It's a challenge to learn English vocabulary. 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!
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.)
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 EnglishHints 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.
Students and professionals also need some specialized vocabulary. Master Business English suggests websites with language important for business.
For academic and professional vocabulary in general, 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.
For personalized, step-by-step help to learn the academic English vocabulary you need to score well on the TOEFL or IELTS tests or study in English-speaking countries, see Academic Vocabulary Lessons. It discusses an inexpensive course for learning academic vocabulary in minutes a day.
Several pages in English Hints teach specific categories of words from the AWL including
Biblical English explains a few of the ways the English of the King James Bible (from 1611, the time of Shakespeare) differs from current English. It discusses thee, thou, and thy (the 2nd person singular forms we no longer use), canst, didst, and other old (archaic) verb endings, and some words now used rarely.
Other (mostly AWL vocabulary) pages with both explanation and practice include:
(See also Vocabulary Games and Activities for matching, gap-fill, and other practice exercises for most of the words on the AWL.)
Use the Academic Vocabulary Word Lists 1, 2 (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.
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.
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.