My level of English is at the C2-level (I have passed the Cambridge Proficiency in English exam, CPE and according to https://www.cambridgeenglish.org/exams-and-tests/cefr/ that equals C2). Even though I don't live in an English speaking country I use English everyday at work, private, watching TV (with subtitles) and so on but this usage is usually on a quite basic level, simply because that is how one uses language in everyday settings.

However, I also read a lot of English at quite a bit higher level, e.g., The Economist, The New Yorker, academic papers and similar. And when doing so it is obvious English is not my native language. Even though I have no problems understanding what I read a quite detailed level, there are still plenty of words that I only have a vague idea of their meaning.

Recently I therefore decided to do something about this - I started using the Anki flashcard system. Whenever I bump into a word I am unsure about the meaning of (or maybe I know the word but in another meaning, that doesn't make sense in this context) I add it to Anki and then once a week or so I look up the new words in a dictionary and add a translation. So far so good.

The problem is that the meaning of many of these new words is quite extensive (see the screenshot at the bottom for a translation of gather. Of course, I know that gather means assemble, come together but in the specific the context I read it it was the fourth meaning of it that was used, draw a conclusion.) when you which causes difficulties on many levels.

  1. It is hard to make Anki card. Gather has more than 10 different translations, just the word (Some of them clearly are related, while some are very different from the main meaning of gather.). Add to that a bunch of idioms or constructions.

A quick look tells me that I know about half of those more than 10 meaning. Of those 5-6 meanings, I could use half "actively" (e.g., use that meaning when I write or speak without thinking) while the other half is passive knowledge which I would understand but not use myself.

  1. When rehearsing, if I see a card that says gather I immediately come to think about the main meaning of gather and it is difficult to recall the secondary, tertiary or quaternary meanings since the primary meaning is so strongly imprinted in me.

  2. If I want to learn most of the meanings of gather I would need to create maybe 5 reversible cards (= 10 cards) in Anki. To separate them I need to add some hints but those hints often makes it too easy. On the other hand, creating one massive card with 5 meanings would mean that I almost always will fail that card because I only recall 3-4 of the translations.

  3. Many words are similar. These are some of the words I added in the last month:

    • conscientious
    • confound
    • conversely
    • congenial
    • concerted
    • contention
    • conviction
    • conciliatory
    • contemptible
    • compunction
    • conceivable
    • concession
    • compounded
    • commotion
    • convocation
    • countenance
    • concede

I guess you can appreciate that it is easy to mix up many of them...

For reference, I also study French at the B2-level and learning vocabulary at that level is much easier since it is almost always enough to learn the main translation of a word.

What are some good strategies to overcome the four problems listed above?

Footnote: a quick translation back to English of most of the meanings of gather my dictionary lists.

  • Come together
  • Collect
  • Harvest
  • get, gain
  • come to a conclusion
  • understand, realise
  • wrinkle, to wrinkle
  • lift up
  • sum up
  • grow in size
  • bad weather is incoming
  • a "ripe" boil
  • a swollen finger
  • something about sewing technique

Many translations of *gather*

  • I’m voting to close this question because it belongs to Language Learning SE, not ELL.
    – user3395
    Commented Apr 26, 2020 at 16:28
  • 1
    @userr2684291 it should be possible to scope the question (and answers) to strategies specifically for improving English vocabulary. There are, of course, general tips and tricks that work for a variety of languages, but English has its own peculiarities as well.
    – RuslanD
    Commented Apr 27, 2020 at 1:55
  • @RuslanD Perhaps, but it doesn't appear this question is asking about anything that cannot be applied to other languages.
    – user3395
    Commented Apr 28, 2020 at 16:21

1 Answer 1


English can definitely pose a challenge due to the fact that certain common words - e.g. "go" and "set" - have a very large number of possible meanings depending on context. I've tried a variety of unhelpful approaches in the past, such as trying to learn all the meanings of a word all at once, or only learning the "most common" meaning (the first one in the dictionary) even if it's not the meaning I first encountered.

What I would recommend, instead, is to learn words and expressions in context. I see you're already an avid reader, so I'd suggest that you also read some English fiction, especially novels, novellas and short stories. Poetry is great too, but it's often a lot more free-form and utilizes a lot more creative license, so it can be a tricky source for learning vocabulary. I'm suggesting books, because newspapers and scientific articles usually have a more formal style, whereas books give you a broader range of English registers, e.g. conversation.

Movies are great for picking up everyday vocabulary, and especially expressions. I'd argue that, if you want to be an effective communicator in English, a good command of idiomatic expressions gives you more bang for the buck (← case in point) than just amassing vocabulary. Most speakers don't use a vast vocabulary in conversation, but they use a pretty broad range of idioms.

The benefit of learning vocabulary and phrases in context is that what you've learned is already known to be useful - the context represents valid uses of the language by its speakers. Learning from flashcards runs the risk of giving you "stale" knowledge, where you end up using the words you've learned in contexts that sound odd or unnatural to native speakers. The downside is that it can take more time than just knocking out 100 new words a day. But, in the end, quantity is not quality - I'd rather have good command of a modest vocabulary, than a poor command of a large one.

  • Idioms and multi-word phrases are vocabulary items in the same way "regular" words are. All words are, in a sense, idiomatic. Your advice on learning words in context is what's most important here, which is why the asker might want to look up cloze tests and give up basic foreign-word/translation cards. Each card ought to represent a single sense of a word. Then you also have to pay attention to collocations, etc. (All this applies to learning any language, again.)
    – user3395
    Commented Apr 28, 2020 at 16:27

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