Learn the most common words they say and you will soon master the English language.
However, when we look at those words, what a miserable / drab conversation maker you will be! (see the list below).
A lack of vocabulary can be so frustrating for a language learner.
A few years ago while learning Spanish, because I lacked the word “central heating” – I had to explain the whole concept.
Very painful for all involved.
Better vocabulary can increase your job prospects, and your social life. According to this academic report.
Repetition is another curse of having a poor lexical resource.
Repetition can make your writing dull, and in English tests this dull repetition can cost you points.
Improving your vocabulary will not only improve your fluency but also help you breeze through books.
On average you need between 8,000 – 9,000 word families to enjoy reading a book (source).
This is the guide I wish I had when I started learning my language learning journey.
What is vocabulary?
In the Longman dictionary of contemporary English, vocabulary is defined as “all the words that someone knows or uses” in a target language (2003, p.1843).
However, have a look at the top words in English and the list is rather dry:
Likewise, according to this post by learning the top 3000 words in English you should be able to understand 90% of everyday conversations.
So where do we start?
Personally, I think the lists above are definitely useful but real language acquisition starts from real memories and real use.
For example, there are certain words I learned in Spanish that have a full unforgettable story behind them, so how do we make our vocabulary unforgettable? (scroll down for the answer).
The plot of Slumdog Millionaire is the best example of this, whereby every answer from the main character (J. Malik) entailed a colourful backstory.
Why is vocabulary important?
Mr Sykes, my old geography teacher drilled into us:
“Never, ever, use the word nice. It’s so bland, dry and worthless.” A rich vocabulary brings more colours, flavours, and energy to your world.
Improve your reading comprehension
Don’t haphazardly blunder through a text, extract every milligram of lexicon the writer served up for you.
An expansive vocabulary will also increase your reading speed, vital for high-stakes English exams such as IELTS.
You can also improve your information processing speed by increasing the number of words you know (source).
Important for Language Development
When I lived in Spain I used to relish defining a Spanish word to a Spaniard.
Although it only happened twice, I still remember both occasions.
You see, expanding your vocabulary is how you will move forward in the language.
I regularly teach my IELTS students to upgrade their essay vocabulary by searching for bland overused terms such as “good, bad, big, small”, and replacing them with higher-level terms.
Working for my dad’s shop in our village drives me insane.
Because of this style of communication:
“Put them over there next to the other ones, then get cracking on with the others when you’ve done that”.
I used to feel so dumb working there because I had no idea what was going on.
A better way to communicate would be to improve the vocabulary in the sentence and say something like:
“Put the wine boxes next to the boxes of whisky, then get cracking on the others [next to the warehouse entrance], after you’ve moved the previous ones.”
How to expand your English vocabulary
“Few activities are as delightful as learning new vocabulary.”
― Tim Gunn, Tim Gunn: A Guide to Quality, Taste & Style
Vocabulary Tips from My Personal Experience
- Most new words come with a story behind them. Capture this story to improve recall. For example, to this day I remember that in German, Thursday is Donnerstag and it’s related to thunder (donner).
- Try and test different methods. In one academy in Spain they just use Flashcards, perhaps this works for you. Try it. Other methods include the Gold List Method, Callan Method, or even the Michel Thomas course. You will probably find that one method is great to get you started but then you outgrow it.
- Repetition is the mother of all learning. Review your vocabulary regularly, and review your terms in context rather than in lists.
How to Move Vocabulary from Receptive to Productive
According to a 2015 study in Kurdistan, researchers found that the key to moving receptive vocabulary into productive vocabulary came down to the Kramsch procedure of vocabulary learning.
Below are the summarised points, from a teacher’s perspective.
- Let the students choose their own vocabulary and topics rather than using standard lists.
- Allow students to self-learn the word in a productive fashion such as using it in a real situation. This is more effective than receptively learning the word.
- Sharing, recycling and reusing the words in authentic situations consolidates progress.
Here are some more tips to help you accelerate your vocabulary acquisition:
- Don’t just read more, get addicted. Find a “page-turner” novel that keeps you coming back for more. Pro tip: Find a lower-level book that you can read faster to keep your momentum going forward.
- Learn word roots. Knowing the formulas to expand and reduce words will exponentially increase your vocabulary. For example, the prefix RE means to go back to something like REview it.
- Immersion. Nowadays it is incredibly easy to just immerse yourself in English language media. Take advantage of it. Listen to podcasts, audiobooks, and internet radio.
Just remember to keep the exercise active, record and make notes, rather than degenerating into a couch potato!
Five essential English vocabulary word lists
“Each day I will accomplish one thing on my to-do list.”
― Lailah Gifty Akita
Although I am not a massive fan of prescribed lists of vocabulary terms, I know that for some they are like gold.
I’ve put together the lists I believe students would like to see when digging into the English language.
Here are the 1000 most commonly used words in English.
In this academic word list (AWL) Averil Coxhead at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, reviewed academic texts and identified the 570 most common word families.
Here is a more specialised collection of lists, all organised by topic and difficulty which probably makes it more practical than the lists above:
In this learner dictionary, the editors identified their top 3000 words and again organised them by topic, making it more accessible.
For the professionals amongst us, here is a very complete list of business vocabulary terms: Business English Vocabulary
I’ll get into trouble for adding this one but I don’t care. It’s fun and we all know laughter accelerates learning. At UrbanDictionary.com you can organise by category, not a bad way to start at all!
Now that you have these lists what is the next step? Copying them out? Translating them? Personally I found using flashcards to be very effective indeed. This last resource is a link to Quizlet, one of my favourite vocabulary-learning sites on the web.
The most common words of 2020!
“Handle them carefully, for words have more power than atom bombs.”
-Pearl Strachan Hurd
Here are the most common words of 2020, for me they all seem logical except number 7.
- Face mask
- Social distancing
- Trade war
- Flatten the curve
- Identity politics
- Zoom Meeting
- Donald Trump
For the full list visit the Irish times here.
“School exams are memory tests, in real-world no one is going to stop you from referring a book to solve a problem.”
― Amit Kalantri, Wealth of Words
Now, without monitoring, measuring your improvement will be incredibly hard. These sites below will help you by testing what you do and don’t know.
Love this site! In 4 minutes you can find how much of the English language you actually know.
I had to try this, fortunately I got 93%!
At the Cambridge English site you can take online tests, these do not specifically test your vocabulary but test your reading skills in context. Personally I believe this to be much more realistic. Take your test here:
My final recommendation is Quizlet. Why? Because not only can you add the words you want to learn, but it will also make games and quizzes from your own lists.
This all resonates with what we said earlier about finding and using material YOU find interesting.
By taking control of your own learning and finding your personal WHY, you will progress infinitely faster.
Additional English vocabulary resources
Additional English vocabulary resources
Overall as we have read, improving your vocabulary can help your career, your social life, and your confidence, and even open up an entirely new culture.
Just remember to keep it as personal as possible, avoid the standard lists and make your own. Take active control of your own learning!