Tips on Learning Vocabulary

Tips on learning Vocabulary

Tips for Using Flashcards

Keyword Technique

Vocabulary Lists and Notebooks

Guessing Meanings of Words Using Context


• Remember: The time (of day) and place (whether there are distractions or not, etc.) and way make a difference in learning.  Having music or distractions may help you focus and learn short term, but it is not as effective for long-term memory.
Try to identify your learning style and try different things to find what works best for you. 
In general, the more things you do and the more different ways and senses involved the better you will remember.
Research shows: it takes seeing a word about 100 times to learn it;  or you can say it about 25 times and see it 5 times. 1

• Frequent repetition over many (short) times is better than fewer large blocks of time.  Make cards and carry them around with you; review them while waiting in line, etc.

• Remember, the goal is to associate the Latin word with the concept, not just with an English translation that is itself a symbol of a similar (but not necessarily identical) concept.  Words express ways of categorizing things in the world.  Different languages do not label or categorize things in exactly the same way, and there is not necessarily a one-to-one correspondence between languages.  The same word may need different translations in different contexts; the first definition given will not always work. For example, we would not usually say a “beautiful man” or “capture a book” or “owe to run.”  Not every Latin word is translated by one word; some words may need a phrase in English to translate, e.g. propter “because of” or exspectare “to wait for”.

• Make sure you have the correct idea about the word (including part of speech). Find a sample sentence(s) illustrating the meaning(s) and use(s); write it/them on your flash card. Dictionaries are usually organized to give the historically “original” meaning first; sometimes the later secondary developed meaning becomes the more common, e.g. “read” for “legō” (vs. original “pick, choose”). Some textbooks also give a less common meaning first, e.g. “owe” for “debeō,” which most often means “ought” (with an infinitive). It is much harder to relearn something than to learn it the first time.

• Make flash cards. (make sure you include all the vocabulary information, e.g. genitive/stem and gender or principal parts; these are important). Say the words, not just look at them. (Computerized “flash” cards are useful, but writing them out yourself adds another learning step). Mix them up; don’t always go through the words in the same order, which is what tends to happen when you study from the list in the book. The best place for words you need to practice most is not first, but down a few.

• If you write out lists, using a pattern other than a vertical column may be more effective. Studies suggest that a diagonal “list” or a grouping in the shape of a rectangle, +, X, Z, or K have better recall than a single column (Schmitt in Schmitt and McCarthy, 213).

• Use pictures or drawings. Including the Latin and English translation increases the effectiveness (Chun and Plass). This method is especially effective for words that are often confused with another word (Schacter, Israel and Racine).

• Use an association with a personal experience.

• Do an action or something physical (even something as simple as touching or holding the thing) related to the meaning as you say it and/or look at it, especially if you are a kinesthetic learner.

• Try testing yourself from English to Latin as well as Latin to English.

•  Make connections with English or Romance language derivatives that you know.  Make sure, however, that you are aware of differences in part of speech. e.g. “feminine” is from femina, but femina is a noun, “woman,” not an adjective.

• Also, beware of “false friends,” or what C.S. Lewis calls “dangerous sense.” Words change meaning over time. Sometimes words have several meanings, and the dominant meaning changes depending on the time period. Some English words have changed their meaning during my lifetime. Just because a word is a derivative of a Latin word does not mean that is still has the same meaning. Sometimes the forms of words changes so that they look similar to a word in another language, but are not related. For example, Latin ad (“to”) changed to a in some Romance languages; in Latin, ā is a different word, meaning the opposite (“away from”).

•  Review readings so you see the words in context and in different forms, not just the vocabulary forms given (as in the textbook or on your flash cards). Often, the first form of a word given is not the most common form in which it is used.

•  Write out the different forms (e.g. decline the cases or conjugate the verb or do a synopsis). This also helps in recognizing the word in different forms.

•  Write out the word by syllables. This helps focus on each part. Note similar words that you have confused with each other.

•  Make lists by part of speech and/or declension/conjugation group; list them by semantic category (people, places, etc.).

