HomeBlogYou can improve your vocabulary in 6 easy steps
Ajith Ellappan
Ajith Ellappan
10 Oct 20228 min read

You can improve your vocabulary in 6 easy steps

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Photo by Ryan Wallace on Unsplash

Vocabulary is the foundation of language, being an indicator of education level and social status. To learn a new language, you must be always building your vocabulary. But students often have trouble doing so because they're not retaining new words.

When we read new vocabulary words, we forget to use them in our everyday conversations. We also struggle more to recall when we get the opportunity to use them.

Below I outline ten tactics proven to help with learning, memorizing, and recalling new words.

1. Use spaced repetition algorithms (SRSs)

The scientific community disagrees on some aspects of learning, but there is agreement on how memories are formed.

Memory Retention Graph

A fundamental concept of spaced repetition is that memories begin to fade shortly after they are formed and disappear into oblivion.

With each successive exposure, the 'forgetting curve' of the memory becomes longer and longer until it eventually outlives you. In order to learn effectively, it is important to review what you have learned regularly.

The biggest benefit of using a spaced repetition approach to learning, whether you follow the Leitner system with your old paper flashcards, or go for spaced repetition software on your phone or computer (Why don't you give a try?), is that it prevents you from wasting time on vocabulary that is still fresh in your memory.

When students review for tests, they often pile all of their flashcards together and then review them all at once. This causes many cards to end up never being reviewed with any frequency.

SRS is an app that works around this by predicting when the user's memory of a word is about to fade based on previous experience. This enables students to review words only 3-6 times before they are placed in long-term memory.

2. Study vocabulary in context

According to research, the vast majority of words are learned through context. In my opinion, learning vocabulary in context of situation and sentence has tremendous benefits for learning, recalling, and retaining vocabulary.

In other words, you should not learn vocabulary from isolated lists of unrelated words without considering their place in a broader context.

It's nearly impossible to remember or use words when they're scattered around the table. As you combine even just a few of the pieces together, a more meaningful context emerges, and the end result becomes more apparent.

To introduce context into vocabulary learning, try learning the words in sentences.

You can also experiment with learning words by looking up their definitions and then trying to think of related conversations. For example, imagine how the weather will affect your fishing trip next week, rather than just considering the consequences on its own.

3. Make the vocabulary personal, and emotional

You’ve probably heard stories of car crash survivors who can remember every little detail before the accident. We’ve also all experienced how difficult it can be to forget something we’ve been told that touched us to the heart.

Neuroscientists have flashed different words and sentences in front of subjects, scanning their brain activity. Unsurprisingly, the heat maps lit up like a Christmas tree whenever the subjects were exposed to personally relevant and emotionally notable information.

This effect can be put to great effect in vocabulary learning when combined with the previous tip. Rather than settling for a boring sentence like “The photo is on the table,” try something like “The photo of my wife fell off the desk just when I got the call.”

The benefit is three-fold. As a result, there is now a very visual story forming around the vocabulary, which is emotionally impactful, and also immediately relatable if you keep a photo of your significant other on your desk.

If you add that sentence to your SRS, you'll never forget the words photo, desk, or wife again!

Try to think of new vocabulary in relation to people you know, places you're familiar with, or important events in your life. Don't go overboard with the imagery, lest you get traumatized every time you need to use one!

Through, we encourage our students to use newly acquired vocabulary in their everyday conversations. As a result, the vocabulary becomes more memorable and relatable.

4. Read regularly, and from a variety of sources

Reading exposes you to the same vocabulary at regular intervals, integrated into the context of a longer story, personally relatable once you identify with the main protagonist… all central characteristics of effective vocabulary learning.

This makes reading one of the most effective ways to increase your vocabulary. The stereotype might portray bookworms as boring and asocial, but studies have in fact confirmed repeatedly that regular readers are much more expressive if you give them a chance to speak.

While you read, pay close attention to words you don’t know, but don’t try to look up everything right away or you’ll fail to appreciate the narrative and eventually burn out. Instead, highlight words that appear to be particularly useful or central to the story, then try to figure out their meanings from context before checking the official definition.

Make sure to engage with material on many different subjects, and in different formats. The language will be very different depending on whether you’re reading pulp fiction, a glamour magazine, or the daily newspaper.

If the book you’re reading is also available in audio form, you should also consider listening to each chapter before or after you read it. If the text and the audio match accurately, also make sure to try shadowing, an extremely effective learning method I’ve covered before.

5. Pool new vocabulary from a frequency list

Before you can use any of the above learning hacks, you’ll need a list of vocabulary to start learning. Ideally, much of that vocabulary should come from encounters in daily life, whether through reading, listening to songs, watching movies, or paying attention to conversations in the elevator. In reality, you’ll likely need to supplement these with more abstract words to target.

A common theme across my suggestions, is that language should be learned in a way that allows you to use it at the earliest opportunity. That is a key value of learning in context, of learning vocabulary that is personally relevant, and generally engaging with words as blocks you can use to construct something bigger, rather than individual pieces of information.

It should then come as no surprise that my preferred source of abstract vocabulary are lists ordered by the frequency at which they are used in day-to-day language. I’ve rarely seen this approach in classroom settings, but found it extremely effective and popular among many successful language self-learners.

In many languages, learning just 1000 basic words will make you understand 90% of the spoken language, and even the first 250 most common words will give you a good sense of the conversation.

If you acquire just 10 new words a day, getting up to speed in a conversation will take less than a month of casual learning. Learning a language is a huge undertaking, and it’s misleading at best when edutech companies promise fluency in a matter of months or even weeks, but mastering a core vocabulary list will make you very comfortable in all day-to-day situations. And from there, it’s just a matter of faking it, till you make it!

6. Have some fun with the words you learn

Word games may not be enough in and of themselves, but they’re a fun and effortless way to increase the recall speed of the vocabulary you know already, as well as to pick up an occasional new word from your peers.

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Languages like Japanese or Chinese are unfortunately not well suited for these types of board games, but looking through the app store on your mobile device should lead you to at least a few options adapted for phonetics and writing systems.

If you don’t want to spend money on board games, or prefer meeting with friends over coffee or hiking, you can try playing a spoken word game instead.

Bonus: Appreciate the language

You can try every learning method you want, but at the end of the day, you’ll only make rapid progress when you begin to truly appreciate the language… for its expressiveness, its intrinsic beauty, the subtle differences between seemingly identical words and phrases.

Find yourself using the same word again and again? Open the thesaurus and try to integrate a few nuanced alternatives into your language. Notice a pattern? Try looking up the word’s root, prefix, and suffix, and how they’re used in other vocabulary.

Rather than learning words as meaningless syllables, discover their etymology. More than half of English words come from Greek and from Latin, and most advanced Japanese vocabulary comes from Chinese.

Learning about the origins of the words you use can be very effective at solidifying the connections in your brain, and guessing the meanings of the vocabulary you come across in the future. Once you know that ‘ortho’ means straight, you can quickly guess the meaning of complex words like orthodontist (a doctor who straightens teeth) or orthography (the proper way of writing).

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