How to Accurately Learn New Words and Phrases in a Foreign Language

How to Accurately Learn New Words and Phrases in a Foreign Language

Online dictionaries aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. They’re generally good for one word at a time, and aren’t always very good at understanding what you really wanted. Some dictionaries give great examples to help you find what you need, but don’t always have it. Google Translate can handle entire paragraphs, but tends to stumble over grammar and doesn’t understand context.

If you’ve been working hard at your next language, trying to fill in the gaps in your vocabulary, this can be a problem.

You could find out by asking a native speaker, but that’s not always reasonable. Maybe it’s too late in the day, they’re busy, or you’re just in a hurry. Maybe you’ve already asked them 100 questions today and you just want to give them a break.

Well, with some clever tactics, you can learn indirectly from native speakers all over the globe, and you don’t even have to ask! Isn’t that nice of them?

Here are the techniques I use to accurately learn new words and phrases in other languages, so I’m (almost) always saying what I think I’m saying.


Words are the easiest place to start, so let’s get to it.

You may correctly guess that for single words, the first step is to use whatever dictionary you like best, whether it be WordReference, Denshi Jisho, Google Translate, or it’s made out of that flat tree stuff.

But, what if it’s a word with several synonyms, or many possible contexts in which it can be used? How can you make sure you’re using the best word for the situation?

Well, let’s take a look at my recent quest to learn how to say headphones in French.

In French, un casque is a pair of headphones – but, according to WordReference, un casque is also a helmet. So if I use the word casque in an everyday conversation, will everyone understand I mean headphones, or is it just some obscure specific-to-one-location slang?

To find out, I searched the French version of Google Images for casque. You probably don’t have to use the version specific to your target language, but I find it to be helpful if the word happens to look like a word in English, which throws it off a bit.

If a picture's worth 1,000 words, then this is overkill.

If a picture’s worth 1,000 words, then this is overkill.

The results show that casque is being used almost equally to refer to both bike helmets and headphones. Great – this means I should be able to use it without any problems! Context will determine the meaning, and that’s a-okay.

Now, if that search had shown me 95% bike helmets and then one pair of headphones, I might have guessed that there was a better word I could be using. If that happens to you, you might want to look for another possible translation and see if you get some more convincing results.

On a side note, after seeing these results, I wanted to see if casque could also be used to talk about a knight’s helmet, since I didn’t see any on the first page of results. To find out, I simply searched casque médiéval (turns out that yes, it works, though heaume is probably better). If you’re looking for something really specific, feel free to be a little more descriptive with the search – for some situations, you may need it.

The beauty of this technique is that you’re essentially crowdsourcing your vocabulary. Need a second opinion before you feel safe using a word? Have a thousand.

My good friend Thomas Frank of College Info Geek recently used this tactic to learn how to say コビトカバ, which means pygmy hippo, so he could tweet at me in Japanese.

Given that hippos are super spooky (and that this card is the bane of my Omnath deck), you can just assume he’s taunting me.


Now that we’ve got words out of the way, it makes sense to start putting them together to form phrases.

First, you’ll need a desired phrase, and your guess at how to say it in your target language. If you don’t know enough grammar to guess, then try throwing the phrase into Google Translate. While it tends to fumble large blocks of text, a single phrase is more likely to come out okay.

But you, like a good language learner, know not to rely on machine translation. You want validation from other people, and for that, I applaud you.

After you’ve got your guess, simply search it on Google. If it’s a small or probably commonly used phrase, try searching with quotes around it first. This will make Google search for the exact phrase, so you can see pretty quickly if anyone has been using it.

If you find a few results where people are using what you searched, congratulations! It’s probably correct. If not, try removing the quotes and seeing if people are saying anything similar. It might be that the words are just switched around a bit, and that seeing how native speakers are using the phrase will help you get things in order.

If you still can’t find anything, reconsider whether your phrase would be used by many people before giving up. For example, you probably won’t find a lot of people saying, “Dad, I want to be a seahorse.”

Papá, quiero ser un caballito de mar.

Papá, quiero ser un caballito de mar.

If this is the phrase you want to learn, you might be better off substituting some of the words to make it more common, like, “I want to be a doctor,” and then switching the words back once you know how to say it.

Similarly, if your phrase is long or complex, you might want to break it into smaller chunks and test those. The more specific you are with your phrase, the less likely it will be that someone else has said it.

Now, this isn’t perfect – there may be small mistakes here and there – but it’ll certainly get you a lot closer than just using machine translation. You’ll be understandable, and you’ll be about as accurate as you can get without knowing all of the tiny grammar rules or asking someone who already speaks the language for help.

Anyway, I hope these techniques help you as much as they’ve helped me! If you have any other tips for verifying new words and phrases, let us know in the comments!

photo source: hippo, seahorse
  • These are great suggestions! I have often run up on these confusions in a second language (or as an American living in Ireland, sometimes unexpected differences in my “own” language…). The image search is brilliant and I never thought of it. Such a simple solution!

    • Glad you like the post! These techniques have helped me quite a few times, so I’m happy to be able to share them with others.