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You Don’t Have to Learn the EXACT Meaning of New English Words!

Learning Exact Meanings of English Words

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It’s hard to eradicate habits picked up over years upon years spent studying English in a traditional setting – textbooks, translation, plenty of grammar studies – you know the drill!

One of the most lasting effects of such English studies is the desire to figure out what EXACTLY a new English word means.

Let’s say, for example, you’re listening to a radio news broadcast and they’re saying that the death toll has reached two hundred people following a massive volcano eruption on some distant Pacific island (this is totally fictional, my friend, so don’t go looking up news online about a recent volcano eruption – you won’t find anything!)

So, the overall message is quite clear – two hundred people have lost their lives, and while you mightn’t know the word TOLL, the context reveals its meaning in an indirect way.

Here’s what should be going on in your head as you hear the sentence “…volcano … death toll reached 200…”:

VOLCANO + DEATH + 200 PEOPLE = simply means 200 people have lost their lives.

It shouldn’t be like this:

VOLCANO + DEATH + TOLL … what the heck is TOLL? Will anyone help me out with this one, please? Tell me what is TOLL, I need to know what it is!!!

Here’s what I believe.

I strongly believe that any foreign English speaker behaving like this knows deep down inside what the word in question MIGHT mean, and they also get the overall message.

They simply like asking questions because it’s encouraged in a school setting, and this kind of behaviour carries on into the adult life making those folks question everything and anything that isn’t 100% understandable and clear-set.

Are you one of those folks?

Then keep reading this article and hopefully we’ll be able to deal with this problem once and for all!

You Don’t Need to Know the Exact Meaning of Words EVEN If You’re an Interpreter!

If you aspire to become an interpreter travelling with high government officials on their foreign visits and translate from and to English, the need to be super-smart, super-intelligent and know the exact meanings of very specific English terms is clearly exaggerated.

It’s a concept you may have imagined at some stage during your childhood or adolescence, and you still hold to it, but it’s all but a myth.

If you translate, more often than not you just need to know how this or that particular concept is called in your language or English, but you don’t translate word-for-word.

Let’s take the same phrase DEATH TOLL HAS REACHED.

If I translate this phrase word-to-word in Latvian, it will still make sense, but it’s not going to be a natural construct for the Latvian language. To sound 100% fluent, however, I would have to verbalize the abstract concept in Latvian from scratch without even referring to those individual English words ❗

And guess what?

The direct translation of the word TOLL doesn’t even form part of the same sentence in Latvian!

So if you believe that translation happens like this:

How you think English translation happens

you’d better look at the drawing below:

How English translation actually happens

Basically the point I’m trying to make here is that when you express an abstract concept or an idea in any language, you have to think in that language and create sentences and choose words by operating that language ONLY!

So, did I convince you that even interpreters don’t need to know the exact meaning of English words because all they need is to be able to express the same idea precisely in the other language?

The More Precise You Are In Terms of Word Meanings, The More LIMITED You’ll Be in Using Them!

Let’s use the same English word TOLL.

And let’s invite two fictional people to help us understand what I’m talking about in this article – Alberto and Franco.

Alberto is an English learning fanatic from Spain and he’s got five English vocabulary notebooks stuffed full with new English words he’s been learning over the course of a couple of years.

Every English word is explained very precisely in Spanish, and in case of the word having multiple meanings, each and every single one of those is also clearly defined using Spanish.

Franco, on the other hand, doesn’t use his native Italian when learning new English vocabulary. He’s writing new English phraseology in a notepad that he finds interesting and relevant to his personal, social and work life, and he’s not too concerned if he doesn’t know what exactly some English word might mean.

He’s happy to get the meaning from the context alone!

Franco has learned the following phrases containing the word TOLL over the years:

  • Death toll
  • Toll bridge
  • To take a heavy toll on

and he can use them quite comfortably in his English conversations. He doesn’t even suspect that the word TOLL in TOLL BRIDGE means a FEE – he just knows what it is every time he drives through one on a highway! And he wouldn’t be able to define the exact meaning of TOLL in “to take a heavy toll on” – he would simply use it when the right opportunity presents itself.

Poor Alberto, however, is struggling quite badly to wrap his head around the Spanish translation of the word TOLL because it provides a VERY GENERAL usage rules for the word:

  • TOLL means a fee, a charge;
  • TOLL also means an extent of misfortune.

Alberto is also struggling to use these words in his English speech, and you want to know why?

Here’s why:

While Being Quite Precise, Exact English Word Meanings Are Also TOO GENERAL!

Tell me honestly, my friend – how does knowing that TOLL means a charge allow you to construct a sentence “I was driving through a toll bridge”?

I doesn’t! A fee, a charge is a precise enough translation, and it’s quite an EXACT one as well, but despite all that you just don’t know WHAT TO DO WITH IT ❗

And here’s the irony my friend – someone who doesn’t even know what TOLL means – like Franco – can use the word with a native-like confidence in their daily lives!

And now let me tell you something you probably won’t believe in.

Up until writing this article, I honestly didn’t know that TOLL means A FEE! I knew what a toll bridge was because I use it every time I go to the Dublin Airport to pick someone up (a friend or a relation of mine), but I didn’t have a clue that the word TOLL means A FEE.

Are you surprised?

Don’t be!

I’ve stopped analyzing new English vocabulary a long time ago, and ever since contextual English learning has given me the ability to speak in English fluently, I will NEVER EVER learn the exact meanings of new English words!

And what about you?

Have you been using certain English words in your English speech without even realizing what exactly they mean?

I would love to find out what those words are – so please post your stories in the comments section below!

Chat soon,

Robby

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!

