How to expand your vocabulary

Today I’m very happy to have Ruth Elizabeth–or Thảo, as she is known in Vietnam–guest posting on Lingholic. Ruth is the person behind More Vietnamese, a great website full of really useful information both for general language learners and for those learning Vietnamese more specifically. She lived in Vietnam for 2 years, and besides Vietnamese, she has studied French and Esperanto. Enjoy the post!

An important part of language learning is expanding new vocabulary.

There are many techniques and tools out there to help us. But what is actually going on as we learn a new word? How does this word become part of our active vocabulary?

1. Finding new words and understanding them

The first step is to find a new word. There are a huge number of possible sources:

  • Finding words through reading magazinesClasses – your teacher explains new vocabulary for you.
  • A self-study textbook with translations or explanations of new vocabulary.
  • Authentic materials like newspapers, TV programmes and conversations with friends.

Note that an important part of this stage is understanding the word in the context you found it in. Sometimes you will be able to deduce from the rest of sentence what the word must mean. At other times you may need to look it up in the dictionary or require a friend or teacher to explain it.

After this process, you may be able to recognize the word the next time you come across it, or you may need to see and hear it a few more times before sink in. This is stage 2.

2. Getting to know the new word and internalizing it

How to expand your vocabularyGradually over time and enough exposure to the language, those new words would come up many times, in many different sentences. Each time you come across the words you’d get a better understanding of what they mean and how to use them. This is what happens when we’re children learning our own language. It will work for language learning too, but it’s the problem is that it’s quite a slow process.

It takes a lot of repeated experience with the word for it to really sink in. Most language learners try to speed up this stage so the word moves to the long-term memory much faster. Many tools that help with this, like Anki, use a system called spaced repetition which is designed to re-expose us to the word just at the point where we’d be likely to forget it.

As I said, there’s much more to knowing a word than being able to pronounce it, spell it, translate it or even to be able to recall it at will. To truly know a word you must know how it works in a sentence. You get clues on this every time you see and hear the word.

Is it formal or informal? If it’s a noun, are there particular verbs that are commonly used with it? This is one reason why a lot of people, myself included, use full sentences when learning vocabulary.

There are several ways to help you internalize vocabulary at this stage. Some ideas are:

  • Using Anki flashcards.
  • Devising mnemonics or mems to help you remember. This could be by yourself or through a site like Memrise.
  • Playing vocabulary games online.
  • Testing yourself using any study methods you used at school or university for any subject. Lists, mind maps, getting someone to test you… They can all be applied to languages.


3. Using the word

So you’ve come across a new word, you understand it and are familiar with how it looks and sounds and how it fits in sentences.

But the final step, which the other two have only been leading up to, is using the words yourself as you use the language. In plain terms, using it naturally and spontaneously while speaking or writing.

The final step

It’s OK to get it wrong at this stage. This is part of becoming familiar with the word and how it is (and isn’t) used. You may need to revisit stage 2 so you can use it correctly next time.

Using the word correctly and naturally is the end goal. Congratulations!

But it’s not over yet. How do you prevent yourself from forgetting this new word you’ve worked so hard to remember? The solution is to keep going with your learning – keep on reading and listening, keep reviewing vocabulary and keep using it!

Do you identify with these three stages of learning vocabulary? How do you learn new words? Comment below!

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