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Learning English Vocabulary

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This semester, I am teaching a course in learning English vocabulary to a group of second-year students at my university. The students are ones who want to become English teachers in the future, so I am trying to impress on them the scale of the challenge that they face.

There seems to be a commonly accepted “myth” in Japan that Japanese learners of English have a good vocabulary even though they cannot speak English very well. In my experience, that is not true at all. I often notice students struggling because they do not know even quite basic words.

There are two ways in which you can “improve” your English vocabulary. The first is to increase the number of words that you know, and the second is to learn more about the words you have already studied. In other words, you can improve your vocabulary by making your knowledge broader, deeper, or preferably, both. Looking at my own students, my feeling is that their knowledge of vocabulary is “shallow,” and that is why they cannot use or understand the words that they have studied.

For Japanese learners of English, I think vocabulary is probably the most difficult part of the language. English has many words that have very similar meanings, and it is often not possible to understand the differences in nuance and usage just by translating them into Japanese. There are also thousands of irregular words, and very few rules for how different parts of speech are made. In addition, the spelling system means that it is often impossible to know how a word is pronounced from looking at the letters.

Anyway, I know that most of the people who read this blog either teach or study English, so I thought it might be a nice idea to share your answers to the question:

How do you study English vocabulary?

For those who are native speakers of English, please feel free to talk about your experience of learning vocabulary in another language.

Look forward to hearing your ideas.

このブログは英語学習者のためのものです。レベルの高い人もいれば、初心者もいますので、自分のレベルや学習経験を気にする必要はありません。「いつもコメントを書いている人は仲間みたいだから参加しにくい」と思う方もいるかもしれませんが、勇気を出してコメントを書いてみてください。必ず温かく迎えてもらえます。多くのコメントは英語で書かれていますが、もちろん日本語もOKですし、英語と日本語を混ぜて書いても大丈夫です。言いたいことが言えないときは、How do you say 「〜」in English? と聞けば、きっとだれかが教えてくれると思います。私のエントリー、または他のメンバーのコメントの中に分からないところがあったら、「”…”はどういう意味ですか?」と遠慮なく聞いてください。このブログで使われているフレーズや表現をたくさん吸収すると、より自然な英語に近づけることができますよ!

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  1. Biwa on Monday May 13th, 2013 at 02:45 PM

    Hi David and everyone,

    Thank you for the interesting topic. I’ve always been struggling to improve my vocabulary, so I’m really curious how you all do it. The way I do it hasn’t changed since schooldays, I just write them down with example sentences. However, the problem is that I’m not a neat person, and they’re scribbled everywhere, so I can’t find them when I really need them!

    I also feel there is a huge gap between the words I can just read or get the meanings and the ones I can actually use. Of course, the latter are much less, and I think that’s why translating Japanese into English is much more difficult than vice versa.

    By the way, is anyone using “Google translate”? It’s a free iPhone app, and Eiji Kawashima was introducing it in his book called “本当に「英語を話したい」キミへ”. As many of you might know, he is not only a well-known soccer player but also a multilingual(English, Italian, French and Dutch). He seems to be a really hard worker, and said he uses the app. The book is worth reading, and the app is quite useful, too, because you can make a list of all the words you looked up, and review them whenever you have time or even write them down if you want to. This kind of technology is great, isn’t it?

  2. Fumie on Monday May 13th, 2013 at 11:12 PM

    Hi David and Biwa,

    Thank you for helping us our question. I finally got it. David corrected my sentence because I forgot “the.” But I think amo also wanted to know the differnce between “the other way around/round” and “the wrong way around/round.” And David said “the wrong way round” is better.

    As for the topic, it’s a very interesting topic and knowing other people’s way of studying vocabulary would be useful.
    I study as the same way as Biwa. Whatever way I study English: read, listen, watch English meterials, I always put a notebook besides me. When I see the words/phrases which I didn’t know, I checked the meaning in the dictionary and write them down in a notebook. I underline the words which seem frequently being used and useful in red.
    But no matter I write them down, if I don’t use those words by myself, I won’t be able to use them.
    As for words which I learned at school, I sometimes feel that the meaning of some of them are little different from actual meaning when I checked them in English-English dictionary. When I make a sentence using the word which I don’t remeber correctly, the sentence would be differnt meaning. So I try to check English-English dictionary even in easy words.

