Learning in phrases

This is an expanded and revised version of a recent tumblr post I made. If you like this site please consider supporting me on Ko-fi!

I see a lot of vocabulary lists and rarely find them useful, except as a reminder of words I’d forgotten. Without any other context a word will slip quickly from my memory. What is much more useful is to learn words as part of phrases – ideally as part of phrases you have heard or read, or possibly created yourself. I use the word “phrase” vaguely here to mean a memorable string of words. When I speak in my own language I often notice that my speech is just collections of learnt/altered phrases – pretty unoriginal but super useful!

Collecting phrases may seem like an extra step in your way to learning vocabulary quickly, but it is really helpful in a few different ways. If I use the phrase “я ненавижу свою работу” (I hate my job) to remember the word “работа” it does three things: firstly, it helps me remember the word with a context, meaning that I am much more likely to remember the word in future – if I need the word on its own it may take me a half moment longer to extract it from the sentence, but I have a much smaller chance of completely forgetting it.

Secondly, it helps me to remember a number of grammatical points with a natural rhythm – I remember to say свою (one’s) instead of моя (my), and I get a feel for the appropriate word endings when saying that I hate something. In Russian more than any other language I have studied, I have not terribly had terrific success with conjugation tables, so listening for rhythm combined with this more active noticing has been really useful for me.

And thirdly, building off the second point, it helps to build up a repertoire of phrases from which I can swap out the verb, the noun, or both on demand. This means that I can quickly form new sentences without having to actively recall different grammatical points. Even for people whose comprehension and grammatical understanding is advanced this can speed up speaking.

I hope that by now the merits of learning phrases are clear! I’ll lay out a quick methodology below. I have found it very enjoyable to be active in my collection of phrases because it means a lot of rewatching movies and TV shows I love, and also because progress is exciting! The third step is great for actually being able to recall and use these words in conversation rather than unnecessarily sticking with simpler vocabulary. As ever, best practice is the practice you are motivated to do.

  1. Watch/read something interesting, ideally something you already know and enjoy (because it makes it more memorable).
  2. When you come across a phrase that has one or two new words in it, write it down. I have only done this with one or two new words at a time more because of practicality rather than efficacy  feel free to experiment.
  3. You can pause watching or reading now, or collect a number of these and wait until the end. Either way, it is good to activate your knowledge of the new words by creating your own sentences with them. This may require some googling for usage, that’s fine! I would advise that you avoid complicating it with every usage and just stick to things close to the phrase you took.

OK, I hope that’s useful! For a brief example of how I do this in practice, check out this tumblr post in which I show you using my millionth rewatch of Kal Ho Naa Ho.


This blog uses affiliate links – if you click on one and go on to buy something I will get a small commision, at no extra cost to you. You may have noticed that there actually weren’t any links to products in this post! Well, that gives me the perfect excuse to recommend a book that is not really to do with languages at all! Allow me to introduce (if you aren’t already acquainted) Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. It’s real interesting.


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