Six Popular Approaches to Foreign Vocabulary Learning

We’re huge fans of using multiple resources for learning a language! We’ve found that different programs and approaches work well together and tend to fill in each other’s gaps.

From learning individual words and phrases with spaced-repetition, to learning a language in broader contexts, here’s a sampling of programs.

Many online language learning sites (and apps) we’re familiar with, start with teaching basic vocabulary and/or grammar topics. Others provide a larger context and give you tools to master the details. However, there’s a huge diversity in presentation, which is made possible by the Internet and the various technologies that have become available – audio, text-interactive, visual, etc.

Learning Vocabulary with Spaced-Repetition Flashcard Programs

Memrise is a community-driven site with courses that are based on an elaborate flashcard system. Many of the words have mnemonics (which some find very useful), and there’s spaced repetition.

You learn words and somewhat later need to retrieve them by writing them out or clicking on a translation. With some of the words, you can also see a sentence in which they are used.

Your learning is tracked, and you can choose to follow other learners and compete against them with points.

Paul Pimsleur

Spaced-repetition has become very popular lately, also because computers can keep track of your correct answers and mistakes. It is based on findings that we recall facts, e.g., new vocabulary items, better when we hear them at certain intervals. Paul Pimsleur applied the idea of spaced-repetition to language learning with his audio courses in the early 1970ties.


Other similar flashcard-based programs are Byki and Anki. There are also legions of language learning apps that keep you learning words and phrases on the go.

Learning Vocabulary by Picking and Choosing a Topic


LingoHut is a site that provides a list of 109 specific topics for each language. You can choose whatever subject in any order you like. Each of the topics has around 12 words or phrases that you see written, hear, and are asked to repeat.

Then, to further practice the items in the lesson, you can choose one or more games (Flashcards, Matching, Tic Tac Toe, Concentration, Listening). The idea behind the site is to have the learner acquire words and phrases in small steps.  A similar site is Digital Dialects.

These and other sites are great for keeping a connection to the language and for learning and practicing a wide variety of vocabulary. Especially, hearing and seeing the words simultaneously is a great way to keep your language brain in gear.

No question, you need vocabulary, lots of vocabulary, if you want to become fluent in a language. But to combine words into sentences and thereby communicate your thoughts and wishes you need to go beyond that.

Learning Vocabulary in the Context of Sentences

The Duolingo program has words and phrases grouped into topics such as Food, Animals, Plurals, Idioms, Possession, etc.

This language learning site uses gamification (points, rewards, race against the clock), forums for discussion, and competition with followers as ways to engage and motivate the learner.

You learn and practice words and phrases through a mix of tasks: matching of pairs, filling in the gaps, translating to and from the target language, going through flashcards, and others.

As you progress, you’ll also start translating and constructing individual sentences with the language you’ve acquired. You gradually learn how the language works, because you start to combine and to recombine familiar words and phrases.

While each lesson teaches 6-8 new words of a certain topic and combines those of previous lessons, the sentences can often seem random and erratic.

Learning Vocabulary in the Context of Dialogs and Sentences

Babbel, Busuu, Rosetta Stone, LinguaVille (all subscription sites), and others are more comprehensive online language learning platforms. Mostly the lessons are also grouped by general topics such as greeting, vacation, free time, etc.

With Babbel, you learn vocabulary through a combination of pictures and flashcards, short grammar explanations and exercises, plus dialogs at the end where you insert pieces that you’ve learned.

These dialogs, which teach you culture-specific conversational language, are a great addition because they create a context that takes you beyond individual sentences. That way, it’s easier to recall vocabulary. In addition, you learn basics on how to engage in a conversation with native speakers.

Rosetta Stone uses pictures and the target language only with no English, leaving it to learners to recognize grammatical patterns on their own.

For the intermediate or advanced learner who, when reading a foreign text on the web, needs to look up an unknown word at times, is a great tool.

You can read suggested articles with’s iOS or Android apps. Or you find your own posts and newspaper articles on the web and use its Chrome extension.

As you read an article, you can click on words you don’t know (to get their pronunciation and meaning). These words then automatically go into a repetition flashcard game for practice.

For the most part, the available articles tend to be about (news) topics and may even be tailored to your interests. However, you’re not that likely to learn and practice the conversational language. But it goes without saying that such immersion-style reading with the frequent practice of vocabulary will give you a huge boost in passive learning.

What then?

What all of these programs have in common, is that they break down a foreign language into small chunks which you can easily acquire by practicing their pronunciation and spelling.

If you combine various programs, you’ll end up with a pretty wide-ranging vocabulary. But you’ll need to do something with all the words and phrases you’ve learned. And that’s where “output” comes in – speaking and writing in your new language.

Few, if any of even the more comprehensive programs mentioned above, will make you fluent in a foreign language.

For that, you should find someone to practice with regularly: an exchange-partner, a friend who speaks the language you’re learning, or a tutor. The more you speak and write your new language, the faster you’ll become fluent.

After a teaching career, Ulrike Rettig continued to pursue her interest in applied linguistics. She has authored and edited numerous foreign language audio programs. She is a co-founder of, and, together with her husband Peter, blogs extensively about language learning. You can also follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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