Students often ask me, “How can I learn English better and faster?” and I have trouble giving them an answer. I have taught English for more than 20 years and I have been a student of languages for more than 30, but I am still not sure how to answer their question. The problem, I think, is that they are looking for the one way to learn a language. But learning a language effectively requires that we use a number of different methods. In this blog, I want to address what I think is the single hardest part about learning a language to a high level—vocabulary—and to suggest a number of ways that learners can improve their knowledge and skills in this area.
Learning vocabulary is a real problem
In my experience as both a teacher and a student, the most time-consuming part of learning a language is usually vocabulary. People often worry about the problems of learning a new alphabet, script or other writing system, but although this is a problem in the beginning, it is really something in which we can make a lot of progress in just hours. There are some exceptions, Chinese being the most famous. But if someone wants to learn Arabic, Greek, Russian, Burmese, or some other script, ten or twenty hours of careful practice spread out over a few weeks will usually be enough. People also often worry about grammar, and it’s true that this will take longer. Here, it’s a matter of many months of practice.
But when it comes to learning vocabulary, it’s a matter of years, not of weeks or months. Many language learners discover that when they’ve reached a high intermediate level, they’re able to discuss, with some difficulty, many topics, but that even books written for ten-year-old native speakers are often too hard for them to understand. Why? When I ask students to take a page from a text and then to use two different colors to mark the grammar and the vocabulary problems they have with this text, they quickly see that they usually have only a small number of grammar problems per page, but they might have 20 or 50 or even more words whose meanings they cannot understand.
Reading even a book for a fifth grader requires a knowledge of thousands of head words. Ordinary conversation probably uses no more than one or two thousand head words. This means that simply relying on conversation will not give us a vocabulary large enough to read even texts that teenage native speakers can understand. If our goal is to be able to read university level materials, our work will be even harder.
Of course, if the language we are studying has a vocabulary that is closely related to a language we already know, then learning vocabulary won’t be so difficult. Spanish and French share a large percentage of their vocabulary. Both are descended from Latin and both have borrowed many technical words from Latin, so a person who knows one will find it quite easy to learn the vocabulary of the other. Similarly, most North Indian languages are closely related. Hindi, Bengali, Nepali, Gujarati, and many other languages are both descended from Sanskrit and have borrowed many of their specialized words from Sanskrit. A knowledge of one of these languages helps immensely in learning any of the others.
But when we are learning a language whose vocabulary has few connections with other languages that we know, we will have to spend hundreds, if not thousands, of hours reading, using dictionaries, memorizing, and practicing if we want to be able to function at a university level.
Learning vocabulary is a real problem. So what to do about it?
1 – Choose the right things to read
The simplest piece of advice for learning any skill is “practice…a lot.” But it’s not enough to simply practice, we must use effective practice, and this is where things start to become more difficult. In addition to the problem mentioned above—the very large number of vocabulary that must be learned—there’s another problem, namely, that to effectively learn vocabulary we need to concentrate on words that are appropriate for our level. The best way to do this is to find texts that are at the right level. If the texts are too easy, we won’t find enough new words to learn, but if the texts are too difficult, there will be too many new words and these words will often be too hard for us to use (that is, to practice) in our own speaking and writing.
The most important thing we can to do make learning vocabulary more effective is to choose texts that have about the right number of new words. Dr. Willy A Renandya is a senior lecturer at Singapore’s National Institute of Education, and he has done a great deal of research on extensive reading. He argues that the best texts to use are ones that are rather easy for the learner. What does “rather easy” mean? In percentage terms, this means that for extensive reading we should be using texts where only about 2% of the words are unknown to us. A paperback novel might have about 250 words per pages, so he suggests the Rule of Five. If the text is the size of a paperback novel, count the number of unknown words on page, and these should be fewer than five. If they are more than five, the learner will probably only be able to read a small number of pages before giving up in frustration.
There are several ways we can find such “rather easy” texts. One way is to use texts written for younger native speakers or language learners. Children’s books and school textbooks are two obvious choices. Poetry and songs will usually be harder than prose, and comic books are often not a good choice since they use so much slang.
Another source is graded readers. Graded readers are books that are written to match different levels (here called “grades”) in terms of both vocabulary and grammar. There are many publishers of graded readers: Oxford, Cambridge, National Geographic, as well as South Asian publishers. Most of them use some form of a 6-level scale to describe the difficulty of a text. They also publish a wide range of titles and genres; there’s fiction (both original and adapted), travel, science, geography, history, and many other topics. I urge my learners to start with a book at level 3 and read a few pages and apply Dr. Renandya’s Rule of Five. If the book is too hard, then they should choose a level 2 book and try it. If the book is too easy, then they should try a level 4 book.
But choosing the right level is only part of the solution. It’s also important that we chose the right kind of book. If we have a very specific purpose in learning a language, we should concentrate on texts connected with that purpose. For example, if our only interest in learning a language is to read biology texts, then we should focus on vocabulary connected with that field. Of course, we need to find levels at the right level of difficulty, so we could use graded readers about science and the environment or books for primary and secondary school students. However, if our goal is to function at the level of an educated person, we should not limit our reading. Instead, we should read texts from a variety of genres and about a variety of topics: science, fiction, travel, politics, religion, movies, food, sport, family, holidays, everything.
