four vocabulary cards

Improving your vocabulary – why you need to be a vocab vulture!

Writing in the Telegraph last month, German Ambassador to London Peter Ammon described his disappointment at the falling number of British students learning his native language.

His comments preceded figures released a couple of weeks ago revealing a dip in pupils taking foreign languages at school – a drop which some academics blame on the rise of online tools such as Google Translate. Of course, having fewer students will ultimately mean fewer teachers, creating a vicious circle.

Ammon insisted: “While I recognise the importance of English, I believe language skills are more vital than ever.”

Sadly, it seems that the UK is not entirely in agreement. Research agency Populus conducted a survey for the British Council, which found that more than half of Brits (56%) point at foreign restaurant menus, while 45% assume locals will speak English, and 42% speak more slowly and loudly to make themselves understood. A perhaps surprising (and certainly rather embarrassing) 15% even attempt to communicate in English – with a foreign accent! A similar number avoid local cuisine altogether.

And yet, equally interestingly, 80% of respondents felt it important to “at least learn some phrases”.

Meanwhile the British Council’s Vicky Gough commented: “The decline in uptake of languages in schools is worrying … There is a somewhat alarmingly prevalent notion that … languages are ‘nice to have’, (yet) only a quarter of the world’s population speaks English.”

Whether you’re keen for your children to master French, German or Spanish, or are learning a foreign language yourself, it’s vital to absorb vocabulary like a sponge – or perhaps acquire it like a vulture, swooping down on new words and hanging on to them.

Vocab is an often underrated area of language learning, yet improving your vocabulary has a direct impact on your overall linguistic proficiency. And it helps speaking, listening, reading and writing skills come more readily. When you’re not grasping for words, you can focus on other aspects of language – such as sentence structure.

It’s the foundation on which to build linguistic proficiency, so it’s perhaps a misconception that vocabulary is less important than, for example, grammatical structures.

The worst communication breakdowns can occur when you don’t know the mot juste, rather than forget the right tense. (In the latter situation you can still make yourself understood, which is why more of us pack a dictionary than a grammar book.)

What’s more, the more extensive your vocabulary, the more words you’ll continue to absorb.

But vocabulary isn’t something you can cram the night before an exam. Even if you are an excellent linguist, you are highly unlikely to learn 200 new words overnight.

Study new words in your target language little and often, aiming for, say, 10 new words a day. Put them on Post-It notes on the bathroom or bedroom mirror, or on the fridge. Have a dedicated vocab notebook and read it en route to work or school. Get a friend or family member to test you on a daily car or bus journey, use flashcards and any memory techniques you can think of.

One final tip: whatever your target language, always learn the gender of new nouns – this is something which may not come entirely naturally at first to native English speakers, but it will make a huge difference when you begin to learn the idiosyncrasies of your new language’s grammar. Equally, learn the infinitive form of any new verbs.

So get into the vocab habit – or, if you’re a parent of a budding linguist, encourage your child to do so. Once you’ve mastered a word and recognised it in conversation or reading, it’s yours for ever.


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