The smart way to learn English vocabulary -5 tips

“Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

You may be familiar with this proverb… I’ve mentioned it in my videos before. I think it’s particularly relevant when talking about how to learn vocabulary. The YouTube videos I make and the flash cards I share are the “fish” in this analogy: they’re useful and will help you in the short term, but what you’ll really benefit from in the long term is undestanding how to learn new words and phrases.

So, here are some tips.

1. Context

Context is key in vocabulary learning. Just finding the definition of a word or the translation into your own language is simply not enough. You need to find examples of the word/phrase used in context in order to get a deeper understanding of the usage of collocations, prepositions and grammar around the word and its various possible meanings.

Google the word and look up the results in the news section… do the same in Twitter to see how different people have used the words in different situations… ask Chat GPT to give examples… there are myriad ways to see vocabulary in context nowadays. And, most importantly, READ regulary!

2. Emotional Connection

I repeat this all the time in my videos for a reason… it works! When you make an emotional connection with something you’re trying to learn, you have a much better chance of remembering it. So, when you come up with your own example for a word/phrase, make it personal. 

Compare: “The student was elated when the teacher gave her the book.” and “My girlfriend (even better if you use her real name) was elated when I gave her the ring that she saw in the shop on our first date.”

Which example will give help you remember the word “elated”? 

3. Be Selective

Let’s be honest, you’re not going to learn every word in the Oxford English dictionary, let alone the idioms, fixed phrases and technical jargon. So, you’ll need to be selective. Don’t waste time and energy on words and phrases that you’re probably never going to use in your life. If you read a particularly technical article on a very specific topic, use your common sense to decide which words are worth making an effort to learn and which are not. Extra tip: Use Google Ngram Viewer to check the usage of different words over time.

4. Spaced Repetition

Spaced repetition is a technique which has been scientifically proven to increase you chances of remembering new words and phrases. In fact, many popular language learning apps use this method in their programs.

The basic idea is to revise the words you’ve learnt over fixed time intervals in order to cement them in your memory. The length of the interval extends the more you revise the given words (eg, 2 days, 1 week, 2 weeks, 1 months etc) and words that you struggle to remember the most should be repeated more regularly. The most important and fundamental take away from this is that learning a new word once and never seeing it again makes it highly unlikely that you remember it in the long term.

5. Use it or Lose it!

Obvious? Perhaps. But very important and it’s possible that you’re not doing it enough. “But I don’t have anyone to practise my English with!”. Then, write! Using vocabulary is not only about speaking… you can write short stories or articles for yourself to practise using the vocabulary in context. Or, write comments in forums or in the YouTube comments section. Be proactive and look for opportunites!

And… one last tip: Enjoy it!

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