Some people learn vocabulary by keeping notes in a book, others write words and phrases on pieces of card or use mobile phone apps. Another way is to make a kind of ‘mind map’ of related words. However, it is a good idea to think about what vocabulary is. Of course there are single words that you can learn easily such as ‘printer’, ‘lion’ or ‘water’ but many words can be learnt as a group or ‘chunk’ of words.
Learning a language by chunks
English is full of chunks. A chunk of English is 2, 3 or more words that are often used together or near each other. Learning chunks of English is an excellent way to build your vocabulary and sound natural. You will hear them all the time. Here are some examples:
How do you do?
I’d like a packet of crisps please
Can you turn off the light?
By the way, how is Mark?
It’s difficult to explain the ins and outs of the situation
Here is a wonderful website about phrases: The Phrase Finder
By hearing the same phrases again and again we can start to use them. It is often not necessary to understand the grammar – we simply know that that is what people always or often say in a particular situation.
A particular kind of chunking is called ‘collocation‘.
‘Merry Christmas‘ is OK (but ‘Merry birthday’ sounds ridiculous!)
Do you get any pocket money?
She owes me some money.
We’ve just bought some state-of-the-art equipment.
Chair a meeting.
We going to have some heavy rain
He has a strong accent.
Another aspect of learning English vocabulary is formality and register.
English has a very large vocabulary and often there are many words that have a similar meaning. This makes it difficult for learners.
One important thing to consider is the formality or register of the item of vocabulary. For example is the word or phrase very formal and normally only found in formal writing such as academic essays or official communications. If it is, then it may not be appropriate for a relaxed conversation with your friends. It’s a little like wearing a formal business suit to a beach party!
At the other end of the spectrum some words or phrases may be slang and not at all suitable for business or professional use. A bit like wearing jeans to a formal job interview at a bank! Of course a lot of vocabulary can be used in a wide variety of situations.
Some vocabulary might only be appropriate for certain environments eg sports, technology or business. Getting the situation wrong can make your English sound rather silly or pretentious eg ‘Hi Mum, I’m just going for a walk to do some blue-sky thinking.’
Sometimes we actively choose a level of formality to indicate how we feel about something eg:
Would you mind turning down your music?
Please can you turn it down?
Turn it down now!
Here we can see that your choice of words and grammatical structures can change the strength of what you say or write.