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Learning strange new words boosts long-term vocabulary

Learning words that are similar to the learner’s native language is easier in the short term, but learning less-familiar words pays off over the longer term, according to a study from Northwestern University and the University of Kansas in the US.

When learning any new language, some words may seem familiar due to the pattern of the letters and/or the sound being similar to words in the student’s native language. Some of these are ‘false friends’, such as Rat in German, which means ‘advice’. Learners seem to pick up these familiar words more easily, but does this enable or interfere with long- term vocabulary acquisition?

The US team put this to the test by recruiting 38 English-speaking university students to learn sets of pseudowords from computer- generated languages. The students were divided into two groups and each group was given a list of 48 five-letter words to learn.

One group was given a list of words with letter patterns similar to English, eg, ‘haner’, meaning ‘bride’ while the other group had less-familiar looking and sounding words, eg, ‘vobaf’, meaning ‘cloud’.

After learning the new words, the students were tested by giving them the meanings and asking them to supply the new word. Unsurprisingly, students learning the more familiar words scored significantly higher on this test.

Two weeks later, the students were given new lists of 48 words. For each group, the new list of words was related to the first list by making letter substitutions, eg, ‘hajer’ and ‘tobaf’.

This time when the students were tested, there was no difference in scores between the two groups. But this does not mean that there was no difference in how successful the two groups were in learning the new vocabulary overall.

In the second lists, the words were selected to be equally similar to English for both groups, so any advantage could not be due to direct similarity to English for one group compared to the other (unlike the first test scores).

In the second test, the students who had learned the initially unfamiliar words were significantly more likely to recall the second set of related words. This suggests that if students pay the initial cost in terms of effort to learn less-familiar vocabulary, they will reap the later benefit of being able to acquire additional vocabulary more easily.


  • Marian V, Bartolotti J, van den Berg AandHayakawaS(2021)Costsand Benefits of Native Language Similarity for Non-native Word Learning. Frontiers in Psychology 12:651506. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.651506
Image courtesy of PHOTO FROM PEXELS.COM
Gill Ragsdale
Gill Ragsdale
Gill has a PhD in Evolutionary Psychology from Cambridge, and teaches Psychology with the Open University, but also holds an RSA-Cert TEFL. Gill has taught EFL in the UK, Turkey, Egypt and to the refugees in the Calais 'Jungle' in France. She currently teaches English to refugees in the UK.
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