As an Upper-intermediate or Advanced level English learner, you’re classed as ‘a successful language learner’. It’s clear you already know a lot about learning vocabulary.
You’ve done the flashcards, used the apps, created a vocabulary book and understand the importance of reading and listening to a wide variety of English.
So why do you still feel stuck? Why do you find it so difficult to remember and use advanced level vocabulary?
Lucy explored this in her blog post How to remember vocabulary and make it stick! Lucy advised engaging, noticing and exploring vocabulary. This is particularly important at upper-intermediate and advanced levels because the vocabulary you want to apply is more sophisticated. You really need to know it deeply if you’re to use it effectively.
But we understand this is easier said than done. So today we’re going to explore what obstacles you might face when trying to learn vocabulary ‘deeply’ and how you can overcome these challenges.
So what are the challenges we all face when trying to learn, remember and use more advanced vocabulary?
We forget stuff. Fact. You cannot learn a set number of words in a day. You can’t actually ‘learn’ any word in a day. If you don’t engage with a word you ‘learnt’ on Monday again on Tuesday, and then again on Thursday or Friday, you’ll forget it. Fact. Learning words we don’t use or encounter very often is also harder.
2. Finding time
It’s 2022, we’re all busy. If you don’t schedule time to learn and review vocabulary, you probably won’t do it.
3. Lack of motivation
Learning a language is a big time investment. Those big easy gains when you first began learning are probably now a distant memory, so it’s easy to feel stuck and lose motivation.
4. Selecting which vocabulary to learn
It’s easy to choose which words to learn in the early stages of learning a language – the ones we really need to communicate our needs. But once we know the highest frequency words and a few more besides, which words do we choose to focus on?
So what can you do to overcome these obstacles to learning vocabulary deeply?
1. Forgetting versus Remembering
We forget things when the brain’s not made enough connections and associations with something. Memory decay is the natural process of forgetting stuff. Blame memory decay when you can’t remember that word you learnt in class this morning.
i. Beat memory decay by reviewing new words through spaced repetition.
Soon after initially learning them. Within 24 hours for the first review and again a few days later, and again a few days after that, and again a few days after that.
Then space out the time between reviews, to a week, then a month.
ii. Try to use the new words.
Write down five to ten on a piece of paper/on your phone and try to use them in conversation, or create sentences with them and read them out loud if you don’t have access to an English speaking community.
You’ll need to practise using a word at least seven times at spaced intervals before you’ll actually be able to recall and use it in conversation.
iii. Record new vocabulary without a translation.
Translations are useful in the early stages of language learning but at your level you shouldn’t rely on this resource. You want to make connections with your ‘English brain’ not your first language brain. Record the new word with a definition in English or even a simple illustration. Include an example sentence.
iv. Post-it notes are not just for beginners!
We’ve all done it, household items and furniture covered in stickies. Why? Because it works. Instead of using stickies to learn household items use them to learn tricky words or phrases.
If you encounter a phrase on your fridge door for a week, you’re more likely to remember it than if you didn’t. Be creative – currently ‘τι αίνιγμα’ is on my fridge door, which kind of translates to ‘conundrum‘. Why? Because I always find deciding what the hell to cook for dinner a challenge.
Don’t stick to single words, use phrases or collocations.
2. Finding time
I realised long ago if I don’t schedule reviewing vocabulary into my day, it doesn’t happen. I now have a morning routine that includes time for this. Some mornings it doesn’t happen, but most mornings it does, so that’s fine.
Look at your schedule, where could you squeeze in some time to dedicate to reviewing vocabulary? While you eat breakfast? During your commute? After dinner?
Once you’ve chosen a time, try to stick to it religiously for at least a couple of weeks, that way you’re more likely to keep it up. The less you have to think about it, the more likely it is you’ll do it.
Small amounts of time regularly are more effective than long amounts of time every now and then.
Try different times until you find one that works for you. Everyone is different.
3. Lack of motivation
Do you remember the days when learning new words was novel and fun? Maybe not. But staying motivated is an important element to being a successful language learner. The tips below are specific to learning vocabulary.
i. Don’t keep doing the same old thing.
Yes, routine is important in terms of finding time to study, but routine is also the road to boredom. So what to do?
If you like gamified language learning, download a new app. There are so many apps out there for learning English if you’re still using Duo Lingo it’s time to move on! Ask friends or do a search online. Find one you like until you get bored. Then get a new one. And repeat.
ii. Don’t just focus on ‘memorising vocabulary’.
When you’re reading you’ll encounter new or less familiar vocabulary, and guess what? Yes, you’re reviewing and learning vocabulary. When you’re watching a film or TV show, you’re doing the same thing. Don’t be concerned about using subtitles- it’s fine. Likewise when you’re listening to a song. Mix it up.
iii. Create challenges for yourself
Rope someone else in if you can. When you want to practise new vocabulary in a conversation, have a chat with a friend. Try to turn the conversation onto topics which will enable you to use your list of words. The winner? The person who either uses all the words on their list first, or who’s used more words on their list at the end of the conversation.
4. Selecting which vocabulary to learn.
Higher level students frequently ask me about what vocabulary they should be learning. There is a tendency among learners to think they need to learn all the unknown vocabulary they encounter. But my advice is to be selective. Don’t waste your time learning technical or specialist words you probably won’t use.
Instead focus on learning vocabulary you actually need to make your English more fluent and sound more natural.
Collocations are words or phrases which are often used with other words or phrases, they go together -they collocate. Choosing the correct collocation is the difference between your English sound natural and stilted.
I always recommend the Online Oxford Collocation Dictionary to my students. Spend time exploring the dictionary by inputting words you already know and seeing what they collocate with. Make this more challenging (and fun) by listing the collocations before consulting the dictionary.
ii. Phrasal verbs
Multi-verb words are the bane of every English language learner’s life – I’m sorry, I feel your pain – but if you need to understand and communicate with native English speakers then you do need to know them.
A useful resource for this is Phrasal Word Demon. To really make the most of it, you need to knuckle down and study the logic behind phrasal verbs.
iii. Vocabulary you need
This is obviously the vocabulary you need to learn, but establishing that on your own can be tricky – it’s an unknown unknown.
So here’s what you should do:
Make a list of topics you are interested in and/or frequently talk about in English or your native language, this could be related to your job, hobbies or interests.
Select a topic and stick to that topic for a week, two weeks, a month or until you’re bored.
Record yourself speaking about the selected topic in English.
Anytime you struggle to express your ideas in English, use your native language.
Listen to the recording and make a note of the words and phrases you used in your native language.
Find out what these words/phrases are in English.
Make a record of them and learn them using spaced repetition – write sentences you’d use in a real conversation, read them out loud.
You should also read some articles on the topic, watch some videos or listen to podcasts on the topic – this will help you notice how the language is used, e.g, collocations.
Use a journal to write about what you’ve learnt about the topic, record yourself again talking about the topic.