  3. Biwa on Tuesday May 14th, 2013 at 11:19 AM

    Hi Fumie and everyone,

    >But no matter I write them down, if I don’t use those words by myself, I won’t be able to use them.

    I totally agree. In that sense, writing comments here and getting feedback from David is a very good practice for me.(Thank you, David!) You can make sure that your words or phrases are making sense, and also, I seem to remember them more strongly especially when I make mistakes. I think “mistakes” draw your attention to the words because they’re something you really want to say, so they’re likely to cling onto your mind. Then, strangely, the words seem to pop up in many places that you were just skipping before.

    Back to the talk about “broadening” vocabulary, I think knowing some ideas of “prefixes, roots and suffixes”(接頭語、語幹、接尾語) is sometimes helpful. They’re not so obvious(?) as Chinese characters, but it’s still useful when you need to memorize the meaning of an unfamiliar word. It’s also convenient to memorize opposites as a pair.

    For example, words that begin with “de” usually have a meaning as “reduce, down or remove”, and “scend” as “climb, go”, so it’s quite easy to imagine the meanings of “descend”, “ascend”, or “crescendo”. And “ant” or “er,or” means “a person”, so you can predict(not always correct, though!) the meanings for “descendant”, “descender”, “ascendant” and “ancestor”. “Bene-” has a positive meaning as in “”benefit”, “benefactor” while “mal-” has a negative meaning as in “”malfunction” or “malicious”. Well, it’s not that easy, and that’s the problem!

  4. YU on Tuesday May 14th, 2013 at 02:43 PM

    Hi Biwa,

    > I think knowing some ideas of “prefixes, roots and suffixes”(接頭語、語幹、接尾語) is sometimes helpful.

    Just today, one of my students has asked me how to guess the words you don’t know while you take exams, and I answered her just like you mentioned above! LOL!!

    Hi David and everyone,

    > How do you study English vocabulary?

    I do nothing special to study English vocabulary. Like most Japanese learners of English, I just look up new words in a dictionary and try to remember the meanings and usages.

    The other day, I tried a TOEIC practice exam at home after a couple of years. I was a bit confident that I would get a better score because I’ve been learning a number of vocabulary here for more than a year, but the score was almost the same as that of the last time. It seems to have been just my fantasy that I improved my vocaburaly!

    > you can improve your vocabulary by making your knowledge broader, deeper, or preferably, both

    I totally agree with you.
    When I was in school, I learned just some most commonly used meanings of each English vocabulary by using a ring of vocabulary flash cards.
    My electric dictionary has キクタン, which is probably one of the most common ways of studying English vocabulary in Japan, but it also just tells you the most commonly used meaning of all others. So, I have a feeling that those ways of studying vocabulary lead Japanese people have “shallow” vocabulary knowledge.

  5. Biwa on Tuesday May 14th, 2013 at 09:26 PM

    Hi YU,

    >and I answered her just like you mentioned above! LOL!!

    I’m quite sure that your advice is going to be of great help to your student.
    By the way, your expression “guess the words” made me realize that my “predict a meaning” was probably weird. I’m not really sure, but thanks!

    I also understand what you say about “キクタン” or flash cards. I think it’s unavoidable that we start learning words as a matching word to a certain Japanese word. However, I think it’s really important to keep in mind that each word in both languages have different “areas” of meaning, some parts overlap and some don’t. I often feel deepening vocabulary is like learning the “borders” between the words. Even simple verbs like “see”, “find” or “meet” covers quite a different area from the Japanese “見る” “探す・見つける” “合う”.

  6. Kattie on Tuesday May 14th, 2013 at 10:05 PM

    Hi everyone,

    I’m really interested to read your comments and I hope I can pick up a few tips – it must be very difficult for Japanese people to learn English vocabulary and vice versa because the languages don’t come from the same family.

