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When you begin learning a language, it is a struggle to understand even simple dialogues. You need to learn around 1000 words to reach a basic conversational level.
However, you are past that stage by now. At intermediate or upper-intermediate level, your goal should be to widen your vocabulary in order to help you express yourself better.
As an English teacher, I have helped many students with this process. But I’m also a language learner, so I can understand the process from the learner’s point of view.
Drawing on this experience, I have some practical tips and innovative strategies to share with you.
We can think of vocabulary as building blocks
If we think of vocabulary as the building blocks of a language, the more blocks you have, the more you can build.
Some blocks are more beautiful than others. If we have these, we can build a more beautiful building!
And sometimes, we can’t find the block that we’re looking for, and our building has a hole in it!
A building block is not always a word
It is fine to learn new words, but it is even more important to see how words go together. To achieve this, we can learn ‘chunks’ of vocabulary.
For example, you might read the following: Joanne’s diet was a partial success. Her goal was to lose 30 kilograms, but she only lost 20.
Maybe partial is a new word for you. It’s quite simple to guess the meaning: not quite 100%. However, it is more important to see how it is used.
Instead of thinking of ‘partial’ as a new word, you should think of ‘a partial success’ as a new building block in your vocabulary.
A quick Google search will show that it is a common phrase that people use.
Remember that matching words together is an important concept in English. We call this collocation.
What about this sentence? Can we learn any new vocabulary from it?
The effect of the medicine slowly wore off and my headache returned.
I found that many of my students would look at a sentence like this and say that there is no new vocabulary here - they know all the words.
However, even though they know the word “wore” and the word “off”, they often do not know the meaning of the phrasal verb “wore off”.
Remember, when words are used in combination with other words, the meaning can be completely different from the component words.
Active and passive vocabulary: the words you use vs. the words you know
I often have conversations with my students like this:
Student: Teacher, what is another word for ‘excellent’?
Me: How about… fantastic?
Student: Of course! Actually, I already knew that word. Why couldn’t I think of it myself?
If you experience this, don’t panic! It’s perfectly normal.
We have a bank of words that we know and that we recognise when we see them. This is our passive vocabulary.
Then, we have a bank of words that we can use in our speech or writing. This is our active vocabulary.
It is absolutely normal that your active vocabulary is much smaller than your passive vocabulary.
This is true for native speakers, too.
For example, George, a native speaker, recognises the word ‘asynchronous’. He knows that it means something like “not at the same time”.
If he looked it up in the dictionary he’d see the definition as “not existing or occurring at the same time”.
But he never uses this word himself, and he might say “happening at the same time” because he can’t remember the word “asynchronous”.
There is an important tip here - one way to improve your vocabulary is to move more words from your passive vocabulary to your active vocabulary. This way, you can improve your English vocabulary without even learning new words!
For example, instead of saying something is very big, take a moment to think of a better word from your passive vocabulary list. Synonyms for very big include huge, massive, enormous and giant.
It is important to keep encountering new words
Words can have subtle meanings. (If something is subtle, it is difficult to understand 100% because the meaning is not obvious.)
Let’s take the phrasal verb “doze off”. It looks like it means to fall asleep:
Pete dozed off on the train. He woke up ten minutes later.
So can we say the following?
I’m going to bed to doze off.
No! In fact, “doze off” has a more subtle meaning. It means to fall asleep for a short time (and usually not on purpose).
Hence, you might doze off on a train, but you wouldn’t go to bed to doze off.
Many English words have subtle meanings like this. You may only understand them when they are used in context and you may need to see or hear them more than once to get the full meaning.
Hence, it is important to keep encountering new words - and to hear them multiple times. When you feel comfortable with a new word, you can move it from your passive vocabulary into your active vocabulary.
Is reading the best way to learn new words, or is listening the best way?
Reading is an extremely effective method of picking up new vocabulary. The advantage is that you have time to study the vocabulary item in its context.
You can see how it is used, whether it is a verb or noun, which words match the new word and so on.
I recommend reading short stories, such as the Chicken Soup series. Use a highlighter to mark out new words, so that you can revisit them later.
If you like to read things online, you can copy and paste them into a document for reference later.
If you prefer to work with audio, I recommend learning vocabulary through podcasts and videos. There are advantages to both formats.
On the one hand, videos add visual context.
For example, if you read the word “shallot” (a kind of onion), you may guess the meaning. However, if you watch a cooking video, you can see what the chef is chopping and you can be 100% sure that you know what a shallot is.
