I use Anki to increase my vocabulary in English (my second language) and French (my third language). Basically I enter all words I hear in any of these languages that I don't understand into Anki.

Now I have noticed that I make much more progress in French than in English and the reason for that is that I try to learn words in English whom's counterpart whose counterparts in my native language are not in my active vocabulary - and this makes it really hard to "answer" my Anki card when I bump into words like larynx or demur.

Obviously, I know these words when I read or hear them in my native language but I don't think I have ever written larynx in my native language (I searched for it in my sent folder in Gmail where the oldest message is from 2005, and that contains more than 26000 messages - not one hit), which makes it difficult to recall the correct word and "answer" Anki when it comes up.

I can, in my head, point out the larynx on the body when I see the word but since I have a hard time finding the corresponding word - I learn it "weakly", that is, sometimes I mix it up with other body parts, such as the vocal cords, that are in the same area of the body. Meanwhile, in French I might try to learn the word pouce (thumb). Obviously I have no problems with coming up with thumb when I see my pouce-card, because that is word I have known and used since before school.

Any suggestions on how to think about this? How can I, in the light of the description above, improve my English vocabulary to extend into the passive vocabulary in my native language?

  • 5
    Good question, but would you mind if I migrate it to [languagelearners.se]? It seems like a question not specific to English.
    – Glorfindel
    Oct 12, 2020 at 13:46
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    One thing that you can do with Anki is to include pictures. That may help with words that do not exist or you rarely use in your native language.
    – JavaLatte
    Oct 12, 2020 at 13:56
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    You could choose words to learn that are in reading material. A context is then supplied automatically. If there is some reason to learn anatomical terms like larynx, you could look for related terms, like laryngeal, laryngectomy, and laryngitis. "Larynx" is the same Latin word in French, too. Sometimes, if you look up the etymology of the word (simple google search word:etymology), that will increase the associations you have for the word. Oct 12, 2020 at 15:30
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    FWIW, even as a native speaker, there’s a huge number of words that I recognize (or can figure out in context) but don’t know well enough to use myself, at least without checking a dictionary first, mostly because I never need to use them. There’s nothing wrong with that.
    – StephenS
    Oct 12, 2020 at 15:59
  • @JavaLatte Pictures makes it too easy. I have tried it a couple of times and it is almost like cheating. Besides, how do you find a picture for "conciliatory"?
    – d-b
    Oct 12, 2020 at 19:20

1 Answer 1


This site doesn't have tags distinguishing between vocabulary (the words you know the meaning of when you read or hear them) and diction (the words you use when you write or speak).

I get the impression that you are more concerned with your diction. E.g. when you read the word "larynx", you know what it means, but when you want to talk about that part of your throat you can't think of that word.

This is completely normal for everyone in every language. We all use only a subset of the words that we know the meaning of.

Practice writing (or talking) about subjects that you don't normally deal with, and force yourself to use words you don't normally use. You'll initially spend a lot of time looking up words based on their meaning (or the word you know in some other language).

When you look at ordinary things, try naming all their parts or potential actions or uses.

There's a window; it is double-hung; each of its 2 sashes has 6 lights separated by muntins (much nicer than the GBG so many people are installing lately); strangely, its sill and lintel are painted different colours; the left side of the frame has a mullion separating it from the widow beside it. … .

And it doesn't have to be only nouns. Look at a people and describe their expressions and what emotions you think they are feeling. Imagine describing unusual things they did this morning.

The more you use these new words, the more readily they'll start to appear among the words you naturally use. (Try not to become pretentious and pedantic with it though.)

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