Everybody knows that you need to learn lots and lots of words to improve your English. But what is the best way to do this?
Some people might try to learn new words by memorising lists from textbooks or by reading the dictionary.
However, this way does not help you know how to use those words in a way that sounds natural to native speakers.
This is similar to having a lot of Facebook friends, but not really knowing them very well, or not being able to call on each person for help if you need it; it looks good on paper, but it’s not very practical in a real life.
To learn how to use a word, you need to see it used in a realistic situation (in context).
Learning words in context will:
- help you know which other words and phrases you can combine them with to sound more like a native speaker (such as collocations, idioms and phrasal verbs – see below)
- give you an immediate pay back (entertainment or new knowledge) than a dictionary
So, in a nutshell, you should read and listen to as much English as you can in a context that is meaningful to you.
Some readily available contexts are novels, newspaper articles, blogs, conversations on television or movies, or songs.
Collocations, idioms and phrasal verbs
Some words can go together with certain words but not with others. Some of these are called collocations, some idioms, and others phrasal verbs. There are many types of collocations, including adjective+noun collocations, verb+noun collocations, adverb+adjective collocations, etc.
For example, in English, you can say:
- tall building (not high building)
- tall person (not high person)
- high mountain (not tall mountain)
- heavy rain (not big rain)
- have or throw a party (not make or do a party)
- make an effort (not do an effort)
- truly, madly, or deeply in love (not tightly or strongly in love)
Did you notice the collocation readily available that I used in my sentence above the collocations section? This is a commonly used ‘adverb+adjective’ collocation. Even commonly used is a collocation.
Perhaps the most difficult-to-remember collocations are dependent prepositions.
- I generally prefer to focus on learning vocabulary rather than grammar, but it often depends on my mood.
- I’m quite good at knowing when to use at and when to use with. But I’m not so good with other collocations.
Did you also notice in a nutshell above? This is another type of commonly occurring words called an idiom.
Whenever you read or listen to English in context, you should try to make an effort to notice these word combinations yourself, and jot them down.
Jot down is a third type of word grouping, called a phrasal verb.
What to read or listen to
Ultimately, to learn fastest, the texts you read or listen to should be:
- at the right level for you — not too easy for you that you don’t learn anything new, and not too difficult that make you want to give up. You can read dialogues in your textbooks, or stories written at your own level known as graded readers)
- chosen for pleasure (personal interest), or somehow useful or necessary for your work or career