Many words have meanings that are closely tied to the meaning of words next to them, and the meaning of the whole may have little relation to their meaning when taken in isolation.
Some examples in English include “of course”, “come what may”, “big cheese”, or “early bird”. Think of these as discrete bits of vocabulary to be learned together.
Constituent words should be thought of as aides to help you form associations.
It is important to also learn these kinds of phrases in your study. Often this is done with flashcards.
Focus on words that don’t directly translate
Most words in your target language will have a relatively straightforward equivalent, particularly if you are learning a language that is closely related to English.
For the most part, the words “dog”, “shoot”, and “tree” all have a simple translation you can memorise. However, there will always be words that don’t quite fit with how you think of them in English.
Among these will be words that have a significantly expanded range of uses compared to the direct English translation. It is important to learn the most common of these. Take, for example, the Spanish word “poner” (“put” in English).
“Poner” is used in a variety of phrases where a native English speaker might not expect, such as “ponerse de pie”, which simply means “stand up”.
Consciously learning the many different meanings of these words is a good way of avoiding common learner mistakes and making your speech sound more natural.
In this case, you’d need to put focused effort into the many definitions of “poner” as if it were several words rather than one. This will be greatly helped by using example sentences in your flashcards.
On the other hand, there are also common English words with many meanings where your target language may have several words instead.
These are much harder to spot. The best you can do is watch for phrases where you think I’d have translated that differently.
Logical connections help you learn words
Words are often composed of smaller root words and particles that can help you understand their meaning. Take the English word “destruction”. This contains the prefix “de-”, the noun “structure”, and the suffix “-tion”.
The meaning of this word might be easy to guess as a native, but it wouldn’t be so easy if you weren’t familiar with its parts. Being familiar with the constituent parts of a word makes learning its meaning easier.
Many words are derived from others and form a grouping of related words. For example, understanding the English root “mech-” can help you remember or derive the meaning of many words, such as “mechanic”, “mechanical”, and “mechanized”.
You can use this type of association to link known words to similar-sounding known ones. Some root words have derivations that may not be immediately obvious. For example, the root “-spir-” is the link between the words “inspire”, “respire”, and “spirit”.
The associations you use to help you remember words may be more abstract because of this.
Take advantage of these connections by trying to spot them where possible. You should also try to avoid learning large words if you don’t know anything about their constituents.
Furthermore, you can spot similarities between words in your target and native languages. For example, the English word “citizen” and French word “citoyen”.