Learning vocabulary is the biggest job you face when learning any language.
There are some questions you should ask yourself when learning new English vocabulary, which will help you understand and remember the word.
1. Do I really need this word? Will I use it?
This is the most important question. Many English students spend hours and hours trying to learn completely useless vocabulary. Learning and remembering vocabulary is hard work and none of us has unlimited time and energy!
Don’t waste time and energy learning words you won’t use.
Learn only words that you are sure you will use, and focus on learning them well, so that you can remember and use the vocabulary when you need.
It’s better to learn 10 words really well, so you can use them, rather than trying to learn 100 words that you can’t really remember that well.
2. What is the register of the word?
What is register?
Simple answer: The term register refers to how formal or informal a word is.
A more detailed answer is that the register of a word tells us:
We use the term 'register' to refer to particular varieties or styles of speaking and writing.
For example, some words are only used in spoken English. Some words are mostly used in written English. Some words are mostly used by teenagers, or engineers, or Americans, or office workers.
It is important to understand the register of a word when you learn it.
Registers vary because the language is used for different purposes, in different contexts and for different audiences.
For example, there is a legal register, a register of advertising, registers of banking and a register of weather forecasting. We commonly recognise registers because of their specialised vocabulary, but also because of particular uses of grammar. We also use the term register to refer to whether language is being used formally or informally:
[From a weather forecast register: depression is a specialised word meaning a system of weather that brings rain.]
There is a depression moving in from the Atlantic and we can expect high winds and local storms over the next few days in the north of the country.
3. How do I pronounce the word?
This is simple, but it’s still important if you want to use the word. If you can, use an online dictionary with audio clips. Practise pronouncing the word, and think about these questions:
colleague BrE /ˈkɒliːɡ/
entrepreneur BrE /ˌɒntrəprəˈnɜː(r)/
negotiation BrE /nɪˌɡəʊʃiˈeɪʃn/
negotiate BrE /nɪˈɡəʊʃieɪt/
basically BrE /ˈbeɪsɪkli/
accessory BrE /əkˈsesəri/
receive BrE /rɪˈsiːv/
definitely BrE /ˈdefɪnətli/
climb, debt, doubt, plumber, etc.
conscious, fascinate, muscle, scenario, scene, scent, etc.
handkerchief, sandwich, Wednesday, etc.
assign, campaign, champagne, design, foreign, resign, sign, etc.
ache, archeology, architect, chaos, character, characteristic, chemical, chemist, Christian, Christmas, etc.
knee, knew, knife, knock, know, knowledge, etc.
psychology, psychiatrist, receipt, etc.
castle, listen, whistle, etc.
biscuit, build, built, guess, guest, guide, guilty, guitar, etc.
wrap, wrest, wrinkle, wrist, write, wrong, wrote, etc.
contact BrE /ˈkɒntækt/ (noun)
to contact BrE /ˈkɒntækt/ (verb)
connection BrE /kəˈnekʃn/ (noun)
to connect BrE /kəˈnekt/ (verb)
report BrE /rɪˈpɔːt/ (noun)
to report BrE /rɪˈpɔːt/ (verb)
schedule BrE /ˈskedʒuːl/; NAmE /ˈskedʒuːl/; also BrE /ˈʃedʒuːl/
organisation BrE /ˌɔːɡənaɪˈzeɪʃn/
organization NAmE /ˌɔːrɡənəˈzeɪʃn/
record BrE /ˈrekɔːd/ (noun)
to record BrE /rɪˈkɔːd/ (verb)
4. Does this word have a direct translation in my language?
For most English learners, when they see a new word in English, the first thing they want to do is find the translation in their native language. This isn’t necessarily bad, but it can be dangerous, because not all words translate well.
Trying to translate English words into your language won’t work well every time.
For example, take the word amazing. Amazing is used in English to mean ‘very good’, but the original meaning is ‘very surprising’.
So when we say amazing to mean ‘very good’, it still has a little bit of that original meaning – something which is amazing could also be surprising or unexpected.
Does your language have a word with this exact meaning? Maybe, maybe not, but in any case there will be words like this in English (or any language), which have their own history and which do not always translate cleanly into other languages.
Every word has its own history which influences the exact meaning of the word.
5. How is this word related to other English words I know?
When learning a word, ask yourself these questions:
Let’s look at an example:
Let’s say you want to learn the word ‘connect’, which is a verb.
Let’s think of words with a similar meaning to ‘connect’.
Is there a word with an opposite meaning?
Let’s make some collocations. What words can you use together with ‘connect’?
If you do this, it will be much easier to remember the vocabulary you learn, because you will understand how it fits in with other words you know in English.
English Study Habits:
How to remember vocabulary
How to use a dictionary effectively
Learn the difference between some English words:
Confusing words: Begin vs. Start, End vs. Finish
Confusing words: Practice vs. Practise, Advice vs. Advise
Confusing words: Breath vs. Breathe, Belief vs. Believe
Confusing words in English: Famous vs. Popular
Confusing words in English: Crowded vs. Congested
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