There is a nice expression in English that means if you don’t practise something, you will probably forget it… Use it or lose it! Nowhere is this truer than when we speak about languages. All Ziggurat students, past and present, know that without regular and consistent practice, it is impossible to improve or even maintain a language.
However, let’s look specifically at the topic of vocabulary, and let’s take English as our example language. We all know that English has more words than most comparable world languages, so it is natural to feel a little frustrated when you have notebooks full of random words but you still feel that you can’t express yourself well because you can’t remember most of them!
In reality, increasing your vocabulary range happens in at least 3 steps, and unfortunately most students don’t get past the first:
- Step 1: Recognize the word. You’ve seen the word, you more or less understand it in context, but may have doubts about meaning, word syntax (e.g., in the case of a phrasal verb if it is transitive or separable).
- Step 2: Learn the word. This is what most students aim for. You know this word. You can give the definition, put it in a sentence, etc.
- Step 3: Use the word. Many students spend hours “learning words”, but they never actually incorporate them into their daily speaking routine.
The question is how can we get to step 3? The key is to be selective. It is impossible to know all the words in the English language. Native speakers don’t know all of them so why should you? Instead, focus on learning vocabulary that will be useful and relevant to your daily life or expressions that you like in your mother tongue and want to use in English.
One way to help you to ultimately use new vocabulary is to create a Word Bank. You could do this by using a notebook and dividing it into different sections or you could use a digital document (e.g., Word or Excel). The important thing is to create categories that are useful for you because the ultimate goal is to have a personalized dictionary.
Let’s look at an example of an intermediate student who is working in sales and needs to increase his work-related vocabulary. Possible categories could be:
- Email expressions (when contacting colleagues in Germany)
- Technical vocabulary (related to the products he is selling)
- Presenting and selling a product (functional language)
- Networking and socialising (language for conferences when meeting international colleagues)
As well as writing the translation of each word when necessary, it is important to write a sentence or definition (in the target language) to ensure that you understand the word and know how to use it. A note could also be made, when necessary, about pronunciation.
Here are some examples:
This Word Bank can be applied to whatever language you are learning, not just English.
And remember, the goal is to start using a new word or expression a day as opposed to learning one. Use it or lose it!
By Jenny Smedley, Teacher Coordinator