The Truth About Learning Vocabulary – 3 essential steps

It’s impossible to reach a truly advanced level of English without living in an English-speaking country.

What a load of CODSWALLOP! I’ve heard that so often over the years and it’s something that really frustrates and annoys me because it’s a form of defeatism. You’re basically admitting defeat before you’ve ever really tried. It’s also a bit of an excuse and, actually it’s just not true.

I’ve had many students over the years who have reached a C2 level and passed the C2 proficiency Cambridge English exam, for example, without ever having visited an English-speaking country, let alone lived there. And the opposite can also happen: it’s possible to live in a country which speaks your target language but never reach an advanced level. You’re not guaranteed to learn the language just because you live in the country that speaks that language, it doesn’t happen by osmosis. It’s all about attitude.

However, having said that, of course there are many advantages of living in an English-speaking country if you want to learn English, but a lot of those advantages can be recreated or simulated without ever having to even set foot in an English-speaking country. But you have to be proactive, especially when it comes to learning and expanding our vocabulary.

So, I’m going to explain the three steps you need to take in order to really expand your vocabulary and reach that advanced level of English.


Of course, one of the biggest advantages of living in an English-speaking country if you’re trying to learn English is that you’re exposed to vocabulary all the time. Everywhere you go and everything you do you find English vocabulary, because you’re in that country. So if you’re not living in an English-speaking country you need to find other ways of getting that input. And that’s the first step: where do you find the vocabulary? What are your sources of vocabulary?

Now, of course, all good English teachers will encourage you to read books in English, read articles in English, watch films in English, listen to podcasts… do everything in English in order to to get that input That’s where it comes from, those materials and sources.

We are really lucky… there has never been a better time in history to learn a language because it’s so easy to get this input. We have so many resources available to us now at the click of a mouse or the touch of a button. Of course, it’s not exactly the same as living in an English-speaking country where you’re naturally surrounded by this vocabulary, but you can recreate it and simulate it if you are proactive and make the effort.

Another thing that many English teachers will tell you is to read books, watch films, watch series listen to podcasts that you find interesting, that you enjoy. That’s fine but, if you only read books and articles about things you find interesting, your vocabulary in that area is going to expand, but not in other areas.

So, if you’re if you’re into photography, for example, you can build your vocabulary on photography because you’re motivated to read books and watch documentaries and just expose yourself to as much vocabulary about photography as possible. But, if you need to speak about gardening one day, or maybe you’re taking an English exam and there’s a part where you need to write or speak about gardening, you’re not going to have any idea because all your vocabulary is about photography.

So, occasionally, you need to read things, maybe not books, but perhaps articles on areas which you wouldn’t normally choose to read because that’s the way you’rereally truly going to expand a wide range of vocabulary. You’re not just going to expand a very limited area of vocabulary which you find interesting.

That brings me on to the second stepyou need to take and that’s related to the fact that you can’t learn all the vocabulary in the English language .I don’t know the vocabulary in the inthe English language and I’m a native English speaker and you don’t know all the vocabulary in your own language… so you have to learn to be selective.

Be Selective

It’s about selectivity. You have to understand that some vocabulary you learn you will never use. Continuing my example with photography: if you’re a budding photographer, the term chromatic aberration is probably useful and important to you, but if you’re not interested in photography, if you don’t plan to work in photography, you’re probably never going to need to use it. So, you shouldn’t waste time and energy on vocabulary that is not going to be really useful to you. Of course, this happens naturally when you’re living in a country which speaks your target language. You will be encountering vocabulary that is useful to you just because the fact that you encounter it regularly proves that it must be useful. So, you need to really practice the vocabulary that you think or know is going to be more useful to you. Maybe it’s for your job, your studies, or even your social life.

So, you have your input, you’ve been reading alot, you’ve been watching everything in English, listening to podcasts in English and so on. And you’ve been selective you haven’t just been trying to learn every word that you come across. You’ve been selecting the words that you feel will be more useful for you. Now it’s time to use it!


Use it or lose it… When you’re living in an English-speaking country that will just be natural. Every day, you will have to use the vocabulary you’re learning so it will be really reinforced in your in your brain just by going to the bank, to the supermarket, to a restaurant, meeting with friends at work, at University. You’re going to be exposed to the language and then you’re going to have opportunities to use it. So that’s all about output, which is the third step to effectively learning vocabulary.

You need to use the vocabulary you’re learning: if not, you will forget it. I know many of you are thinking, “Well I don’t have any opportunities to use my English. I don’t have anybody to speak to in English. I’m never in a situation where I need to use English, so I can’t do it.” But that’s not really true, is it? That’s a little bit of an excuse because with the internet now you can find people to interact with: Facebook groups or Instagram accounts, Discord channels, Telegram groups… find other people who are learning English. Or maybe you don’t need to find people who are learning English, you can just find a Facebook group on photography, to continue that example, and you can just chat about photography in that group. And then maybe you find another Facebook group on gardening and you chat about gardening in that group. If you are proactive, you can find opportunities

Another big tip for output is to write. Write more. I’m not referring to writing essays necessarily or reports (if you are preparing for an exam then you do need to be doing that) but if you just want to practice the vocabulary you’ve learned in context then write short stories, write in a journal, write about what you’ve done today or what you saw in a recent film… summarize a chapter of a book, rewrite the the plot in a different way using your own words or using the words you have learned from the book but without actually copying the the text. Try to remember and include the vocabulary.

There are many ways to use English in a proactive way but the output is extremely important. Without the output, it’s verydifficult to not only remember but really understand how to use the vocabulary in context.

So really the big question at the end of the day is: How serious are you about improving your English? It does take effort and you do need to be proactive.

Ben Gill

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