There’s no question that vocabulary acquisition is one of the fundamental aspects of learning a new language. Although estimates vary, you’ll probably need to know at least 3,000 words to be able to interact in day-to-day scenarios. That’s a mountain of words to learn just to hold basic conversations, and that’s only a fraction of what it takes to achieve native proficiency. How can you learn all this new vocabulary efficiently and effectively, without drowning in an ocean of flashcards? The good news is that drills are not the only way to acquire new words. There are actually three main processes by which you can absorb new vocabulary: input, output, and skill-building.
Input refers to the language you are exposed to visually or aurally, for example when reading a story or listening to a podcast in Spanish. Input is valuable for several reasons — we’ve already talked about the importance of context clues on this blog. Input also requires relatively low effort on the part of a learner: just hearing or seeing a new word, with no semantic elaboration, can lead to modest vocabulary gains. The more you hear or see a new word, the more likely you are to remember it later, so quantity and repetition are critical to learning through input. Even greater gains, though, are associated with hearing or seeing a new word in context and then receiving information on the word’s meaning. For example, if you are practicing with a Spanish speaker and hear an unfamiliar word, pausing and asking for elaboration will increase your memory of the new word.
Output, on the other hand, refers to language you produce via writing or speaking. In general, output is better for reinforcing words you’ve already been exposed to, where input is best for first exposure. Some theorists suggest that output helps you take your vocabulary knowledge from declarative (knowing that something is a certain way, or knowing a certain set of rules) to procedural (knowing how to use that set of rules). Output can also help you identify gaps in your knowledge, enhance your fluency, and control and internalize your knowledge of linguistic rules. Other benefits of speaking or writing might include increased automaticity and less anxiety about mistakes.
Lastly, skill-building is the kind of intentional study you might think of when you normally think about learning vocabulary. Skill-building is the dedicated drilling or studying of vocabulary concepts — flashcards, for instance are a type of skill-building. While this might seem like the go-to for memorizing new vocabulary, it’s actually more useful as a supplement to the methods listed above. Skill-building activities often don’t involve the useful context of input and output, and it’s hard to practice retrieval with skill-building. However, they can serve an important function in encoding new words (that is, storing them to memory) and can actually help improve your automaticity if used intelligently. Even though traditional skill-building can seem tedious, practicing these drills at well-timed intervals can lead to memory improvements. You can also try more innovative drills — for instance, using imagery or keywords (English words that sound like the Spanish word) to help store words in your long-term memory. Skill-building techniques that are especially effective focus on both the meaning and the form of the word. The keyword-semantic method, for instance, has learners both use similar-sounding words to create internal cues, and study examples of new words in context; this method shows better results than focusing on form or meaning alone.
So which of these three methods works the best? Probably a mix. Different researchers and academics support different kinds of learning, but the general consensus does appear to be that you can’t learn new vocabulary without input. Evidence backs up this idea — learners who read extensively by choice usually perform better on vocabulary tests. There’s no denying that input is an extremely effective way to increase the breadth of your vocabulary. However, output and skill-building both can increase your depth of knowledge for these new words by reinforcing new words learned, and improving your ability to use those words comfortably. In fact, the best students use a mix of strategies, rather than relying on a single method.
Fluencia works to empower you to learn new vocabulary by incorporating a variety of strategies. In addition to traditional drills, we provide plenty of visual and aural input in conversation and vocabulary lessons. With voice recognition and our authored review questions, you have lots of opportunities for verbal and visual output. Finally, we make sure to switch up the context so that you can develop a richer understanding of different words and phrases. Try it out today!