    When I was at school I remember one of the teachers used to give us very regular vocabulary tests. At the end of the lesson she would give us 10 new words and two minutes to look at them, she then tested us immediately on these words. As the year went on, and we got better at these tests, she would increase the number of words to 20 words and then 30. Obviously we made mistakes and would sometimes misspell the words but, as Biwa said, making mistakes helped us remember the words, so when we were told to reinforce this learning as a homework task, it was quite easy.

    When I see simple things written in French, Spanish or Italian I can sometimes get the gist because the the roots of the words often come from Latin or Greek and English shares a lot of these roots. As Biwa also said, learning the meanings of commonly used suffixes and prefixes is helpful.

    Last week we had a French woman to stay and she wanted 6 hours of one-to-one tuition a day, so we inevitably covered a lot of vocabulary! I think it’s easier to remember words if you can visualise them, so I normally take students around the house with post-it stickers and they stick them on the various objects, I will also go round the local shops and point out useful words which we will later write down. Where possible, I try to explain the reasons for the word, for example, a fireguard is so called because it guards people from the fire, I talk about the guards at Buckingham Palace and then say that the word ‘guard’ is a noun and a verb. When we come across a word like bookcase, I will point out other examples of where we use ‘case’, as in staircase, briefcase and suitcase. If I am teaching a European student I often ask them whether they have a similar word in their language so we can see if there is a common root. I then think of exercises which involve using the words we have learnt, for example, I might ask them how they would cook their favourite recipe or do a role play exercise where I am a stranger asking them for directions etc. For abstract words like ‘nice’ we will try and list as many synonyms as possible and then choose the best word to use in a selection of sentences, I then often repeat the process with antonyms. It is difficult learning new vocabulary but I’m sure the more words we learn, the easier it gets because we see more and more similarities.

  7. Anne on Wednesday May 15th, 2013 at 07:55 AM

    Hi David and everyone,

    This topic is interesting and is also an important one for language learners.
    Firstly, can I share David’s former entry that I always keep in mind? David, I hope you don’t mind because this is very useful for everyone.

    When I took a step test(Keiken pre-first level)about ten years ago, I used wordbook suitable for the level of the test I was going to take. I memorized words, then I added words that I knew the Japanese meaning to. It was effective to remember words that way. So when I came across these words in articles or on TV, I could figure these words out. Actually, the more often you come across the same word, the more you will remember words. I was able to ‘broaden’ my understanding of vocabulary, however, I don’t think I could make sentences using those words. I think my level of understanding toward vocabulary at that moment was stage 3 in David’s former entry.(=I know the Japanese meaning of this word.) In that sense, my understanding was very “shallow.” By imitating sentences that I want to remember and writing sentences here and there, I’ve been learning how to use words correctly. Knowing how each word is used in a sentence is sometimes difficult. I often fail to use new words properly when trying to put them in sentences but I think that’s the process of deepening vocabulary understanding.

    I’m lazy these days, so I don’t take notes when I come across new words, but reading lots of articles and writng things helps me to improve my Englsih vocabulary.

    I have a lot of things I’d like to share, but sorry to say, I don’t have time now, so maybe later, I’d like to write something more. Also, I’ve been teaching Japanese, I noticed how Japanese learners have been struggling or have been making mistakes. It’s interesting to see these things from the different point of view as an English learner.

  8. Anne on Wednesday May 15th, 2013 at 08:01 AM

    it’s me again.
    Sorry, I failed to copy the link.

    Here’s the link:(2006/9/25)

  9. amo on Wednesday May 15th, 2013 at 02:27 PM

    Hi David and everyone,

    Guess where I am?
    Am at Narita airport!! I am going to visit my sister in the US. It’s been about two years and a half since I visited last time. I am so excited to see her and her family again. I am staying there two weeks and I am not sure that I can have time to write comments here. Anyway, I got to go now. The boarding time;)

    Have a nice day,

  10. YU on Wednesday May 15th, 2013 at 08:17 PM

    Hi amo,

    That’s nice!
    Have a great time with them in the US!!

    Hi Kattie,

    > it must be very difficult for Japanese people to learn English vocabulary and vice versa because the languages don’t come from the same family.

