“What in the world is a verb in the conditional perfect? Is that a verb that’s perfect under the right conditions?” I asked myself, staring at my French textbook and hoping the answer would come to me.

So, you’ve decided on a language to study and found a good language curriculum, but now find yourself vexed and perplexed by huge lists of vocabulary, and grammatical terms that seem to be exercises in philosophy rather than definitions! Have a seat, take a deep breath, and congratulate yourself, because you have now joined the ranks of language students all over the world who face periodic bewilderment in their quest for language mastery. Fear not! With the right approach to language study you can master every adjective and hanging participle you encounter.


One of the primary challenges involved in learning a foreign language is the memorization of vocabulary. To simply communicate at an elementary level requires the mastery of a significant number of words, and to speak fluently requires a breadth and depth of vocabulary that, to the beginning student, can often seem like an unattainable goal. Furthermore, the idea of rote memorization brings to mind dull hours filled with endless mantras of new words and phrases. Fortunately, there are many creative ways to study vocabulary that will not cause you to fall asleep from the droning of your own voice.

Flash It

Flash cards are a valuable tool for the study of any subject, and for the study of foreign languages, they are indispensable. To make flash cards, all you need are some standard index cards and a pen or pencil. If you want to make the cards a bit smaller, you can cut the index cards in half to make two. Take your cards and write the English word on one side, and then flip them over and write the word in the language you’re studying on the other side.

A great feature of flash cards is that you can arrange and study them in any way you like. When you get a large list of vocabulary and make the new words into flash cards, try studying with a small amount of them at first (five cards, for example); this will make the task much less overwhelming than simply diving into the entire stack of cards right away. Study your five words, and when you feel comfortable with them, put them aside and grab another five to study. When you’ve gone through all of your cards in small groups, put them together and try doing them straight through. Pick out the words that you had trouble with and set them aside to study more. When you think you have a better grasp of the words you had trouble with, throw them back in the pile again and go through them again.

Make sure that you study the cards both ways; starting with the English and flipping to the foreign word, and then starting with the foreign word and flipping to the English. This will help you translate the word either way.

Flash cards are also a valuable tool for review. From time to time, take out your piles of old flash cards and go through them to reinforce the words you have already learned and refresh yourself on the ones you may have forgotten. Once again, take out the cards with words that you have forgotten, and set them aside for more study.

Say It

Reciting vocabulary out loud can increase retention while also improving speaking ability. By saying a word aloud, the student is not simply memorizing words on a page, but forming them with the mouth and hearing them with the ears, giving the mind more cues with which to retrieve the word. This also helps improve pronunciation, because the repetition will accustom your mouth to forming words that may have unfamiliar sounds. I like to say the words on my flashcards as I’m studying them.

Another great way to help in the memorization of words is to place them in a sentence. For example, if I am studying the word “coche,” which means “car” in Spanish, I can say “El coche es rojo.” By putting the word into a proper context, you may have an easier time remembering it. If you don’t remember the word by itself, you may still remember the sentence, and will remember the word by reciting it.