Building Vocabulary and
Some Common Mistakes

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Building vocabulary is the most basic thing in learning any new language. This is the foundation all your English knowledge rests upon!

Building vocabulary cubes

Click Here for Step-by-Step Rules, Stories and Exercises to Practice All English Tenses

Click Here for Step-by-Step Rules, Stories and Exercises to Practice All Tenses

There are several ways for building vocabulary. Some are better and some are worse. Some are even harmful!

Here I will share with you some important guidelines, and also some words of caution.

What is the Best Way to Learn Anything?

Well, you need to understand it, and use it.

Learn to drive Here is an example: let's say you want to learn to drive a car. OK! You start by understanding the car and the road regulations. Then you practice, practice, practice. You do that until you KNOW. Until it is easy. Then you take the test, and get your license.

So it is actually a simple process: you understand the ideas and principles, and then you practice them in the "real world". That way it becomes part of you. So that's pretty obvious regarding cars. But what about other subjects?

Learn interior design Let's say you want to be an interior designer. You start by understanding the rules and how it all works: the theory. Then you must practice using it. You can get an assignment to go to a place and use that theory. You use the design data you got to actually design that place. That way you will become better and better until you KNOW interior design.

Now, what if you want to learn a new language?

What is the Best Way
for Building Vocabulary?

best way to build your English vocabulary You need to understand the words, and use them.

You start by understanding the meaning of a word, and then you practice using it. In the end, you KNOW it. This is the way for building vocabulary.

Let's have a look at a real life example. You learn a new word. For example, the word "a".

What does the word "a" mean? A dictionary is a good place to check this.

You will basically find out that the word "a" means you are referring to 1 thing, which is not specific.

OK! Now, let's use it! "a dog" would mean "1 dog, any dog". "a cat" would mean "1 cat, any cat". "I want a hat" would mean I want 1 hat, and I am not saying which one.

Now you can practice using the word by making up sentences. You can practice speaking it, reading it, writing it, drawing it, playing games with it, anything goes!

At the end you can be quite surprised when you see how well you know this word.

Do that with many words, and you will know many words!

Keep doing that and there is almost no limit of how far you can get! I said "almost" because at some point, you will discover that grammar is also quite important. I mean, words are important, but you need to know how to combine them correctly, too. "drinking the can" and "canning the drink" (preserving the drink in a can) mean entirely different things, don't they?

Common Mistakes in Building Vocabulary

building vocabulary common mistakes Here I will share with you some common mistakes in building vocabulary. I will tell you the mistake, and then give an example from the driving world, and the language learning world. That way you get a chance to examine it from different sides.

Building vocabulary mistake #1: learning in order to pass an exam, and for that reason alone

Driving world: you take a lot of driving lessons. You dedicate time and money. You learn all the special tricks. You go to the test, you pass the test. You get your driver's license. But if you can't really drive well, then… you just wasted a lot of time and effort in order to get a piece of paper. Some people are quite happy with that, and that is OK. You need to ask yourself: what do I really want? Do I want to drive well, or do I want that piece of paper?

Language world: you take a lot of English lessons. You dedicate time and money. You learn special tricks. You go to the exam, you pass the exam. You get your nice score. Great. Do you remember any of it now? Can you use English in your work place? Can you use it when you travel? Can you easily read an English website and understand it?

Conclusion: exams and tests are there to verify your knowledge. They are not the end product. They can get you some nice pieces of paper, but you will not become a more skilled person because of your score. Find out what is your real purpose and always keep it in mind.

Building vocabulary mistake #2: memorizing data "like a parrot" with no practice

Driving world: your driving instructor tells you the exact way to perform parallel parking. You write that down 10 times in your notebook. You say it 20 times back to the instructor. You memorize it perfectly. Now, in the test, you can obviously do it, can't you? Well, no, at least most of us can't. Memorizing is never a substitute for drilling.

Language world: your teacher gives you a list of 20 new words. You write them again and again in your notebook. You really memorize them. But you don't actually use them. Now you are in New York, trying to have a conversation. How much benefit can you get from those words? Not much, I can tell you that.

Conclusion: information is all well and good, but it doesn't help you much unless you practice it and unless you can use it.

Building vocabulary mistake #3: starting to practice before you understand it

Driving world:: your driving instructor asks you to start driving. No explanations about which piece of equipment does what, or which pedal to press. Just start driving. Good luck. I guess some people might make it, but most will simply sit there confused.

Language world: your teacher tells you that the new word you are going to study today is "chukubuku". You start singing songs about it, playing games with that word, and reading stories that have this word. You get no explanation about what this word means. Or, you do get an explanation, but you don't actually understand it. Big, big mistake. A very bad way to learn. (By the way, "chukubuku" is an invented word!)

Conclusion: understand the explanation before you start practicing. Practicing will definitely increase your understanding, but if you practice with no idea behind it, that won't really help you.

One last important tip.

Should I Understand Words from Context?

understanding words from context Some teachers think it is best not to stop on every word, but to understand the words from the context. That basically means, to guess what the word means, or to simply ignore it.

This is false help. It doesn't really help you in building vocabulary. It can leave you with many words you don't really understand, or that you only think you understand. This can, and does, mess students up.

Here is an example: a student reads the following sentence: "Marta has a parasol." Hmm… OK, what does that mean? You can guess all day long, but that won't necessarily get you to the right answer. You will probably remain unsure. But this can be easily solved. Simply check what it means! You can use the dictionary. "Parasol" is a kind of umbrella that protects against the sun. Ah, now it makes sense. "Marta has a parasol."

Another example: my English teacher taught us there were words you had to understand, and other words which were not so important. So we shouldn't waste our time on understanding the less important words. We should kind of guess them.

I was actually doing just that for a very long time. It made me think I knew words, when I knew them wrong.

For example, as a child, I ran into the word "respect". It was always mentioned in "serious" contexts. So I concluded it had to do with seriousness. In my mind, if it was said that someone respected someone else, it meant he looked seriously at that person. Boy, was that inaccurate!

Later on, when I "bothered" and opened a dictionary, I discovered I had completely invented that meaning. The true meaning was "to treat someone or something in a polite way because you consider them important". Do you see the difference from "seriousness"? I sure do!

So why is understanding words from context false help? Because it seems like it helps you to study faster, not stopping on every unknown word, but it actually creates damage.

In summary, the way to build vocabulary is to learn vocabulary - not to guess at it!

learn vocabulary, do not guess at it!

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