•  Each time you have to look up a word, make a mark in the margin or glossary (tick, highlight, etc.) and/or copy it down on a list (and mark your list if you have to look it up again).  Hint: these make good review sheets/markers for quizzes and tests.

•  Look for patterns. Analyze any parts of the word and note prefixes and/or suffixes.

•  Make up mnemonic tricks, e.g. laetus, -a, -um: a smile “lights” up your face when you are laetus/laeta.  In ab, the loop on the “b” points “away from” the ascender and the “a.”
See also the keyword technique.

•  Find out more about the word by looking it up in a Latin dictionary, on-line etc. Here you can find more meanings and uses, synonyms, etymology information, examples and quotations using the word.  You can also find related words. The more you know about a word, the easier it is to remember. Tips on Using a Dictionary

• Be realistic. Learning a language takes time and effort. There are no shortcuts or magic pills. There are more and less effective ways of learning vocabulary and language material, however. Attitude, including an openness to “other” ways of organizing a language, is a very important aspect.
If you are not being as successful as you would like or need to be, try to evaluate where your problems are and what different strategies, including time management, you can try.

•  Sleep on it. Research shows that REM sleep is necessary for the brain to process material for long-term memory storage.

• Remember that memorizing a basic translation is only a part of learning a word. You have to be able to distinguish the word from similar-looking words, i.e. identify it correctly (see other exercises). For many words, you have to be able to identify the grammatical form and use that to interpret how it relates to the rest of the sentence. You also need to develop a concept about the word, which may not be the same as the concept of the English translation “equivalent.” What words is it associated with? What is it considered the opposite of? What connotation does it have? In what contexts is it appropriate to use? (poetry? prose? colloquial dialogue?) What are the extent and boundaries of uses it can be applied to? Can you produce the Latin word on demand? Many of these other aspects depend on encountering the word in different contexts, such as in reading. The vocabulary groups on this website and their related exercises are designed to help you expand your conceptual knowledge of the words beyond the basic memorized English translation. The best approach is exposure to (e.g. reading, if only for the general idea) lots of Latin combined with conscious attention to different aspects. The deeper the processing that you put in (figuring out vs. looking up or reading answers), the better you will remember. Hence, the website sometimes gives you questions and guidance rather than direct information.

Dorothy M. Chun and Jan L. Plass, “Effects of Multimedia Annotations on Vocabulary Acquisition,” Modern Language Journal 80 (1996) 183-198.

1 Paul F. Distler, S.J. Teach the Latin, I Pray You. Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1969, p. 76.

Daniel Schacter, Lana Israel, and Carrie Racine, “Suppressing False Recognition in Younger and Older Adults,” Journal of Memory and Language, 40 (1999) 1-24.

Tips for Using Flash Cards

Flash cards have been a frequently used strategy for learning vocabulary (and other things). Research confirms that it can be a useful and efficient way to learn (at the first basic level) many words in a relatively short time. It is especially helpful in the early stages of language learning as well as at the transition from textbook Latin to reading unadapted authors. It can help solidify learning of the most frequently used words or sets of words for reading a particular author or topic. One study showed that average quiz scores for those Latin students who used flash cards were as much as 30% higher than for those who did not. The difference generally increased as time and the cumulative number of words went on (Stehle). Another study reports that by studying 30 minutes a day for twenty days, the particpant learned about 15 words per day and almost all of the 300 words total goal. (Milton 229-231 citing Fitzpatrick et al.; cf. Schmitt)

Some important things to remember to make the most of learning with flash cards:

• Do multiple repetitions spread out over time, more frequently in the beginning and then at increasingly longer time intervals. The ideal is to review just before one would forget it. One recommended schedule is: (Schmitt p. 130; chart from Russell, 1979, p. 149)

5-10 minutes after the first time

24 hours later

1 week

1 month

6 months

The Anki flash card program is programmed to review at increasing time intervals and based on how well you report that you remember the word.

