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Top Tips for Learning Vocabulary

Words. Words are important. On this I think we can all agree. So, how can we learn them better, in better ways, by better means, with more (or less) accurate meanings? Here is the first tip in a 5 week series of ideas which I hope can help students at our school on their journey to becoming more proficient and confident practitioners of the English language…

Tip #1: Read more (and party)!

This might sound like a boring, obvious and/or unhelpful suggestion but it is an important place to begin. Estimates suggest that an average native speaker of English recognizes around 50,000 words that they encounter in texts. And yet very few of these words were ‘taught’ to them in a classroom – they learned most of these words by ‘meeting’ them regularly in conversation, in their houses, at work… or in texts. By reading as much as possible you will multiply the chances of ‘meeting’ new words. But it’s important to limit the number of new words you meet.

It should be like being at a party where you know most of the people but not everyone, so you can spend some of the time meeting new people/words but also have the option to hang out with some old mates from school. Nobody wants to go to a party where they don’t know anyone’s name! So make sure you choose your party/text carefully. Graded readers (books that are written for learners of specific levels of English) are a great option – Hint: Lucy has lots in her office in Room 9 and they are free to borrow – while there are many novels that are suitable for higher level learners too (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon, for example, is a great book written in a nice, simple way). So choose carefully and ask your teacher for advice too, but make sure you read as much as possible! Reading, reading, reading will make your vocabulary grow, grow, grow!!!

Ever wondered how English with approximately 750,000 words came to be the wonderfully expressive and multifaceted language it is today?

Unlike languages that developed within the boundaries of one country (or one distinct geographical region), English, since its beginnings 1,600 or so years ago, evolved by crossing boundaries and through invasions, picking up bits and pieces of other languages along the way and changing with the spread of the language across the globe.


Old English (450-1.100)

The history of the English language really started with the arrival of three Germanic tribes who invaded Britain during the 5th century AD. These tribes, the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes, crossed the North Sea from what today is Denmark and northern Germany. At that time the inhabitants of Britain spoke a Celtic language. But most of the Celtic speakers were pushed west and north by the invaders – mainly into what is now Wales, Scotland and Ireland. The Angles came from “Englaland” [sic] and their language was called “Englisc” – from which the words “England” and “English” are derived. Their language, now known as “Old English“, was soon adopted as the common language of this relatively remote corner of Europe. Although you and I would find it hard to understand Old English, it provided a solid foundation for the language we speak today and gave us many essential words like “be”, “strong” and “water”.

Middle English (1.100 – 1.500)

The Viking invasion: With the Viking invasions (Vikings were a tribe of Nordic people that ransacked their way through Northern and Northwestern Europe 1,000-1,200 years ago), Old English got mixed up with Old Norse, the language of the Viking tribes. Old Norse ended up giving English more than 2,000 new words, including “give” and “take”, “egg”, “knife”, “husband”, “run” and “viking”.

The French are coming: Although English was spoken widely on the British Isles by 1,000 AD, the Norman invasion established French as the language of royals and of power. Old English was left to the peasants, and despite its less glamorous status, it continued to develop and grow by adopting a whole host of Latin and French words, including everyday words such as  “beer”,”city”, “fruit” and “people”, as well as half of the months of the year. By adopting and adapting French words, the English language also became more sophisticated through the inclusion of concepts and words like “liberty” and “justice”.

Modern English 

Early Modern English (1500 – 1800) – the tempest ends in a storm: In the 14th-15th century, following the Hundred Years War with France that ended French rule of the British Isles, English became the language of power and influence once again. It got a further boost through the development of English literature and English culture, spearheaded by William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare’s influence on the development of the English language and its unique and rich culture is hard to grasp; the man is said to have invented at least 1,700 words, including “alligator”, “puppy dog”, and “fashionable”, in addition to penning classics like Romeo & Juliet and Hamlet!

Towards the end of Middle English, a sudden and distinct change in pronunciation (the Great Vowel Shift) started, with vowels being pronounced shorter and shorter. From the 16th century the British had contact with many peoples from around the world. This, and the Renaissance of Classical learning, meant that many new words and phrases entered the language. The invention of printing also meant that there was now a common language in print. Books became cheaper and more people learned to read. Printing also brought standardization to English. Spelling and grammar became fixed, and the dialect of London, where most publishing houses were, became the standard. In 1604 the first English dictionary was published.

Last Modern English (1800 – Present): The main difference between Early Modern English and Late Modern English is vocabulary. Late Modern English has many more words, arising from two principal factors: firstly, the Industrial Revolution and technology created a need for new words; secondly, the English-speaking world was at the center of a lot of scientific progress, scientific advances went hand-in-hand with the evolution of the language.

English goes global

From around 1600, the English colonization of North America resulted in the creation of a distinct American variety of English. Some English pronunciations and words “froze” when they reached America. In some ways, American English is more like the English of Shakespeare than modern British English is. Some expressions that the British call “Americanisms” are in fact original British expressions that were preserved in the colonies while lost for a time in Britain (for example trash for rubbish, loan as a verb instead of lend, and fall for autumn; another example, frame-up, was re-imported into Britain through Hollywood gangster movies). Spanish also had an influence on American English (and subsequently British English), with words like canyon, ranch,stampede and vigilante being examples of Spanish words that entered English through the settlement of the American West. French words (through Louisiana) and West African words (through the slave trade) also influenced American English (and so, to an extent, British English).

Today, American English is particularly influential, due to the USA’s dominance of cinema, television, popular music, trade and technology (including the Internet). But there are many other varieties of English around the world, including for example Australian English, New Zealand English, Canadian English, South African English, Indian English and Caribbean English.

English of the 21st century 

And on that note: the most amazing thing about English is that it’s still evolving. From the development of local dialects and slang in countries as far apart as the US, South Africa and New Zealand, and in cities as different as New York, Oxford and Singapore, to the incorporation of tech vocabulary into everyday English. English is in a constant state of flux.

Vocabulary alone is increasing at a pace of approximately 1,000 new and approved words per year; and these are just the words that are considered important enough to get added to the online version of the English Dictionary! This dramatic increase in new words is largely due to technology, and how people spontaneously coin new words in their email and text transmissions that spread quickly and efficiently via social media. A large percentage of new words are portmanteau words, also called blended words — a word that combines the meaning of two discrete words; for example, cineplex is formed from cinema and complex, bromance is formed from brother and romance, staycation is formed from stay and vacation. You get the idea.

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© David Goehring

The English language has been shaped by a number of other languages over the centuries, and many English speakers know that Latin and German were two of the most important. What many people don’t realize is how much the French language has influenced English.

During the Norman occupation, about 10,000 French words were adopted into English, some three-fourths of which are still in use today.

According to Oxford English Dictionary 1.000 new English words are added to the dictionary every year. The reason is that English is official language in 83 countries/regions and spoken in 105 other countries and second most spoken language worldwide after Mandarin. 380 million people speak English as their first language, 510 million as their second. That makes in total 890 million English speakers worldwide. Furthermore,  technology, healthcare, aviation, engineering, power and energy and all of the sciences have also one thing in common. They are all subjects that are almost universally communicated in English.

Due to these facts it is no surprise that every year new English words, terms and expressions are born. However, there are still words and phrases missing that are French and should be used in English. Here they are:


© Daniel Dalton / BuzzFeed


The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment, is a guideline used to describe achievements of learners of foreign languages across...