Snap Language

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 you need to remember thousands of new words to communicate well.

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

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

To improve your communication skills, you need to learn new words. People who have good vocabulary can express themselves and understand others better. However, you must be curious about vocabulary to motivate yourself to learn new words effectively.

If you are not motivated to learn vocabulary, you should take some time to ask yourself why not. Perhaps you are making it too difficult on yourself, or perhaps you never really though it was that important.

When some people learn about a couple of thousand words, they get comfortable communicating their ideas, so they stop paying attention to new words. If you do not care about learning new words, you probably will not.

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

Tip 2: Do Not Get Obsessed over Vocabulary

The opposite of not caring about learning vocabulary is becoming obsessed over it. Once you get obsessed over vocabulary, it is very possible you will get stressed out and frustrated. As a result, you will not want to learn vocabulary anymore.

Besides, 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, when you work on other language skills, your vocabulary will improve, too.

“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 okay, but it takes a lot of time and effort. Make it easier on yourself by learning words in context whenever possible.

Language textbooks generally introduce vocabulary in dialogs or reading passages rather than word lists so that new words are presented in context. They want to you see how words are actually used in the language.

In addition, words are easier to remember when they are learned in context. You can even understand words you have never seen because the context makes their meaning clear.

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

You can find vocabulary in context by engaging in active and passive activities. Active ways are those in which you use vocabulary yourself; passive ways are those in which you are exposed to the vocabulary others use themselves. Here are some ways to find vocabulary used in context:

Generally passive ways

  • 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 ways

  • Speaking about a variety of topics and paying attention to the vocabulary people use.
  • Writing about topics you choose whenever (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.

The above activities are not always “only active” or “only passive.” When you listen to a podcast, for example, you can engage more actively participate in the actively by writing down sentences using words you did not know, summarizing the information in writing, speaking to others about the content, 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.

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 “agree” and the noun “problem” the way they are used:

to agree with someone on something
to be interested in something or someone.

Then you can create sentences such as these:

Do you agree with me?
I do, but I am not really interested in politics.

You should learn expressions when learning different types of words. When you learn a new adjective, learn its comparative and superlative forms; when you learn a new verb, learn its forms (infinitive, past, and past participle) 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, focus on learning the vocabulary you need to communicate your ideas effectively. People have different interests and learn the language for different purposes; therefore, they need to learn different vocabulary words.

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 or words you are unlikely to use. You can learn those later as you develop fluency.

Tip 5: Learn How to Use a Good Dictionary

Not all dictionaries are good. Make sure to use a good dictionary for 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, if you are looking a word up, you can also find the definition you need to understand the word the way you read or heard it.

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 study the vocabulary they are learning. 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 can cross out the ones you already know well and keep reviewing the ones you still need to memorize.

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 one person may not work for the next. Try different ways to learn vocabulary, and see what works well for you.

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

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 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 be frustrating. That is why it is also important to enjoy the language.

Learning new vocabulary is important, but make sure you make time 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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