There are about 170,000 words in the English language but any one person uses only 20,000 to 30,000 of them. That still seems like a pretty big number. It is, however, possible to learn this number of words. The most important thing to know is that it takes time. It won’t happen overnight but it will happen.

How do I build my vocabulary?

There is a saying in English: “Rome wasn’t built in a day”. Rome, the capital city of Italy was the heart of an enormous empire and is a huge city full of amazing buildings. It took many years to build, a little bit at a time. The English language, with its vast vocabulary, has developed over a very long time, one little bit at time. You can build your own personal vocabulary one little bit at a time. It takes time. It will take months. Every day your vocabulary will increase and you will be pleasantly surprised how much it has grown over a relatively short period of time.

Words are the building blocks of language. From words we build sentences, paragraphs and conversations. The more words you know, the greater the range of topics you can discuss and the more different conversations you can take part in. When you begin to learn a language, the huge number of different words can be a bit scary. However, you only need to know some of the words, not all of them.

How do I use flashcards?

Everyone learns in different ways. An old-fashioned way to learn vocabulary is with flashcards. These are words with a word in English on one side and the word in your language on the other side. You can keep them in a small box or on a key-ring and work through them two or three times a day until you have learned them. Once you know a word , you can remove it from the box and replace it with some new vocabulary that you are trying to learn. People who really like learning with physical objects (kinaesthetic learners) like this way of learning vocabulary. 

Can I use digital apps to learn vocabulary?

There are, of course, digital alternatives. There are really good apps available, such our E2 English as Anki and Memrise, that are specifically designed for learning vocabulary in another language. These are a kind of virtual set of flashcards that can be set to rotate in a certain pattern to best help you learn the words. 

What other ways can I use to learn vocabulary?

Another way to learn vocabulary is by testing yourself. You can do this by making lists with the words in English in one column down the left side of the page and a translation in a column down the right side of the page. When you are ready to test yourself, cover the English words and try to remember them using the translation as a guide. You can find really good ready-made lists online.

Some people like to learn new vocabulary by repeating words, writing them down perhaps ten times and saying them aloud. This kind of “parrot-fashion” learning really suits some people and works well for them. As we said earlier, everyone learns differently.

It is also good to think of “chunks” of English rather than just single words. It is good to also write down phrases like “raining heavily”, rather than learning “rain” and “heavily” separately. Another good idea is to learn “word families”, for example, “study”, “student”, “studious” or “memory”, “memorize”, “remember”. Alternatively, you can group vocabulary about a particular topic together. It is good to keep a vocabulary notebook. It can either be on paper or on your phone. You can look at it when you are on the bus or train or first or last thing in the morning. Repetition will help everything to sink into your brain.

Is using my vocabulary important to learning?

The more that you use vocabulary, the more you will learn it. Once words are firmly lodged in your personal vocabulary “bank”, they will stay there forever. If you are in an English-speaking environment, keep listening and looking around you. There is a wealth of vocabulary on display in shops and on signs. Write words down and practice using them.

Remember that the word “vocabulary” is uncountable. “I want to learn a lot of new vocabularies” is INCORRECT. We can say “I want to learn a lot of new words” or “I want to learn a lot of new vocabulary”. I often hear or read students using the word “vocabularies”. It is INCORRECT.

What is the best way to learn new vocabulary?

In my opinion, the best way to learn new vocabulary is by reading. The more you read, the more vocabulary you will see in context. Read, read, read. Similarly, watching movies and television series with English subtitles is an excellent way to both hear and see new words and to make the connection between pronunciation and spelling. Watch, watch, watch.

Have fun learning vocabulary. It will take time. A little bit at a time, you will soon build an impressive vocabulary.

Peter Ward