Learning New Words – Why, How and Strategies

Friday, March 17th, 2017


Take the previous papers of any MBA entrance exam and look for questions that ask for the meaning of a particular word. The chances are pretty low that you will find a multiple choice question of the format – “The meaning of X is:” followed by four options.

Doing the same thing for antonyms or idioms will probably not give you a lot of questions either.

So no exam is going to ask you for word meanings. If so, then why learn new words, antonyms or idioms if they are not asked as direct questions in the exams?

It starts with having a large list of words at your disposal so that you can use the right words to describe stuff appropriately. But this is not from the exam point-of-view.

For an exam, the only reason to prepare for vocab is it shaves off time per question and helps you maximize the number of your attempts. How? Let’s say you are reading a passage and you reach this ‘difficult’ word. You could guess the meaning based on context and use this knowledge to solve the question, but then, this is taking a risk because you are not 100% sure of what the word means.

Now, if you were well prepared with your vocab part, you immediately recognize the word, the meaning is clear in your head and this helps you attempt every question a bit faster.

If you were one of those who ignored preparing for vocab, I hope you have changed your mind and now see the advantage it can offer if done correctly.

So what is the best way to learn new words?

For one of my work projects, I tried to figure out the best way to teach new words and how people learn new words.

I have been reading regularly for a long time. This was how I learnt many new words. So yes, reading is a good way to learn new words. But then you already know this, don’t you?

You read, find a new word and then look up what it means. After repeatedly reading or using this word you will have finally learnt it. There is also another way that you can try which is a bit like intuitive learning.

When you are reading and come across this word that you have not heard before, don’t look up the meaning. Keep reading and make sure that the usage of the particular word and the context is clear to you.

If you are really not sure about how the word was used, look it up in the dictionary. But this is only in case of a very difficult word. You should understand how the word was used and what it meant when used in that particular line. Don’t bother looking for the exact meaning.

But why do this? In this case, you learn to use the word along with what it means. It helps you avoid mistakes that people make while using the word in a sentence.

Like if someone asks you “So, what are you upto these days?” and you answer with “Ah, nothing pertinent” – this, I believe, is incorrect usage of the word.

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But the problem with reading is that you cannot do it when there are only 2 months left for your exam. Or if you are preparing while working long hours, taking out time for reading is almost impossible.

What are the alternatives?

The best way out is to use flashcards. A lot of good flashcard apps are available which are really helpful in memorizing words and their meanings. I recommend the Anki app (which is also open source and has many word lists curated by the community)

But a flashcard app alone will not help. When you have finally mastered a new word, it is a good idea to go to Google News and search for the word. Why? This way Google searches for a news article with the exact word and this gives you some good examples to help understand the context and usage.

Apart from this, you can also learn words by grouping them by usage. A lot of word lists are available on the internet where you can find words grouped as ‘words to use to talk about your feelings’ or ‘words to use to compliment people’

Don’t just use the word ‘angry’. Try using enraged, infuriated, cross, incensed, ticked off, seething, sharped, exasperated or any other of their alternatives

Again, there are subtle differences in usage that you should be aware of else this also ends up being like ‘Nothing Pertinent’

The best way to avoid a verbal faux pas is to be sure of the meanings and the usage, which of course will only come from practice and taking note of how words are used in articles or in conversation.

(Notice how even if you don’t know the meaning of faux pas, just by trying to understand the context, it should be clear it could mean a blunder or mistake)

Ok, so now we know of two strategies – group lists and flashcards.

Let’s see some other techniques of picking up new words, their meanings, and their usage.

One thing you could do is use word roots. English borrows a lot of structure from Latin. There are also French and German words that have crept in and are used in English. (Eg. Cafe)

So if you learn the word root, you can make an educated guess about what the word means. How? Let’s take an example.

Consider the root ‘bene’ which means good.

So beneficial is something useful, the benefactor is a person who helps (or does good) and a benevolent is something kind.

Now if you take the opposite sense, ‘male’ or ‘mal’ is the root word for wrong or bad. Thus, maleficent means evil. Probably you can now make an educated guess as to what malevolent means. Or maybe something like malaise or malady are now a bit easy to remember.

Both of these methods (word roots and group words) require you to memorize things. However, in learning word roots, you also associate the words to their roots and this helps retain them in memory for a longer duration.

Another strategy is to look for words that are easily confused and used incorrectly. These may have the same sound and different spellings (like principal and principle) or they could have the same spelling but different meaning (like pole – one means a rod or stick while the other meaning is someone from Poland)

Often words that are easily confused are the ones used interchangeably. This includes words like weather and climate or even advertising and marketing which are different but many people use them interchangeably. Knowing such words, their subtle differences and usage will help you avoid making such mistakes.

So to sum up, reading is the best way. If you don’t have time and are looking at vocabulary from and exam perspective, then flashcards are the best way to go. While you learn words, it is very important to learn the usage. Using word roots or group lists helps retain the words longer in memory because of associative learning. Also, knowing subtle differences helps understand these word better.

In the next few posts, we will look at each of these strategies and try to learn some new words using these methods.

Learning New Words – Why, How and Strategies
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2 Responses to “Learning New Words – Why, How and Strategies”

  1. Always a handa fan. Few more examples like some for Flash card results, group word etc can make the article more detailed for a newbie.

  2. […] theUnderstanding Confusing Words – Part 1, we discussed confusing words. As discussed Learning New Words – Why, How and Strategies, these words are not directly related to CAT prep for the vocab section or for any MBA exam per se […]

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