If you want to learn another language, you need to know your vocabulary inside and out. Anyone who has learned another language understands the importance of knowing the building blocks of a language: vocabulary. However, not everyone understands that there are certain tricks that you can use to make sure you learn vocabulary both efficiently AND effectively.
There are four things that you need to do to master vocabulary. Let’s take look at what it takes to be a vocabulary master!
Step One: Know where you stand
First, you need to know your vocabulary level, but there is one important thing about vocabulary that you must realise; vocabulary knowledge can be either receptive or productive.
The vocabulary you can understand is called receptive vocabulary.
The vocabulary you can produce is called productive vocabulary.
In other words, receptive vocabulary is words that when you hear or see them you can understand them. Productive vocabulary not only means that when you hear or see them you can understand them, but you can also understand how to use them. Language is a tool for communication, and to communicate you need to be able to use vocabulary. Productive knowledge of 200 words is much better than receptive knowledge of 1,000 or even 10,000! (assuming you actually want to use the language).
So it is a good idea to find out both your receptive and productive vocabulary level, which for English can be done with the following two tests.
Bear in mind that your receptive vocabulary level is always going to be bigger than your productive vocabulary level. These tests are also just an indication, so just use the results as a guide to help you know which words you should learn.
Alternatively you can find your vocabulary level with this online test.
Step Two: Know what vocabulary to learn
Once you know your level, you can figure out which words you should learn! However, would you rather know 1,000 words receptively, or 200 words productively? Well, it depends! They have to be the right words.
You see, not all words were created equal. For example in English, with knowledge of the 1,000 most common word families you can understand and produce more than 72% of English. 72%! You can easily be considered fluent with productive knowledge of the first 1000 English word families, whereas simple receptive knowledge of the first 1,000, no, 10,000 word families could mean absolutely nothing!
Vocabulary can be separated into levels based on frequency. The first 1000 word families list is a good starting point. However as the 2,000 word level gives you coverage of up to 78% of English, once you reach that level you should choose the vocabulary you should learn next based on your needs. The Academic Vocabulary List is great for academic study, and there are other lists separated into different fields.
Other Word lists:
Separate suffixes and prefixes sheet.
Step three: Understand what it means to ‘know’ a word
We talked earlier about the difference between receptive and productive vocabulary. For vocabulary to be called productive, you need to know three things: meaning, form and use.
Meaning is when you understand a vocabulary’s meaning whenever you come across it, and that you can use it to express a meaning. It also means you can understand and use it in different contexts.
Form is how the word can be changed in different contexts. It means you know how to change a verb to the past tense when you need to talk about the past, or how to turn it into an adjective etc.
Use is understanding when and where you can and cannot use the word.
It also helps to be able to use other words related to that word, such as collocates, synonyms and antonyms, and knowledge of how words are formed (i.e. word parts, or even etymology) is a great advantage to have because it makes them progressively easier to remember.
Find the words you want to learn, and for each word find out its meaning, form, and use. You can do this in many ways, the most obvious of which is to look it up in a dictionary.
Use Just The Word for collocations. Just the word ranks the frequency of collocates, which helps you learn words more deeply.
Use dictionary.com to find out about target words in English.
Thesaurus.com can help you look for synonyms and antonyms.
Etymology.com can help you find the origin of different words, and is interesting in itself.
Graded Readers are a great way to boost your vocabulary. Actually I think they are the best way, because not only do you get to see words in their natural environment, but the majority of the words you come across are high frequency vocabulary, so you can enjoy reading and learning at a very efficient rate.
Step four: Use the words you’ve learned to learn more!
Then, use word cards or apps to help you remember them.
Your cards should contain the following: (in order of importance)
- The meaning in your L1 on the front
- The core word and other words in the family
- Example Sentence(s)
Rules for effective use:
- Go through the cards regularly
- Change the order every time
- Always go from your L1 to your L2, it’s harder but you learn more
Alternatively, you can use the following apps to help you remember the target vocabulary:
Anki can be used to help you remember words. Anki uses spaced-repetition, which is the most efficient way to learn anything.
iKnow is a great app for learning vocabulary, too.
Seeing or hearing words in their natural environment is by far the best way to learn them initially. By seeing words in context it is possible to immediately go from reception to production, or at least to have an understanding of how that word can be used, which is the main aim of learning vocabulary. The best way to do this is to read a lot.
While learning the first 1000-2000 word families in context, it is a good idea to learn strategies that will help you learn more vocabulary in later stages. These strategies include: guessing from context, dictionary use, knowledge of word parts, as well as things like knowing collocates, synonyms, antonyms, and when and where you can and cannot use the vocabulary. These things come under knowing a word.
Vocabulary learning is one of the most important tasks you will undertake as you try to master another language. It may sound daunting but with a bit of practice and knowledge of the learning process, such as knowing where you stand, knowing what vocabulary to learn, knowing what it means to know a word, and then memorising the words using different techniques, what once seemed impossible can get progressively easier.