English Learning Tips

Making the Mountain Smaller: 3 Killer Strategies for Learning English Vocabulary

Strategies for Learning English Vocabulary

You might feel that learning English is a process that never ends.

And you’re right.

You learn and learn and learn, and it never seems to finish.

Like a bottomless pit.

Or that weird thing in Star Wars where you get digested alive for over 1,000 years:

Drawing of a sarlacc

As usual, this is where I give you the “but there’s good news” bit.

But there’s good news!

It doesn’t have to be a nightmare. You can make life easier by making the process more manageable.

And you do that by knowing what you need to work on.

One way to do this is by imagining the whole of the English language as a gigantic pile of rice that you need to eat, one grain at a time … for some reason.

Mountain with stick figure

Look at it!

I guess this is more of a rice mountain.

Each rice grain represents an individual element of English — whether it’s how to pronounce “th” or how to use “used to.”

And it’s massive, right?

Anyone who sees this mountain is just going to look at it and say, “No … forget it.”

… and walk off and play Angry Birds or something.

Stick figure standing next to a mountain thinking "Angry birds"

But don’t play Angry Birds! At least not yet!

Most of this mountain of English vocabulary is unnecessary — and the rest is more manageable than you think.

Let me explain.

This afternoon, I was listening to an interview on one of my favourite podcasts, Canguro English.

The interview was with David Crystal — one of the biggest heroes of linguistics, language and language learning.

David Crystal with Gabriel Clark
Also, I met him!

In the podcast, David was talking about language and dividing it up into parts.

As he was speaking, I imagined the parts as piles of rice.

Here’s how it went:

Stick figure with a small pile of rice labelled "phonetics"
“If you’re learning English … there are forty, forty-four sounds that you have to learn. Well, that’s not a big deal, really.”

Stick figure with a medium pile of rice labelled "grammar"
“… leaving aside some of the … forms of grammar you get in literary expression or very advanced scientific language, we’re only talking about … 3,500 of them … You can handle that over a period of four or five years.”

Stick figure with a mountain of rice labelled "vocabulary"
“But vocabulary … wow! Now we are talking about an Everest. How many words are there in the English language? Well … nobody knows. But at least a million.”

OK. So we see the problem, right?

Grammar and phonetics (sounds) don’t seem like such priorities anymore, do they?

But how can we deal with this mountain of vocabulary?

It might seem impossible. But there’s good news.

Some of the good news comes from David Crystal, but some of it comes from other areas.

And all of it can help you out with that mountain.

#1 Remember that most of that mountain is useless (Don’t try to learn everything)

Digger excavating a mountain

Phew! That’s a lot better.

“But wait! What was all that stuff that you took away? Don’t we need that?” I can hear you ask.

A fine question indeed.

And the answer is, “No. Not really.”

The thing is, there are so many words that I don’t know and that I’ll never know and that I’ll never need to know.

If you want to include all the technical stuff (like 35,000 subspecies of spider and 900,000 types of insects), then we’re talking millions of words.

So let’s get rid of them.

There are also lots of obscure words that no one knows or uses anymore unless they’re trying to sound especially clever or if they’re playing some sort of sophisticated word game.

Here’s a fun list of some of them.

So we can get rid of those.

There are also the words that are only used by lawyers or train mechanics or the people who make your clothes.

Words like administratrix, axlebox and awl.

So we can get rid of those, too.

In fact, your average competent English speaker will only need 50,000-60,000 words.

So that’s a lot off the mountain already.

In fact, it’s more of a hill now.

But we can make this even easier.

#2 Make the mountain smaller more quickly (Learn related words together)

Five grains of rice in a bowl

So we’ve got this much smaller — but still really big — hill of rice to deal with.

So we could just start eating each grain of rice one by one now, right?

No! Not yet!

Remember, each English word didn’t just come out of nowhere.

Words have other words that are related to them.

So instead of eating one grain of rice at a time, we can put the related grains together and have them all at once.

