Snap Language

Getting Smarter through Language

7 Tips for Learning Vocabulary

Beginner Reading Level

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Marc Franco

This article is also available at an intermediate reading level.

An 8-minute read

Learning vocabulary in a new language is difficult because you need to remember thousands of new words to communicate well.

Let’s look at some tips to help you learn vocabulary.

This article is for English-language learners, but the tips and techniques in it can help you improve your vocabulary in any language.

Tip 1: Pay Attention to New Words... Be Curious

To communicate better, you need to learn new words, but you must be curious about new words. If you are not curious about something, you probably will not learn it.

Some people learn 1,000 to 2,000 words and stop learning. They can communicate using those words, so they stop paying attention to new words. If you do not care about learning new words, you probably will not.

Pay attention to new words, be curious about words, and enjoy learning them.

Tip 2: Do Not Get Obsessed over Vocabulary

The opposite of having no interest in learning vocabulary is becoming obsessed over it.

When you obsess over something, it is very possible that you will get stressed out and frustrated. Then you will not want to learn vocabulary anymore.

Besides, learning vocabulary is only one part of learning a language. Do not get so obsessed with vocabulary that you forget other parts of the language.

When you work on other language skills, your vocabulary will improve, too. For example, when you read, you see vocabulary words you do not know. When you read frequently, you may see those words again and again until you end up learning them.

“Knowing” a lot of words is no good if you do not have the other skills that you need to use those words to communicate well.

Tip 3: Learn Words and Expressions in Context (Reading, Writing, Listening, Speaking)

Learning in Context

Learning long word lists is okay, but it takes a lot of energy and concentration. Make it easy on yourself and learn words in context whenever possible. Language textbooks generally introduce vocabulary in dialogs or short passages so that you learn new words the way they are used in the language.

If you look at a word list, it may be difficult to understand and remember each word later.

When you see or hear a new word in context, the word makes sense, you know how it is used, and it is easier to remember it later.

Where to Find Vocabulary in Context

There are ways of finding vocabulary in context when you engage in active and passive activities. Passive activities are those where you see how other people use vocabulary; active ways are those where you you the words yourself. Here are some ways to find it:

Passive ways

  • Studying your language textbook or any textbooks you choose to use;
  • Reading materials you choose (web sites, novels, the news, and so on);
  • Watching materials you choose (movies, the news on TV, YouTube videos, and so on);
  • Listening to materials you choose (podcasts, radio, music, and so on).

Active ways

  • Speaking about a variety of topics whenever possible and paying attention to the vocabulary people use.
  • Writing about topics you choose (keeping a journal, writing a blog, and so on), trying to use the words you are learning and looking up words you do not know.

Snap Language (and Snap Language Learner) is always developing (or building) new materials for English-language learners. Take a look at our reading materials and YouTube videos.

Context of Language and Culture

Another reason to learn vocabulary in context is that a language exists in a social and cultural context. When you learn vocabulary in context, you also learn in what social and cultural context words and expressions are used.

See Level of Formality in American Language and Culture for more information on this topic.

Vocabulary as Expressions

You can learn some words by themselves (for example, dog, rain, or desk). However, words are part of an expression. For example, you should learn the verb “agree” the way it is used: you agree with someone on something as in the sentence

“I agree with you on this topic.”

In addition, if you learn a new adjective, learn its comparative and superlative forms; if you learn a new verb, learn its forms and prepositions that go with it; and so on.

You can usually find this type of information in a good dictionary, which should include examples of how to use the word in context. (We will discuss that in Tip 5 later.)

Tip 4: Focus on Useful Words First

Especially when you are still developing your language skills, learn the vocabulary you need to communicate your ideas well. What you need is different for each person because people have different interests.

For example, if you are learning English to have informal conversations, focus on vocabulary that people use everyday. If you are also learning English to read about history, science, music, and so on, you should focus on vocabulary you need for those topics.

Do not waste much energy memorizing words that are not very common or that you will almost never use. You can learn those later as you develop fluency.

Tip 5: Use a Good Dictionary but Learn How to Use it

Some dictionaries are very good; others, not so much. A good dictionary gives you clear definitions and example sentences so that you know how to use the words.

A good dictionary also shows you how to pronounce the words. Many dictionaries use the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) to show the pronunciation.

What does the IPA look like? For example, in IPA they transcribe the words “apple” and “back” as /ˈæpəl/ and /bæk/. Each time you see the symbol æ in a dictionary that uses the IPA, you will know how it should sound.

You can learn IPA by yourself. Many online dictionaries let you listen to the pronunciation of words. Look at the IPA transcription and listen to the pronunciation. With practice, you will learn how to pronounce new words just by looking at the IPA symbols.

A dictionary is an important tool for language learners. Make sure it is a good dictionary and that you know how to use it.

Snap Language Learner is creating videos about the IPA. If you are interested in learning it, check out our lessons on Listening and Speaking.

Tip 6: Keep Track of Your New Words

Many language learners (or students) list in a notebook the vocabulary they are learning. This can be very useful. Keeping a notebook helps you find the words easily. It also forces you to write down the words so you practice spelling.

If you decide to keep a notebook, write down the word, the meaning, and one or two example sentences.

Review your vocabulary frequently. This way, you will know which words you still need to memorize.

Writing new words down and reviewing them can help you remember them.

7. Create Your Own Vocabulary-Learning Technique

We are all different. What works for one person may not work for another. Try different things to learn vocabulary, and see what works well for you.

Use your own technique. Just make sure you do not forget there are other language skills you need to learn, too.

Enjoy Learning Vocabulary... and Everything Else

I hope these tips and ideas help you learn vocabulary. Remember that learning a new language takes time. You need to work hard and sometimes it can get frustrating. That is why it is also important to enjoy the language.

Sometimes you work hard on the language. But then you need to just enjoy using the language without thinking about the “right” words, the “right” pronunciation, or the “right” grammar. Just enjoy yourself and your new language.

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