Published: May 8, 2023 | By: Lucas Weaver
Learning a new language can be intimidating, especially in the beginning, and especially for busy adults who have limited time to devote to studying. The best way to set yourself up for success is to start small and make some early wins that will give you some momentum to continue your studies.
One of the most vital components of learning a new language is vocabulary. It’s also one of the most natural places to start, considering that you can’t speak a language if you don’t know any words.
Learning vocabulary takes effort and dedicated study time, as memorizing vocabulary is an intensive mental process in the brain. However, there are some techniques and tools that can make the process easier and more efficient.
One such tool is the word web, a type of semantic network that can help you organize and visualize vocabulary words in a foreign language. In this blog post, I'll show you how to use word webs to learn new vocabulary in a foreign language, using Vietnamese as an example.
A word web, technically known as a “semantic web” or “word map”, is a type of semantic network that represents the relationships between different words and concepts in a visual and organized way.
In a word web, each word or phrase is represented as a node, and the relationships between those words are represented as links between those nodes. Word webs can help you visualize how different words are related to each other and how they are used in different contexts.
By using word webs to visualize your vocabulary, you can build a better understanding of how different words fit into the broader context of the language and improve your ability to use those words in meaningful ways.
This will greatly help you reduce your dependence on translation. By linking vocabulary words in a foreign language to other words in that language, rather than the translations in your native language, you will build connections between words in your target language that will make it easier to think of words when you need them.
This drastically reduces the “thinking of words” problem that people face when they’re trying to reach fluency.
Now that you understand the value of word webs and the concept of semantic networks, let’s go step by step through the process of making a word web and using it to learn new vocabulary.
The first step in creating a word web is to identify the main concept or idea you want to focus on. For example, I’m currently in Hanoi trying to learn Vietnamese vocabulary related to ordering coffee at cafes. So for my main concept, I’m simply going with “coffee”, which in Vietnamese is “cà phê.”
Step 2: List Out Vocabulary Words
The next step is to list out all of the vocabulary words and phrases you already know related to your main concept.
For example, in our coffee ordering example, you might start with words like "coffee", “cafe”, "milk", "sugar", "iced coffee", "hot coffee", "espresso", "latte", "cappuccino", "brewed coffee", "to-go", "mug", "stirrer", "order", “please”, “thank you”, "menu", "cashier", "table", "chair", "customer", "barista", "tip", etc.
The point here is just to get out as many words as you can in the beginning related to the concept so that you can narrow the list down to a specific group of related words that you can learn and connect together in your web.
Don’t worry too much at this point about whether each word is relevant enough or not.
Once you have your list of vocabulary words, you can start grouping them into related categories. For example, in our coffee ordering example, you might create categories for different types of coffee, such as "espresso", "latte", and "cappuccino", or a category for different coffee additives, such as "milk" and "sugar". Other categories might include "ordering", "payment", "seating", "people", and so on.
I’ve decided to list out the primary options of coffees I could order at the cafe I’m in now based on what’s on the menu, and then any questions the barista might ask me when I order.
You can see that I’ve got “milk coffee”, “egg coffee”, “hot”, “iced”, “for here” and “to-go”, all in their Vietnamese forms. I’ve also added emojis to make it easier for myself to remember them, still without translating.
Step 4: Think of other words you might need related to these words
The goal now is to start building out our web of words using natural context and related words. I’ll start by browsing my list and seeing what other words I might use with some of these I’ve already listed.
For example, I have the words “hot” and “iced”. What other words might these go with besides coffee? Well, tea is a very easy one that comes to mind quickly. So I’ll build out another web with tea-related words.
You can see I’ve added “green tea” and “black tea.” But I’ve also drawn the connections between “hot tea” and “iced tea.”
Taking it a step further, I looked at “egg” and made the connection to “fried rice.” (Which is great for breakfast if you’ve never tried it by the way.)
Now you’re starting to see how these webs can quickly expand.
As you continue to learn new vocabulary words, you can add additional levels to your word-web. For example, you might create a category of “people”, meaning the people you order from or who make the coffee, and then you can create subcategories within that.
This is helpful in a language like Vietnamese because you need different words when saying hello to or thanking a woman based on her age. You’ll also need different words for men.
So we could expand our word web to include the different words we would use depending on the age and gender of the person serving us.
Once you have your word web set up, use it as a tool to practice your vocabulary words in context. For example, you might create a mock conversation with a barista at a coffee shop, using the vocabulary words and phrases in your word web.
It’s helpful and effective to use role-playing in language learning. You can imagine yourself going into a cafe and thinking about all the directions a conversation might go, and then using your word web as a toolkit for finding the right vocabulary for each situation.
The more you practice using the words in context, the more natural they will feel, and the easier it will actually be to use the words in real-life situations.
You should understand by now that using word webs is a powerful way to learn vocabulary in a foreign language, especially for people who have limited time to study.
Many of us have this perception of not wanting to be an “overachiever” because of perceptions created in grade school. There’s a perception that there’s a normal amount of effort to put into learning something that is okay, and then there’s an extra level of effort that’s a bit “crazy” because it goes too far above and beyond.
But in reality, when you’re trying to learn a language as an adult, you need to understand how your brain works and take advantage of proven techniques that will help you to learn faster and retain knowledge longer.
Using a word web is not a weird overachiever technique. It’s simply a way to help your brain make more connections between words, allowing you to increase your comprehension and actually learn new words faster.
Ideally, the best way to learn a language for you should utilize science-based techniques like this in all areas of language learning. By starting with vocabulary and spending a little extra time making word webs, you’ll be well on your way toward your goal of language fluency.
Lucas Weaver founded The Weaver School in 2016. He's passionate about using the latest learnings in neuroscience and education to create the best language learning experience possible for our students, so they can quickly build effective language learning habits that will last for years. Lucas is a graduate of Texas A&M University and after 7 years of living in the Netherlands, he is currently traveling through Southeast Asia while learning their languages along the way.