If you think about it, simply memorizing words is a somewhat easy- I say this with caution- task. You’re smart and motivated and excited for that day when you get to have a conversation with other English speakers, but there are still many non-native English speakers who think that storing a whole bunch of words in their heads will help them hold a meaningful conversation. Unfortunately, language doesn’t work that way; memorization is only one way to study the vocabulary necessary to hold a conversation.
So then, what can non-native English speakers do to acquire more meaningful vocabulary? Simply put, the words that matter the most are the ones we hear and use every day, so it makes sense to learn from our everyday lives.
Even native English speakers continue to learn new words, not by memorizing a dictionary, but by doing normal everyday tasks.
There are countless everyday resources from which we can learn:
- Books, magazines, and newspapers
- Blogs (whether they’re about fashion trends or the hottest cars)
- TV shows (even reality TV!)
- Movies (take advantage of those subtitles!)
- Facebook statuses
- Conversations between friends
- Interactions with service providers (like buying a bus ticket, ordering a coffee, or making a dinner reservation)
You get the idea- the opportunity to learn is everywhere! Yes, opening a dictionary and looking up definitions and reviewing synonyms is important- you can’t always expect to know the exact meaning of a word without ever looking it up- but the key to being able to communicate in English, or in any second language, is to know how words are used in context.
Studying vocabulary doesn’t always have to be a serious and dreadful obligation; it can be fun and should be interactive. Make an effort to gradually build your vocabulary through tasks that you enjoy. The world is filled with words—why limit your resources to just flashcards? Take what you hear, pay attention to how it’s being used, look up the literal meaning, use it on your own, and play around with it even. You’d be surprised as to how much you learn by just opening your eyes and ears a little more!
Rebecca is a Pedagogy & Curriculum Associate and a graduate student at Teachers College, Columbia University pursuing a Master of Arts in Applied Linguistics. Rebecca finds inspiration for her work in the way people interact with others and with their environments. Her focus is on sociolinguistic features of human interaction that can be integrated into the way people learn.