What is the Best Way to Learn Foreign Language Vocabulary?

how to say 'Hello' and 'Hi' in many lots of languages.

Learning words is obviously a critical part of mastering a foreign language. While grammar is also important, grammar without words is useless. Conversely words without grammar are still very useful when trying to communicate in a foreign language. This is a point we made in one of our first posts on this blog Stringing a few words together in most languages will be more or less intelligible. Plunging in and having a go is critically important in learning a foreign language – especially not being embarrassed about making mistakes. Learning vocabulary and using it is the first step to mastering a foreign language.

So how to efficiency learn vocabulary? Here are a few tips for how to learn and retain words in the language you are studying.


Working your way through a list of words in the systematic and organised way is important. Being organised allows you to give each word the attention it needs. Simply working your way through a dictionary, for example, is a recipe for failure not only because of the sheer boredom but because it doesn’t allow to go gauge progress or to go back and revisit words that are not sticking.


Don’t bite off too much. A mistake many students make is to have scores or even hundreds of words in their current learning list and to plough through them once a day. This doesn’t work. Restrict you learning to a small subset of words at any one time. The optimal seems to be between 10 and 15 words or phrases. And keep drilling these until they are embedded in your memory. And then revisit them regularly.


You need to do more than just flipping between a word and its meaning repeatedly, and then discarding the word when you think you know it. Firstly, thinking you know a word and will retain it is subjective and very often wrong. And secondly, encountering each and every word in that same context mixes them all up in your head and makes retaining the word more difficult. You need to make a unique place in your head for every word that you learn.

A better approach is to mix up your learning as much as possible. Physical or virtual flashcards should be just one component of your learning. Using flashcards in conjunction with exercises, games, actions or even music is the best approach.

More generally, a well known memorisation technique is to associate the thing you are trying to memorise with another context – be it an action, object, image, situation or even sound. For example, associating the word “blue” with the sky, or pointing up to the sky, or a song about “blue skies” is a very successful strategy for memorisation. Indeed there is a trend in language schools to use movement, and music to help students “feel” the language and therefore better retain what they have learned. Why not try and invent a color dance!?

Another strategy is to try to memorise phrases rather than just individual words. This gives the words in the phrase context. Often the rhythm and cadence of the phrase – something words alone often lack – can aid memorisation. Also if you can get lists of common expressions, these will invariably be useful when you get out there in the real world. And you will find that the best method for memorisation is hearing the words and phrases you are learning being spoken by native speaker back at you.


This is part of being organised, but it is more that this. Learning by topic or theme gives context to what you are learning – it creates a little world in your mind where you can place each word and phrase and this help enormously with recall and retention.


The title speaks for itself! This means that you need to be disciplined about investing time every day to studying vocabulary. This is where most people fall down – it can be tedious. But the rewards are great. There is no greater thrill for a beginner student of a foreign language to recognise a word or phrase they have recently learned when watching a film or TV show or listening to a song in the language they are trying to master.


Use it or loose it is a subset of the repetition point. Retrieving a word from memory and using it gives the word context and that reenforces retention in the long term. So try to get yourself into situations where you can use the vocabulary you are learning. If the best you can do is to listen (be sure to sing along) to music or watch films or TV shows, then at least do that.

But best yet of course is interacting with native speakers. But if that is difficult, a second best option is to find a friend and communicate with them in the language you are trying to learn. Sure you will both made ridiculous errors but that is not important – what is important is that it gives you the chance to recall the words and phrases you have being learning and through recall and repetition, you concrete them in place in your memory.


Declan FlashCards incorporates many of the techniques outlined above for learning foreign language vocabulary. Firstly learning is organised by topic. This helps to establish a context for learning which help with retention. Learning limits on a learning list of 10 words per topic at any one time. This keeps your learning focused. The exercises in Declan FlashCards are very much part of the learning methodology. Importantly, the exercises provide variety and reenforcement. Attempting the exercises and getting answer incorrect and trying again is very much part of a successful learning strategy. As users work through the exercises, a word that is deemed “learned” drops off the learning list and is replaced by a new word. If however the users get an answer incorrect, then all the exercises for that word need to be reattempted. Only when all the exercises are answered correctly consecutively for a particular word, is that word marked as correctly and moves off the learning list.

Channels on Declan FlashCards – Share lesson content with your students

Hey Language Teachers!

Looking for a way to share lesson content with your students outside the classroom and language lab? Want to keep your students engaged?

The CHANNELS feature on Declan FlashCards makes this easy!

Set up a channel for your foreign language course and your students can access the course material on their mobile devices, anywhere anytime, in a fun, simple, secure, and copy-protected way.

