How to learn new vocabulary
‘What’s the best way to learn new vocabulary?’ is a question that we’re often asked by our students. Learning and recording vocabulary is a personal thing, and it depends on your preferred learning style. But if you haven’t found an effective method yet, why not try some of these suggestions and see if they help. The tips and techniques we’ll give you here are useful not just for the Aptis test, but also for other exams such as Cambridge or Trinity. And, of course, they’ll help you expand your vocabulary in general.
The most important thing is to get into good habits. Note down as many words as you can, and put time aside to review them from time to time. This will help them go into your long-term memory. Speaking personally, when I read a Spanish article I highlight the words I don’t know. Then I look at them in context to see if I can work out the meaning. I don’t look up every unknown word, as that would be too time-consuming and boring. If the word seems important or comes up several times, I look it up. If I think it’s useful, I note it down on my phone or in my notebook.
As we’ve mentioned in other posts, our main advice is to try to read as many things in English as possible. It’s better to read short texts for a few minutes each day rather than trying to cram hundreds of words a few days before the exam. Set yourself realistic aims too – don’t try to learn a mountain of new vocabulary all at once. Even if you’re only learning four or five new words every day, your vocabulary will dramatically increase over time.
A good way to expand your vocabulary is by looking at ‘word families’. A word family consists of the words connected to the ‘root word’. So what does that mean? Well, let’s look at an example. If the root word is ‘photograph’, the word family includes photography, photographer, photographic, photogenic, etc. According to Stuart Webb, a professor of applied linguistics at the University of Western Ontario, native English-speakers know from 15,000 to 20,000 word families (the technical term is ‘lemma’). But again, you don’t need to learn that many!
So which words should we learn? Professor Webb says that learning 800 to 1,000 of the most frequent ‘lemmas’ will really help you speak a foreign language well. Here’s a link to the most common word families, based on a study by the British National Corpus: https://simple.wiktionary.org/wiki/Wiktionary:BNC_spoken_freq_01. It makes a very good starting-point. And if you’re interested in reading more about this, here’s a very interesting article from a BBC radio programme.
Getting to know about suffixes (word endings) will also help you enormously, and that post will be coming soon.
Variety is the spice of life!
It’s also important to read a variety of things – books, magazines, blogs, online news outlets, etc. Have you ever tried the BBC’s 6-Minute English? They take a topic and do a six-minute radio interview about it. There’s always a glossary of the most important lexis, and you can also download the scripts. This is a good way to focus on and learn new vocabulary. These short broadcasts are really great for your listening skills too.
If you use an e-reader, you’re in luck, as they have inbuilt dictionaries (you can easily install one if yours doesn’t). Even as a well-read native English speaker, there are still many words I come across that I don’t know the meaning of. With a paper book I’m usually too engrossed in the story (or too lazy!) to put it down and pick up a dictionary. But with an e-book I just press the word and up pops its definition. You can also ‘mark’ words so that you can come back later and look them up.
Use a notebook and make the vocabulary personal
These days using pen and paper might seem a bit old-fashioned, but it works for me. To record and learn new vocabulary in Spanish, I use a tiny address book that easily fits into my pocket. I don’t always write the translation, as I find other ways work better for me. If possible I’ll draw a picture to describe it. For me, that makes it much more memorable. I also put the word into a sentence so that I can see it in context. If you make the context personal to you, it’ll be even easier to remember later. Remember to note down any collocations too, as these are explicitly tested in Aptis. And include any synonyms (words with the same or similar meaning) and antonyms (opposites).
Instead of writing out lists of words, why not try using mind maps? These lend themselves really well to learning ‘word families’ or themes.
You’ll find a step-by-step explanation of this mind map in a video in Using Mind Maps. It will give you lots more ideas.
Some people find using flashcards useful. You can find them on plenty of websites, like www.cram.com or www.duolingo.com. We feel that these make a good addition to vocabulary learning, but they’re not a replacement for other techniques. One of the clever things about these online flashcards is that they use algorithms to create ‘spaced repetition systems’. This involves showing you the same flashcard until you feel you’ve learnt the word.
In the 1880s the German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, who pioneered the study of memory, discovered that we forget most of what we learn in only a few hours. He realised how important it is to review new words over and over again. By gradually increasing the time between each review, the new language becomes internalised and stays in your long-term memory.
There are also lots of memory techniques that you can use to learn new vocabulary and remember it. One of these is mnemonics. As a part-time mentalist, I really like them, but they don’t work for everyone. They’re like shortcuts to your brain; you make associations for the word that you’re trying to learn and remember. For them to be effective and to work well, you need to make them yourself. They should be memorable and/or funny.
Let me give you one of my own associations. For example, the Spanish word for ‘success’ is ‘éxito’, and of course it makes me think of ‘exit’ in English. So I picture a world-famous film-star leaving the stage while the audience claps and cheers. I make this image as bold as possible. In my mind she’s holding an Oscar and a bouquet of flowers.
Try using a language corpus
This can be a good starting point for deciding what lexis to learn. A corpus is a collection of words – usually the most common words in a language. Do a websearch for ‘the 500 most used words in English’ and you’ll see what we mean. The problem with this is that it only gives you a list.
And don’t forget /prənʌsi:’eɪʃən/!
Pronunciation of new words is important too. Remember that English spelling and pronunciation don’t usually match, so it’s a good idea to use phonetics to help you. We always use the phonemic chart in class, and we recommend that our students learn how to use it too. That way you can see when certain letters are or aren’t pronounced. For example, when you see the the phonemic transcription of daughter: /dɔ:tə/, you can see there’s no ‘gh’ sound. OUP has a great picture-based method to help you learn this method. It might look like secret code at first, but believe us, it helps!
Or you could use the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet). But if you don’t have the time or the inclination to do this, develop your own phonetic system. Note down how the word sounds to you in your own language when you learn new vocabulary. Or note down words that rhyme with it – for example, daughter and water.
So get that notebook out, and start getting into some good habits!
To read our recommendations on what kind of vocabulary you need to learn, go to Aptis Vocabulary and Topics.
And remember to check out our Top Tips on Speaking, Writing and Reading too.