How to learn vocabulary to be more fluent in English

French dictionary page

I’m sure you’ve all been in a situation where you just couldn’t find the word you need, even though you know that word is in your head somewhere! Or maybe you are fine talking about your work in a meeting, but as soon as you get to the coffee machine, you find you don’t have the words to talk about other topics and you don’t feel fluent at all.

What is the issue in both of these situations? It’s vocabulary!

One of the main things you need to do to be more fluent in English is to have the vocabulary you need, ready to use when you need it, not locked away in the back of your brain somewhere. You need to understand how to learn vocabulary effectively and how to practise speaking and using that vocabulary.

(Don't forget you can get all our top tips for fluency in English here!)

Here are 3 important things you need to know:

1. Your passive vocabulary (words you recognise) will always be bigger than your active vocabulary (words you can use.) It’s the same in your native language. To start using more words from your passive vocabulary, you need to consciously do it. Choose a word that you like, and then try to use that word in the next week (even when you’re talking to yourself, remember) as many times as you can. That’s how language becomes automatic and you become more fluent.

2. You need to practise new vocabulary using spaced repetition. Whatever you are learning, not just English vocabulary, works best using spaced repetition. (This is how I learnt more than 500 Japanese kanji characters for my Japanese exam!) You need to test yourself and try to recall new vocabulary just at the point where you are about to forget the new words. For example, you test yourself on day 1, day 2, day 4, day 7, day 14, day 30. Eventually the word will be stored correctly in your long-term memory.

Graph showing when to review learned information
How your brain learns new information

I suggest using an app such Anki or Quizlet for learning vocabulary. Anki helps you with spaced repetition, but I prefer Quizlet as it has different types of games which test both your passive and active knowledge. (Also Quizlet has a great free version!)

3. Your zone of comfort will be the area you talk about in English the most. This is usually work-related for most people. You need to (guess what I'm going to tell you?) get out of your comfort zone and talk about other topics! Make yourself a vocabulary list for a different topic and then talk about that topic. Again, it doesn’t matter if you’re just talking to your cat, as long as you are speaking out loud. If you can join a fluency class, even better.

And before I finish, one thing that absolutely does not work is learning a list of words. Your brain will store them as “words on a list” if it stores them at all. You need vocabulary in context and you need to actively use that vocabulary. If you do this, your brain will be ready next time you need to find a word, I promise!

Don’t forget we are opening fluency classes at the end of this month: join a small group of people (3-4) of your level for a fun and friendly way to get more fluent in English. If you have CPF (compte personnel de formation) you can use it. Register your interest here.

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