Category Archives: Language skills

8 easy tips to memorize vocabulary

Everyone possesses a different intelligence: some people react to colours or shapes, other to sounds. Some like to learn by rote, out of context, while others only manage to learn a language by listening to it. Knowing how your brain functions will help you learn new vocabulary in a better and durable way. I know for sure that I would be nothing without the written word. My Norwegian improved greatly by listening to the radio or watching TV on a daily basis, but I need to support that way of learning by seeing the words correctly written, compiling a list, or writing them down a few times.

Here are a few other tips on how to learn and memorize vocabulary:

1 – Stay in context: I’ve noticed this works well with newspapers. Let’s say that I want to learn vocab on health. For one week, read 5 articles a day in your target language and underline all the new words or the phrases you want to memorize. By the second article, you will notice words that pop up again.

This works particularly well with connecting words and phrases that are not usually found in fiction. Phrases like “on the other hand”, “besides”, “as a conclusion”… all those rhetorical bits that make up a good essay abound in the press.

2 – Repetition is key: Once you have made a list of the words you want to memorize, find a way to repeat them. My Latin teacher always said that you memorize by forgetting and relearning 7 times. So take a pen and jot down the words 10 times, or repeat them orally. Finding a way to put them into context by creating imaginary dialogues in which they could be used is equally effective.

3 – Finding the root and identifying affixes: Some words share the same root, which is modified by a prefix or a suffix. Take the word “identity”, for example. Several words can be created from the same root: identical, identify, identifiable,… Knowing your affixes will help you “guess” new words and learn them more easily. It also works well with a language that is very different from yours, as finding resemblances is a good mnemonic trick.

4 – Learning cognates first. This works if your target language is similar to your native one, or if you master another in the same family. It simply means that there are some words that sound and mean just the same in languages from the same linguistic tree. This allows me to understand Swedish and Danish while I can only master Norwegian, and I identified in my Norwegian vocabulary book a lot of words I already recognized. It will give you a head start.

5 – Make topical lists and learn them. Looking up every new word is not enough. You have to compile them in thematic lists, a trick I learned in high school and at university. This is half of the work as you pick them up from context, check them, copy them down, re-read them and try to use them. You see, you’ve already repeated the word 5 times.

6 – Learn by heart… but adapt it to your strengths. I had a problem learning some practical vocabulary out of context, like botanical terms, for example. Once, way before Desperate Housewives, I came across “wisteria” in a translation exam. I had learned a list of flowers by heart so I knew the French translation, but it made me realise that I couldn’t picture them in my head, and it explained why all that vocabulary disappeared from my mind over the summer. When I come across the name of an animal, a flower, an architectural or pictorial term I’m unsure of, I search for a picture of it on the internet, and it’s usually enough to make me remember both the foreign name and its translation.

7 – Play with words. My favourite crosswords are “skeleton”, in which the black squares are missing. I discovered them while living in Britain and I’ve started doing word puzzles in Norwegian. I’m sure that, in the age of interactivity, you can find apps that offer word games.

8 – Keep accountable. You have to learn everyday. Set aside 15 minutes a day and a longer period during the weekends to learn by heart, clean up your lists or simply read a difficult text or listen to the news, pen in hand. You will notice an improvement within 6 weeks.

There are, of course, other ways of learning. Word associations, for example. Some people also use riddles or little stories to remember complicated words. For example, they will learn “subconscient” (unconscious) by associating it with a submarine, going under the surface of the conscious (don’t laugh). It works for them, but I prefer doing the suffix thing and staying linguistically aware, or my head would explode, learning too many stories.

For a little bit of recreation (and inspiration), watch Daniel Tammet learning icelandic in one week. Of course, his autistic brain allows him to learn by synesthesia. Fascinating, isn’t it?

Learning a language in a formal environment

The second part of our language learning series is about learning a new language in a formal setting. Last week, we talked about immersion, that is learning “on-the-go” by letting all the nuances of the language flow into you almost unconsciously. But there are limits to how efficient this way of learning is without being backed up by formal learning techniques.

