Building Foreign Language Vocabulary – The Backwards Method

Building your vocabulary is vital if you’re learning a new language.

Vocab building is perhaps given too much attention at times, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important. You can learn a language’s grammar inside and out, but if you only know 400 words then you’ll be lost while reading the newspaper, watching TV, or having even the most basic of conversations.

Image Source

Image Source

It’s impossible to say exactly how many words you’ll need to become proficient in a language, but if you’re looking to know a language pretty well, you’re looking at a minimum of 2500 words–and truthfully probably more than that.

If you talk to a lot of language-learning authorities, such as teachers or linguists, they’ll tell you that you can’t learn vocabulary in lists.

Well, I think you can–if you make some adjustments. And this is a great way to build your vocabulary aggressively.

The Consensus View

The argument against learning vocab in lists is admittedly pretty strong. Over at, site owner Francois Micheloud calls this “the phonebook approach to vocabulary learning” and includes it as a way not to learn a language. He writes:

“Vocabulary, beyond the first 100 words, is best learned in context…Some people will tell you to learn huge word lists. That would be nice to learn all the necessary words like this, wouldn’t it? Yes, but it doesn’t work. You won’t be able to use words you learned in lists, they will never come to your mind quickly enough.”

I see where he’s coming from. If language learning were simply a matter of learning words, then people who compete in memory competitions would be able to speak any language in the world.

For example, memory expert Dr. Yip Swee Choi memorized a 57,000-word Chinese-English dictionary using memory techniques. Here’s a video of him in action:

That is absolutely impressive, and I am blown away by his skills as a memory champion. But if you think he’s able to use these words naturally during speaking or identify them quickly during the flow of conversation, then I have a bridge to sell you.

Again, to be clear, I don’t think that Dr. Chooi has ever claimed that memorizing the dictionary has improved his language skills. In fact, I would guess that he used visualization techniques that bypassed his brain’s language processing abilities and used other parts of his brain to memorize those words.

But there are language books and courses out there that focus on teaching you mnemonics, memory tricks, and the like to learn new vocabulary words, and those tricks haven’t proven to be very effective for really learning a language, except for maybe as a supplement.

The Backwards Method

So does this mean that learning lists of vocabulary words is useless?

No, I don’t think it is, at least not if you do something I like to call “The Backwards Method.”

Most linguists and educators recommend that you more or less follow this kind of progression:

1. You read or listen to a text that’s appropriate for your current language skills.

2a. You identify new words you don’t know in that text and look them up or ask someone what they mean.
2b. You learn them.

This is very effective because it ensures that you know not only the word, but how it’s used in context.

Well the thing is, I don’t think this order is set in stone. I think you can do it the other way as well:

1a. You identify new words you don’t know by having them provided to you in a list.
1b. You learn them.

2. You read or listen to a text containing the words you’ve just learned.

With The Backwards Method, you get most of the benefits of the traditional method. You learn a new word and you understand how it’s used in context.

But you get some additional benefits:

  • You can control how many vocabulary words you learn. If you want to know that you’re learning twenty words a day so that you learn 600 in a month, you can do that.
  • You have an easy way to stay focused during periods when you want to prioritize vocab building.
  • You can mix things up a little to keep from going stale.
  • You see the word in a wider variety and number of contexts.

The Backwards Method in Practice

I’m studying German right now, and I use both the traditional and backwards methods. (It bears mentioning that I don’t think this method replaces the traditional method altogether. I’m just saying to use both!)

So if you want to try The Backwards Method out for yourself, you can mimic what I do:

  1. Find a good list. For example, I found this list from the Goethe Institute that contains 2000+ words you need to know for the B1 proficiency test. You can also get word lists from glossaries in text books, word frequency lists, kids’ picture dictionaries, phrase books, or random websites. A regular old dictionary works too, but if you take this approach then you might end up learning uncommon or archaic words.
  2. Find 10 to 20 words in the list that you don’t know and write them down in your language journal.
  3. Look up what the words mean in Google Translate or a dictionary. (If you get the words from a glossary, the definition might already be provided.)
  4. Hear what the word sounds like. With many languages, Google Translate reads the word aloud using a machine reader. Another good option is, which has recordings of actual humans reading words from many, many languages.
  5. Find the word in context. What I like to do is go to Twitter and search for the word, and then read the first dozen Tweets that show up in the search results. If you don’t care for Twitter, just Google the word and find the word that way.
  6. Memorize the words using flashcards. To get a spaced repetition effect, I’ll drill the words over and over again for the next weeks.

And that’s it.

Out of those steps, #s 4 and 5 are probably the most important. You need to hear how the word is pronounced so that you learn it correctly, and then you need to see how the word is actually used. In fact, you can repeat step #5 as many times as you want to really get a feel for the word.

Wrapping Up

I need to put a bow on this article because it’s getting long, which means I have to leave out a lot of the finer points. But if you have any questions, please feel free to leave them in the comments below.

  • Teddy Nee


    • Ron G.

      Do you ever do anything like this, Teddy?

      • Teddy Nee

        Yes, but i prefer to check for words while reading magazine and book because I like reading very much.

  • Natalie

    Yay, I’m glad to see you’re blogging again. :-)

    I’ve used this method with my Russian learning. I didn’t have a specific name for it, but it worked well for me and I’m glad you’ve written about it. One thing I found helpful was an online dictionary called It has user-submitted sentences with the word you’re looking up used in context. I used to copy the sentences and put them into Anki, which helped me learn new words.

    • Ron G.

      Nice to be missed! Been spending all my free time studying, but I wanted to take a break by…blogging? lol

      That’s an awesome idea, using user-submitted sentences. What do you think about Anki? I tried to get into it, but I just can’t stay consistent with it, even though I like flashcards. It seems like one of those things that can be very effective if you can power through, though.

      • Natalie

        I love Anki so much. Using it really took my Russian to the next level. I know some people don’t care for it, but in my opinion they’re crazy. 😉 It is a really good program and I’d highly recommend it.

  • Cameron Kingsbury

    Tatoeba is also very nice for looking up example sentences! The problem is that you don’t know if they are used correctly, but there are trusted contributors.

    • Ron G.

      Wow, what a great resource! Thanks for passing it on, and I’m definitely going to use it for this exercise. I’m also going to link to this on my site’s Facebook page.

      • Cameron Kingsbury

        Always happy to help :)

  • Steve Smith

    Variety is good, so why not use this approach occasionally instead of introducing vocab in context? It may suit some students better.

  • Roman Shinkarenko

    I simply use a dictionary at the end of Teach Yourself Serbian.

  • Oliver Rose

    Vocab acquisition academics like Paul Nation absolutely do support list-learning as the most efficient way of quickly expanding your vocabulary, focusing on lists of high-frequency words that you are likely to encounter/use fairly soon. Of course, you also study in other ways to to integrate that vocabulary.

    For a more engaging alternative to flashcards check out the online/mobile Phrase Maze game:

  • Pier Stein

    Love it! That’s how I learned English and Indonesian. Also with the help of a language journal. Now proud to share two friends and me have built; a really easy way to create your own vocab lists with automatic translations. We’ve just launched a new update and would really love to hear your thoughts :) Not sure if you like digital tools, but is it useful for you? Any tips? Thanks!