Grains of rice labelled "necessary" and "unnecessary"

Some words have antonyms (words with the opposite meaning) — so when you learn the word “necessary,” you can also learn “unnecessary,” for example.

Grains of rice labelled "necessity" and "necessitate"

Words often have other forms — the adjective “necessary” also has a noun form, “necessity,” and a verb form, “necessitate.”

Frains of rice labelled "obligatory," "compulsory" and "required"

Words often have synonyms, too — words with the same meaning. “Necessary” is quite common, but so is “obligatory,” “compulsory” and “required.”

Grains of rice labelled "permission," "rules" and "laws"

Finally, words often have other words related to them. So when you think of “necessary,” you also think of “permission,” “rules” and other related words.

OK. Great! Not just one grain of rice anymore — we’ve got 10 now.

When you’re learning, try to deal with new words in groups like this.

That’s because they’re all used to talk about the same kinds of situations, so once you’ve grouped these words, you’ll be able to talk about the topic better.

And you will have eaten more rice.

Which is nice.

#3 Mix the grammar mountain and the vocab mountain (Learn vocabulary in context)

Stick figures shovelling rice labelled "grammar" onto a mountain labelled "vocabulary"

What! Are you crazy?! Why are you ADDING to the mountain? We just got it down!

Don’t worry!

This is the fun part.

Let’s say the grammar rice is really sticky, and it’ll stick to the vocabulary rice.

That’s because grammar is simply not a separate thing to vocabulary.

You can’t have grammar without words, right?

Unless you speak like this:

Syntax tree for the sentence "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously"

And you definitely don’t want to speak like that.

When you put the grammar rice into the vocab rice, then pull out some vocab, you’ll get a sort of clump of “vocabgrammar” (not a real word).

Stick figure holding a pile of rice labelled "vocab-grammar"

So how does this work with English (and not rice)?

Well, words don’t work in isolation — they always work with other words.

Let’s take a simple example. What’s wrong with this sentence?

“I want that he leaves the room now”

Well, I can’t tell why it’s grammatically wrong … because the grammar makes sense.

But we just don’t say it like that.

We tend to say:

“I want him to leave the room now.”

What about this one?

“I feel myself tired”

Grammatically it makes sense, but we just don’t say it.

Instead, we say:

“I feel tired.”

We know what each of the words means one by one, and we know how the grammar works by itself.

But we still don’t necessarily know how to put them together until we see them together.

So, how can we do that?

Here’s my advice.

Whenever you learn a new word (and its synonyms and antonyms and all the stuff I mentioned above), do one more thing.

See how the word often behaves in a sentence.

There are several ways you can do this.

One way is by using a tool such as the British National Corpus.

Click on the link above, search for your word, click on the word again, and you’ll see how it’s used in thousands and thousands of real-life examples.

Here’s an example with the word “worth.”

Corpus search results for "worth"

When you do this, you’re getting the grammar and vocabulary at once, working together at the same time.

But you don’t even need to go as far as using a corpus.

All you need to do is just notice.

When you come across a new word while reading, pay attention to how it’s used in the sentence.

When you come across a new word while speaking to someone, pay attention to how it’s used in the sentence.

Don’t just pull out the single word — get a nice clump of sticky rice (grammar) along with it.

Then you’ll be able to get that hill of rice down more quickly, AND you’ll be speaking more naturally and easily.

All that our language consists of, after all, is clumps of rice.

Bon appétit!


So I hope that now you feel a lot more positive about learning new vocabulary.

There’s still a lot out there, but now you know that you don’t need to learn all of it.

In fact, most educated English speakers only know about 50,000 words.

And now you know how to deal with the ones you do need to learn.

Good luck!

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3 thoughts on “Making the Mountain Smaller: 3 Killer Strategies for Learning English Vocabulary

  1. Thank you Mr. Clark it’s so helpful. But how can I Know how much Eng. words I know? I mean is there any test to take?

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