Improving your vocabulary in English is essential if you want to improve your level in English. Because the more words you know, the more you understand.

The problem is that for many people learning the language, they find it difficult to remember the meaning of new words and phrases they have learnt.

Many of my students either blame themselves for not being able to remember the meaning of new vocabulary (I hear some of them often say 'my memory is terrible' or 'I'm not good at English') or they think that English vocabulary is too difficult. And although English vocabulary can be confusing and some people find English easier to learn than others, these are not the main reasons why people have problems with remembering the meaning of new words and phrases. It is what they do when they learn them that causes them to forget them.

The reason why what you do when you learn words is so important is because of how our brains remember things. And if you want to be able to remember the meaning and the use of more words and phrases in English, it is essential that you understand how our brains do this. And this is what I'll tell you below.

How our brains remember things

How did you learn the meaning of all the words that you use or know in your own language? Did you learn their meaning by using a dictionary or by somebody telling you what they meant? Or did you learn them by hearing and seeing them used again and again and again?

For over 95% of the words and phrases that you know and use in your own language, you learnt their meaning simply through hearing and seeing them being used frequently. And the reason why, is this is the main way how our brains remember things. The more times we see or hear something (a word, a face, a song etc...), the more likely we are going to remember/recognise it when we see or hear it again. For example, if you see somebody you have never seen before, you are less likely to remember their face if you see them again than somebody you don't know but you have seen more times before. And it is exactly the same for recognising words and phrases in English. The more you see them, the more likely you will recognise them in the future.

How our brain learn the meaning of words

But just recognising a word without knowing what it means would be pointless and not help you at all. And although we don't notice that it is happening, almost every time that we see or hear something, our brains are doing something else as well: it is remembering information about it. For example, when you see a person in the street you don't know but have seen before, your brain will collect information about where it was, when it was, what they were doing etc...

Our brains then store this information in our memory and we associate/connect it to the person. And the more we see the person, the more information we have about them in our memory. And our brains use all this information it has about them to automatically make a deduction about them and who they are. For example, she must be working because she regularly catches the bus at 8am, she probably has a boyfriend because she is often with the same man in different places etc...

And your brain does exactly the same when it sees or hears words in English. It'll store information about where and when you heard or saw the word and the context in which it was used (e.g. what the topic was, what other words were used around or next to it etc...). And the more times you see or hear the word, the more information you have stored about it. And as a result, the better your brain can decide what the word means and when it is used.

So if you live in an English speaking country and/or have to use English for a lot of the day, you'll automatically be learning and remembering new vocabulary in English (and most of the time without knowing you are doing it). Because for a large part of the day, you will be seeing and hearing words in English.

The problem with improving your English by doing this alone, is that it does take a long time to do. But it will improve your English.

In addition to this, this process of remembering won't help you so well to improve your knowledge of English vocabulary if you don't live in an English speaking country or use the language for a large part of the day. But there is something that you can do to improve your vocabulary and help you to remember more words in English quicker. And this is because our brains collect more information on some things that we see or hear than on others.

We remember some things more than others

Imagine that you are walking in the centre of the city or town where you live. You're going to see hundreds, if not thousands, of people when you are doing it. But of all these people you see, you are not going to remember the majority of them. The few that you do, are the ones you focus your attention on (because you find them attractive, they are wearing or doing something strange or different, you think you recognise them etc...). When we focus our attention on somebody, it causes our brains to collect more information on them. The more information our brains have, the more likely we'll remember them if we see them again and the more our brains can make a good deduction about them.

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Using this to remember the meaning of words

Why this is important for improving your English vocabulary is that you have to do something similar if you want to make sure that you remember the meaning and the use of words and phrases in English that you learn. When you see a new word, you need to focus on it. Think about what its meaning is from the context (the sentence it is in, the topic which the word is being used in etc...), then guess what this is and then try to use it. By doing this, your brain will be collecting a lot of information on it, which it will use to make a deduction on what it means and when it should be used.

You may not correctly guess what the word means when you are doing this or use it correctly, but you will be collecting a lot of information about it and your brain will be associating it to the word. And in time your brain will use all of this to make sure that you do.

If you don't use English regularly, you'll forgot the meaning

Although doing this will help you to learn and remember the meaning of vocabulary, if after doing this you don't see, hear, think or use the word or phrase again, it won't stop you from forgetting it. The reason why is that the longer a memory (and knowing what a word in English means is a type of memory) is not used, the less you will remember about it.

So in order to make sure that you don't forgot what a word or phrase means in English, you need to make sure that you regularly see or hear it. And the best way that you can do this is by regularly using English (either by reading or listening to things in the language).

Why people don't already do this when learning words

There are two reasons why. The first is that many people don't know that this is how our brains work at remembering and understanding things. The second reason is that it takes time to do. Thinking about the meaning of what every word you don't know or are unsure about takes time to do.

So many people instead just look the word up in a dictionary or ask their teacher what it means. And although this is a lot quicker to do and you will learn its meaning, you are very unlikely to remember it because your brain hasn't stored a lot of information about it.

What you have to do

So now you know how our brains remember and understand things, there are two things you have to do to make sure that you remember the meaning and the use of words and phrases in English:

  • Read in and use English regularly
  • Guess the meaning of new vocabulary from the context and use it

By doing both, your brain will be obtaining more information about English words and phrases. And the more information it has about a word or phrase, the more likely it will both remember it and make a correct deduction about what it means and when it used.

To make this easier for you to do, I have created an easy method that you can use to learn and remember new vocabulary in English.

In addition to this, I have also written and sell some eBooks which each contain 50 articles that will help you to read regularly in English and learn new vocabulary.