Vocabulary is the key to communication. Without it you can’t communicate well. But how can you learn all those important words and expressions? And which ones should you focus on (there are more than 200,000 words in English!)?

Wouldn’t it be easy if you could just learn the 3,000 most commonly used words and that would be it? Well, there are about 3,000 words that are extremely common. You could sit down and learn them. In fact, it would probably help. Certainly, for Beginner and Elementary learners, focussing on these high-frequency words is key to developing language rapidly and effectively. And from these 3,000, you can learn many thousands more.

Take the word “rain”, for example. From this high-frequency word, you can make lots of other words: “rainbow, raincoat, rainfall, rainforest, rainwater” and “rainstorm”. And you could probably guess the meaning of all these words if you saw them in context. As well as that, there are several derivatives that can be formed from root words. For example, from the high-frequency root word “destroy”, you can create a noun (“destruction”) and an adjective (“destructive”); and from “discover” you can get two nouns “discovery” and “discoverer”. So, once you know the meaning of all the high-frequency root words, you can understand the meaning of their derivatives or associated words (compound nouns, etc.).

Of course, some words are easier to learn than others. They may remind you of a word you already know in the target language. Or, they’re similar to ones in your own language. However, other words are more complicated. They just don’t seem to make any logical sense. But don’t worry. For these complicated words you can use mnemonics.

Mnemonics (pronounced “nemonics”) are memory aids. Creating mnemonics consists of finding images or associated words that you can use to help you remember target words in the new language. For example, a Spanish student of English explained how she learnt the word “hill”. She simply pictured the famous politician “Jesus Gil” (whose surname is pronounced the same as “hill”, more or less) on a hill. And an English student of Spanish explained how he learnt the Spanish word “charco” (“puddle”) by imagining a piece of “charcoal” in a puddle. Other times, you can associate the word you want to learn with a word you already know in the target language. For example, another student was having problems with the Spanish word “ballesta” (“crossbow”), which was appearing in the news a lot. So, he created an image in his head of a whale shooting a crossbow. He chose this animal because “whale” in Spanish is “ballena”, and this word is very similar to the word that he wanted to learn. And it was such an unusual image that it stuck in his head. Easy…

…except that there’s a slight problem. The thing is, very few words are found in isolation. They are often in partnership with other words. Take the case of the high-frequency word “evidence”. It’s often seen in the expression “a lack of evidence”. The key is to learn chunks of words: words in sentences, words in expressions and words in phrases. So, next time you want to learn a word, write down a whole phrase, sentence or expression with the word in it (preferably one that’s been spoken, as that way you can guarantee that it’s a highfrequency expression or phrase).

But there’s another problem. You may be able to recognise the word, but can you use it in a sentence? Will it come to you while you’re speaking? Of course, this is a problem in every language, including your own. And the thing that’ll help you is… repetition. Simply repeat key phrases or expressions over and over again until they become ingrained in your brain. Alternatively, you could record them and listen to them while you’re waiting for a bus, on a train or walking along the street.

And once these key expressions have become embedded in your head, they’ll come to you when you need them most… automatically and without thinking, because now they’re part of your active vocabulary.

Have fun learning words… but remember to learn them in context – with their friends!

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