‘How do I improve my vocabulary?’
This, without a doubt, is one of the most frequently asked questions by students of English. And it’s a good question indeed as words are the foundation or ‘building blocks’ of a language. Interestingly, most people believe that grammar is the most important part of learning a language, but one could argue that vocabulary is equally, if not more, important. Even if we don’t have a good command over the grammar of a language, we can convey basic meaning if we know some vocabulary.
Don’t believe me? Picture this!
You are on a solo trip to France and get lost in a small town in Paris. Sounds like a dream come true, doesn’t it? Wait till it gets scary! Your phone battery has died, the last train to your hotel leaves in 20 minutes and you have no idea how to get to the train station. To make things worse, people around you don’t speak much English. What would you need more to find your way - grammar or vocabulary? Vocabulary it is! Even if you know a few basic words in French, you should be able to find your way. This is why even popular language proficiency tests such as IELTS, TOFL etc. assess test takers’ vocabulary as a part of the exam.
So, where do we start? How do we learn English vocabulary?
Well, there are plenty of books and websites in the market claiming to help you learn thousands of words in a few days. But before you reach for your wallet, here are two questions you should be asking yourself:
- Are these effective i.e. do they really do what they claim?
- And more importantly, is it really a good idea to just learn a lot of new words in a short time?
The answer to both the questions is ‘NO’, I’m afraid. This is because some websites/books simply introduce us to the literal meaning of a word which is not enough to be able to use it confidently. If I told you that the word ‘cliché’ means ‘a phrase or idea that has been used so many times that it no longer has any real meaning or interest’, would you be able to use it correctly in a conversation or an email? At best, you will be able to understand it when someone else uses it. In order to use it, you would need to know a lot more about the word: How is it pronounced? What part of speech is it? How is it used in a sentence? Does it have a positive or a negative meaning? How formal or informal is it? And the list goes on…
Take Harsh, for instance. He is taking the IELTS test as he needs to go abroad for higher education. Since vocabulary is an important assessment criterion for speaking, he says this in his speaking interview to impress the examiner:
Examiner: What do you like to do in your free time?
Harsh: Well, a lot of my time goes in the garden as gardening is really my cup of tea!
Harsh has used the idiom ‘not my cup of tea’ here meaning ‘something I like doing/ I’m good at’ hoping that it will help him get a better score in vocabulary. However, little did he know that the expression ‘not my cup of tea’ is always used in negative sentences i.e. you use it to say that you don’t like or aren’t good at something.
Shradha had an even worse experience. She had just started a new job and wanted to make a good first impression on her colleagues by using advanced English phrases. This is how one of her conversations went on the second day of work:
Shradha’s colleague: Do you need any help with the presentation tomorrow?
Shradha: I got it! Making presentations is my fort!
Shradha’s colleague: Fort? Oh, you mean ‘forte’ (laughing)
Shradha later realised that the ‘e’ at the end of the word ‘forte’ (meaning a person’s most highly developed talent/skill) is pronounced as ‘ay’ as in ‘bay’. Shradha felt terrible; this wasn’t the first impression she wanted to make after all!
It becomes evident looking at these examples that using the words learned without understanding them properly can do more harm than good and hence learning word lists should be avoided.
What should we do then?
Now that we have ‘what NOT TO DO’ out of the way, let’s focus on what TO DO! The trick is not to learn a lot of new words every day but to learn a few new words every week but learn them effectively. It’s rightly said that improving vocabulary is not a task but a process, a process comprising four steps, which I call NICE:
STEP 1: NOTICE
This first step is to NOTICE new words in English. In order to do this, you could:
- Expose yourself to authentic written or spoken texts in English: Vocabulary building is easiest and most effective when you encounter words in context. Seeing or listening to words in a written or a spoken text is far more helpful than learning words on a vocabulary list in a book or on a website. This is because you get to see the word as a part of a sentence/utterance rather than a stand-alone word.
You might be thinking, ‘What’s new in this tip? I have heard this a hundred times.’ I’m sure you have but how about taking this a step ahead. What I am talking about is ‘targeted exposure’. So, you don’t just expose yourself to random English words but carefully choose what to expose yourself to.
Consider these questions:
What do I need to work on more, spoken English or written English?
Spoken English is quite different from written English, so you need to be clear what you need English for, and choose what to read or listen to, accordingly. If you want to work on improving your vocabulary for conversation, participating in meetings, presentations etc., listening to English words and phrases may be more useful. Similarly, in order to improve your vocabulary for writing, reading might be better.
How formal or informal will I need to be while communicating in English?
When learning or using new words, the level of formality is important. One word may have many synonyms with different levels of formality. For example, loo, toilet and convenience all mean the same, but convenience is much more formal that loo. You can choose the kinds of texts you read or listen to, depending on how formal/informal you generally need to be. If you feel you will use English more in formal situations, read formal texts such as newspaper and magazine articles or watch TED talks, BBC news etc. On the other hand, if you see yourself using English more in informal situations, reading blogs, stories and watching sitcoms (situational comedies such as Friends, Big Bang Theory etc.), movies, and Vlogs will prove to be much more beneficial for you.
- Play word Games: Playing classic word games such as Scrabble, Pictionary and Crossword puzzles can be another fun way of learning new words. And the best part is that you always have new word games getting added to the list e.g. Taboo, Bingo etc., so you will never really get bored of playing them.
STEP 2: INVESTIGATE
Once you have seen/heard a word or phrase in a particular text, you need to find out more about it. For example, in what other ways can the word or phrase be used? How is it spelt, what’s the right pronunciation? One way to do this is looking it up on an online dictionary. But be careful here - there are many online dictionaries but not all of them are reliable. I’d suggest using an accurate and widely accepted online dictionary such as the Cambridge, Oxford, Longman or Merriam Webster dictionaries.
Another fun way to know more about a word is to explore it on a website called Youglish. Youglish is a compilation of sections of Youtube videos where the word/phrase has been used by fluent speakers. This can really help you understand how the word can be used in a variety of situations.
Remember - the idea is not to know everything about the word/phrase but to know enough so that you can use it confidently!
STEP 3: COLLECT
The next step is to collect and record all the words learnt. The first two steps will be productive only if you record all the words you learn in one place along with the other information you found out about them (during the investigation stage). You could record them in tabular form to make it clearer:
Part of speech
Not my cup of tea
Something that I don’t like doing
Always used in negative sentences
Cooking is not my cup of tea.
Alternatively, you could make vocabulary flashcards as follows:
Write the English word/phrase on one side and information about it e.g. word form – noun, adjective, verb, adverb, synonyms, antonyms, word stress etc. on the other side. You could also draw a picture to help you remember.