• Make sure you are testing yourself – making yourself come up with (“retrieve”) the answer from memory – not just “studying” by looking at lists. If you use lists, at least cover up the answers. (Nation 221-22, 306)

• Make sure you learn the right (/most common) translation(s).

• Don’t just look at the words. Saying them aloud in addition is more effective. (Nation 307 citing Ellis) Writing your own flash cards adds another sensory dimension. It is more effective for some people, and it may help more with correctly learning the form of the word than the meaning, but both aspects are important.

• Change the order that you study the words in. There is such a thing as “serial” learning such that a fixed order becomes itself a trigger in remembering the word. Thus, flash cards are better than lists. (Nation 306-307)
Random order is not necessarily the best, however. Difficulty is a factor; see next.

• Recognize that not all words require the same number of repetitions for learning. The basic meaning of some can be remembered after one time; others take more times. For most efficient use of time, don’t over practice the ones that you have already learned. Do review them and mix some easier ones in, but concentrate your time on the ones that you don’t know. If after several reviews, you still can’t remember the word, use other strategies to form an association to help you learn and remember the word. The key word technique is especially helpful as are labeled pictures.

• Avoid putting words in the same study group that are similar in spelling or meaning, or from the same semantic area, or especially are opposites in meaning. Studying them together tends to increase confusion rather than help (“cross association” Schmitt 147; Nation 303).

• What to put on the cards? Some authors recommend including a sentence or phrase context (Nation 309). In general, less is better, but principal parts and such things also need to be learned. One can make or use separate cards to test different aspects. Using a picture or image with the Latin word is also an effective method, but is better for the initial learning stage than the “practice.”

C.S. Lewis, Studies in Words. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1960. (see Introduction, especially pp. 3-5 and 12-14.

James Milton, Measuring Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition. Bristol: Multilingual Matters, 2009.

I.S.P. Nation. Learning Vocabulary in Another Language. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2001.

Norbert Schmitt, Vocabulary in Language Teaching. Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2000.

Norbert Schmitt, “Vocabulary Learning Strategies,” in Norbert Schmitt and Michael McCarthy, Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy, Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1997.

Andrea Stehle, “The Role of Study Time and Method on Vocabulary Learning and Retention: An Action Research Study,” Classical Outlook 88.1 (2010) 19-20.


Keyword Technique

The key word technique is an often neglected, but effective method of learning certain kinds of difficult to remember words (see Hulstijn). The idea is to come up with an intermediary “key” that can be associated with the word to be learned and then linked to the meaning. An image is often used to associate the keyword with the necessary meaning. For example, for the Latin word plēnus, one could use the similar sounding English word “plane.” To get from the key to the meaning of the Latin word, one could imagine a plane that was “full” (of ??).  A sentence can also be used. Here are some tips for using this technique:

• Pick a keyword that is similar in sound or looks. The first letters/sounds and/or certain significant sounds/letters work best. Rhyming words may also work. As you learn more of a language and more languages, the more associations you can form. You can even use the sound made by an object or some other aspect of the keyword or as a key.

• The more unusual or unnatural the associated image (or sentence or other association), the more memorable and the better.

• Coming up with your own personal keywords and associations may be more effective than using ones someone else came up with. Using the technique takes some practice; you will get better the more you use it.

• In general the technique does not work as well to learn words that are similar to other words in the second language in sound or looks with which they may be confused, unless the keyword uses a distinguishing characteristic. For example, using the “d” in tandem (vs. tam and tamen) to think “duh,” (imagining a person saying “duh” with a cartoon lightbulb who “finally” got it).

• It usually works better with things that can be imagined visually.

• It has also been used to learn the gender of nouns. For example, mons, montis (“mountain”) is masculine and is an exception to the rule that 3rd declension nouns with nominative in -s are feminine. One could imagine a Mt. Rushmore type mountain with the Old Man of the Mountain, or Atlas in mythology.

Jan H. Hulstijn, “Mnemonic Methods in Foreign Language Vocabulary Learning,” in James Coady and Thomas Huckin, ed., Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press., 1997, pp. 203-224


Vocabulary Lists and Notebooks