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Tips to learn New English Words

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Tips to learn New English Words

Tips to learn New English Words
Admin - Apr 19 2015

I think there is the need to share some tips that I believe will be very helpful for our TOEFL and IELTS students and teachers to learn how to teach new vocabulary and memorize them successfully.

How to learn foreign language vocabulary

Learning vocabulary is the most time-intensive part of learning a foreign language. I have prepared a section about how to study new vocabulary and how to memorize it. An article explains also how many words do you need to learn.

Learning vocabulary is the biggest part of learning a foreign language.

I. How to study new vocabulary

There are several ways to study new vocabulary and this section will present you the most effective and time-tested ways. They can be used in combination and you will not use the same at all stages of learning. Remembering vocabulary you studied is treated in this section.

  • Flash cards
  • Reading Bilingual Texts

When you are a moderately advanced student, you can learn new vocabulary with bilingual texts. These texts take several shapes. The most ubiquitous, at least for important languages, are books where a novel or short story is presented in the target language on the left and in your mother tongue on the right.

With careful comparison of both the original text and the translation, you can learn a lot about the language”s structure and vocabulary. Remembering words requires re-reading many times the text but can bring good results. For many languages you can now find audio books so that you can both read the original text and hear it pronounced by a native at the same time.

There are other ways to get bilingual texts. You can buy a regular novel in your target language, then buy a regular translation in another language you speak. For instance, you buy ”Harry Potter” in Portuguese and buy another copy of a regular English language edition. This is less convenient to use than the bilingual editions and you will not have cultural and philological footnotes, but it gives you a much bigger choice of books at reasonable prices. And you don”t have to choose a novel.

Another way is to find one of these newspaper websites that either translate foreign language articles into your target language (for Russian you can use www.inopressa.ru) or a regular newspaper that has English translations of some articles (for Serbo-Croatian you can use www.nacional.hr). Newspaper articles are easier and more appealing as they are shorter, use less vocabulary and offer a larger choice of topics renewed on a daily basis.

  • Reading regular texts with a dictionary

You are likely to learn most of your target language by reading texts written in that language. The most direct way to do so is to use a dictionary. The big problem of reading with a dictionary is that the number of unknown words will soon exhaust you if you look every one up. There are several strategies to deal with that problem:

Look up every single word for the first page, then try to understand the rest by context only. This works fine for technical articles, where all of the important words of the article are usually used in the first page of the text and then come again and again.

Look up only the most important words. This is a actually a mix of the context-only reading and the dictionary-reading. You are bound to do that if you read for any length of time. Unless you are very advanced, you will not be able to figure out each new word by its context only, and you will not have enough energy to look up every single word either. There are just too many, and if you do that you would read only a couple paragraphs a day instead of reading several pages.

Use an electronic dictionary. If you don”t mind reading texts online, this is a great tool and reduces very much the burden of looking each word up. Consequently, you will be able to look up many more words than if you use a paper dictionary. In addition, you will also be able to make flash cards using your computer with very little effort. Electronic dictionaries come in various shapes. Some are handheld, some are just websites where you need to type the word to look it up. The best ones become integrated with your operating system so that all you need to do to look up a word is right click on it.

  • Reading regular texts with no dictionary

Reading a text in a foreign language with no dictionary at all is a thrilling but demanding endeavor. It is not so easy to figure out unknown words by their context only unless you are quite advanced in the language. Apart from a sharp mind and undivided attention, the key success factors are:

low percentage of unknown words. Even if you are a Da Vinci Code genius, you will succeed in deciphering a new word more often when the number of new words is low. For instance if I hide the really rare words in the phrase ”Reading a text in a foreign language with no dictionary at all is a XXXXX but demanding XXXXX. ”, you can still figure out the general sense of the phrase. But if I hide more word, ”Reading a text in a foreign language with no dictionary at all is a XXXXX but XXXX XXXXX. ”, it becomes more obscure. You will be able to read on, but you will be missing part of the text.

strong context helps very much. For instance, if you are reading a technical article about spiral staircases, you can reasonably expect unknown words to fall within a fairly short list. The phrase itself will usually let you know which one it is.