English Harmony System

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • I’m so glad you’ve finally figured out the simple truth never to learn individual words without context translated into your native language!

    Now you can clearly see that learning English contextually is the way to go, and I can definitely share the frustration with you of other people not listening to you when you’re telling them of this new approach – I’ve had countless similar experiences before and almost everyone thinks I’m talking non-sense!

    At least here on English Harmony I get to reach a much larger audience and for some people like yourself what I’m saying makes perfect sense and it makes all my work here on the blog worthwhile.

    Thanks,

    Robby

  • pishopalang@yahoo.com

    Yup thanks for recommending this helpful article i used to have a rubbish notebook in which i would keep my vocabulary list ( individually) and i would repeat it on a daily basis but the funny thing is i was not able to apprehend the word when somebody else used either in a movie or in real life , and needless to say i could not use it either , ever since i found your website you have always give me the words of wisdom and i totally got rid of my notebook containing 5000 individual vocabulary , which i don’t remember a single one of , and a few months a go i started like English contextually and believe it or not i am totally confident using that word without worrying that whether the word is used correctly or not , and i should thousand of people still use the same old crap , grammar and so on , i have tried very hard to get the message across but to no avail , they confront me whenever i try to make them understand let alone listening to me.

    Best wishes,
    Love Robby

  • Hi Sunny,

    The font is VERDANA, but to be honest with you, I haven’t got a clue as to why I’m using it – it’s just something I set up as the default font and then I just stuck with it! 😉

    Speaking of the word “bus” – you’re dead right, it’s best to learn popular word combinations with the word bus such as “bus stop”, “bus is coming”, “what bus do you take?” etc. instead of trying to find the literal translation into your language.

    Well, as a matter of fact, the word “bus” is probably quite easy to translate into Chinese anyway, however, some more specific terms aren’t that straightforward, and that’s when most foreigners are trying to make sure they translate this or that particular word really, really precisely while in reality it’s not needed at all.

    Cheers,

    Robby

  • sunny Liu

    Hi Robby,
    I have felt uncomfortable and uncertain if I don’t know the EXACT meaning of new words. I usually should know the exact Chinese meaning! It’s mad!
    Thanks for your message! It’s fresh air making me wake up and feel excited!
    If “bus” is new for me, I should learn it in a sentence or phrase. ” the No.1 bus is coming!”
    By the way, what kind of FONT you use in your blog, and why do you like it?

    Best wishes,
    Sunny

  • Hi Piki,

    The whole point of this article was to explain that the most efficient way of learning new English words is to learn them WITHIN CONTEXT only – so for me learning brand new words is no different than learning an English phrase where all words are known to me!

    Now I’m going to go online and find some English word I don’t know.

    So, here’s the word: GUNNER.

    It’s totally unknown to me, I’d never used it before.

    So you’d think I’d learn it somehow differently from my normal idiomatic expressions?

    Nope!

    I would only ever learn in within context: A FORMER MACHINE GUNNER – that’s the sentence I came across in the news article. Immediately it clarifies a lot of things – a gunner much be a profession, an occupation as implied by the word “former”, so now I only need to specify what kind of a profession it is (most likely something to do with machines etc.)

    After a simple Google search that takes only a few seconds I found out “a machine gunner” is someone who fires machine guns in the army, so immediately the meaning has become 100% clear.

    If you think this word was too simple – here’s another one…

    (I’m going onto TheFreeDictionary.com and checking out the word of the day)…

    FROWSTY.

    Now, a new word, never heard it, never used it.

    First of all – let’s find a COLLOCATION with that word. Head over to Google and do some research…

    A FROWSTY BARN
    A FROWSTY OFFICE.

    Basically any building where there’s no air and it’s very hot, can be referred to as being FROSTY. I would, however, memorize the exact phrase A FROWSTY BARN, put it in a sentence and then do some spoken self-practice to solidify that phrase in my brain.

    Again – no different from learning any other phrase or collocation.

    Basically the bottom line is – I don’t learn individual words along with their meanings, I only ever learn word combinations and on most occassions I don’t even look up their meanings but I allow my intuition to guide me the right direction. If I come across the same word again and again, my “gut feeling” will tell me – yes, that’s what it means, and that’s how new vocab is acquired naturally.

    Hope this clarifies why I would never make any specific videos about new English vocabulary word acquisition – it would go against the English Harmony philosophy, and please don’t forget – this old-school vocabulary acquisition is actually to blame for the fluency issues experienced by millions of foreigners! If you learn new words individually, you won’t be able to use them naturally!

    Regards,

    Robby

  • Piki

    You know Robby, why don’t you make a videos, like you are making for idioms you take from books, but this time make videos for words. I want to see how do you learn new words, totally new words that you have no idea what they means, that you are encountering them for first time.

  • Hi Rahul,

    If you work on your spoken English development for two full hours a day, it’s pretty much impossible NOT to achieve a complete fluency in English in two years time!

    The standard English Harmony System’s study plan lasts for 6 months and in that time alone you’ll improve your fluency considerably, so I don’t see any reason as to why you wouldn’t be able to become proficient in this time frame.

    Regards,

    Robby

  • rahul

    Can I achieve full professional proficiency (like yours) in two years if I put in two-hour oral practice everyday (that is if I buy your system in addition to using English at work. Unfortunately, here, interaction in English is limited to the conversations with my boss. I can’t converse with workers in English)

  • Yes, it will for sure! Reading out loud will train your mouth and will also wire speech patterns into your brain, so if you’re wondering if it’s worth engaging in this kind of practice then I’d say – yes!

  • rahul

    Dear Robby,
    If I read out all your posts aloud, will my spoken English show a small improvement?