What does it mean to learn a word?

This depends on what you consider a word to be and what you believe ‘learning a word’ really means.

1. What do you mean by ‘word’?

The Academic Word list consists of 570 headwords, but if you add in all the different forms of these headwords, the final number is around 3,000 words. Now, since a different word form will have a related meaning to the original word, it is generally easier to learn and remember than a completely new word. For most people it will require less effort to learn 6 related words such as approach, approachable, approached, approaches, approaching, unapproachable than 6 unrelated words such as interpretation, involved, issues, shift, legislation, scheme.

2. What do you mean by ‘learn’?

Have you learnt a word when you understand it when reading it? Or should you also be sure you understand it when you hear it spoken, too? Can you spell it? Can you pronounce it? Which of these things is import to you probably depends on what you need to use the word for. Perhaps you only need to be able to read. In that case, you will not need to work at learning how to spell or pronounce the word. Think carefully about how well you need to know the word and what you need to use it for, and study your vocabulary accordingly.

Aspects of knowing a word:

  • • Understanding the meaning
  • • Knowing the grammar of the word and how it would be used in a sentence – e.g.is it an adjective or a noun?
  • • Understanding if it is formal or informal (e.g. man / bloke)
  • • Understanding if it has negative or positive connotations (e.g. famous / notorious)
  • • Knowing if belongs to a specialised field of use (e.g. literary: verdant; legal: affidavit)
  • • Understanding it when you hear it
  • • Being able to pronounce it
  • • Being able to spell it
  • • Knowing irregular forms (e.g. verb forms: take/took; plural forms: criterion/criteria)
  • • Knowing all the derived forms (e.g. assume, assumed, assumes, assuming, assumption, assumptions)
  • • Knowing which words it is commonly used with (which words it collocates with) e.g. damaging accusation, to meet a need, absolute necessity
  • • Knowing that it has other meanings than the one you most use it for (e.g. authority)
  • • Being able to translate it accurately into your own language