6 In Korean learning journey (:

How to Revise Vocabulary for Foreign Languages

Mathematically speaking, if you aim to be at the same level of proficiency (vocabulary bank) in a foreign language as your native tongue, you will need to know the equivalent of every word you know in your native tongue. That sounds like a massive task.

Google tells me that the vocabulary size of an adult is about 20,000 – 35,000. That sounds like a lot of words to remember. How many vocabulary flashcards / word lists will that be?

My answer? Zero.

When it comes to language learning, I like to throw all these mathematical calculations and reasonings out of the window. Why? Our brain is better than we give it credit for, and learning a language does not require rote memorisation. This is something that I’ve been saying for the past 10 years, and I still stand by it.

This brings us back to the question of the day.

How to revise / review vocabulary?

Don’t. 🙂

That is an honest answer and it’s what I’ve been doing for the past 10 years. I believe in note-taking in languages and for vocabulary, my notes are simple: (1) word; (2) meaning; and (3) example sentence.

Dictionaries I use:

Okay, so what’s next?


The process of note-taking is where the learning takes place.

So what should I do with the notes? you asked.


I don’t re-read my vocabulary notes. After I’m done writing, I don’t need them anymore. This is why I threw away 8(?) notebooks worth of Korean notes a couple of years ago. I still remembered I received a lot of horrified comments on why I would “throw my hard work away” or that I can pass them to someone who would find them useful.

First, vocabulary notes are only useful to the person making them (during the process of doing so). To others, it’s like a random vocabulary list. It’s like tearing pages off a dictionary and giving it to somebody. Unless you enjoy reading the dictionary, it’s not going to be useful to you.

Yes, it’s a pity to throw away memories. But that’s that. I’m not throwing important notes away. Because I’ve already gained what I need to during the writing process.

So what is it about the writing process that’s so important?

Writing helps us process what we are reading. It acts as a reinforcement, because you read the word + meaning + sample sentence on the website, and you likely refer to them several times as you copy them down slowly. You spend more time looking at the word when you write it down. You process the information in a more thorough way.

How do I remember the words?

Okay, I can still see the skeptical look you are giving me 🙂 I have yet to answer the question on how to remember the words. I don’t have a photographic memory, I cannot remember everything that I’ve seen once.

There’s where reading a lot (and by themes) help.

You may not remember a word if you see it once, but if you come across it in several articles, I’m sure you will remember it by the 3rd time you write it down.

By reading a lot, you get to practice reading while learning (and revising) new vocabulary. It’s good to read by themes at the start, so that you see the same set of vocabulary over and over again.

Happy learning!

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  • Reply
    Hor Xinrong
    3 January, 2021 at 4:25 PM

    I totally agree and luckily I have been unknowingly doing the same thing.

    • Reply
      4 January, 2021 at 10:38 PM


  • Reply
    3 January, 2021 at 11:40 PM

    Have you ever wanted to hit yourself for something? After reading this, I have. Years of SRS and flash card apps that did nothing for me and yet the simplest thing is the thing that worked all along.
    I went back and thought about some of the words that I remember well and realized I did exactly this for most of them. Wrote it down a few times while looking them up, never looked back again.
    Thank you for giving me this well needed smack upside the head 🤣

    • Reply
      4 January, 2021 at 10:39 PM

      Hi Gabriella! hahaha glad I helped 😛 Hope the reading method will help you in your learning journey! Thanks for reading the blog 🙂

  • Reply
    8 January, 2021 at 10:12 PM

    Hi Shanna, I really appreciate this post (as well as the next one, “How to learn vocabulary to pass a language proficiency exam urgently”). It’s quite interesting. Thanks for laying this out. It helps to know that it worked for you! True, I am at times skeptical (especially when it comes to Japanese because of kanji… it adds another layer of difficulty and makes reading more time-consuming) or intimidated, but I think if I find materials at my level or in an easier language (Spanish) it could work for me. I make flashcards and fail to use them and don’t find them fun, same as those vocabulary list books that I barely use… It’s not good for retention and I agree with your points about improving reading skills as well as other skills simultaneously. Now to find the time, motivation, and patience to tackle some reading!…

    • Reply
      19 January, 2021 at 12:02 PM

      Hi Anna! Thanks for reading 🙂 It takes time to find the method(s) that work for us, so keep exploring until you find osmething that works well.

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