Learning and retaining vocabulary is a difficult task for students of any language. I am sure you are no exception. But it is possible to overcome
the difficulties relating to your vocabulary development by educating yourself about vocabulary learning.
The first step to improving your vocabulary is to think about how you approach expanding your vocabulary. The biggest mistake you may be making is trying to learn too many words at once. You should aim to learn words that are commonly used or are related to your particular job or life. You can determine how common a word is by using a dictionary such as the “Collins COBUILD.” This dictionary uses a scale from zero to five black diamonds based on how common a word is. (The dictionary refers to this scale as “frequency bands.”) If a word has five black diamonds, it is considered very common. In fact, you probably know all of these words already. If a word is given no diamonds at all, it means that it is less frequently used. For example, “large” has five black diamonds, “huge” has three, and “gargantuan” has no black diamonds. It would be wise to just ignore zero-diamond words such as “gargantuan” unless, of course, you know all the four-diamond words or the word applies to your particular job, hobby, etc.
Another mistake students make when using a dictionary is only learning definitions. To use a word correctly, you need to know much more than the meaning. You need to know how to pronounce the word correctly. You need to know if the word has a negative, positive, or neutral meaning. For example, “determined,” “stubborn,” and “resolute” have similar definitions, but “determined” is a neutral word, “stubborn” is a negative word, and “resolute” is positive. Some dictionaries tell you if a word is such, but you can figure it out for yourself by looking at the example sentences provided for the word. The example sentences are written to further illustrate the word’s true meaning, and they will show common situations in which the word is usually used. To use a word correctly, you also need to know the words that are used before or after the word. This is also revealed in the example sentences. For instance, if you look up the word “marry,” you will see the pattern “married to” as in “Fred is married to Sue.” You will not see “married with Sue”－a common error here in Taiwan.
Another excellent and fun way to learn how to use a word is to read. There are many books published for non-native speakers on a variety of subjects at a variety of levels. They are small and cheap－perfect to put in your briefcase or car. You can take them out and read them when you’re waiting for your next meeting or for your kids. Your kids may even enjoy listening to you read these books aloud to them. Or perhaps, you could choose children’s books written in English. They too are an excellent way to help you figure out how to put words together correctly and use them in the correct situation. But remember reading isn’t to teach you the definitions of words, but to teach you how to use words you already know. And you should choose topics you are interested in. It should not be work. It should be enjoyable.
All in all, improving your vocabulary should not be an impossible task, nor should it be unpleasant. First, be selective. Don’t try to learn many new words at once. Learn the most common words first. They will be the ones you’ll need. Once you have chosen a word, learn it well. Learn how to say it, when to use it, and what words to use with it. The best way to do this is by reading, and if you choose the right book, learning should be fun.
(Written by the English Coordinator at the Language Training and Testing Center)