Improving your vocabulary – why learning individual words isn’t enough

Whatever language you want to learn, learning new words is essential if you want to improve your language skills. The more words that you know, the more you’ll be able to understand others and express your own ideas.

Everyone needs to find out what works for them in terms of learning vocabulary. Some people like to use flashcards, others have apps on their smartphones, others have a notebook or a vocabulary list online. Whatever you do, it’s really important to learn the words in context. It’s ok to learn groups of nouns as individual words, such as colours, animals, vegetables etc, but as soon as you get to verbs and other words, it will be easier for you if you not only learn the words, but also learn how they are used in sentences.

1. Which preposition do you need?

Many of my German-speaking learners complain about prepositions. Why do we travel in the car, but on the plane? Sometimes there are rules, but in many cases, you just have to learn them.

It’s sometimes hard because the preposition that you need in English is different from the one you would use in your native language. For example, in Turkish you are frightened from something and married with someone. In English, you are frightened of something and married to someone.

You can be proud of someone, annoyed with them and worried about them. If you’ve learned a new word and you notice that it’s followed by a preposition, it’s good to note them down together, so that you won’t have to look up the preposition next time, and you’ll learn how to use the new word correctly.

2. Phrasal verbs

We have a lot of these in English. For example, you may know what “to look” means, but adding additional words can completely change the meaning.

You can look for your keys, look after your friend’s dog, or look up words in the dictionary.

Therefore, the words that make up phrasal verbs should be learned together.

3. Idioms

Yesterday someone asked me what “it really gets my goat” means. This is an English idiom and it means that something annoys you. However the verb to get and the farm animal on their own have nothing to do with being annoyed. Idioms need to be learned as a set phrase because the group of words together means something completely different to the individual words on their own.

You should also know that whilst some idioms are common in several languages, others will make no sense, even if the literal translation is right. Therefore be careful if you’re trying to translate idioms from your own language.

4. Noun genders

This doesn’t apply to English, but if you’re learning a language such as German, French or Spanish, the noun’s gender is important. In English it’s the dog, the cat and the rabbit. In German,it’s der hund, die Katze and das Kaninchen. Some mistakes are inevitable because at first, you won’t be able to hear which gender sounds correct. I look up more words in the bilingual dictionary because I am not sure about the gender than because I don’t know the German word.

In German, the noun gender also affects the way that adjectives are formed, so if you don’t get it right, the number of mistakes in your sentence can soon add up!

So, if you’re learning a language in which this is important, make a note of the gender as well and learn it at the same time.

5. Context will help you to remember

If you can remember why you needed to learn a word, it often makes it easier to commit that word to your long-term memory.

Maybe the word was from an interesting article. I remember reading a Turkish article about dogs and I thought it was really interesting. I remember more words from this article than from others that didn’t get my attention in the same way. You may have to learn specific words for a language exam, business topic or school project, but if you have some control over your learning programme, make vocabulary learning relevant and try to learn words and phrases that you will want to use again.

Maybe it brings back a memory because you needed that word in a conversation. This is particularly relevant to visual learners or people who need to learn by doing. I remember cooking with a friend and I found that afterwards, it was easy to remember the new vocabulary because we had talked about the ingredients and how to prepare them. So I didn’t just learn the word “potatoes”, but “peel the potatoes”, “slice the potatoes” etc.

Maybe you had an embarrassing experience involving that word! In my first term of German lessons, I told the whole class that I was an island child, not an only child. I told my Turkish teacher that I had given my friends flowers and ice-cream to eat, not strawberries and ice-cream. In both cases, the word that I wanted was similar, but I didn’t make the same mistake again!

6. Use the words so that you won’t forget them

Be smart about the words and phrases that you choose to learn. If you learn a new word, try to build sentences with it or use it in conversation. Also watch out for how other people are using that word, so you can learn what sounds natural. This brings me on to my final point.

7. Be careful because one word can have several meanings

You’ve maybe had the experience before. You want to look up a word in the dictionary and you find a number of possible translations. Which one should you choose?

For example, the German word “schwer” can mean both difficult and heavy. Your exam paper can be difficult, or hard, but not heavy. Your shopping bags can be heavy, but not difficult. A schwere Krankeit is a serious illness or disease, but not a difficult or heavy one.

This is why it’s really important to learn how words are put together to form sentences.

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Kirsty working with students

Author: Kirsty Wolf

I am an English teacher and a language enthusiast who also speaks German and Romanian. I help motivated professionals to improve their English so that they can communicate confidently and authentically.

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