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The Tri-fold: The Tedious But Effective Way to Learn Vocab

When it comes to learning a new language, first you get set up with the basics. “Hola! Cómo estás?” And then that’s basically all you remember ten years later. Oh, and maybe “baño” because that’s going to be important for when you go and vacation in Mexico one day.

Learning the vocabulary to be able to communicate in another language can sometimes seem overwhelming, especially when you’re already worrying about grammar and conjugating verbs properly. Luckily, early on in my language-learning experience I was taught about the tedious tri-fold exercise that has saved me three languages later. (Okay, so maybe 2.1 languages later since I only studied Cantonese for four months.) Oh, and it can help you ace your vocab quizzes.

The tri-fold exercise is a simple concept, but it combines tactile, visual, verbal, and auditory learning. And all you need is a piece of lined paper and a pencil. For those of you who are more confident in your abilities, you can use pen.

Next, you fold it into three sections longways so that there are three sections and two folds. Try your best to make the three sections as close to the same size as possible.

And here’s a picture of the three sections, if you were confused about what I was talking about before. (You’ll notice in the next picture that I messed up the size of the sections.)

Then, you’ll start in the first section and write down your vocab words in your native language. You’ll see I have three different languages represented on this page below because those are the three languages I’ve learned with the help of the tri-fold method. The headings (“Spanish”, “Portuguese”, “Cantonese”) aren’t necessary. They’re just to show which language I’ll be translating and practicing. In the next column, you’ll write the translation in the language you’re learning. You’ll notice that with Cantonese that I’ve filled out the third column as well; that’s because when I learned Cantonese, I had to learn the character as well as the romanized (English letters) written version of the word. The romanized version of the word was actually super helpful in learning the pronunciation though, so I wasn’t mad. Once you’ve done this, you’re ready for the part where you start learning.

Fold over the English words so that you can’t see them. All you’ll have is the foreign language version. Then you’ll go through your list of words and do your best to remember what the English translation is. Start by reading aloud the foreign word (ex: palomitas de maiz). Then write down the translation and say it aloud (ex: popcorn). If you can’t remember the English translation, take a quick peek, and then skip writing down the English translation, and come back to it at the end.

Once you’ve finished all the English translations, you’ll fold your paper so that you can only see the english translation and an empty section. Then, you’ll translate to the foreign language, following the same pattern of saying the words out loud (verbal and auditory) as you read them (visual) or write them (tactile).

You’ll notice for Cantonese that I went back to the English; so, next section would be the character, and then the last section the romanization. For Spanish and Portuguese I just alternate between English and the translations.

The tri-fold method isn’t fool-proof though. You could always cheat or just memorize which word is on which line. So mix things up a little and translate them out of order. Instead of doing a tri-fold, fold the paper into four or five sections so that you have extra practice without wasting another tree. And yes, this method is super tedious and takes forever, but it’s better than a flash card because you’re getting more practice in.

Did I still cry about how hard Cantonese was even though I used a tri-fold and aced my Cantonese quizzes? Yes. But at least I aced those quizzes.

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