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How to learn new vocabulary? Part 1. Finding associations

As one is learning a language, the amount of new vocab can easily get overwhelming. One of the strategies is to learn it by lists or cards using word translation or definition. It’s easy then to check yourself, easy to revise. And it gives some control and sense of progress, like “I learn 10 new words a day”.

However, I see a couple of problems here. First, words in a list or on a card may be devoid of context. If this is a list of vegetables, maybe it’s no problem (although a very long list will be). But if these are abstract words or maybe adjectives, how will you understand how to use them later?

Second, it doesn’t guarantee that when you need those words in spontaneous speech, you’ll get access to them instantly or fast enough to avoid delay and awkward pauses in speaking. Because when we speak, we speak from thoughts, mental images, ideas, feelings and sensations, not words. So we need to “feel” words, not just “know” or “remember” them. When we “feel” words, we can access them much faster.

That’s why I would suggest that there is a bit more to learning new vocab. At least, there are two more important stages before you start revising it with lists and cards (we can also call this stage “active recall”): finding associations and noticing how and when to use this word/ phrase.

Let’s look at associations first and I’ll cover the rest later.

So, what are associations?

We can think of them as connections between a particular word or phrase and something else. The more connections you have, the easier the access to this word/ phrase is. You can imagine it as a story you can tell about this word/ phrase. The longer the better.

Associations can be of different types:

— with the topic (medicine: an operating theatre, a ward) or a situation where you learn it (on holiday: Cheers!);

— with senses – pictures (all objects: a kettle, a cushion; some adjectives – fuchsia, gigantic), sounds (squeak, rustle), movements (nouns, verbs: to kick, a kick), touch (adjectives: smooth), smells (sewage, a meadow), tastes (bitter, umami, pistachio);

— with feelings and states (flabbergasted, humble, distraught);

— with people – personality adjectives (upbeat, conscientious), but also clothes (a parka), work (number crunching), interests etc.

— with your attitude (like /hate the word or what it describes, useful/ not applicable to your life, etc., easy/ difficult to pronounce etc.)

Also think of

— grammar: cut – cut – cut is like put – put – put, or good at and laugh at (the same proposition),

— other vocab: synonyms, opposites, words of the same family (relate – relative – relationship – related/ unrelated – relatively)

— pronunciation: is it similar to anything else you know in English or any other language? (training) or does it look the same but sounds different? (yacht)

Let’s take the word “arrogant” as an example.

I learnt it when we were on holiday with my best friend (a situation). There was a nightclub called Arrogance next to the hotel. We went there several times and we liked it more than the others (a feeling). I was interested in what the name meant and then I wondered why it had been chosen. Was it for arrogant people? Did it mean the club was better than its neighbours? (an attitude)

About the same time I was really into Pride and Prejudice, both the film (with Colin Firth) and the book. Of course, the word describes Mr Darcy very well (a person). I hear “arrogant” – I see him in my mind’s eye (a picture). I think I can look arrogant at times, I used to feel it as well (an attitude, a feeling).

In terms of learning, it’s a word of core vocabulary but not of high frequency, so it appears at the Intermediate level or above (a professional context). But I usually take the opportunity to teach it earlier when we take personality adjectives (a topic). I think it’s a cool word to know especially because many people find this quality annoying (an attitude and feelings).

Grammatically, it’s an adjective used to describe people, attitude or a smile: He was an arrogant, selfish man. It’s used without a preposition

Lexically, it’s similar to “proud” but has a negative connotation. In French and Spanish it’s almost the same word, but “proud” looks very different.

Phonetically, I don’t have clear associations, but, off the top of my head, I can come up with “arrows” because when an arrogant person gets angry and looks at you, they may send “killing arrows” with their eyes.

It may seem a lot of work, but I find this technique the most powerful way to learn new words, and also the most interesting one. So every time you see something new, just think how to connect it to what you already know.

Let’s give it a try!

Choose a word/ phrase you struggle to remember and write as many associations with it as you can. Or take one of these: a toothpick, horrific, a windowsill, to charge, to whisper, a lullaby.

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