See here for more details: http://www.declansoftware.com/declanchannels/

Using Declan FlashCards Channels to share lesson content with students

Declan FlashCards has introduced a new feature called Channels – the idea is to provide a platform that lets foreign language teachers, schools and faculties share course material with students via their mobile devices in a streamlined and secure way.

For students it’s a fun and effective tool to supplement their class work that allows them engage with the course material anywhere anytime using their omnipresent mobile phones and tablets.

How does it work?

Students access the course material on the Declan FlashCards app via ‘channels’. Each course that your school/faculty offers can have its own channel containing the course material, organised into lessons, chapters or topics. Each topic contains words and phrases, their meanings and audio pronunciations.

Declan FlashCards is able to handle any language pair, in either direction.

Students accesses their specific course channel using a code provided to them by the school. These channel codes can be specific to each student, can be single-use, can limit the number of devices the channel can be installed on per code, and can also be set to expire. The student enters the channel code into Declan FlashCards and the channel is loaded into the app. The app then functions as a flashcards tool, allowing the student to review vocabulary and phrases, and reinforce their learning by testing themselves with exercises. It’s a great way to help students prepare for class, and to help them retain the vocabulary and phrases used in class.

How does it work for schools?

There is zero cost for schools to offer Declan FlashCards channels to students. Schools work with the Declan Software team to set up channels.

The Declan Team takes the course content provided by the school/faculty (word lists and audio recordings), and compiles these into a Declan FlashCards Channel. If required, we can assist with putting together wordlists, as well as help with producing the corresponding audio recordings using professional native-speaker voice artists.

All word lists and audio provided by the school remain copyrighted to the school, with Declan Software having only distribution rights. Moreover, the channel materials are delivered to the app in an encrypted format to ensure intellectual rights are protected. And as outlined above, channel codes can be configured to prevent unwanted sharing and copying of the course material. Additionally, offering this material via an app rather than a website further guards against copying.

What are the costs?

The only cost is an app subscription paid by the app user – the student. There is no charge to the school for the work we do compiling channels, or for hosting them on our servers. If assistance is required to record audio, these costs would be covered by the school.

Want to know more?

Please download Declan FlashCards for free – for iPhone/iPad from the Apple AppStore:


or for Android from the Google Play AppStore:


Once you have installed the app, tap the yellow “Add Channel” button at the bottom of the page with flags and enter the code:


for a demonstration of how Declan FlashCards Channels work.

If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact us at my private email: contact@declansoftware.com. If you’d like to discuss how Declan Channels could work for your institution, we are very happy to organise a call.

Looking forward to hearing from you.

Introducing Declan Channels

Declan FlashCards now includes Declan Channels.

Declan Channels allow teachers, schools, universities or a book authors or publishers to offer students/readers vocabulary lists that contain the words and phrases and pronunciations used in the language lessons or language textbooks . These channels can be download and the words can learned using the Declan FlashCards app.

Access to a channel is as simple as providing students with a Channel Code, which is entered into the ‘Add a Channel‘ page:

The channel details will then appear.

Tap the ‘Install Channel‘ button to load the channel. Once downloaded and installed you will see the Channel’s icon at the top of the ‘Select a channel:’ page. Tap the icon to start learning.

If you are a teacher, school, university or book author or publisher and you’d like to offer your students or readers a Declan Channel featuring your vocabulary lists, then please contact us at: contact@declansoftware.com

Bald and Bankrupt – Russian Language Learning

bald and bankrupt Russian language

One of our all-time favourite YouTubers is the travelling Englishman, Bald and Bankrupt. He is based in Belarus and travels widely in Russia and the ex-Soviet republics. His avoidance of tourist traps and his openness to local people and unpredictability is what is particularly endearing about his videos.

Also his ability to speak fluent Russian and some Hindi is also impressive. Indeed, around two years ago he made a video talking about how he mastered Russian – which incidentally is a really difficult language for English speakers to learn.

Here is the episode:

In his own words:

You might not believe me but I am testament to the fact that if you want to learn Russian, throw away the grammar books and you’ll make massive progress very quickly. Grammar holds you back in the beginning of your language journey so hold off until you are much further down the road”.

And instead of getting bogged down in the grammar, what he does recommend is learning vocabulary. And then getting out there and using the language by just stringing words together, grammatical mistakes be dammed. The most important thing was to not be afraid to make mistakes but just use the language as much as possible and knowing lots of words facilitates this. He argues that the grammar will come as you listen to what people are saying back to you. In fact native-speakers tend to instinctively correct learners of their language – appreciating the effort and trying to be helpful. I think that that is something we instinctively do with children when they are learning to talk.

I think this is a very interesting and while of course knowing as many words in the language you are learning is helpful, this approach will only work if you are in a position to get out there and use the language functionally very frequently. Not all people are in this position and text-book learning including studying grammar might be the only way forward.

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