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Getting Smarter through Language

7 Tips for Learning Vocabulary

Intermediate Reading Level

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Marc Franco

This article is also available at a basic reading level.

A 12-minute read

Learning vocabulary in a new language is difficult because of the sheer number of new words you need to know to communicate fairly well. If you want to communicate at a more advanced level, you need to learn even more words with multiple meanings and usage.

This article has some useful tips and techniques for vocabulary learning. Although it is written for English-language learners (ELLs), these tips and techniques apply to learning vocabulary in any language, even your native language.

Tip 1: Pay Attention to and Be Curious about New Words

It may seem fairly obvious that, to learn anything, you must be interested in it. Your motivation (or lack of motivation) to learn new vocabulary will affect the results.

To improve your communication skills, you need to learn new words. People who have good vocabulary can express themselves and understand others better. However, unless you are curious about vocabulary, you probably will not even pay attention to them and will not feel motivated to learn new words effectively.

If you are not motivated to learn vocabulary, take some time to ask yourself why not. Perhaps you are making it too difficult on yourself. Maybe your previous vocabulary-learning experiences were frustrating or unproductive. Do you think it is important at all to improve your vocabulary?

Getting complacent plays a role among language learners, too. When some people learn about a couple of thousand words, they get comfortable communicating their ideas, so they stop paying attention to new words. When you stop caring about learning new words, your vocabulary will likely to stay the same size.

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

Tip 2: Do Not Get Obsessed with Vocabulary

On the one hand, people may start not caring about learning new vocabulary. On the other hand, becoming obsessed over it can produce negative outcomes , too.

Once you get obsessed over vocabulary, you will likely get stressed out and frustrated. As a result, you will not want to learn vocabulary anymore.

In addition, keep in mind that learning vocabulary is only one part of learning a language. Some students get so obsessed with vocabulary that they forget other important language skills such as fluency, listening, reading, writing, and so on.

In fact, working on other language skills results in improved vocabulary, too. For example, language learners who read and write frequently tend to know more words than those who do not.

“Knowing” a lot of words is useless if you lack the other skills necessary for effective communication.

Tip 3: Learn Words and Expressions in Context

Learning in Context

Learning long vocabulary lists is fine if you enjoy doing it; however, it takes a lot of time and effort and can get boring after a while. Make it easier on yourself by learning words in context whenever possible.

There is a reason language textbooks generally introduce vocabulary in dialogs or reading passages rather than word lists. The authors present the new words in context so students see how words are actually used in the language.

In addition, you are more likely to remember words you learned in context. In fact, you can even understand words you have never seen because you can get their meaning from the context.

When you read or hear new words in context, you can figure out their meanings, know how they are used, and remember them more easily later.

Where to Find Vocabulary in Context

You can find vocabulary in context through active and passive engagement. Opportunities for active learning engagement are those in which you use vocabulary yourself. In passive engagement, you are exposed to the vocabulary others use. Here are some ways to find vocabulary used in context:

Generally passive engagement

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

Generally active engagement

  • Speaking about a variety of topics, paying attention to the vocabulary people use, and trying to use the new vocabulary yourself when the opportunity presents itself.
  • Writing about topics you choose whenever possible (e.g., keeping a journal, writing a blog, creating short stories, using social media platforms, and so on). Make sure you use the words you are learning and look up words you do not know to express your ideas accurately.
  • (Whatever you do, just make sure focus on communicating your ideas as well as you can; do not get obsessed with vocabulary.)

Nothing is always completely active or completely passive. For example, you can not only passively listen to a podcast but also engage actively by

  • taking notes,
  • writing down sentences using words you did not know,
  • summarizing the information in writing,
  • discussin the content with others,
  • and so on.

Snap Language (and Snap Language Learner) is building a collection of materials for English-language learners. Take a look at our reading materials and YouTube videos. They can be a good source of activities to engage in the language learning process.

Vocabulary as Expressions

You can learn some simple words by themselves (for example, dog, storm, or desk). However, words are usually part of expressions or phrases.

For example, you should learn the verb “prevent” and the noun “interest” the way they are used:

to prevent something from happening

an interest in something or someone.

Then you can create sentences such as these:

Bad weather prevented us from having the concert outdoors.

How can we prevent young people from losing interest in math and science?

When learning words that are parts of expressions such as those above, you should always learn the whole construction. Likewise when you learn a new adjective, learn its comparative and superlative forms; when you learn a new noun, learn its singular and plural form and any 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

Learning a language takes time, so use your time wisely. Especially when you are still developing your language skills, your main focus should be on learning the vocabulary you need to communicate your ideas effectively.

People have different interests and learn the language for different purposes; therefore, they have different needs. You should learn the words that meet your own needs. For example,

  • if you are learning English to have informal conversations, you should focus on vocabulary for everyday conversations;
  • if you are also learning English to communicate about history, science, music, and so on, you should focus on the vocabulary you are likely to need in those subjects.

Do not waste time and effort trying to memorize uncommon words you are unlikely to use. You can learn those later as you develop your language skills.

Tip 5: Learn How to Use a Good Dictionary

Not all dictionaries are the same. Make sure to use a good dictionary that meets your needs.

  • A good dictionary gives you clear, easy-to-understand definitions.
  • A good dictionary gives you example sentences showing how to use the words you are looking up.
  • A good dictionary shows you how to pronounce words. Choose one that uses the International Phonetic Alphabet. (See “Note about IPA” below this list.)
  • A good dictionary gives you many definitions and example sentences for words that have multiple meanings. This way, you find the specific definition of the word you are looking up in a particular context.

Note about IPA

Many dictionaries use the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) to show the pronunciation of words. The IPA uses a set of symbols to represent speech sounds.

For example, in IPA the words ago” and “opinion” are transcribed as /əˈgoʊ/ and /əˈpɪnjən/. Each time you see the symbol /ə/ in a dictionary using 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.

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

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

Tip 6: Keep Track of Your New Words

Many language learners keep a notebook to list and review the vocabulary they are learning. Keeping a notebook helps you find the words easily and forces you to write down the words, which helps you remember their spelling.

If you decide to keep a notebook,

  • write down the word, the meaning, and one or two example sentences;
  • if you are familiar with IPA, write the pronunciation of key words,
  • review your vocabulary frequently. This way, you can cross out the ones you already know well and keep reviewing the ones you still need to memorize.

Instead of a notebook, you can also create flash cards. On one side of the card, write the word or expression. On the other side, write the same information listed above. One advantage of using flash cards is that you can put away words you already know well and add new words to your set as needed.

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

7. Create Your Own Vocabulary-Learning Technique

We are all different. What works for you may not work for someone else. Try different ways to learn vocabulary, and decide on what works well for you.

Keep an open mind. Find out what works for other people, and give it a try yourself.

When you do try something new, give yourself enough time to get used to it. After a while, stop doing it if you think it is not working (perhaps because it is frustrating or because it is making you obsess over vocabulary).

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

Enjoy Learning... Always

I hope you have found these vocabulary-learning tips and ideas useful. Remember that learning a new language takes time. You need to work hard and sometimes it can be frustrating (even when you are doing everything right). That’s why it’s also important to enjoy the language-learning process.

Although learning vocabulary is important, don’t forget 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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