A good knowledge of word roots and cognates will help you guess the meaning of unknown words. These would not be enough in itself, but with additional clues from the context, a root can be all you need to find out what a word means.

Seasoned polyglots are often very enthusiastic about this way of developing their knowledge of a language. I think the reason is their extensive knowledge of cognates in other languages that help them figure out more easily what words mean.

  • Language tapes

You can now buy many different commercial tapes to learn languages. Some even focus on the vocabulary itself. The advantage of learning vocabulary with tapes is that you hear them pronounce and you can use them while driving, jogging, cooking or other activities where reading is impossible. The disadvantage is that you cannot choose which words you wish to learn and have to deal with a rythm that is not set by you. Nothing, of course, prevents you from studying vocabulary with another technique as a complement.

  • CD-ROMS

There are many CD-ROM software available now for important languages. They usually offer various tools to help you learn vocabulary. I find them moderately useful but are quite good for learning how to pronounce a word correctly, as you can click a hundred times on the same word and hear it pronounced. Some software let you record your own voice for comparison. The games I have seen on such software are usually quite silly. The most important representative is Rosetta Stone, which contains a lot of material.

II. How to memorize new words

The biggest challenge when studying vocabulary is to actually remember the words you just learned. Some words seem to stick to your memory immediately whereas you seem to always forget others.

There are several ways to improve your memory when learning foreign language vocabulary. None is foolproof and all require some work, but with those tips you will be able to learn more efficiently:

When meeting a new word, you need to make it stick to its meaning in your mind. You can picture your memory as a giant Christmas trees, with many branches representing each a part of your memory. To remember a new word, you need to hang it on a branch, existing or newly created. It is extremely difficult to remember more than a few new words when they are totally out of the blue and not tied in any way to something else that is already in your memory. Fortunately, there are many ways to tie a new word to something in your memory:

  • Using cognates and false friends

Many words in a foreign language will be similar to words in a language you already know. Sure, some of these will be ”false friends”, such as French ”éventuellement” (meaning ”maybe”) and English ”eventually” who look very similar but have different meanings. But most cognates – words that look similar in two different languages – are real friends. That means that to remember them all you need is see the similarity with the other word you already know. You will do this without having to think for most words (French ”le restaurant” is English ”the restaurant”). Other similarities will come to some people earlier than others (cat/chat, to flirt/computer fleurette, etc…).

With some basic etymological knowledge, but you can also investigate a little closer words that at first do not seem to be similar in any way, but are. For instance, French and English have many shared words who only differ by one letter. Where French uses ”G”, English puts a ”W”. To learn that French for ”warren” is ”garenne”, all you need is replace the ”g” by a ”w”. The same goes for William/Guillaume, war/guerre, warranty/guarantie, ward/guarde, wasp/guêpe, wage/gage, etc…

The more you study languages, the more attractive it will be to notice these hidden similarities and to use them to recall new foreign language words.

  • Word roots

Foreign language vocabulary is not made of random combinations of letters. Many words in a language are derived from other words in the same language. These words can often be grouped around a common root. If you learn the root and recognize it in new words, it will considerably help you to remember the new word.

For instance, with the old Latin word root ”pater” – father, you can learn many words in Romance languages. In French you could learn patrimoine (estate of the father), patrie(fatherland), patronyme (name of the father), etc… These words roots work in different ways in each language. For important languages, you can often find a book that presents the most common word roots and lists examples of words that use these roots.

  • Mental hooks

One of the most efficient tricks to learn a new word in a foreign language that you can relate to nothing you know, is to use a mental hook. These ”mental hooks” are vivid mental images made up to tie a new word to something you will remember. For instance, to remember Russian for big – ”bolshoi”, you can think of watching a show of gigantic balls, BALL-SHOW.

The more incongruous, the better. They don”t need to make sense or be perfect as they will only be used by you. If the hook is good enough for you to remember the word, that”s all that counts. The good thing about mental hooks is that they are environmentally friendly. After a few months, they will rot away and you will remember only the word and its meaning but forget the mental image you created to remember them.

