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How to Improve Your Vocabulary

Kevin Naglich
Founder, Deliberate English

If you're like me, you probably get pretty frustrated with your vocabulary. 

You have a base of words that you're probably not very happy with, and all you can think about is the infinite number of words you don't know. It's easy to get discouraged and to feel like you can't improve your vocabulary.

The thing is there's a whole bunch of low hanging fruit on the edge of what you already know, the words you understand but aren't yet comfortable using. What's more, you don't need to know every word in the English language. Why? 

Because there are plenty of random words like flying buttress, which you're probably never going to use in a day to day conversation.

Not all words are worth studying

Instead, you could focus on useful expressions like keep it up, which is a great way to encourage someone to continue doing something positive. Another great example is something like low hanging fruit, which is a common way in the business world to talk about tasks that are easy to do.

You could also focus on improving your mastery of tricky words you already know, like would. So the question is: how do I get more comfortable using words I already understand, and how do I start to learn more of this useful stuff

The answer? 

Collect, use, get feedback, and repeat.  

Here's the method I recommend to do just that. 

Collect

The best way I know to collect new expressions is through active listeningInstead of just listening to music or TV to get a general understanding, spend 15 to 20 minutes really digging into what you hear. This can be either by trying to repeat sentences out loud or writing down every word you hear and comparing it to the transcript or subtitles. 

During this active listening exercise, you'll want to look up words you don't know, especially those that prevent you from fully understanding the conversation.  

For everything you look up, ask yourself, can I see myself using this in a conversation tomorrow? If the answer is no, then it probably isn't worth your time.  

If the answer is yes, then then it's time to add the word to your collection, which can either be a list in a notebook or apps like Anki on your mobile device. 

Wherever your collection is, it's important to write down new words and expressions with context. Instead of just writing the word by itself with its definition, write a few example sentences using the word appropriately. You can get these from the video you're doing active listening with or from a conversation with a native speaker.

Use

Next, it's time to use these words, ideally through deliberate practice. I'd recommend starting with a personal goal of 5 - 10 new words or expressions a week that will be your focus. 

What is deliberate practice? One example is the deliberate writing technique that I explain in my improvable writing video. Basically, you write a draft, translate it, compare your draft to the output of an online translator, make corrections, and finally get feedback from native speakers.

Another deliberate practice technique is to simply talk to yourself OUT LOUD for 10 to 15 minutes a day in English. You might think the only way to practice English is with a native speaker, but there's actually a lot you can gain from talking to yourself. Primarily the ability to get used to thinking in English.

Of course, one final deliberate practice technique is to do language exchanges with native speakers, either those you know or meet through Tandem or HelloTalk.

Get Feedback

Regardless of which one of these you do, the goal is to try to use these 5 - 10 focus words as much as possible in these exercises.

Of course, to really get comfortable with new vocabulary, you need to learn where it fits and where it doesn't. You can discover this by taking risks with your deliberate practice.

Try to use your 5 - 10 focus words in your writing or conversations even if you're not 100% sure they fit. Be sure to pay attention to the feedback native speakers give you.

If you get corrected because you used the word wrong, that's a good thing! Don't feel bad. 

By making a mistake, you learned where the word doesn't fit. If you were a little embarrassed or even excited to receive a correction, you've now attached that word to a strong memory, increasing the chances you'll remember it.

At this point, you'll want to update your collection, whether digital or in a notebook, with what you learned from your correction. Maybe it is adding another example sentence or erasing one you thought worked but really doesn't.

Not sure where to get feedback from native speakers? Check out the Deliberate English Community. The Community is where I publish weekly business English challenges and host multiple weekly live classes. Whether completing a challenge or attending a live class, you'll get personalized attention, feedback, and corrections from native speakers on everything you do.

Don't wait to improve your English. Start learning with me today.


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