Some general tips for vocabulary learning

Out with vocabulary lists – in with contextual learning!

During the first year of language learning, vocabulary lists can be very useful. They can help build a basic vocabulary of common words. Early on, I learned a lot from the Byki desktop/iPhone app, which has some good premade lists of vocabulary sorted into thematic groups.

But at the intermediate-advanced stage I think spending time studying vocab lists is counterproductive, for a couple of reasons. First, at this stage you will be learning words for more abstract ideas and actions, and learning these types of words divorced of context is difficult. Second, you risk spending time learning words that you may see only infrequently.

That’s why I recommend a strategy of contextual vocabulary building in conjunction with reading and writing practice. In this system, you learn new words as you encounter them while reading, or as you use them while writing. The process can be summed up:

  1. You encounter an unknown word while reading (or, while writing, you look up a new Portuguese word for a concept that you’re writing about)
  2. You write down the word in a notebook
  3. You look up and write down the definition and a bit of context
  4. You use a spaced repetition flashcard app to periodically review the word
  5. You use the word in your own writing
  6. You recognize the word when you next encounter it

So the first thing to do is:

Get in the habit of reading in Portuguese every day

Reading is the key to vocabulary building at the intermediate-advanced level. What you read is up to you. It can be a passage from your Portuguese textbook or course, but don’t limit yourself to just those materials – find outside materials produced for Portuguese speakers, whether they’re childrens’ books, magazines, newspaper articles, or blogs.

When you read, read actively. Don’t worry about glossing over unknown words as long as you get the gist of the sentence. But when you arrive at a word that prevents you from understanding the gist, take the time to stop and look it up. There are now web tools that make looking up unknown words as simple as a click of your mouse – see the Practicing Reading page.

After you’ve encountered a new word you want to learn, the next step will be to write it down. That’s why I believe everyone should:

Keep a language notebook

It’s good to have a place where you can write down new words you come across that you’d like to remember, preferably in longhand. Even if your handwriting is terrible, studies have shown that the physical act of writing reinforces neural linkages in the brain and helps you remember information, especially the little things like genders and accent marks.

But don’t just write down the word and the definition. Remember:

It’s much easier to remember a word in context that to memorize a definition

In your notebook, in addition to writing down the word itself, write down where you found it and an example of how it’s used – either the original sentence or one you make up yourself. And if it’s a verb, don’t forget to make a note of what preposition to use with it.

If it’s a hard-to-remember word, you might want to try searching Linguee, the Corpus do Português, or Google, all of which can give you examples of the word in use. Try to pick one or two examples to remember. Focus on remembering the concept, not the English translation.

Be selective about what vocabulary you learn

Focus your vocabulary learning on the most common words, ones with simple meanings that are used in a wide range of contexts. The length of a word can be a clue. Shorter words tend to be more common, while longer words with suffixes and prefixes tend to be more obscure. My pages on the 1000 most common verbs and nouns can also guide you.

Don’t bother with obscure words or technical jargon that you’re unlikely to ever use, except…

Do learn the jargon of your fields of interest

If you’re a musician, find a music book in Portuguese and learn the words for rhythm, meter, melody, key, phrase, etc, and the names of the instruments.

If you like to cook, find some recipes online and learn the names of foods and the names of kitchen utensils. Take a week and learn the names of the fruits, then do vegetables, then staples.

If you play or watch a sport, learn the words for that sport’s terminology and learn some common action verbs: kick, throw, shoot, jump, hit, score, miss, win, lose, etc.

Which brings up another useful tip:

Learn vocabulary in thematic chunks

Focus on learning groups of words that have something in common. For example, make a list of all verbs related to cooking and spend one or two weeks learning them. Off the top of my head: grelhar, assar, refogar, dourar, esquentar, ferver, congelar, mexer, misturar, picar, cortar, amassar, combinar, bater, tirar, baixar (o fogo), desligar (o fogo). Find some recipes in Portuguese online and try to follow them. Write down your favorite recipe in Portuguese.

Or, pick a random object like a piece of paper, or a ball. Make a list of all the actions you can do to that object. For paper we might come up with ler (to read), dobrar (to fold), rasgar (to tear), cortar (to cut), jogar fora (to throw away), escrever em (to write on), imprimir (to print).

Focus on verbs and nouns; adjectives will come

Of course, beginners should take time to learn the basic adjectives, preferably in antonym pairs: grande/pequeno, fácil/difícil, duro/mole/macio, jovem/velho etc. But at the intermediate-advanced level it’s not necessary to specifically study adjectives, since the vast majority of adjectives are either English cognates or they derive from verb forms in predictable ways: previsível -> preverinteressado -> interessar-se. As in English, many adjectives are simply the past participle form of the verb: interessado – interested; fechado – closed. Be careful because a few verbs have both a regular and an irregular past participle, in which case the adjective is always the irregular form: confundir->confuso (not confundido).

Review your language notebook at least twice a week

Go back through the past couple weeks worth of words and review them. Write out some more sentences using them. If this is too much of a chore, consider using an intelligent flashcard app like Anki. It does take time to create cards in Anki, but once they’re created, all you need is 5 minutes every day for a brief review. Anki can keep track of what cards you need to review each day, showing you new cards frequently at first and then less often. This is an excellent way to move vocabulary from short-term to long-term memory. Anki also makes sure you don’t forget words learned long ago by occasionally bringing them back for review. As you’re setting up your cards in Anki, remember:

Practice recall, not recognition

If you do use a flashcard system like Anki, Byki or LingQ, aim for recall rather than recognition. Recognition is when you see the word and are able to give its meaning or translation. Recall is when you are shown a definition or concept and you must recall the word itself, which is what you do when you’re speaking and writing. In general, recall is more difficult than recognition – you have to know not just the sound of the word but the spelling as well. Recall is also a much deeper form of knowledge, one that you must have in order to speak and write Portuguese.