  • Context

Using words in context enhances greatly the chance you will remember them. This can be as simple as reading a text where the words are used, memorizing a dialog from a film or a language program or learning a song. You can also be exposed to the word in a memorable context.

For instance you travel to Russia and see shop signs with ”obuv” with shoes in the shop windows. You will probably recall the Russian word for ”shoes”. If you have a conversation with somebody in your target language, the thrill of speaking in that language will probably help you recall a few words that were repeated several times during that conversation. Here the context serves as a strong mental branch on which you can hang the memory of the word.

It is always a good idea to learn words with a phrase as an example. For instance, if you learn that French for ”to eat” is ”manger”, it is better to learn ”He already ate”/”Il a déjà mangé” or ”She is eating an apple”/”Elle mange une pomme” than just learning the word alone. The phrase will help you recall the word better and improve your chances of using it correctly when speaking. Depending on how you work on vocabulary learning, you can either find example phrases in dictionaries, or cut and paste a phrase you found in a real text you were reading.

  • Repetition

Repetition is essential to remember words over the long run. This is not easy to implement, but with a little discipline and organization you can make it work. If you are using flash cards, make it a rule to go over the flash cards you mastered for example after one week, then one month, then six months. It is not a big job to repeat flash cards you are supposed to know, and you should know have the fear that you are opening a can of worms that will undermine your confidence in your existing knowledge of the language. The only thing you will achieve is to reinforce your vocabulary skills. It is not uncommon for people to master perfectly a list of words for a school exam, then forget most of them after a few days. That is not problem is all you want is pass a school exam on a specific day, but if what you want is learn a foreign language, you need more.

If you learn new vocabulary with a newspaper and dictionary, it is a good idea to go back to last month”s articles with no dictionary and see how much you understand.

If you are learning with Pimsleur, the tape will take care of the repetion as it is a basic principle of their system, called timed interval repetition. Words learned with Pimsleur usually stick to your memory, provided you do one tape a day.

III. How many words do I need to learn?

One of the most common questions I get asked is ”How many words do I need to learn?”. The answer is of course to learn any many as you can, but I can be more precise.

Some words are very common while others are rarely ever seen. This means that you can understand a large part of most texts with only a limited number of words. How many exactly is a question that you can answer with a lexemic frequency dictionary. These dictionaries are made by taking an extremely large corpus of texts (books, newspapers, etc…), grouping each words by lexemes and listing how many times they came up in the corpus. A lexeme is a ”unique” word that does not depend on conjugation or plurals or declensions. For instance the lexeme ”to be” would cover ”am, is, are, were” etc…

These lexemic frequency dictionaries were made during the Cold War for the purpose of computerized automatic surveillance of other countries – especially Russia.

I have one such dictionary in digital format for Russian. With the files I was able to create a graph of frequency versus rank:

The result is that:
the    75 most common words make up 40% of occurrences
the   200 most common words make up 50% of occurrences
the   524 most common words make up 60% of occurrences
the 1257 most common words make up 70% of occurrences
the 2925 most common words make up 80% of occurrences
the 7444 most common words make up 90% of occurrences
the 13374 most common words make up 95% of occurrences
the 25508 most common words make up 99% of occurrences

This shows clearly that vocabulary frequency follows both the law of Pareto (80% of occurrences by only 20% of words) and the law of diminishing returns.

So yes you can probably read any text with only 3000 or 5000 words, but you will always miss some key words. You can”t really say that all you need is 3000 words although this certainly gets you to a more or less autonomous stage in your learning, from which you can learn many words by their context.

Lexemic dictionaries also exist for other languages but are hard to find. Non-lexemic frequency dictionaries are useless as they would list you every single variation of words. They are not usable by a language learner.

You can use such a dictionary (with the words and the frequency) to discover new, frequent words which you can learn, or to estimate the size of your vocabulary.


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Billy Huft U on Feb 10, 2016 12:20 pm said:

Have tried a few of those strategies suggested and really work amazingly. However, each learner will find different and specific results. Thanks for the article. It surely helped !

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