The disadvantage of videos is that you don’t get the spelling of the vocabulary item. However, many videos, such as TED talks, do offer transcripts so that you can check how the word is written.
Always look for videos with transcripts, but be careful of computer-generated transcripts, which may not be accurate.
Podcasts are fun to listen to and offer a great way to learn new vocabulary through listening. You can listen on the bus, while driving or while working out in the gym!
They do not offer visual context, like videos do. However, this can actually be a benefit since you will be more focused on the sound and pronunciation of the words.
Keep a notebook handy, and write down the entire sentence or phrase when you hear a new word.
That’s the vocabulary input; don’t forget the output
Reading and listening provide input for your vocabulary. However, without output, new words and phrases will remain passive vocabulary.
We don’t want that. We want to strengthen our active vocabulary.
To do this, we simply need to use the new vocabulary in our speaking or writing. We should do this as soon as possible after learning a new vocabulary item.
One simple way to do this is by repeating or summarising an article or podcast. You could write a summary, or you could record a summary with a microphone.
Next, you could check your summary against the original article to make sure that you didn’t miss any points.
Then, try to use the new vocabulary items in your conversation.
You should also make sure you write in English.
Podcasts can be an excellent “trigger” to provide subjects to write about. For example, if you listen to a podcast on climate change, you could then write a blog article about your own feelings on the subject. Try to use some of the language you picked up in the podcast.
Or you could go on social media and engage in discussions on the topic in English.
If you're interested in using podcasts to improve your English vocabulary, you can listen to this podcast episode on How To Use Podcasts to Improve Your English.
Memorising vocabulary lists is not the best way to learn vocabulary
We are all familiar with vocabulary lists. You see them in the back of textbooks. You can see them online. Your teachers gave them to you at school. They must be the best way to learn vocabulary, right?
A vocabulary list is just that: a list of words with no context.
It is much better to encounter new vocabulary “in the wild”, through reading and listening.
Make your own, personal vocabulary lists
Despite what I just mentioned, vocabulary lists can actually be a fantastic tool - if you make them yourself using the following method.
First, buy a simple notebook.
Then, let’s say that you come across a new word. In fact, it may even be a familiar word used in a different way:
George is partial to a good sandwich, especially if it contains tuna.
It’s the word ‘partial’ again, but it clearly has a different meaning this time. We can guess the meaning is ‘likes’ or ‘fond of’ and we can verify this with an online dictionary.
How should you write it down in your notebook? With the definition in your own language? With the definition in English?
I recommend that you write out the entire sentence, or perhaps just the phrase containing the vocabulary, with the vocabulary item underlined. Like this:
George is partial to a good sandwich.
This way, when you review the vocabulary, you will once again view the item in context. If you have forgotten the meaning, you will be forced to guess again from the context.
This is a powerful, but natural, way to retain vocabulary.
My next tip is to keep more than one vocabulary list.
It is very useful to keep themed lists. Here are some examples:
- A main vocabulary list
- A list of idioms
- A list of phrasal verbs
- A list of business words
- A list of sentence starters
- A list of ways to give or ask for opinions
- A list of words that you find hard to remember
- A list of words and phrases that you particularly like
If you follow this method, your simple vocabulary notebook will become a powerful tool in your English learning toolbox.
Finding the meaning with Google
Sometimes, you will not be able to guess the meaning of a word from the sentence.
In this case, I recommend using Google’s built-in dictionary to find the meaning.
Simply type in DEFINE + [new word] and you will see something like this:
We can use a Google Image search to see exactly what it is:
Online dictionaries are great, but it is often faster and easier to use these simple Google tools.
Be proactive in your learning
My last tip for you is really a summary of everything we have covered: you need to be proactive.
Don’t think your vocabulary will improve quickly just from speaking to people in English. Especially if you mainly speak to non-native speakers, they will likely be using regular words and phrases that you already know.
- Read and listen to English content
- Always look out for new vocabulary that you can learn
- Learn vocabulary in chunks whenever possible
- Move vocabulary from your ‘passive’ bank to your ‘active’ bank
- Find ways to use new vocabulary in your writing and speaking
- Use a ‘smart notebook’ to keep a record of new vocabulary
The Oxford English Dictionary has more than 600,000 words in it.
You don’t need to know all of them (and indeed only 10,000 is considered to be “fluent”), but if you use these tips and tricks then you will learn, remember, and be able to use new words in English faster and more effectively than ever before.