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Yes, speaking is one of the key factors in improving a language. However, before you are able to speak, you must first build a strong vocabulary base. Words are the building blocks of any language, and the quality of your vocabulary reflects on your speech as a whole.
There are basic words that you will need in order to be understood in any language - survival words that are simple and repeated frequently. But, once you have mastered these, you will want to polish your speech and sprinkle it with a few ‘’fancy’’ words in order to take your conversations to the next level.
Some people don’t bother learning new words because they do not want to seem obnoxious or presumptuous. However, if you play your fancy words right, you will come across not as a ‘’snob,’’ but rather as an eloquent individual.
Here are a few tips (and links) to help you take your vocab to the next level.
1. Read. A lot. In my experience, this is the best way to enhance your vocabulary. It is also a bit of a time-consuming activity, which makes it the least popular with learners. Reading is a great method to learn new words because you learn from context. This makes memorization easier, because the next time you need to recall a word, you can easily retrieve it from the context you found it in.
Try to read a little bit of everything. Read academic books, the news and non-fiction in order to learn technical terms or specific jargon. Also, read newspapers, magazines and even blogs. You want your vocabulary to be sophisticated but you also want to keep up with any slang that the “cool” kids are using these days!
2. Read music lyrics and TV show scripts. No, this is not a typo. If books are not your cup of tea, then try reading some lyrics. The good thing about music is that you can listen while you read, sing along and memorize songs. The only problem is that music often uses simple words, so this method might only be helpful for beginners. Also, be careful, because songs are often poetic and they are not necessarily logical nor grammatically correct. You can also try reading your favorite TV show’s transcripts online.
3. Flashcards. This is a very popular way to build vocabulary. It is easy and convenient because you can carry your cards with you and review them anytime, anywhere! There are also some online flashcard apps such as Anki; they are equally effective and they save paper.
4. Use them or lose them! This should go without saying, and you should make it a habit to use your newly-discovered words as soon and as often as possible. Some words, such as phrasal verbs, have more than one meaning. Using them often will give you the opportunity to explore all of the possibilities. If you learn new words but never make the intentional effort to use them, there’s a good chance you won’t remember them a month later.
5. Make it fun. This is the most important rule because none of the previous techniques will help you if you don't like what you are doing. Here are some ideas for making the best of your vocabulary-learning experience.
Label it: Use sticky notes to label everything around the house.
I spy: As you walk down the street, try to think in your target language. Name everything you see and if there is something you can’t name, make a note to learn it later or look it up on your dictionary or smartphone.
Duolingo: Here’s a super-cute and super-helpful application that will greatly contribute to your vocabulary, in a variety of languages, whether you are a beginner or an advanced student.
Use learning sites that target vocabulary enhancement: There are many useful sites that feature comprehensive lists of vocabulary, sorted by theme and category. LearningChocolate is great for English learners and Conjuguemos is fun for those learning romance languages and German.
Play Scrabble, Words with Friends and do crossword puzzles: You’ll learn while you have fun.
Use online vocabulary-quiz generators: Freerice is a very fun and useful site that can help you learn synonyms for the words you already know, and more.
Translate it: If you are ever bored waiting for your next class, at the doctor’s office or at the bus stop, you can open up your favorite online translator and just start translating any and all words that come to mind.
Word of the day: You can set yourself the task to learn a random word from your dictionary every day by subscribing to WOD, or by using any online dictionary site.
Analyze it: When you learn a new word, don’t just see it, analyze it. Look up the meaning and explore all the features of online dictionaries. Look at its synonyms, antonyms and how it is used in a sentence.
And of course, you can always just sit down and read a bit of the dictionary. Seriously!
You can use all or some of the above methods to learn new words. Just remember to have fun and be prepared to use common words in case the person you’re talking to doesn’t share your passion for vocabulary. Be concise and humble. No one likes the guy that uses four synonyms in the same sentence just to prove that he has read the dictionary. Don’t be that person! Good luck!