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How to Improve your English Vocabulary

By Dr Norman

There are two basic principles to use to improve your English vocabulary. First, you need to see and hear words in use. Second, you need to try them out. These two principles seem simple enough, but let’s examine the best ways to use them so that you improve your English vocabulary and your English expression and understanding improves.

2 useful principles to improve your English vocabulary

1. Seeing and hearing words in use

Let’s start with the first principle of seeing and hearing words in use. The more real English that you see and hear on a daily basis, the more you can improve your English vocabulary. By real English, I mean the English that native speakers read, watch and listen to. It’s best to start with things you really like. What do you like to read? What type of movies or TV programs do you like to watch? What types of programs do you like to listen to on the radio or through podcasts? Now try to find a mix of all of these at the right level and length in real English.

Learning without subtitles or translation

Choose a good level of English for learning. This is one where you are able to understand 90 – 95% of what is written or said without using translations or subtitles. This creates a comfortable level of understanding. Now you can use the context to make a reasonable, or an ‘educated guess’, about the meanings of new words. You need to see the same words over and over again to truly understand what they mean and how they are used. Reading a book or watching a film or TV series will give you more opportunities to see the same words again than, for instance, reading lots of different short articles or listening to different podcasts.

When you see or hear a new word, do more than just work out the meaning. Pay attention to how it is used. Look at how it is used in sentences. Note the phrases in which it occurs and the other words that are used with it. In particular, look at the small words that occur with your new word such as the prepositions and the articles used. Remember, words don’t just exist on their own. They work together, or in conjunction with, other words to create meaning.

Learning with subtitles and translation

There are times when subtitles and complete translations of real English can be useful to helping you improve your English vocabulary if you use them carefully. English subtitles can be particularly useful if you are not sure about the accent or are having difficulty ‘tuning in’. If you need to use English subtitles, then I suggest that you keep comparing the subtitles with what you hear. Note the spelling, pronunciation and meaning. Then try watching and listening again without the subtitles on. This process will help train your ear, and will help you to identify words more easily.

If you understand less than 90% of what is written or said, then seeing a translation of real English in use can be helpful. Try dual translation books and translation subtitles. Be aware, though, that you often don’t get a word for word translation. In dual translation books, the left hand page is in one language and the right hand page is the full translation in another language. Start by reading in English and see what you can understand. Then look at the translation to check. Again, selecting the right level is important. The more you understand in English, the easier the process of learning new words will be, and your progress will be faster. If, for instance, you understand about 85% of what is written in English, then it will be easier to learn new words than if you understand only 50% of what is written.

If you are using subtitles on films or TV programs to translate English into your own language, then you need to be aware that these subtitles are often shorter that what is actually said. Again, once you have watched with the translation subtitles on and understand the overall meaning, watch again with the subtitles turned off. You may need to watch the same show several times with the subtitles turned off to get a good feel for the words being used.

2. Trying words out

Hearing and seeing words starts the process of gaining a working vocabulary, but to really improve your English vocabulary you need to be able to use these words. Start by keeping a journal and writing down any interesting new words you hear. Try to remember the phrases or sentences you heard the words in. Write these down. This will help you remember how the words were used.

Next, practise using these new words. A good place to start is in your head. Think about the context in which you might use a particular word.  Imagine conversations or stories in English that use your new vocabulary. Use what you have read, watched or listened to in English to think about how you would tell somebody else that story in English. This mental rehearsal helps you to try new vocabulary without any stress.  As you rehearse in your mind, try to use the words that go together with your new word. Remember, the more you think in English, the more you will learn.

Once you have practised in your mind, you will be ready to practise in real life. Start by writing down the story you want to tell. This will give you a chance to work on your vocabulary and your grammar. Vocabulary and grammar work together. Writing gives you a chance to examine what you have written and to improve. This writing practice ‘sets the scene’ for actually telling someone this same story in English. When you tell someone the story, avoid reading what you have written. Simply tell it. Remember, you have already done a lot of practice to get to this point. Of course, when speaking, you will tell the story differently and you will construct sentences differently, but you will also have practised quite a bit before getting to this point.

To get the most benefit, see if you can tell the story to someone whose English better than yours. This might be a native speaker, a more accomplished English speaking friend or an English teacher. That way, you can get useful feedback on your English and vocabulary use. Feedback is the final important key to helping you use new words correctly.

All of this takes time and practise, but it is worth it! As you improve your English vocabulary, you will find that your reading and listening will become easier, your writing and speaking will improve and, for those studying in English, your academic scores will grow.

8th  March 2016

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