Let me draw the scene: a blackboard, tables in a semi-circle around the teacher (preferably a native speaker), textbooks and exercise books. A lot of reading aloud, grammar exercises, writing and speaking prompts that are directed at preparing you to an exam… This form of teaching is far from being communicative-based, and some say it is outdated. I beg to differ, as I believe that learning methodically will help ground the informal experience that is so often incomplete by exploring all the little cogs of how a form of communication functions.

Learning how the language functions
There are numerous benefits to learning a language formally, particularly as an adult, if only to satisfy your curiosity about how it works. For example, understanding grammar, morphology and syntax will allow you to make perfect sentences from the get-go and identify that you may have been making mistakes or using slang or child speech. For example, in Norwegian, many young people would say, “Jeg har snakket med han” (/I have talked to he/) instead of saying, “Jeg har snakket med ham” (I have talked to him). Using this type of slang may be okay (after all, languages evolve), yet it would be useful to know what is right and make the difference between a subject and an object pronoun.

The exhaustive approach of explicit grammar
For those who attend classes, having a teacher explain rules and exceptions will prove beneficial and may answer questions that have been baffling you. Are you thinking back about your time in school, copying rules from a book? Don’t worry, adults will grasp explicit grammar better than children and will be more focused. What they have picked up implicitly from their immersion experience will be validated, corrected or explained. Don’t hesitate to ask questions.

Memory tricks
Learning in a formal environment will also provide tricks. There are some techniques to learn vocabulary, that your teacher or your book will communicate to you. For example, you can make comparisons with your language and learning first words that are similar. Another technique is to learn by roots, adding affixes. It’s a great way to learn as it forces you to think of how to make an adverb, an adjective, etc, from a substantive. For the verbs, it is knowing how to recognize the root and which ending to add.

In that regard, the influence of Greek and Latin on European languages is also important and being aware of which words are inherited from those two languages will help you identify them and learn them. On the other side of the world, learning what Japanese Kanji represented helped me pick up the meaning of some Chinese ideograms, as they share a common history.

Learning by rote
For some languages with conjugations of verbs or declensions, there is no escaping learning lists by heart. Not doing it will hinder your progression. Think about Latin languages and their numerous verbal forms. Or the Eastern European languages and their numerous cases. My Spanish teacher in junior high had a technique for the most difficult examples: print a list of irregular verbs and tape them somewhere where you can see them several times a day. And that’s how the back of our bathroom door showcased the irregular Spanish verbs in the preterito for several months.

Of course, due to their personal circumstances, some people will learn without a teacher, at their own pace, and it’s perfectly okay. As long as they have the right tools, their self-directed approach will pay off.

This discipline will teach you how to learn a language, which will open doors for your multilingualism.

So, as a conclusion, which of the two approaches that we have covered is the most beneficial? I would say that both are necessary to master a language, but that a good formal approach from the get-go will lay a solid base to whatever learning comes afterwards, be it only formal or in immersion.

An introduction to learning a foreign language through immersion

There are several approaches to learning a language. In this entry, I would like to talk about immersion.

When people talk about immersion, they often refer to international schools or classes in which part of the curriculum is delivered entirely in a second language. If started early enough, beginning by telling or listening to stories, or playing games in the language, young students are adequately equipped to develop bilingualism. Their young brain is more malleable when it comes to processing new sounds and vocabulary; they will be more susceptible to pronounce their new language without any trace of an accent. Enabling students to deal with complicated concepts in a foreign language prepares them for higher education or employment in foreign or multicultural environments.

But there is another way to learn a language by immersion – be it complemented or not by formal classes – and that would be to move abroad, in  a land where your target language is spoken.

There are different ways of doing it: younger people can spend a holiday with a family or go on an exchange program with their schools. Here, in Europe, with the development of programs like Erasmus, there has never been such a movement of students across the continent, spending the last year of their BA abroad, being teaching assistants, getting enrolled for PhD in dynamic research centers… Some are expats, moving for prolonged holidays or for employment reasons, while others, like me, have joined a volunteering program.

All of these people may not have the comfort of a classroom to practice their language skills. Depending on their daily environment, they may have to depend on their target language or at least English as a communication tools. Here are a couple of tips that could help.

