How to Boost Your Vocabulary with OVA

How to Boost Your Vocabulary with OVA

10,000; 20,000; 60,000; 7,000,000 – how many words do you think you know in your native tongue?

Okay, so maybe 7,000,000 is a little high, but you get the point. Natively speaking a language means you probably know a ton of words.

Now – how many words do you know in the language you’re learning?

If you’re anything like me, the numbers have a bit of distance between them. That is, you know gallons more (yes, gallons) words in your native language than your target language.

Naturally, we want to raise that smaller number a bit – but how do we do that?

With a concept I like to call Organic Vocabulary Acquisition, or OVA, for short. I call it this because I think this is one of the most natural ways to get the vocabulary that’s useful to you – I also particularly enjoy this terminology because I pronounce “OVA” like Jay-Z pronounces “HOVA”, and it makes it easy to remember.

But before we get started, there are a couple things we’ll want to have prepared to best make use of this technique.


To get ready to start using OVA, there are 2 things you’re going to need. Preparation is simple, but important.


The first thing you’ll need is Evernote, or anything else with which you can take notes/make a list. Evernote allows you to keep an unlimited amount of notes synced between all of your devices, and allows you to sort them with tags/notebooks. You can also search for any word in the title or content of a note to find it, so it’s almost impossible to lose any information you need, even with hundreds of notes. It’s an incredibly powerful tool for organization, and I absolutely love it (as you can probably tell from the Evernote shirt I’m wearing in the sidebar).

Want to simply use a note-taking feature on your smartphone? Go ahead. Want to use a notebook, whiteboard, or some other physical means of writing things? No problem. Just apply the following to those mediums and you’re good to go.

OVA List

As you can probably tell, I happened to be walking by a creek when I started this list.

Create a list called “OVA” in Evernote. If you’d like, add it to your Evernote shortcuts list for quick retrieval on your smartphone, but it’s not necessary.

No matter what you’re using, it is essential that this list is accessible to you at all times. If it can’t be with you for whatever reason, than you need to keep a smaller list with you that you can add to the OVA list later. I highly suggest just having the OVA list with you though, as the less friction there is in the OVA process, the more likely you are to actually stick with it.


If you haven’t used Anki or another spaced-repetition software before, consider this post on Anki added to your reading list.

I use and love Anki, but any spaced-repetition software will work as long as you make sure to use it on a daily basis.

In Anki, create a new deck called “OVA”. This is where you will be keeping all of the new words you’re going to learn.

Bam. You’re now ready to start using OVA. That wasn’t so hard, was it?

OVA in Action

Now that we’ve got everything ready, we can actually start using OVA.

Here’s the gist: as you go about your daily business, try to think of the words you use in your target language – if you don’t know them, add them to the list.

Possible terms: tree, bark, rock, shoe, backpack, beard, sidewalk

Possible terms: tree, bark, rock, shoe, backpack, beard, sidewalk

Now, if you really want to know it, feel free to look it up immediately. But that’s not going to be as helpful long-term, or as likely to work. Why? You’re going to get tired of looking up words and phrases pretty quickly in the beginning, when you’ll probably find you’re missing a lot of your daily vocabulary.

We don’t want that, so just add it to your OVA list in Evernote. Since this can be done on a smartphone, it’s as simple as opening Evernote and adding it. No smartphone? Just text it to yourself or write it down on actual paper (Gasp!).

Keep adding to this list over the course of about a week. At some point during the week – I have my calendar set to Sundays from 2 – 2:30 – you’re going to go through your list, find out the words/phrases in your target language, and add as many as you can to your OVA deck in Anki.

If you can’t seem to find enough words to use, try filling out a daily journal or goal notebook in your target language – you’ll quickly find out which words you do or don’t know.

Once you get past the initial phase with tons and tons of vocabulary to add, you’ll get to a point where you can clear out your whole list every week.

As long as you keep studying every day with Anki, you’ll soon find yourself able to say most of the things that you actually deal with in daily life.

Take that, textbook vocabulary lists.