    When I studied Chinese language in German university, I really felt that I had a big advantage in learning Chinese vocabulary compared to my German classmates. They were all struggling with learning very basic Chinese characters which I learned in the first year of my elementary school.
    At that time I had a very close Chinese friend, I used to hang around with her all the time. One day, I asked her to stop talking with me in German, but in Chinese for some time after this.
    I really learned a lot from her. When I was at a loss how to say something in Chinese, I always wrote them(Japanese words) in Chinese characters, and she knew everything what I meant.

    So, I totally agree with you that you can quickly learn the languages which come from the same family as your mother tongue.

  11. Biwa on Wednesday May 15th, 2013 at 09:26 PM

    Hi amo,

    Two weeks in the US? I really wish I were you!
    Have a great time:)

    Hi Kattie,

    Thanks, your comment was full of useful tips. I was especially interested in the way you teach abstract words. I often find it quite difficult to choose the appropriate word according to different situations. It must be very helpful to know which words to use as a bunch. I’d love to be your student!

    Hi Anne and everyone,

    Thanks for the link. I tried to see the checklist you were all talking about, but for some reason, I couldn’t. Maybe due to time expiration. I wonder if the list was the same as David’s iPhone app “Learning English Vocabulary”. (It’s in the “Latest News” which is in the upper-right corner of this page.) Is anyone using it?

    Hi YU,

    You speak Chinese, too? That’s great. I learned French as a second foreign language in university, but all the words I remember are mostly things to eat. I’m good at guessing food on menus. lol!

  12. Kattie on Wednesday May 15th, 2013 at 10:32 PM

    Hi Anne,

    I couldn’t see the checklist you mentioned but is it like this one, which lists the 5000 most common words?
    Looking down this list, it’s interesting to note that words like family, school, government, social, policy are quite so common in the English language and I think it says something about our society. I wonder what the list would have looked like several hundred years ago – it would make an interesting socio-linguistic study!

    Hi Biwa,
    Thanks for your kind words but I really have a lot to learn. I know you do some teaching too so it’s great to exchange ideas. My next students are two 15 year old, Italian girls who are with me for a week, I think they’re low intermediate level so I’m trying to think of some creative and interesting exercises/activities. One of the difficulties I have is that I never really know the level, aptitude or motivation of the students before they arrive and they are only with me for a short-time. The French woman who has just visited described herself (modestly!) as ‘low intermediate’ but in reality she was much more advanced. I had already spent a few hours doing my lesson plans prior to her arrival but had to scrap them as soon as I met her. She was with me all day so it was only when I got to bed that I had time to prepare for the next day. Teaching certainly keeps me on my toes!

  13. Anne on Thursday May 16th, 2013 at 05:20 AM

    Hi amo,
    Wow! That’s nice!
    Have a great time in there.

    Hi Biwa and Kattie,
    Kattie, thank you for the link.
    Yes, it is like that one.
    Biwa, I meant to share the “six steps” of your vocabulary understanding, and sorry for the link. I don’t use iPhone, so I’m not sure, but I think that app is the one you want to see.

    As Kattie mentioned, it’s interesting to know that there are lots of commonly used. However, I found that there are words I didn’t know, or I knew only part of the word; I noticed a lot of words are used not only as a noun but as a verb.

    Hi kattie and everyone,
    > we had a French woman to stay and she wanted 6 hours of one-to-one tuition a day, —-When I studied at a language school in Cambridge several years ago, I was interested in a home tuition,too. Your style of teaching sounds great and very effective to improve vocabulary and English!

  14. Biwa on Thursday May 16th, 2013 at 10:15 PM

    Hi Anne,

    >I noticed a lot of words are used not only as a noun but as a verb.

    Me, too. Even if the noun and verb are different forms, I think it’s helpful to learn both at once.

    Hi Kattie,

    >Teaching certainly keeps me on my toes!

    I totally agree! And I think you’re really energetic that you do all that besides your recruitment work!

