Fun Ways to Pick Up Vocabulary that Won’t Feel like Work

Expanding your vocabulary doesn’t have to be all about long lists, uninspiring class materials, and repetitive language learning apps.

Often the most enjoyable and relevant way to discover new language is through exposure to what us teachers like to refer to as authentic materials.

What do we mean when we say authentic materials?

Well, it’s basically a fancy way of saying real-life materials. In other words, all the stuff that isn’t made with teaching or learning in mind. That could be anything from pop music to Netflix to the newspaper.

Wait a second, did you just say watching Netflix counts as studying?

Yep, you heard right. The best way to improve your vocab is to do all the things you love doing in your first language but in your target language instead.

But before you get to binge-watching your fave series, here are some of my top suggestions for authentic sources of new vocabulary, why I love them, and how to get the most out of them.

Protip: Actively Engage

Using real materials is a great way to make learning fun but it doesn’t mean you get to goof off while you do it. If you really want to capitalize on learning time while you’re, watching a program, listening to a podcast or reading a book, you need to do so actively (not passively).

What’s that supposed to mean? Sorry to break it to you, but it means you don’t get to totally veg out while watching the telly. Active listening and reading actually starts before you hit play or turn the page.

For example, if you’re reading a newspaper article, first, you’d look at the headline. Have a think about what you already know about the topic. What language might you expect to encounter? What could it be about?

Next, look at the photos (if there are any). What can you see? How do you think it will connect to the article?

Pay attention to the byline, too. Who is the author? Do you know anything about their background? The idea is to get your brain working before you really start to read the article.

Once you start reading, don’t be put off if you don’t understand every single word. See if you can get the general meaning of the text. If you really need to check a word, try to guess what it means first from the context. Then, look it up in a dictionary (written in your target language). Don’t just translate it!

And finally, make sure to write any new vocab down in a notebook or make a list on your phone, ideally in context or with a relevant example.

You can apply these ideas to any reading or listening practice you do.

Listen to that catchy song on repeat

For pronunciation and slang, you can’t go past a pop song. Before you hunt down the lyrics, give yourself a chance first and see what words and sounds you can identify on your own. I find this works best when listening with headphones so you can block out distracting background noises. After you’ve had a few listens, Google the lyrics, try and figure out the meaning and note down any new vocab. You might need to refer to an online dictionary like  Uban Dictionary for some of the less formal language.

Binge Watch Your Fave TV Series

Another popular choice amongst language learners all over. Choosing a TV series and sticking with it is an entertaining way to learn new vocab and pop culture.  Depending on your level (and availability) you may want to turn on subtitles while you watch. Ideally, you should use subtitles in the same language as the tv program. Extra points if you notice when the dialogue and subtitles don’t match up or if you can identify different accents. Don’t want to get hooked on a series? Try watching a movie instead.

Read a book & Listen to the Audio at the Same Time

A lot of learners prefer reading when looking to expand their vocabulary. And, I definitely agree - reading is a good way to go about it. However, there’s one tiny catch. Sometimes, when you only read the word, you end up pronouncing it wrong. That’s what makes reading a book and listening to the audiobook at the same time so awesome. Instead of just reading the word, you hear it, too. You can either head to your local library and see what books they have in paperback and audio versions, or you could check out Beelinguapp, a neat little app I recently discovered that lets you listen and read at the same time.

Watch a TED Talk

Coming in at under 18 minutes, TED talks are perfect for language learners. Not too long, plenty of topics to choose from, varied accents to listen to, subtitles in a number of different languages and transcripts you can follow along with or refer to after watching. Having a hard time with regular TED talks? Check out TED ED for shorter, clearly narrated, educational videos designed with educators and students in mind.