If you are new here please read this first.
In this article we’ll look at how important it is to acquire new vocabulary in context, and how much time you may be wasting learning new words separately, just by learning meanings of new words or even worse – learning them through a translation in your native language. I’ve been discussing it on my blog and in my videos quite a lot, but I’ve never actually brought up certain examples to show you the effectiveness of learning new English words through context.
So, let’s do an experiment first.
It’s very important you participate in this because if you don’t, you won’t be able to feel the difference between learning new vocabulary with and without context, so please follow my instructions, all right? 😉
Basically you’ll have to make effort to memorize a few quite sophisticated English adjectives but in case you know a few or even all of those words, please don’t be offended! I’m not trying to insult your intelligence by making assumptions about your English vocabulary; I’ll be doing my best to pick out a few English words that aren’t heard that often in normal daily conversations or in media.
Now, please read the following five English words with the corresponding explanations and try to do your best to memorize those words and their meanings:
Detrimental – causing damage, harm or injury.
Untenable – being such that defense or maintenance is impossible.
Precarious – dangerously lacking in security or stability.
Impertinent – rude, lacking good manners.
Adverse – opposite to one’s interests or welfare; harmful or unfavorable.
So, these were the five adjectives and I have to confess that I purposefully chose these words because they all describe something negative just to make it more difficult for you to memorize them!
But if you think it was unfair and I should have given you words describing different concepts so that you’d have a better chance of memorizing them, wait till you see how EASY it’s going to be for you to remember these new English words if you learn them contextually!
So now read the descriptions of those words and try to recall what the respective adjectives were. Write them down on a piece of paper and number them 1 to 5. And please don’t cheat – focus only on the paragraph below and don’t try to look down where the answer is written! 😉
- Rude, lacking good manners – …
- Causing damage, harm or injury – …
- Opposite to one’s interests or welfare; harmful or unfavorable – …
- Being such that defense or maintenance is impossible – …
- Dangerously lacking in security or stability – …
Now, please compare your answers with the list below and see how many of the adjectives you got right:
Well, how well did you do? I hope you got some of them right – and well done if you could remember all five adjectives despite my attempts to make if as difficult as possible!
Anyway, what I’m trying to prove here today is that it’s very important to acquire new English vocabulary in context, so I’d like you to think about how effectively you could use these five words in your English conversations, or in writing.
How likely do you think it is that you will start using these new English words when you speak with other English speakers?
Do you think you could easily blend them into sentences as you speak?
I hate to disappoint you, but personally I think you couldn’t, and I guess you’ve come to the same conclusion yourself, am I not right?
So where’s the problem? Why is that we, foreigners, when learning new English words the traditional way, struggle to use them in actual conversations? And why if we do use them, our speech is quite often very hesitant and we keep thinking of what would be the best fitting word to use when describing a certain concept, event, person or a thing?
The answer is quite simple, my friend! When you learn a meaning of a new English word just on its own, it’s very difficult for your mind to create a relationship between that word and other English words in your mind ❗
There are probably dozens of very similar English words that you already know and most importantly – you’ve been using them in certain situations and certain context so it’s much easier for your mind to stick with what you already know than to use that new English word.
Also, you may find it hard to speak fluently when trying to use such new vocabulary words because you have to spend too much time analyzing if that particular word can be used in a certain context. You basically have to go back to that word’s description like a dictionary entry in your mind and see if it fits in the particular sentence.
And another huge problem is – how do we know that we use the particular word right? I guess you already know that we can’t use English words the same way we’d use the respective words in our native languages because every language has its own unique way of using certain words and if you just create word strings as a direct translation from your language, you may come up with silly things in English!
So the million dollar question is:
How can we memorize new English words effectively and then use them like native English speakers?
Before I answer this question, let me introduce you to a new concept.
Imagine that every word in the English language has little hooks attached to them and when you form a sentence, words are hooking up with each other. Now, imagine that certain words are more likely to hook up with each other and less with others, so, for instance, a word combination ‘keep in touch’ is what native English speakers would say because these three words are normally hooked up with each other. If you try to replace the word ‘keep’ with other words like ‘stay’, or ‘remain’, it would be understandable what you meant but it wouldn’t sound right.
So, now we can go back to the original question – how we can memorize new English words effectively and use them like native speakers do.
The trick is to memorize what other words your new word is usually hooked up with and that is going to make it an awful lot easier for you to memorize it! And you won’t have to refer back to that word’s description in your mind to use it in a sentence because you’ll already know what words it goes together with ❗
So, let’s do our little experiment once more, but this time I’ll give you a word combination instead of a description and you’ll see how easy it is to memorize new English vocabulary if you go down this route:
- Detrimental effect – a negative effect.
- Adverse weather conditions – bad weather conditions.
- Precarious work – part-time, temporary and fixed term employment where there’s less certainty and stability for the employee.
- Untenable position – a position you can no longer hold.
- Impertinent behavior – rude behavior.
Now, what should have happened when you read these adjective and noun combinations is – new relations should have formed between the adjectives you weren’t familiar with and the nouns that are very well known to you. Of course, it would take more repetitions to make sure those word combinations or so called collocations get imprinted into your mind, but I hope you’ll feel the difference in terms of your ability to remember those specific adjectives before and NOW!
OK, now let’s do our memory test once more, and this time you have to write down the word combos I gave you a minute ago.
- Negative effect – …
- Bad weather conditions – …
- Part-time, temporary and fixed term employment where there’s less certainty and stability for the employee – …
- A position you can no longer hold – …
- Rude behavior – …
And here’s the answers, please compare the collocations from below with the ones you wrote on your piece of paper:
- Detrimental effect
- Adverse weather conditions
- Precarious work
- Untenable position
- Impertinent behavior
How did you fare this time? Did you feel the difference between memorizing those words purely by their descriptions and now, when you memorized them contextually?
I bet you did, and that’s what you have to keep doing when learning new English words in future. Forget about hammering new words just on their own into your mind – the chances are, you won’t be able to use them as part of a fluent English speech. Your new approach has to involve memorizing any new English word you hear within context!
Remember about the hooks – every English word has a pair of hooks to hoop up with others and your aim as an English improver is to learn work combinations as opposed to single words ❗
P.S. Would you like to find out why I’m highlighting some of the text in red? Read this article and you’ll learn why it’s so important to learn idiomatic expressions and how it will help you to improve your spoken English!
P.S.S. Are you serious about your spoken English improvement? Check out my English Harmony System HERE!