How to build your French vocabulary

Jan 25, 2021

Having an extensive French vocabulary can make communication easier all round. It not only helps us express ourselves better but also understand others better too.

Get more out of your holiday interactions by brushing up on French vocabulary and expressions before you leave home.
Get more out of your holiday interactions by brushing up on French vocabulary and expressions before you leave home.

Equally, your vocabulary, or lack thereof, can limit your interactions. Ever had one of those moments where you think you understand what someone is saying from context, but you don’t know the one crucial word they’re using? Or perhaps, you’ve tried to describe something very specific but find yourself searching for that one important missing word?

Being able to understand the gist of a conversation is definitely important when it comes to learning any language, but it is equally important to build your vocabulary and try to fill in those missing gaps. The wider your vocabulary, the less likely you are to find yourself in these types of situations.

So, how can you actively build your French vocabulary? Keep reading to find out.

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Make reading a part of your plan to learn new French vocabulary.
Reading more is an important part of expanding your vocabulary.

Study after study has shown that reading plays a huge role in vocabulary acquisition in both our first and subsequent languages. Think of how you learned your native language as a child. First, you learned the basics from day to day interactions, talking to your family and friends. Then, after you started school, you learned to read and write, at which point you probably also started doing reading comprehension exercises and spelling tests. And, while you were doing all this, you most likely started reading in your own time for leisure. The same should apply to your French studies.

Reading for pleasure is important but reading to train your reading comprehension skills is key, too. Try to get into the habit of reading something in French every day. And, when you encounter a new word before you reach for the dictionary, see if you can determine the meaning from the context first. If you must, check the definition in a French dictionary. And then, try to use the word in a sentence of your own. This will help you remember new words more readily going forward.

Make It Relatable

One of the best ways to recall and practice using new vocabulary is to associate it with something relevant to your personal experience or your preexisting knowledge. This concept is backed up by Hermann Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve which suggests that we remember new information better and form stronger memories when new information is more interesting or relevant to us personally. It also helps if we make connections between things we already know and this new information, concept or in this case word.

How can you do that? One easy way is by associating new vocabulary with a person, place or something in your life. So, for example, if you’re learning adjectives for describing people, you could think of someone you know and use that new vocabulary to describe them. Another good way to strengthen connections is through mind maps and listing activities. Choose one word to start, for example, the word “beach” and then make a list of all the vocabulary you know related to that topic (e.g. ocean, surfing, bikini, sandals etc.). You could imagine your personal belongings and what you normally take with you and then make a list based on that.

Trying to learn food-related vocabulary? When you go to the shops or cook something at home, try to associate that new French vocabulary with what you buy or prepare.
Trying to learn food-related vocabulary? When you go to the shops or cook something at home, try to associate that new French vocabulary with what you buy or prepare.

Make It Fun

Sometimes, when we focus on learning a new language, we forget to have fun with it. That might be because we’re working towards a test or a work-related goal. It’s good to take things seriously but keeping it light will help your motivation levels and also help you retain new French vocabulary better. We learn more when we feel engaged, motivated and happy. The opposite is also true when we feel bored, stressed or uncomfortable.

What can you do to make learning more vocabulary fun? Well, you can do it in a few ways. One way is to read about topics which you enjoy or find interesting and extract vocabulary from there. You can apply this same tactic when listening to music, TED talks or podcasts but you’ll have to listen actively and you may need to look up a transcript or the lyrics. Another way is through word games like Scrabble or crosswords.


I cannot stress how important this is when it comes to learning and retaining new information. Repetition plays a critical role in remembering new words so once you’ve made a list of words you want to learn, make sure you consistently review and put them into practice.  According to “The Forgetting Curve” which I mentioned earlier, if we don’t review and recycle new info, after just a few days, we start forgetting it. And, the longer you leave it, the more likely you are to forget it. It’s a logical concept but sometimes we don’t really think about it.

The most effective way to avoid forgetting your freshly learned French vocabulary is to use a study technique called “Spaced Repetition”. You can read more about it and how to apply it to your French studies in this College Info Geek Article. But basically, you need to plan to review new vocabulary at regular intervals. Nowadays, there are language learning apps which make this process easier for you by calculating how often you need to review and sending you handy reminders.

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