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A simple technique to learn the words you really need

How well do you know the English for what surrounds you on a daily basis? At home, at work, in the street or in shops?

Oftentimes, we learn new vocab through books, videos, online courses or even conversations and then try to personalise it. But there’s no guarantee that it will be sufficient for talking about your real daily life and experience. So what if we go the other way around: from your life to new vocab?

The technique I’m about to describe brings us to here and now. Basically, we want to make sure that we know the words for our ‘here and now’ situation. It goes like this.

Take a break from what you’re doing and look around:

  • Where are you? What were you doing just now?
  • What can you see (objects around + their characteristics, people around + their characteristics + their actions, etc)?
  • What can you hear (sounds near and from afar + their characteristics)? What can you touch, smell or even taste?
  • How do you feel about it?
  • What are you going to do next?

You don’t have to answer all these questions. It depends on the situation and on your goal. One day you may focus on objects and their characteristics (nouns and adjectives), another time you’ll pay attention to people’s actions, appearance and body language. Or reflect on how you feel.

Although you can do this just in your head, keeping track of new vocab (in paper, on your phone or in an app) is highly advisable. This way you’ll be able to come back to it, revise it or add further notes. The more details you include, the better. Use Google Translate to make your life easier, if needed)

Using the technique to the full

As you try to find English words that describe your current situation, I’d say there may be three levels of precision in your approach.

Level 1 – just words and short phrases. It’s quick and can be done as a simple word list (I’d say minimum 5 items) e.g.:

sitting at my desk, peaceful, a Totoro flower pot, indie music, hum of the laptop, clicking of the keyboard, brew coffee

Level 2 – sentences + your attitude (like/ hate and synonyms). Here we check that we can put those phrases into nice longer sentences. Or revise the list you already have e.g.:

I’m sitting at my desk working. In front of me, there are plants in flower pots on the windowsill. The cutest pot is with a figure of Totoro. It makes me dreamy looking at it. Soft indie music is playing through the speakers and helps my focus. While the hum of the laptop is distracting, the clicking sound of the keyboard is quite bearable. I like the feel of the keys: they are compact and I can type fast. I need a break so I’m going to brew coffee.

Level 3 – go descriptive, or add adjectives (or use synonyms), adverbs and other details. Imagine that you’re setting the scene for a story and you don’t want it to be boring, e.g.:

Here I am, beavering away at my texts. My wonderful Totoro pot is there whispering some ideas into my ears. It reminds me of faraway Japan. The music is on. But it’s very soft and quiet, almost imperceptible. It adds to the mix of the hum of the laptop and the clicking sound of my keyboard.

Hmm… shouldn’t I be taking a short break? Yes, coffee! What better way to rest and then bring on a sharper focus? As I’m brewing my coffee, I take a look at the blue sky through the window. So liberating it is after grey and heavy winter skies! Spring is coming in leaps and bounds… (and so on).

If you just walk around your home and try to name objects around, you’ll be surprised how many words you can learn with this technique. If you practise this when you find yourself in a new environment or situation, you’ll acquire a new habit of identifying new words to learn.

What’s more, because these words are not “abstract” but are associated with a very real you in a very real situation, there’s a good chance you’ll remember them much faster (than those from books and courses).


  • Don’t forget to check the pronunciation of new words.
  • Take a photo and add it to your notes! 📷
  • If you keep your notes well-organised, structured and at hand, you can easily revise the words when you in the same place/ situation.
  • Leave plenty of empty space in your notes, so that you can come back later and add some details.
  • Use these notes for learning other foreign languages, you’ll save yourself a lot of time (because you already know what words you need in your everyday life)!

Now, look at the objects around you. What are those you don’t know the English for? =)

Photo by Jazmin Quaynor on Unsplash

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