You Can Learn English Vocabulary 

Learning English vocabulary is a challenge. English has a huge number of words, many with several meanings. It has many synonyms— words with similar meanings, and homonyms-- different words with the same pronunciation (and sometimes the same spelling.) They make English harder to learn, but also richer and more expressive. Think of it as a game-- one you can win!

English Vocabulary course-- on sale for just three days 

If you are preparing for a major English exam like the IELTS or the TOEFL, or need a lot more English vocabulary for university study or professional work, check out the 4-week course we'll be starting October 24 on Mastering English Exam Vocabulary.

It will take you step-by-step through ways to learn and remember new vocabulary, recognize word meanings using context clues, roots, and affixes, and practice the skills you must  have for those tests and academic study. You'll learn the most essential academic vocabulary through repeated exposure and practice, with bonus materials you can come back to even after the course is over.

The course is $37 (worth much more, but I want it to be affordable), and it's on sale through Saturday evening for $32. Check it out now if you've ever wished you understood more words in English!

The Roots of English in Many Languages

There are historical reasons for the richness (and difficulty) of English. English has Germanic roots, but Roman, Danish, and French invasions greatly expanded English vocabulary. They also provided many cognates.

Cognates are English words that are similar to words in other languages because they have the same roots. If you speak a Germanic or Latin-based language, recognizing cognates can really increase your reading comprehension. However, some words appear to be related but are “false cognates.” Ask yourself, "does the related meaning make sense?"

English has borrowed freely from many other languages as English explorers and colonists came into contact with them. English is growing faster than ever now, with multinational businesses, faster communication, and increased world trade. (See English Word Origins.)

Study Roots & Affixes 

man taking notes and using a dictionary
man taking notes and using a dictionary

The best way to learn English vocabulary outside of a classroom is to read as much as possible. We need to see or hear a new word repeatedly to really learn it. As you read a word again and again in different contexts, you also learn the various ways it can be used.

Another way to recognize more words is to study their different parts: their roots and affixes (common word beginnings and endings.) This can increase your vocabulary so much that has a whole section devoted to it: Roots, Prefixes, and Suffixes.

Studying word roots and affixes is especially important if you need to take a major test like the TOEFL, or if you hope to study at a university in an English-speaking country. They are also useful if you have frequent professional or business dealings in English.

Study Academic Vocabulary

Students and professionals also need to know some specialized vocabulary. It’s well worth learning the relatively few extra words of the Academic Word List (AWL), as it can enable you to understand most of what you will need to study. See Academic Vocabulary for more details.

Several pages in English Hints teach specific categories of words from the AWL including

Understanding the News in English and News Vocabulary discuss common news terminology and practices. 

So do the related pages Vocabulary for Violence and Words for Truth, Falsehood, and Error, which also include practice exercises.

Other (mostly AWL vocabulary) pages with both explanation and practice include 

Medical Vocabulary has a lot of language useful in health care settings, whether you are a patient or a health care professional. Most of it is not on the AWL, but it is useful professional-- and everyday-- vocabulary.

(See also Vocabulary Games and Activities for matching, gap-fill, and other practice exercises for most of the words on the AWL.)

Systematic Ways to Study the Academic Word List

Use the Academic Vocabulary Word Lists 12 (for newsletters 6-10)3 (issues 11-17) or 4 (issues 18-23)  if you want to study the entire AWL in a systematic way. They show the readings and practice activities in each newsletter through #23. Those newsletters discuss and practice the entire Academic Word List using readings, talks, games and practice activities, crosswords, and quizzes.

3 Ways to Learn the Academic Word List has more page suggestions, as well a recommending other sites and some great books.

You can sign up for English Detective below. Each issue reviews some of the AWL vocabulary, as well as adding other useful words found in that issue's readings or talks.

To find and practice particular words in the AWL, you can check the Academic Word List Vocabulary pages. They index the whole AWL alphabetically, showing the different forms (words from each word family listed in the AWL) and the newsletter(s) where that word was taught and practiced. See Academic Word List Vocabulary A-B,  C-E,  F-M,  N-R, or S-Z depending on the words you want to study.

Also, consider spending 3-5 minutes a day learning a new word with the New York Times' Learning Network's Word a Day. (See Vocabulary Strategies for more details.)

Subscribe to English Detective for a systematic way to learn academic vocabulary. Fill out the sign-up form on the left (at the bottom of the navigation menu) to get fascinating reading or listening selections and activities to practice related vocabulary. 

Sherlock Holmes with a magnifying glass following tracks
Sherlock Holmes with a magnifying glass following footprints.

Building Vocabulary Week by Week gives details about English Detective (and about the free ebook we're giving away to people who subscribe)  Vocabulary Strategies suggests the most effective ways to study and learn English vocabulary (general interest words as well as academic.) As mentioned above, Academic Vocabulary Word Lists in English Detective issues gives information about which issues teach specific words from the AWL, as well as associated readings and practice activities.

Changing Word Meanings 

In many ways, English vocabulary is very flexible. You can easily create a new word by changing the word ending, since many word endings indicate the part of speech. (They show whether a word is a noun, verb, or adjective, for example.) For more details and to practice with them, see List of Suffixes, Word Families, Word Family Practice, and Word Formation Examples and Exercises.)

Many words do not use those noun, verb, or adjective-marking suffixes. Often the same word may be used as a noun or a verb. (A verb past participle may also be used as an adjective, or a present participle may be used as a noun called a gerund.) You can tell which part of speech it is by the word’s location in a sentence.

Sentence structure is the main way we recognize the part a word is playing. (That is a major reason why English word order is less flexible than many languages.) We can take a noun and make it a verb (or make a verb into a noun) by changing its position in the sentence. The word ‘text’ has been used for a long time as a noun meaning the words of a document. Recently, people have begun to use it as an adjective (“I’ll send a text message”) or as a verb (“I’ll text you.”)

Words that originally began as names of objects often come to be used as metaphors for ideas. Eventually they may have a second or third meaning that is completely abstract. This ancient process (common to many languages), also adds to the richness and confusion of English vocabulary. We talk about the ‘fruits’ (meaning results) of labor or say a discussion is ‘heated’ (meaning angry) or that a person is ‘cold’ (meaning indifferent to the feelings of others.)

Where to go next? A good place to start is Word Families-- seeing how word parts are put together to make words.

Home> Learn English Vocabulary.

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