Skills 360 – How to Improve your English Vocabulary 1

Free Resources: Quizzes | PDF Transcript


Hello and welcome back to the Skills 360 podcast. I’m your host, Tim Simmons, and today I want to look at ways to take your English vocabulary to the next level.

Many students of English have the feeling that they’ve learned pretty much all the grammar they need. Many also feel that they can understand fairly well and speak and write at an acceptable level. But these same people sometimes feel that they’re missing something, and that they say the same things in the same way all the time.

In fact, once you’ve reached an intermediate level, vocabulary becomes more important than ever. You need to add more and more words, idioms, and expressions to your stock of language so that you can take the next step up in proficiency. So how can you learn new words? What are the secrets of expanding your language ability?

First, let’s talk about materials, or what you use to learn English. You need to find good sources of English that will include words and expressions that will be useful to you. I strongly recommend you use both listening and reading materials. If you focus only on reading, as many students do, you won’t learn how language sounds and feels in your mouth. If you focus only on listening, you won’t know how it’s written.

So then what should you be listening to and reading? You want resources that are relevant to your purpose, both in terms of context and topic. Let me explain what I mean. If your purpose is to improve your conversation and presentations skills to do your job as a salesperson, then use resources that teach you conversational English and the language of presentations. That’s the correct match for the context of your English development. And if your work as a salesperson is in the hi-tech sector, then find resources that include vocabulary related to technology. That’s the correct match for the topic of your studies.

I don’t mean that you should limit yourself to only the kinds of language that you’ll meet every day. Variety is important too, and you need to read and listen to things that are interesting to you, not just practical. But there are only so many hours in a day, and if you’re like most people in business, you need to find what gives you the best bang for your buck.

Now, I’ve mentioned what kind of resources you should look for, and you’ll notice that I didn’t mention anything that is specifically about vocabulary. I mean like a vocabulary book, or word lists. That’s because it’s best to study vocabulary in context. You might have memorized words and definitions for language tests in high school or university. But did that really teach you how to use those words? Did you really understand the kinds of situations that those words can be used in? Probably not, so instead of memorizing lists, study vocabulary in its natural environment, and it’ll be easier to incorporate new words into your own speaking and writing.

So, you have found some good resources, and you understand the importance of context, but when you read and listen, which words and expressions should you be learning? How do you choose the vocabulary that you should study? Well, a lot of good study materials will identify the useful vocabulary for you. And they might give you definitions and examples. So with the context and this added info, you’ve got something to work with.

But if you’re trying to choose vocabulary on your own, you should focus on two ideas: relevance and frequency. Put another way: words that suit your purpose and words that are common. Words that suit your purpose are those that are related to your work and your English output. If you never write formally in English, then a word like “hence” might not really be relevant to you. And if you work in finance, then a marketing term like “segmentation” might not be relevant. Words that are common are important, because you’ll hear them more often and they’ll be more useful. So although you might encounter the word “pip” and think it’s interesting, it’s very uncommon, and so you shouldn’t spent your mental energy trying to remember it. There are thousands of more common and more useful words that you should learn first.

The fact is, we can’t learn every word we meet. We need to pick and choose carefully, and that means focusing on what is relevant and common. And we’ll find what is relevant and common in reading and listening resources that have the right topic and language context.

So long. And see you again soon.