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Vocabulary, yo!

Probably the most important part of learning any language. Without it, you can’t speak. With even just a little of it, you can express yourself without any grammar knowledge at all.

“Water, pay, credit card!”

Improving vocab is key, but it can be damn frustrating.

But to be truly fluent in English your vocabulary needs to be great. The hardest aspect of any test you might take, such as TOEFL or IELTS, would be the vocab.

To compete at an executive or academic level you need to fully understand complicated and culturally specific words.

Another big reason to learn vocab is to sound more “exact” in English and having the ability to speak less yet express more.

Many of my students come to me wanting to improve their vocabulary with the intentions of becoming a more precise speaker.

However, trying to learn and memorize hundreds of words can really suck if you do it incorrectly.

And I know a lot of you could sound a lot smoother in English if you beefed up your vocab.

But how?

¿Dónde está el baño?

I have always loved speaking with people from different countries.

I studied Spanish my entire childhood all the way through college, but I never spoke worth a damn and was usually one of the worst students in class. Loser!

I would try to learn new Spanish words the way most people do by writing them on a piece of paper with their English equivalent i.e. pie=foot., making stupid word lists!

But I was always horrible at memorizing new words from these word lists. They just never stuck!

I felt like an idiot.

Anyway, for some reason I kept studying Spanish until my second year of college.

In hindsight, I think I stayed with it because of my interest in foreign cultures, not learning Spanish itself.

I now realize that I like language because I like people. But to really get to know people you have to speak their language.

After be coming a successful (enough) Portuguese speaker, I know that learning vocabulary doesn’t have to be like pulling teeth.

I definitely struggled with learning vocabulary when I was younger, so I needed to find special ways to make the process easier.

I did a little research and experimented with what I found, and I’ll show you what I think are three effective ways to learn and actually memorize new vocab.

Stupid word listsrsz_vocabulary_-_1

After knowing what I know now about how I learn new words, I have noticed that this “word list” method doesn’t work for many of my students either.

They get embarrassed when they forget a word just one minute after learning it.

They get stressed out when they can’t think of the “best” word to use.

But it’s not their fault. They’re not bad students or incapable of learning English.

They are just trying to learn in a very old-fashioned way.

2 Memorization Strategies

So here I will show you my 2 favorite methods for memorizing new words, and another one for increasing your vocab in specific areas.

These strategies will work with any level; from students that are learning, “The book is on the table” to ones that need to impress others with phrases like, “The pharmacopoeia is on the refectory table”.

Whatever your purpose, these can make memorization much easier!

1) Never learn a word by itself.

Always put the word in a sentence. If you were learning the word “annoying”, write it in a sentence, or copy the sentence from where you saw the word.

Even better, write a true sentence using people or things from your life.

Your brain remembers things more easily if they are personal or spark an emotion in you. Funny, sad, sexy, embarrassing; whatever the emotion, it’s important to make the sentence personal.

For example, “My husband is very ‘annoying’ when he watches soccer” would be a good use of the word if your husband was actually annoying while watching soccer.rsz_header_image_arabia-weddings-how-to_deal-with-your-husbands-annoying-husband-fustany

Or “my girlfriend doesn’t stop talking. It’s frickin ‘annoying’!”

Make the sentence real enough so that when you read it you can visualize the situation. 

There are actually two benefits to using this method;

  1. If the word is put into context you’ll be much more likely to memorize it. You will associate the word “annoying” with your husband, thus bringing the word to life. Putting the word in a real context will make it much easier to remember. Why? That’s how your brain works. It likes to learn things that are familiar.
  2. When putting it in a (grammatically correct) sentence,  you’ll be learning how to use the word and its collocations (groups of words used together) perfectly. For example, when learning a word like “remind” (se lembrar) in a phrase, “That stripper reminds me of my ex-girlfriend”, you’re not only learning the word “remind” but also the preposition “of” and pronoun “me”, which are both often used with “remind”. Get it?


2) Visualize a situation with the new word with a similar sounding word in English or Portuguese.

When you are trying to learn a new word, do this:

Shut your eyes and pay attention to what you think of when you say the word to yourself. What does the word remind you of?

For example, if I was trying to memorize the Portuguese word chato (annoying), I would  close my eyes and say the word to myself. For me chato sounds like the English word “charcoal,” which in Portuguese is carvão.

So then I would think of something “annoying” about charcoal to associate chato with its meaning. How about when the charcoal doesn’t stay lit and you have to keep blowing on it? That’s quite annoying, right? Especially if there’s a bunch of people waiting for you to impress them with your Brazilian BBQ skills.

“Chato=charcoal.” See?

Let’s do it the opposite way;

What if you were trying to learn “annoying” in English? Annoying sounds like “a noite” to me. When dogs bark at night it’s very “annoying”, so I could associate  “annoying” with a noite.rsz_barking-dog

It works! Try it!

Here’s a vocabulary technique to make sure you’re comfortable speaking in any situation:

Do you worry about not being able to “shoot the shit” when you’re at a happy hour with your American colleagues? Do you think you’ll only ever talk about work stuff in English?

From my experience, it’s just as important to know how to talk about life as it is work.

This is how you can enhance your vocab in any situation:

While going about your day, describe the world around you to yourself.

When walking down the street, cooking in the kitchen, or watching a documentary about Eskimos, ask yourself if you would know how to talk about that specific situation or subject in detail, in English.

If there’s a subject you don’t know well, learn vocabulary in that area by using the strategies above. Then put yourself in that same situation and practice the words by talking to yourself about what you see.

For example, while sitting at work, look around and try to name what everyone is wearing. Write down what you don’t know. Look up the words, and use the two strategies to memorize them.

Or, while walking down the street, pretend you’re giving directions to someone, or describe what a particular store sells or a factory produces in detail. When trying to be very specific you’ll notice how hard it can be.

But without putting yourself in that particular situation you’d probably never realize you had no idea how to talk about it.

With this tactic, you’ll be integrating English into your daily life and routine. This is much better than trying to force your life into English.

*An example of forcing your life into English would be trying to learn about Chinese vegetable markets while sitting in a classroom in Brazil. Totally unrealistic and useless, unless you’re planning a trip to China where you will buy vegetables.

Make sense?

This is a tool for self-learning. Because most of the day you are probably not speaking English, take advantage of your time  to explore your “English World.”

What vocabulary do you know? What situations would you feel uncomfortable in if you had to talk about it in English?

You are your best teacher, and this is an example of how you can teach yourself exactly what you want to.


So, there they are. Using one or all three of these methods can really help you memorize new vocabulary and use it correctly.

Play with all of these methods and see what works best for you.

Personally, I like #2. It really works well for me. But only after experimenting will you find out which method or methods work best for you.


Speak confidently and know that making mistakes is absolutely necessary for getting better.


Do you know and use other memorization strategies? What’s your trick for learning new vocabulary?

Please leave your comments below. I’d love to know what works for you.


Kick Ass, yo!



Key = vital

Suck = not fun, bad quality

beefed up = get bigger

stuck = stay in one place

hindsight = por experiencia

like pulling teeth = something very difficult/annoying to do

frickin = polite way of saying “fucking”

dogs bark = cachorros latir

 stay lit = stay on fire

shoot the shit = bater papo (gíria)