Another question that keeps popping up (along with “How long will it take me to learn English?” – see below) is “What is the best way to improve my vocabulary?”
There are a couple of different options – the “old school” list method and “contextual learning”. I explain what I mean by these terms below.
Do you remember learning vocab lists at school? I do, especially for my German class. We had to learn a list of 10 new words before each class and I recall the 5-minute period before arriving which was spent running from the previous class, vocab list in-hand, trying to memorise everything for the forthcoming test.
I guess the most important question is, did this “old-school”, learn-by-heart method of teaching vocab work? And the answer is most-definitely a big YES! It might be mechanical, it might be boring, but in my mind it certainly works.
Nevertheless, it is probably not without its flaws. Is endlessly learning vocab lists really going to make your language level increase quickly? Well, not on its own, that´s for sure.
Another approach is what I call “contextual learning” of vocabulary, in other words learning the vocabulary not in an isolated manner, but as part of a conversation, presentation or text. In fact, it is said by many that the best way to learn vocabulary is by reading more and this is perhaps the best example of contextual vocab learning.
Increasing vocabulary through reading or any other contextual medium is also likely to result in a more thorough understanding of particular words – it is surely more likely that we will remember a word if we can place it in a particular context (Memory experts use techniques that are contextual – for example they will try and use a story to recall a particular sequence in a pack of cards). So what is the downside? Well, if you are reading a book in and you don´t understand a particular word, you may not want to refer to a dictionary every time, and so the learning may not be complete (the understading of the meaning may not be complete) even though you have read the word in context.
So, as with many things in life, perhaps the best approach is neither one nor the other but a little bit of both. In fact, this is exactly what I recommend: Do your “old school” vocab lists two or three times a week and combine this with as much reading as possible and you will see the results, FAST!