of your French reading practice.
- While you read, heed close attention to French words you don’t know and try to figure out their meaning through context.
- If you don´t know them, and can´t deduce their meaning, then write them down in a list.
- Don’t try to look up every unknown word right away or you’ll fail to appreciate the narrative and eventually get frustrated and burn out.
- Another good strategy is to highlight words (marker pens are your friend) that seem to be especially useful or central to the text. Then, try to figure out the meanings of those important French words from context before checking the official translations.
- Make sure to engage with French source material on many different topics, and in various kinds of formats. The vocabulary and tone used will be very different depending on whether you’re reading young adult fiction, a gossip magazine, or a daily newspaper.
- If you the text or book you’re reading is also available in audio form, you should contemplate listening to the chapters before or after you read them.
- If the written book and the audio version match accurately, you could also try listening and reading at the same time. This helps you get used to the way French sounds.
7. Play Games to Build Your French Vocabulary
Solely relying on word games may not be enough to memorize French words fast, but they’re a joyful and pretty effortless way to increase the rate at which you remember French words. When you have a good recall rate, it will become easier to remember French words during conversation. By playing word games, you will also pick up new words occasionally from your peers.
The ever-popular Scrabble and Crosswords are a good starting point. Boggle is also a neat little game and localized for several languages that use the Latin alphabet.
(Not all languages are suited for board games. Languages like Japanese or Chinese are regrettably not well suited for this type of board games. Luckily French does have a multitude of board games available.)
Check on the app store for digital versions of traditional board games. or invest in the actual physical game and throw a game night with friends.
If board games are not your thing or if you prefer engaging with friends over coffee or hiking, you can try playing spoken word games instead. Some evergreen favorites include:
- Word-chain (think of a topic, reply with a word starting with the last letter of the one that preceded)
- I spy (with my little eye…)
- Metaphors (think of metaphors for things you see around you).
- Associations (promptly say the first word that comes to your mind after you hear the preceding word)
8. Find Common Roots
Maybe you’re noticing a pattern when using certain vocabulary? Try looking up the word’s root, prefix, and suffix, and how they’re used in other vocabulary.
A lot of words can be used in a multitude of different functions. They all stem from the same root word, like you will see in the following example:
- verb – to dry
- noun – dryness
- adjective – dry, dried
- adverb – dryly
Rather than learning new French words as just a predetermined collection of letters, identify where the word originally stems from.
A lot of languages are formed by loaning vocabulary from other tongues; more than half of all English words stems from Latin and (ancient) Greek, and most advanced Japanese vocabulary originates from Chinese.
Learning about the origins of the specific words you use can be very powerful at further solidifying the connections in your brain. The same goes for guessing the meanings of the vocabulary you come across in the future. When you know that ‘ped’ means foot in Latin, you can quickly guesstimate the meaning of complex words like pedicurist (someone who treats feet) or pedestrian (a person who is traveling on foot).
9. Learn the Advanced Alternatives
If you find yourself using the same French word over again and over again, then look it up in a thesaurus. Look for a few of variations of the word. Next, try to combine a few alternatives to that word into your daily language use.
i.e., Things could be great, but they could also be awesome, magnificent, grand, wonderful, excellent or exceptional. You will find that you will quickly feel more expressive and nuanced in French.
If you want to improve your French vocabulary fast, it is important you follow these tips. Since this article is a large one, you will find a summary of the most important points in this article here:
Step 1. Figure out what French vocabulary to learn
- Learn the most common French vocabulary first
(And study words that are personally relevant to your situation!)
Step 2. How to remember French vocabulary better
- Learn French vocabulary in context
3. Use spaced repetition techniques or SRS software
4. Make the vocabulary emotional and meaningful to you
6. Use Memnonics and create word associations
6. Read French regularly
7. Play word games to broaden your French
Step 3. Advanced tips to improve French vocabulary:
- Etymology – find a common root word.
- Thesauri – find alternatives to broaden your French vocabulary and become more eloquent.
Check out our French Frequency Dictionary series to quickly improve your French vocabulary.