The power of absorption

Think about people in the Nordic countries, who understand English so well. Fair enough, they may have strong accents, but their mastery of the language is impressive. But ask yourself how it came about. Was it particularly successful language classes, or constant exposure to non-dubbed American and British TV-shows? Scandinavians also like to travel around and, considering that their languages are not very commonly spoken, they need to turn to English to make themselves understood. This passive exposure to English gives them amazing skills without having to rely on a lot of formal education, as the process functions as an absorption.

Let it go!

Being immersed in a foreign language is like learning how to swim. All your bearings are lost and it kicks off your survival instinct. You become more resourceful, while learning practical vocabulary that you use everyday, before building up on that. Of course, without prompts learned by heart in a classroom, knowing how to begin a conversation can be tricky. People often joke that starting to speak in a foreign language is best done while drunk. It all boils down to inhibitions. In other words, let go! Remember that we all make mistakes. Log on to Livemocha’s blog to read some funny mistakes we have made. Yours truly once mistook the word “gravy” for the word “gravel” when she was talking about the trail she went hiking on…

By the way, the picture on top of this page shows me singing the poems of Jakob Sande in a little Norwegian café. I dared!

Build up vocabulary

Once you start being able to understand “niche” programs like political broadcasts or scientific documentaries, you will notice recurrent vocabulary and phrases, and reading on those themes will reinforce what you have heard. For example, here in Norway, I log on to the NRK radio online and listen to Politisk kvarter, a 15-minute daily political program. The representatives who are invited talk about current issues that I will be able to read about in the newspapers. If they use a word I cannot spell, chances are that I’ll pick it up later in Aftenposten. This is a good example of (double) contextual exposure.

Cultural communication

Spending time abroad will give you the advantage of learning nuances and idiomatic expressions that are not always taught in a classroom. Picking up a regional accent or a dialect is a very good incentive to travel. You will learn to speak like a native and not like stock characters in a school book.

Immersion helps you communicate, learn the non-linguistic components of a form of communication, like facial expressions or even silences. It is a form of language learning that is turned towards other people and is dependent on their existence and willingness to communicate.

Of course, few people will get immersed in a language and pick it up entirely by ear or by reading the newspaper without backing up their learning by formal exercises and activities, but we will cover this aspect in the next blog entry.

What about you? Have you ever learned a language by immersion?

Improving your foreign language skills : some tips on how to get from B1 to C1

There’s only so much that a book or a class will teach you. Fluency comes from understanding and using the language you are learning in all kinds of settings, from talking to your doctor to chatting other participants at a meet-up.

First of all, you need to identify which is your preferred way of learning. Personally, I feel more at ease with the written word (learning Norwegian intuitively, in immersion, proved to be a challenge).

Can you learn vocabulary lists by heart and remember them? Or do you need context to fix new words or phrases in your memory? Are you more of a conversationalist who can strike up a chat with the cashier or the bartender, two weeks into learning the language? Do you remember dialogues or could recite back the news report you have just heard?

Most people show a combinaison of these characteristics, but knowing how you function will help you narrow down your options and even learn unconsciously, simply by doing your favourite activity.

Nevertheless, I believe climbing up that extra notch from B1 to nearly fluent proficiency requires an active method:

Read smartly

  • Browse online articles on a theme (let’s say, fjord pollution in Norway) and write down all new words and phrases you meet. Sort them out by category as well: nouns, verbs, adjectives. Do it everyday and after a week, you’ll realise you have assimilated the vocabulary.

  • Read YA literature in your second language. It helps with slang and common vocabulary. I learned a lot about life under Thatcherian rule as well as teenage lingo by reading The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole!

  • Subscribe to or borrow scientific publications like History magazine or Science Digest. Their articles are well-written in the form of small essays and contain logical operators and stock-phrases as well as technical vocabulary.

Netflix time

Try to log on to an online TV channel (most of them have programmes accessible from abroad) and find something you want to commit to watching every week.

I personally turn subtitles on directly in the foreign language to double the exposure. Although there are slight differences in the transcription, hearing the words while seeing them unconsciously fixes them in your mind.


