The ultimate guide to learning French vocabulary

Tired of spending hours learning vocabulary and then forget it a few days later?

In this article you will discover how to improve your learning speed, make the learning process more fun and most of all how to considerably improve your memory.

After reading this you will never learn vocabulary the same way again.

 There is no such thing as good and bad memory

It’s not my fault, I have a bad memory

WRONG! Truth be told, the people who can remember things as soon as they read it and seem to have an awesome memory worked for it.

Sure, we aren’t all created equal and it will be slightly more difficult for some to learn new words and sentences. But you want to know the truth? Only two elements really matter when it comes to learning a language :

  • How you learn
  • How motivated you are

The “bad memory” argument is nothing else than an excuse. Unless you suffer from a disease, how effective your memory is mainly depends on the way you use it and train it.

As harsh as it may sound, it’s actually a very good news. It means you too can have an awesome memory. All you need is love motivation and hard work.

Three steps to an awesome memory

Remember how you learnt your native language as a kid?

You didn’t repeat a list of words for hours, no instead you spent days listening to people talking around you.

Strange sounds progressively became words, and unknown words known words.

Then you repeated those words you heard, again and again until you could finally speak.

Your native language is the one you know the best after all, so why not learn a second language the same way you learnt it?

1) Learn sentences, not words

This is one of the most important rule of language learning. It makes the learning process a lot easier and help you speak much more naturally.

Think about it, there are many drawbacks to learning words instead of sentences :

  • You have no idea how to use it
  • It’s harder to memorize
  • You may learn a word that no one uses
  • It’s boring

Remember that strange list of vocabulary your teacher once asked you to learn by heart?

That list of words you never read or heard anywhere.

Many words are very specific and absolutely useless to most people. These are not the words you want to learn when you study a language. Instead you want to learn the words that people actually use everyday.

That’s exactly what you do if you learn words from context.

Instead of picking some random words in a dictionary, you learn words you read in a book, heard in a movie or saw in the street.

Real words used by real people in everyday situations.

A good way to get started is to learn the most common words.

On top of that, the context in which you discovered the words helps you remember them more easily, and when the time comes to use them, you know exactly how to do that.

If you use a SRS software (see below), you can directly add sentences to it which has many benefits compared to adding a single word. Among them :

  • You learn the word in context
  • You learn the phrase structure
  • You learn expressions
  • You intuitively learn grammar by observing

2) Be regular

Multiple studies have shown the benefits of regularity to memorize. When it comes to learning, 20 minutes everyday is better than  2 hours once a week.

The words learnt with regularity are much more likely to stay in your memory than the ones you reviewed only once.

3) Get exposure to your target language

It’s essential that you spend a lot of time reading and listening to your target language (you could watch French TV, watch videos in French or enjoy awesome French movies).

That way you will not only discover new useful words, but reading and hearing words you just learnt will help you memorize them in the long-term.

In addition, listening to the sound of the language you learn will train your ear and your brain and make it easier for you to pronounce the language correctly.

One software to rule them all : the magic of SRS

SRS stands for Spaced Repetition System. Simply said, these softwares manage the words for you and ask you to study them just before you start to forget them. This allows for a long-term memorization.

Spaced repetition is a learning technique that incorporates increasing intervals of time between subsequent review of previously learned material in order to exploit the psychological spacing effect. Wikipedia

Spaced repetition softwares are extremely practical because they allow you to memorize lots of vocabulary without spending hours doing it.

It never takes me more than 20 minutes per day. And you can do it everywhere, in the subway, at home, while waiting for your bus etc.

All you have to do is enter the sentence you want to learn, its translation, and if possible an association. Then the software will tell you when you need to study.  Now, here are a few softwares you can use :

Memrise is certainly the most user-friendly SRS software. It’s a website as well as an iPhone and android app  on which people share courses. For example there are many courses to learn basic French vocabulary. In addition to these courses already created, you are free to create your own. Memrise tells you when to study to make it easier for you.

Memrise is cool to get started, but if you want to study more seriously, you may want to switch to anki, which is much more flexible.


Like memrise, anki is a SRS software. You can download it on your computer, Android phone or Iphone. It’s less user-friendly but much more powerful and flexible.

Called king of the SRS, anki is the favorite SRS software of many language lovers.

Mosalingua : the recommended solution for beginners

Mosalingua is like anki and memrise an application using the SRS system. It’s different though as it guides you through the learning process.

Concretely the app asks you how well you speak French and then suggests vocabulary to learn. In addition to that, some very good advice and bonuses become available as you learn more and more words. Other big advantage, the audio of all words and sentences is available.

It’s a paid app but is really worth it in my opinion.  Unfortunately, it is only available on android and IOS devices, although a web version is on the way.

Benjamin Houy

Benjamin Houy is a native French speaker and tea drinker with a BA degree in Applied Foreign Languages and a passion for languages. After teaching French and English in South Korea for 7 months as part of a French government program, he created French Together™ to help English speakers learn the 20% of French that truly matters.

13 thoughts on “The ultimate guide to learning French vocabulary”

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  1. What I would really like is to copy and paste a paragraph or article from the web into a box as in Google Translate, then click a button which would prepare a translated word, phrase and sentence list for it. I could then input that list into Anki or Memrise or a better program that would just blast the vocab at me in SRS fashion, possibly to music, as fast as I could take it. I could then go back and read the original article to anchor it in memory.

  2. I’m not a fan of memrise precisely for the reason you like it. I prefer to create my own decks because I find that pre-made decks contain lots of words and sentences I don’t need to learn. I also like to create my own cards because I have a deeper emotional connection when I create my own sentences and it helps me better remember but it’s a matter of preference of course.

  3. The first SRS I used was Anki and it’s less user-friendly indeed (the UI is strange). After some months I’ve discovered memrise and clozemaster. Both are good, I like memrise most but clozemaster has a feature called ‘fluency fast track’ where you are exposed through common sentences to less popular ones, gradually increasing vocabulary in a quite interesting way.
    For “newcomers” memrise/clozemaster seems more appropriate as they offer many “decks” right away. Also… creating decks is really time consuming, even if the process will make the words stick

  4. I agree that context works the best, especially words I repeatedly saw in the street are ones I will never forget. And that’s true: all you need is love! I still remember all the words my french boyfiend taught me, always works the best 🙂

    And thank you for memrise, I started using it after having read this section, an awesome website. I usually make myself start learning new words/reading dictionaries etc, but I have so much fun on memrise with all thise pictures and unusual associations it provides. Going on this website became my daily routine full of fun now.

    • Haha, nothing works better than a lover to learn a language :D, it’s the best motivation of all.

      After a few weeks of daily use of memrise, you will see how effective it is and want to learn even more :). SRS is quite addictive.

  5. Reading a book is always nice as well; instead of start learning by books with those didatic illustrations about “Anna and his family” or “At the supermarket”, I decided reading an entire book without a slight clue on French. After 200 pages, I was able to understand pretty much everything and lots of words now got a mental association with the story, usually because of a character’s personality or deeds on the book. 🙂

    • Oh yes books can be very good to remember as they make our imagination work. You must be very motivated though to start reading an entire book in a language you don’t know anything about. Usuallly, I just do that when I already understand a bit of the language.

      But you are right, a real book is clearly more interesting and motivating than reading a book for children (for adults at least).


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