2 – Find the definitions
Finding the definitions sounds easy but actually can be the most boring part of learning vocabulary. There are a number of common mistakes people make but also several solutions.
The worst thing to do is to stop everyone time we find an unknown word and to then look it up in a dictionary. This completely breaks our attention. What should we do? I recommend using a highlighter (I happen to use an orange one for this purpose) to mark the unknown words as one reads. After I reach the end of the chapter, I’ll then go back and choose which of the highlighted words to actually look up in a dictionary. If I’ve chosen a book that’s not too difficult, there should be no more than five unknown words per page, which would mean perhaps 20 to 100 words per chapter.
I am a big believer in using flashcards. These are pieces of stiff paper on which we can write things that we want to memorize. I should emphasize three things. First, many language learners think that all they need to do is make flashcards and memorize the words in order to learn a language. That’s not true. We also need to practice how to use these words correctly, an issue I’ll address a bit later. A second problem is that many native speakers of English don’t like using flashcards and urge their students not to use them. In my experience, these native speakers tend to recommend that learners simply use context to guess the meanings or that they just absorb new vocabulary from books, TV, movies or other sources. In my experience, such people very often fail to learn any language to a university level. Although using context to guess meaning is very important, most learners are not able to learn thousands of words simply through methods like these. Third, many monolingual native English speakers insist that their students only use English-English dictionaries. I have little patience with this. Although once we reach an advanced or superior level, we might use such dictionaries, for lower levels the best choice is a bilingual dictionary.
Once I have finished a chapter or some other part of the text, I will choose which of the highlighted words to learn. Often I will try to learn all the words, especially if I’ve chosen a text with not too many unknown words. I use flashcards that are 3 centimeters by 6 centimeters and that are made of stiff paper like that used to make business cards. Some people prefer to use larger cards, but I find that this size, although small, is easy to hold in my hands. I write the unknown words on the cards and then I organize them alphabetically. Next, I use a dictionary to find definitions and I write these on the cards. I know that the next point will sound foolishly simple, but it’s important. When you write the definition on the card, make sure you write it on the back of the card (English on one side, and your own language on the other) and also be sure to turn the card upside down. Having the words on one side written upside down with respect to the other will make it much easier to flip the card for learning and reviewing.
3 – What kind of information to include on the flashcards?
For learners of English, it will often be necessary to write the pronunciation of the word on the flash card. If you are right handed, you will probably be holding the cards in your right hand, so I suggest writing the English word in the center of the card and then writing the pronunciation in the bottom right corner. This way, you can hide the pronunciation with your right thumb and use it to help to guess and study the pronunciation.
It also makes sense to write irregular forms (especially for verbs), and for this I recommend also using the lower right corner. And for the small number of irregular plural nouns (child – children, ox – oxen, woman – women, etc), you can do the same.
Another kind of information to include is derivatives. For example, for the card with the word reason on it, you might also want to write reasonable and rational on the English side and then to give the definition of each on the back.
It can also be useful to include together words that you often confuse. For example, beginners often have trouble with kitchen and chicken. Putting both on the same side of one card can help you practice them and can help you remember that they’re different.
4 – Collocations are important, too
Learners should certainly also include collocations. A collocation is a fancy word for a group of words that often come together. Some of these might be phrasal verbs: get over, get across, break up, break through, come off, drag into, see off. Others can be phrase: have a good time, be on top of the situation, find a solution to the problem. It’s not possible to learn all of these, but when we’re making flashcards, we should probably include some collocations.
5 – Moving beyond the dictionary: finding useful phrases
A dictionary won’t have every phrase that we want to say, but a could source to find this is our extensive reading. When we are reading, many times we’ll see a phrase or a sentence and think, “I didn’t know this before, but I can guess the meaning and I really need to learn how to say this!” When I read, I underline these useful phrases with a green ink pen (green = “go forward” in my mind, so I use green since I want to be able to go forward with these phrases). For example, when I was studying Bengali, I didn’t know how to ask “What does this word mean?” but one day I saw a sentence in a Bengali book and I was able to use context to understand that sentence. I immediately underlined it in green and also made a flashcard so I could practice it.
6 – Going from the discrete to the holistic
So far, most of the things I have emphasized have been discrete skills or discrete pieces of knowledge. “Discrete” means “in small pieces”. Although important, we also have to practice more holistic kinds of language. “Holistic” means “in wholes, not in pieces”.
One way to do this is to make short sentences from the words we see on our flashcards. We shouldn’t always just memorize these words as discrete (isolated) items but should also use them holistically (to make sentences, to have conversations). It’s especially easy to do this with collocations, but we should also try to use individual vocabulary items in sentences.
And what next?
Learners will find that after they get about a thousand or more flashcards, they will have trouble organizing them. It will no longer be possible to review all of these cards each day, nor will it be effective. Many words won’t require daily review to be remembered. In a future blog, I’ll consider the issue of how to organize one’s flashcards. I’ve been using flashcards regularly since the 1980s and for at least half a dozen languages I have more than 5,000 flashcards (for each of these languages). I agree that organizing them and also using them to maintain one’s knowledge of vocabulary is a real challenge, but I think I have some useful ideas. But that will have to wait.