Learning vocabulary – 7 common mistakes and how to avoid them to remember the words forever


“I’m learning vocabulary over and over again but I only remember the words for a short period of time.”

Does that sound familiar? Do you feel like you’re spending hours trying to memorize new words but they simply don’t stick? Or you can’t use them effortlessly during a conversation?

Then you might be making one (or more) of the 7 most common mistakes when learning vocabulary. Keep reading to find out which mistakes are getting in the way of your learning and how to memorize new words effectively. 

1. Learning new words without reviewing them

This is hands down the biggest mistake most students have been making since their school times. I remember my German classes. Every lesson came with a new list of words we had to memorize until the next class. And then we moved onto the next list without revisiting the previous words. You might be wondering, what’s wrong with that. 

First, let’s look at the way our memory actually works. Then we’ll understand why this is not the most effective way of learning new words.

German psychologist Herman Ebbinghaus is the author of the well known Forgetting Curve which demonstrates perfectly how our memory works. Let’s say we would memorize 100 new words on a given day (just like when we had to learn vocabulary for a test in school). After just 18 minutes, we would only retain 55 of the words! As you can see in the picture, the curve keeps going down so the next day we would remember 40 words. After a week, we are only left with 30 of them.


However, we can easily slow down the Forgetting Curve by simply reviewing the words, for example after 18 minutes (you can see it in the picture in blue). So now we’re able to remember not just 55, but about 70 words the next day. 


And let’s say we’re going to repeat the same words again the next day. After one week, we’re going to remember about 80% of the words instead of only 30%. That’s quite a difference, right?


When we try to memorize new vocabulary in one sitting without going back to the words over time and revising them, we only remember them for a very short period of time. So the key to making the new words truly stick is to repeat and review them also known as the Spaced Repetition System. 

The idea of spaced repetition is to space out your repetitions, or review sessions, so that you are not trying to cram all the knowledge into your brain at once. There are plenty of effective learning methods that are based on the spaced repetition system such as flashcards, both paper and digital, as well the Goldlist Method. This system ensures that the information remains fresh in your mind. 

2. Learning too many new words at once

It can be very tempting to want to learn 50 or even 100 new words every day, especially when you’re starting with a language. In the pursuit of mastering new vocabulary as fast as possible, we don’t pay attention to the words we learned yesterday, the day before or a week ago. 

But now you know that, based on the information about the Forgetting Curve, if you don’t review the words, you’re going to forget them. Fast! And this only leads to feeling disappointed by how little you have actually remembered, despite the time and energy you’ve spent on the vocabulary.

So if your goal is to retain the words in your long-term memory and be able to use them in real life effortlessly, you need to start focusing on reviewing the vocabulary more often. Instead of just endlessly chasing new words. New words should only make up about 10-15% of your entire vocabulary learning.


3. Cramming vocabulary into one sitting

This mistake ties into the previous two points about learning. We try to learn new words in one sitting, instead of spacing out our learning, adding in new words gradually, and reviewing older vocabulary. Guess what’s more effective. 

This especially applies to students who need to memorize long lists of words before a test. In which case you would spend hours, sometimes even an entire night learning the vocabulary. You might get an A but a week later, you can vaguely remember any of the words let alone actually use them in a conversation. Sound familiar?

It is way more effective to learn more often and in smaller chunks of time. Instead of trying to conquer 50 words at once, focus on 5 – 10 words and keep revising them over and over again. Don’t spend an entire hour doing so though. See if you can spread it into smaller 10-minute study sessions 2 – 3 times a day. It will be much more manageable and less tiring. 


4. Reading the words without testing yourself

Another very common mistake. Testing yourself is key to ensuring that you actually retain the information you’ve just learned. If you give your brain a question first and then try to find the right answer, it will remember it more effectively. 

It’s deceptive to think that once you read something, you’re going to remember it. However, simply reading isn’t an effective way of remembering new information. Just think about how much you can remember from a book you read last week or a month ago. Not a lot, right?


5. Testing yourself from the foreign language to your mother tongue

Another mistake that for most of us has been ingrained in our brains since school years. Testing yourself from the language you’re learning to your mother language will only improve your passive vocabulary. By passive vocabulary I mean the words you can understand when you read them or hear them. This will make you feel like you know all the words because you can understand them.

However, when you flip it and start testing yourself from your mother language to your target language, you’re going to work on your active vocabulary – meaning the words you can actually use in real life. So make sure you use this way of testing even though it might be harder to begin with. 

6. Learning quietly and only saying the words to yourself or in your head

It’s super important to learn vocabulary by saying them out loud whenever possible. By doing that you’re not only learning the words themselves but also formulating your thoughts and practicing correct pronunciation. Which is key to making sure that other people including native speakers can easily understand you.

If you only say the words in your head, you might be under the impression that you know them well. But when you need to use them in a conversation, suddenly you can’t quite wrap your tongue around them. So the sooner you start getting comfortable saying the words out loud, the faster you’re going to get comfortable in a real-life situation.


Extra tip: if you come across a word that has complicated pronunciation or the sound is new to you, write the pronunciation down too. It’s easier to learn how to pronounce words correctly from the beginning than trying to unlearn incorrect pronunciation down the road. 

7. Thinking that all we need to learn vocabulary is to use an app like Duolingo

There is a large variety of different apps for learning languages these days. People love them because they have a nice design, they’re fun to use and super handy. They keep you motivated by earning badges for your learning. That gives you the impression that you’ve already learned a lot. But have you really? 

We have to understand that fun apps are just a cool addition to your vocabulary learning (or language learning in general). But they shouldn’t be the main source. Make sure to combine different methods and resources to not only memorize new words, but also retain them in your long-term memory. That way you’ll be able to use them in conversation. 


How to learn vocabulary effectively 

So let’s summarize the key factors that’ll help you learn vocabulary effectively. You will not only understand the words when watching movies and reading books, but also use them effortlessly when speaking. 

  1. Spend more time reviewing older words and less time learning new words.
  2. Learn often and in smaller chunks.
  3. Test yourself instead of just reading the words.
  4. Always test yourself from your mother language to your target language.
  5. Learn out loud whenever possible.
  6. Use a variety of effective methods and not just  “magic” apps.

Thankfully there are plenty of methods that are both effective and fun and will turn your vocabulary learning into an enjoyable activity that you will actually look forward to. And the best thing is they will help you remember the words forever (not just short term). What would you say to learning vocabulary by writing the words down over your morning coffee or having fun with colorful flashcards instead of endless and boring memorizing? You can learn more about the effective learning methods (not only for your vocabulary) in our videocourse Language Master.

The author of this blog post is Barbara Pecková, a professional translator and member of the Language Mentoring team since 2017. 

Language Mentoring provides a complete guide for learning any language using fun and effective methods. The founder, Lýdia Hric Machová, PhD., is a polyglot and language mentor who has learned 9 languages by herself, without living abroad. She has appeared at prestigious conferences all over the world, including the TED conference. Her philosophy is that everybody can learn a language regardless talent, age or other qualities.