    It must be really difficult to prepare lessons for students of various levels, but I think David’s idea of “playing with language” is very convincing. It’s in the Teachers Blog and here’s the link:

    I think “sentence building” is the one of the goals for students of any level, and I use hand-written cards for my own students. (I wrote how my students play with the cards in my comment on the same page.) The good things about these “playings” are that you can apply it to any kind of level, and that you can create the game with the vocabulary that your students really need. It’s also very cheap! I even let the children make the cards themselves when we come across new words, and I think that makes them more interested in the “playing”.

    I also think that visualizing the word order by cards is helpful because it’s quite difficult for beginners to get the whole structure just by verbal teaching.

  15. Biwa on Thursday May 16th, 2013 at 10:19 PM

    Hi Anne,

    Even if the noun and verb “were” different forms

  16. Kattie on Friday May 17th, 2013 at 02:20 AM

    Hi Biwa

    Thanks for reminding me about the sentence building exercises you do – the cards are a really good idea and I’ll definitely make a few before the Italian girls arrive. It was also handy to re-read David’s ideas. I don’t teach all the time so it’s easy to forget these tips.

  17. Biwa on Friday May 17th, 2013 at 08:11 AM

    Hi Kattie,

    By the way, I looked up the difference between “verbal” and “oral”. “Verbal” seems to have a broader meaning. Maybe I should have said “oral teaching”.

  18. Anne on Friday May 17th, 2013 at 08:13 AM

    Hi David and everyone,

    Concering the way to improve your vocaburaly, I tried think of several ideas using the word”retirement.” (You would see this word in the picture.)

    Firstly, you would remember another part of speech like,”retire, retiree, retiring.” (add three vocabulary) As Biwa and Yu mentioned, it’s same as the case of “prefix and suffix.”

    Secondly, make sentences using these words:

    * My husband retired this March.
    * The enemy retied in good order.
    * I don’t want to work any more, so I eagerly await my retirement.
    * A lot of retiree have still enough energy to work again.

    Thirdly, use the way of mind-mapping:

    What image do you have when you hear(or see) the word “retirement”?
    Loneliness, solitude, privacy, retreat, freedom, happiness and others?
    I think you would add several vocabulary.

    Also, I like David’s entry for teachers,”The ‘New Car Phenomenon’ ” This happens to me!
    Here’s the link:

    I noticed a lot of words are used..
    —I realized a lot of words were used…

  19. Anne on Friday May 17th, 2013 at 08:17 AM

    it’s me again.
    “tried think of ” should be “tried to think about.”

  20. YU on Friday May 17th, 2013 at 09:26 AM

    Hi Anne,

    A friend of mine from my English Club let me know about “Lang-8” about one year and a half ago. To tell the truth, I wavered whether I should have tried “Lang-8” or this blog, but I decided for David’s blog because he was a qualified teacher. I mean, he is not just a native speaker.

    Hi Biwa,

    > You speak Chinese, too? That’s great.

    No, I don’t speak neither Chinese nor German any longer. As David mentioned in another entry, “Use it or lose it” is very true!
    I can’t believe that I went on a trip to Shanghai alone to test my proficiency in Chinese just about nine years ago!!

    By the way, I also liked David’s this advice ;

    >「英語を学びに海外に行きたい」というコメントもよく聞きますが、これもおかしいです。私は次のようにアドバイスをします。 Don’t go abroad to study English; study English to go abroad. せっかく留学などで海外で生活するチャンスがあるのに、大切な日々を教室で過ごし、日本にいながらでも全然できた勉強をするのはもったいない! 

    As you know, I’ve never lived or studied English abroad, but I’ve been learning English “in Japan” for quite a long time(!), so I’d like to go abroad to test my English some time in the future!

    Hi David, Kattie, Anne and everyone,

    Don’t you think teaching your language to foreigners is hard work? When I taught it for the first time, I really found it difficult. It was maybe because I had too much knowledge of Japanese and had no idea where from I should have started teaching to them?! – No, actually I had too little knowledge of it and didn’t know how to teach it at all. I think most native speakers have no idea how to teach their languages.

  21. YU on Friday May 17th, 2013 at 12:24 PM

    Hi David,

    Thank you for your feedback!

    By the way, did you close the entry (feedback) on purpose?!
    Should we write here if we have some questions?
shemale lesbian.