As I mentioned, english is my second language. I'd say I'm intermediate at reading, writing and speaking basic english. But I have a very limited vocabulary. So I'm learning new words. From another question on this site, I found vocabulary.com which is somewhat helpful.

My question is if I encounter an unfamiliar word, say while reading something, do I just look up the word in the dictionary and move on? I doubt the I'll learn the word like this even if I'm stumbling on the word frequently. Should I memorize the definition of the word? Also many words have multiple meanings, which makes it difficult to remember all of them. Also from a couple of sources, I was suggested that I should remember the word as it is and not translate it in my native language. What would be a good strategy for me?

3 Answers 3


I've not tried to learn another language before, but I do have some advice from friends who have, and some of my own experience on expanding my vocabulary. One important thing is to first try and figure out the definition of the word by the context. Look at the dictionary to assure you're correct, but learning words based on context can be helpful. You are more likely to remember the word should a similar context ever occur. If you are going for a high-brow vocabulary, reading works with a progressively higher level vocabulary would be helpful as well.

Secondly, it helps to remember phrases rather than specific words. When you are learning new words, If you try and remember the phrases they are used in, you may find it easier to use that phrase rather than that individual word. I've read several studies that suggest learning phrases is far easier than indivual word. Here's an informational page on that from FluentU:


Finally, try practicing using the words you learn. Whenever you have the chance to implement a new word you learned into conversation or writing, try to do so. Don't be scared to be corrected. This will help you to better learn how to use that word. You know what they say, if you don't use it you lose it.

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    I agree that learning phrases rather than words is helpful. I realise that many of the words I already remember are through phrases and the way they are used in sentences. Also there are some words that I don't know the exact meaning of but I use them as I'm familiar with them through seeing them in various writings.
    – Raknos13
    Mar 2, 2018 at 21:27
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    Absolutely. As an English speaker I find myself using words I can't explicitly define all the time, but I know how they can be used and when they are appropriate from seeing them in novels, articles, magazines, etc. You can definitely derive a lot from context.
    – Element115
    Mar 2, 2018 at 21:29
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    @R3l1c Don't try to "learn" (as in memorize) anything, neither the definition nor the phrase - instead once you checked the unfamiliar word in the dictionary, simply reread the passage it was mentioned in and try to understand it. Broader context helps you subconsciously associate the word with how you feel when hearing it - whether it's offensive, tender, ironic, etc. - and lets you know what sort of undertone it conveys and when it's appropriate or not to use it. Mar 2, 2018 at 21:41

One other thing to add, is to try to create your own dictionary. A lot of words can be linked together by a common theme. You can categorize them, like fruits, or link them by writing one word in the middle of a sheet and writing all other words related to the word in the center, around it. i.e. 'Bank' in the center, and then 'teller', 'mortgage', 'loan', 'finances' around it. Or 'sounds', in the center and 'clatter', 'roar', 'clunk', 'sputter', 'rattle', etc. When learning a new word, learn U & C, correct pronunciation, part of speech, a good example or two, and the definition of the word in the context you ran into it. If it's a verb look up all the tenses. Only use a dictionary that has all the above information. Try to create an example or two where you might speak it. The last one is very important.

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    What do you mean by 'U & C'?
    – Raknos13
    Mar 4, 2018 at 12:56
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    uncountable and countable.
    – Bahram
    Mar 4, 2018 at 19:37

In addition to the excellent advice in Element115 and Basl's answers, I recommend that you analyze how the unfamiliar word is built from word roots and affixes. The total number of word roots, prefixes, and suffixes is much smaller than the total number of words that can be built from them. Thus, it is much easier to memorize approximate definitions for these parts of words than it is to memorize all the words.

Knowing the parts of words will help you guess at the meanings of unfamiliar words. It won't let you know "for sure" what an unfamiliar word means, but it will give you a guess that you can confirm in a dictionary. When you do look up the word in the dictionary, you will probably get positive feedback about how good your guess was.

For example:

unfamiliar = un (not) + familiar
familiar = family + y->i + ar
ar = al (adjective ending) + (l->r)
So unfamiliar is an adjective that describes "someone or something you have not been around a lot".

approximate = ap + proximate
ap = ad (toward or next to) + (d->p)
proximate = proxy (substitute) + y->i + mate (verb or adjective ending)
So approximate is either
* a verb that means "make a close substitute" for something, or
* an adjective that means "is a close substitute" for something.

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