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How to learn English vocabulary

Learning vocabulary is one of the biggest tasks in language learning. However, many language learners don't know how to prioritise and memorise words and phrases efficiently. This leads to frustration because you are not getting the results you want, burnout because you are working too hard, and lack of pleasure as you are unable to enjoy the process.

In this post, I'm going to share three common challenges people have with learning vocabulary and give suggestions on how you can overcome them.

Dealing with unknown vocabulary

Even at C2, you are likely to encounter many new words and phrases on a regular basis.

Some learners are unable to tolerate unfamiliar words and will use Google translate as soon as they see something new. This is not a positive way to deal with new language! As a foreign language user, you are unlikely to ever know everything so you need to be able to deal with ambiguity.

Learning how to work things out from the context or dealing with new language after you've completed a task are all healthy ways of handling new language. Working out the meaning of a word from the context, even if it is just a guess, is often enough to get the meaning of a text. Once you have finished the task you are doing (reading an article / watching a show on Netflix), you can go back to new language and use a good learners' dictionary to help you understand it. Unless you are in a huge hurry, avoid Google translate!

Prioritising new vocabulary

It is easy to feel overwhelmed by new vocabulary. After all, there is so much of it! However, for most of us, time is too short to allow us to remember everything. It is therefore essential to make decisions about what is important and what can be left unlearnt, for now. There are different ways you can make this decision. Personally, I prioritise chunks of language and phrases over individual words. I also focus on words that I like or that I know will be useful for me. You might like to prioritise language about a topic, or phrases that will help you to complete a task. The most important point is that you do not need to remember every new word!

Creating time to review

Learning a language means you need to remember and use a lot of new information. To remember everything, you need to review new things often. This is a time-consuming process and I think most language learners don't do enough review. The result is that we fail to remember new words and structures easily and waste time and energy with inefficient systems.

To solve this, you need a review system. Think about making a review timetable, perhaps choosing three specific days where you will do some review. You could also include a review slot (10-15 minutes) each time you sit down to study.

If you are working towards an exam, having a really strong review schedule is absolutely essential. You could consider making a Spaced Repetition System (SRS) early on in your preparation so that you stand a good chance of being able to remember everything. I now include a lesson on making an SRS at the beginning of every course I teach because it is such an important skill for language learners to have.

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