“How can I …?” Questions


This is part one of the series “How can/do I …? questions”

I’ve been helping all kinds of people from students to other experts in their field, how to communicate successfully in English for over 20 years. During this time I have been asked numerous questions. I’d like to share with you some of the most frequently asked questions my students have asked me about communicating in English and the solutions I’ve suggested, that have helped them.

I’ll start off with…

“I use the same simple words, how can I broaden my vocabulary? I want to be able to use more sophisticated language, how can I do that?”

These are only two quotes I’ve heard over and over again, as this seems to be an issue for many English learners, no matter at which level they are. In order to offer the most effective solutions, it’s important to first understand why YOU want to broaden your vocabulary.

I believe learning is a lifelong process. So of course, I’m thrilled when people ask me this question. However, nothing is wrong with using simple language, especially if you feel insecure. After all, it’s easier for you and your audience to understand as well.

Before answering my question, please think about your audience, the people you are communicating with. Who are they? What is their level of English? What is your purpose for communicating with them? Are you giving a presentation or a speech? Are you training them? And please ask yourself, why do you want to use more sophisticated language?

Now the answers I hear differ:

“… they are all better than I am”,

“I need to make a good impression, otherwise I won’t be taken seriously”,

“… my audience are experts in the field and it’s the only way to be accepted in their circle”, “… if I use other words they will listen to me”,

“… I want to write a handbook”,

“ … my audience are all scientists just like me”.

The list goes on

Did I mention your reason too?

Actually, there is another point of view for you to consider before trying the solutions I recommend below. Please think of the people you are communicating with.

Very often I hear the other side tell me about their struggles too:

“… the presentation seemed promising, but once he started getting into deep technical details with special jargon, I was lost and couldn’t pay attention anymore …” ,

“… I asked the auditor what that expression meant because I didn’t know it and hadn’t heard of it before, but he couldn’t give me an example or explain it in simple words either …”.

These are a few quotes from people who wish others would focus on their audience, instead of showing off their sophisticated vocabulary.

Now having said that, here is the first part of  solutions, of what you can actively do to improve and build the vocabulary you want or need to use

  • You can acquire new vocabulary by listening to podcasts, by reading blogs and articles or by watching TED talks and experts around you speak about the subject you want to improve on.
  • If you need to acquire vocabulary to reach a certain language level, then I’d suggest one of the English Vocabulary in Use books. They have elementary, upper-intermediate and advanced levels, you can find them here, here and here on Amazon (by klicken on the link, you will be redirected to Amazon and if you buy the book with this link, I will receive a small commission). Please get the third edition, as it comes with a useful CD-ROM for Windows and Mac.
  • Listen carefully to the words your audience is using. Whenever you hear a word you don’t usually use, write it down in a meaningful sentence. Practice using the new word in different sentences and in different situations. Say it out loud. Record your sentence with your smartphone so you can listen to it repeatedly. Only when you are confronted with the word over and over will you adopt it into your language.
  • Of course, you can memorise new vocabulary using flashcards or a vocabulary booklet.
  • Writing the words on a Post-it and putting them into your range of view every day, helps a lot. Like this, you are confronting your brain with them whenever you look at them.
hole punch with post it

hole punch

Here is the second part of  solutions, of what you can actively do to improve and build the vocabulary you want or need to use

  • Learn vocabulary using a mind map, start off with the word or expression and write down all the other vocabulary you can remember associated with it.
  • You can use a mind map to draw up a lexical set. A lexical set is a group of words linked together by topic. Within each topic, you can group words by their class (e.g. nouns, verbs or adjectives, etc.) or by the sequence in which you use them.
  • When learning new English vocabulary you don’t only need to know the word’s meaning. You need to know which other words it is usually used with, its grammatical characteristics, how to pronounce it and when to use it, in a formal, informal or even neutral setting.
  • Learn the words, which surround your new vocabulary. These are aka collocations and they include different word classes: adjectives+nouns, e.g. vintage cars, stable connection; verbs+nouns, e.g. to make sense, to mind your language; nouns in phrases, e.g. chain of events, sense of direction; words+prepositions, e.g. in accordance with, in company with.
  • Build your vocab by using word families; those are groups of words, which have the same base or root. By using this technique you can build your vocabulary quickly. For example, the word training (is a noun), the base is train, other related words are trainer, trainee (both nouns), the verb to train and trained (adjective).
  • Another helpful approach is to learn whole phrases or language chunks, e.g. would you like … , on the one hand …, on the other hand … , etc.
  • If you need to use special jargon then consider making your own dictionary.
  • And of course, revise your new vocabulary regularly.

Of course, how successful these solutions are for you will depend on your preferences and what kind of learner you are. So, if you’d like to hear my advice for your individual needs, then please get in touch with me and let us discuss which possibilities would be promising in your case.

That wraps it up for today

I hope you’ve found my suggestions useful and you’ll join me again soon for another FAQ and my tips and solutions, which have helped my students face their challenges in communicating successfully in English and getting their point across.

Have a wonderful time and take care


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