I also find that once I’ve learned to recall a word given its meaning, recognition of that word then becomes easy. For these reasons, I think it makes sense to spend most of your time practicing recall. Curiously, though, the default setting on many language apps like Byki is Recognition mode! I think this is a major failing of a lot of the cheap language software out there, and it’s why I choose to use Anki, where it’s possible to generate both types of cards.

If you do use Anki, add sound to your flashcards. You need to be able to recognize and recall words not just by sight, but more importantly by sound. Listening to a pronunciation of the word while you study it helps to build the sound-meaning connection as well as the visual-meaning connection. Byki’s flash cards come pre-loaded with very good Brazilian dialect pronunciations. In Anki, you’ll have to record them yourself, but that involves nothing more than the click of a button while you’re creating the card.

Consistent, daily practice is key

In the music world, people often say that it’s better to practice for a half-hour every day than to practice for 3 hours one day and then go several days without practicing at all. Consistency over the long-term of months to years is the magic key to music, and the same is true for language learning. Schedule your vocabulary learning in short, daily doses. Anki makes it easy to do this by scheduling daily review sessions where you are shown only a subset of all your cards. Just 5 minutes a day is fine; the secret – and the point where many people fail – is to keep it up week after week.

17 Responses to Some general tips for vocabulary learning

  1. Adriano says:


    I just wanted to let you know what an outstanding job you’re doing. This is probably the best blog on learning Portuguese (and the advice can be used for other languages too).

    I’d like to make a couple of observations, though.

    “Imprevisável -> previsar”
    It’s ‘imprevisível”, and the verb it derives from is “prever”.

    Although there are indeed a few verbs with a regular and an irregular past participle, “abrir” is not one of them. “Aberto” is the norm, and “abrido” is considered wrong even though it existed and was used in the distant past.

    “Amarrotar” is usually reserved for clothes. I personally have never seen it used for paper.

    Anyway, as I mentioned, this is a great resource, and even though I’m a native Brazilian, I’ve been reading all of your posts and enjoying them immensely.

    Um abraço.

    • Lauren says:

      Thanks very much for your comments and corrections Adriano. I’ve gone and corrected the errors you found on this page. Please let me know if you come across any others – and thanks for your nice words about the site!

  2. Eric says:


    I am getting completely overwhelmed with the amount of information you’ve managed to capture in this site. Your work is an encouragement as I begin learning Portuguese. Your work on the challenges faced by English speakers that have learned Spanish is a real help.

    Keep it up!!!

    • Lauren says:

      Hey Eric, congratulations on making the decision to start speaking the coolest language around! And thanks for the nice words. I’m glad HP is helpful to you – the whole reason I started the site was to create what I wish I’d had when I was first starting out with the language. Best of luck, and please check in and let us know how it’s going. Divirta-se!

  3. Patrick says:

    I tend to agree with what others are saying. I speak 100% English, 60% Spanish, and 0% Portuguese. I am starting today after a recent trip to Rio. Your site is awesome. It says many things far better than I have seen them before. This page on vocabulary alone is A+! Thank you for taking the time to do this. Perhaps when I am farther along I will post in both English and Portuguese!!


  4. Kevin says:

    Hi, fantastic website! I really appreciate all of the resources you put out there. One resource I am looking for is a video from a native speaker clearly explaining and showing all of the vowel pronunciations, especially the nasal vowels, for Brazilian Portuguese. Do you have any recommendations? This guy is decent and very knowledgable about language in general but his video seems to have some errors in it.

  5. Kevin says:

    Thanks for the resources! I’ll look into them and report back on how it helps the early learner.

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  7. Thank you! For putting this together!

  8. It’s nearly impossible to find experienced people in this particular subject, but you sound like you know what you’re
    talking about! Thanks

  9. dashmeet says:

    Reading is good “Passive” way of improving vocabulary, but when you are resorting to making lists, that is “Active” method. Problem with active method of learning words is that it is cumbersome and boring, and you doing retain and unless you use it in writing sentences to apply the word, very little chance is that you increase your lexical size.

    Improve Your Vocabulary – VocabMonk is an active learning tool which is personalized and makes sure you grasp the learnt words by applying it. It is lot of fun too as you can play vocab challenges with your friends.

    Give it a shot!

  10. Michal says:

    Hey, parabéns and obrigado!
    A bit overwhelming but excellent work!

  11. Jon says:

    Your differentiation between recall and recognition is interesting. I use Anki with my IELTS students and I always wondered which way to use it – I left it to my students. Do you know more resources on this? I’d like to read up more.

    • Lauren says:

      Hi Jon, I don’t have any other resources, but from a learner perspective I’ve definitely found recall to be more challenging and therefore more useful. And once I can recall I word, I can recognize it very easily, but not vice-versa. So I’d say do both, but spend more time on recall.

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  13. Angie says:

    Thanks. My husband has just accepted an assignment from our church in Brazil for hte next few years. We’re leaving in a couple of months so we’re trying to learn Portuguese as quickly as possible. This is a great help!

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