Find a news podcast and listen to it daily to build up on your reading efforts. Some of them are accompanied by a detailed article using a lot of the specific vocabulary in use in the report. I use Politisk Kvarter, a 15 min programme showcasing three politicians who are invited to debate a hot topic. I often jot down ideas or phrases that I find interesting.

Get active and produce

This is my weaker point, as I often get stuck for words before I have “gathered” a database of words and phrases that I deem large enough to communicate. But immersion, as well as daily conversation on a broad range of topics, will prove beneficial. Think about getting a tutor who is a native speaker. They are likely to reformulate the same sentences several times and mimicking them will help you get confident.

You could also write small presentations or record yourself telling a story. Create one every second day and you will quickly notice an improvement.
For example, write a small presentation of your favourite TV-show. Challenge yourself, so you will have to search for words you don’t know. Twin Peaks relies on the uncanny, House of Cards, Mad Men or New York: SVU deal with the judicial system and office politics, … Think; would you be able to say: “Mulder and Scully are two special agents who investigate unexplained cases. The show hinges on the dynamics between Scully’s scepticism and Mulder’s need to believe.”


For a bit of fun, I love doing crosswords in English (especially skeleton). Doing them in Norwegian, even if I “cheat” and use a special dictionary, helps me learn synonyms, and this has already improved my linguistic abilities.

Think about playing games with native speakers: Trivial Pursuit, Pictionary. My first Chrismas in Norway, we played Kokkelimonke (you have to describe an object). I certainly learned a lot that night!

Keeping in touch with your mother tongue while living abroad (here: French)

We all know that great writing skills and a complete mastery of your target language are necessary when you are a translator. But how do you maintain your fluency and keep up with new terminology when you live abroad?

I’ll speak from experience here and share with you a few tips on how I keep contact with my native French while living in Norway. (They work for other languages as well.)


Library services and loans between all national public and university libraries are entirely free in Norway. In the biggest towns, as well as in the capital, they have multilingual departments. I can easily select French books from their website and have them delivered to the library of my choice.

The same goes for DVDs.

Of course, the films you order will be a couple of years old, but you may discover things you have missed, as well as end up watching movies you would not have watched had you been in France.

Sending a request for a recently published book to be bought is entirely possible. I did it for Du temps qu’on existait and had my hands on the book within the month.


For those who prefer the moving picture, know that some TV content is not geoblocked. I can easily watch the news on TF1 with a one-day delay, and access news and TV content from independent small channels. Though I prefer to log in on to Le Monde or other online newspapers to get quick news, I appreciated being able to watch news reports on recent tragic domestic events.

I also watch Youtube or Dailymotion where users have uploaded French soaps (well, I can be a little bit modern), but my favourite website for audiovisual and radiophonic content is without a doubt INA. Some short clips are free and longer content is paying (you can select to download it or have it burned on a DVD). The last film I bought was Les suaires de Véronique, adapted from Michel Tournier, and I’m discovering “Le petit théâtre de Bouvard”.

Netflix also has a few French speaking films and series on rotation. I recently binged-watched Les revenants and saw Intouchables for the first time.


So far, I’ve not really listened to podcasts in French. I know that France culture.

I mostly listen to free audiobooks that I find on Librivox or Littérature audio. All books are in the public domain, so they are quite old, but it is still a wonderful occasion to discover texts or authors. The readers are extremely competent and their plays, particularly, sound everything professional. My favourite so far : On purge bébé! by Georges Feydeau


Get social and find expats groups on the internet. Try Internations, for example,  or the website Meet up, to see if they have members near you.

If you live in a big town, chances are that you will find an Alliance Française or a Cercle français. They’ll have a small library and organise language classes and weekly meetings.

Think about independent cinemas, as some set up foreign movie cycles and festivals or regularly run independent French films, usually on a Sunday afternoon.


I do not tend to read a lot of French blogs or websites (I need a serious update), but I keep contact with the written word thanks to ebooks books and texts that are in the public domain. Littérature audio links to different websites like Project Gutenberg  where virtually thousands of texts are available.

Of course, if, unlike me, you do not spend your life on, you can add your favourite French blogs to your feedly and make sure you get a daily dose of general as well as niche terminology in your mother tongue.