Are you learning English and aiming to expand your vocabulary? Have you tried a variety of methods but nothing seems to work? Many English learners spend endless time memorizing word lists but can’t use them in their speech. If this sounds familiar, read on to find out what is the best way to memorize English vocabulary.
Traditional methods to memorize English vocabulary
Based on my experience teaching English and learning languages myself, traditional methods of memorizing English vocabulary won’t get you far. Some of these methods include:
– Maintaining a vocabulary notebook to track all new words and expressions
– Creating flash cards to review the words and check your memory
– Using mnemonic techniques to create associations between words
– Practicing word games (crosswords, anagrams or word searches)
These methods might be useful if you are studying for an English exam. You will have time to pause, sort through your vocabulary lists and pull the right word. If your goal is to use English in real life situations, you need to access these words automatically based on the given context. Therefore, I have developed an effective approach that will help you memorize English vocabulary and then use it in your speech.
How memory works
Let’s start with a quick review of how memory works in general. Memory development starts with perception and encoding that comes from the 4 senses: vision, hearing, scent and touch. Obviously, the last two are not relevant for language learning. However, vision and hearing are two important aspects that have to be engaged at the same time. In a language learning context, this involves reading and listening to English speech. You will encounter new words and expressions and interpret their meaning based on your existing knowledge, context and other external sources.
Next step in the memory process is storage. Every time you see or hear a word for the first time, it enters your memory bank. With repeated exposure, the new associations become stronger and more easily accessible. As a result, you get better at the new skill you are learning – including languages. This is why you always hear that “Repetition is key!”.
Finally, the memory process leads to using the information you acquired. In English learning, this involves speaking and writing.
To summarize, it is important to consider all three stages to memorize English vocabulary effectively. Here is your guide on how to do it.
Step 1: Choosing the right vocabulary
The first question you need to ask yourself is why you are trying to memorize certain words and expressions. If your goal is to use it in everyday life, make sure the vocabulary you are trying to memorize is:
- Relevant. There is no point in remembering words that you will never use
- Up to date. Languages constantly evolve and some expressions become replaced by more modern versions. If you learn and use old vocabulary, your speech will sound unnatural
- Accurate. The examples you find are used in the right context and you understand their meaning
Use original real life content
You may have noticed that you remember things that are relevant to you much better than something distant. For this reason, pick new words and expressions from the sources based on real life situations. For example, you can use movies and TV shows in the original language, read blogs and news articles or watch videos created by native speakers.
Don’t memorize the ‘Vocabulary Focus’ section from your textbook or write down new words from random grammar exercises. Instead, learn vocabulary from relevant contexts that you will use in your daily life. This is also much more fun!
Memorize English vocabulary that is commonly used
Unless your goal is to write a scientific article or pass an English test, there is really no reason to memorize fancy complicated vocabulary. Here are some examples:
- Endeavour (an attempt to achieve a goal)
- Diminutive (extremely small)
- Versatile (flexible)
First of all, you can express yourself perfectly clear and sound like a native speaker with simpler vocabulary. In fact, simpler vocabulary is preferred in most settings. Let’s be honest, you will sound forced and unnatural if you tell your friends that you are “debilitated” instead of just “tired”.
You may be surprised but many native speakers don’t even know these words themselves and definitely don’t use them in their speech. So don’t waste your time and memorize English vocabulary that is widely used.
Use a variety of sources
As you learned earlier, memorizing new material is most effective when it involves multiple senses. Similarly, try to use different sources that involve reading, watching and listening to maximize your vocabulary learning. These could be: online articles, YouTube videos, even social media accounts! Check out my article that will help you integrate these sources in your daily life.
Step 2: Understand the meaning
Consider how children learn new language. They do it naturally without textbooks or translators by listening and observing. They hear the words in a certain context and create associations between the word itself and the abstract concept behind it. For example, when they see a parent pointing at a fluffy animal with floppy ears and saying ‘dog’, they will know exactly what a dog is.
Similar to this, start to memorize English vocabulary with observing. Note down a new word or expression and try to guess what it means from the context. Is it a noun or an adjective? Is it a physical object or an abstract concept? If there are not enough details or you want to verify the meaning, look it up in a dictionary.
Dictionary or translator?
Translators simply provide an analogue in your native language, while dictionaries explain the meaning in the same language. Your goal is to understand the abstract concept behind the word or expression.
The problem is that many words can be translated in different ways depending on the context. Such words are called homonyms. Here are some examples from Russian, my native language:
Среда = Wednesday, environment
Брак = defect, marriage
Мир = peace, world
Предложение = sentence, proposal
Say, you come across the word ‘environment’ and plug it into a translator. In Russian, it will give you ‘Среда’, which can mean different things:
On the other hand, a dictionary would provide an explanation like this: “circumstances, objects, or conditions by which one is surrounded” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). If you do use a translator, always consult the additional examples.
Step 3: Memorize English vocabulary by using it
Last step of the memory process involves retrieval – or the actual usage of the new vocabulary. The more you use the new words and expressions in your speech or writing, the better you will be able to memorize them!
If you don’t live in an English speaking environment, it may be difficult to practice English speaking and writing on your own. For this reason, I have created a unique English challenge that will allow you to follow the process I described above. In my monthly challenge, you will do the following:
- Work with content created by native speakers. This will allow you to immerse yourself in real life Engish
- Use text and video resources to practice both reading and listening. Each unit covers the same topic, so you will be able to maximize vocabulary learning by using visual perception and hearing
- Practice the vocabulary you learned in writing and speaking