Vocab Struggles? 4 Memorable Techniques to Learn Hard English Words
They always pop up at the worst moments.
I’m talking about tricky, frustrating, hard English words, of course!
There are so many of them, and they’re everywhere! What can English learners do?
In this post, we’ll show you our four favorite tricks, plus more than a dozen difficult English vocabulary words that you can practice with.
- 1. How to Learn Hard English Words with Music
- 2. Visualize Hard English Words with Art
- 3. Use Your Everyday Routine
- 4. Use Context Clues
- Use a Dictionary to Learn Hard English Words Every Day
1. How to Learn Hard English Words with Music
When you have a vocabulary exam coming up, do you usually panic?
How am I going to memorize all 30 of these difficult words?
And yet, I’ll bet you have no trouble memorizing an entire song’s lyrics after just a few listens. Isn’t that funny?
That’s due to earworms—no, not tapeworms you would find from your pet dog—but tunes that are naturally easy to remember, usually because they’re fast-paced and easy to sing.
English learners can take advantage of earworms for a much easier way to remember vocabulary! All you need is a song lyrics search engine like Lyrics.com to find songs that have a vocabulary word you’re trying to remember. If you don’t already know the meaning of your vocabulary word, you may need to look it up in a dictionary or you may be able to figure it out from the song’s context.
Try reading along with the lyrics next time you listen to a song, or turn the subtitles on if you’re watching a music video. An online immersion program may simplify the process. FluentU, for example, has a dedicated section for music videos on its platform. Every video has interactive captions that let you instantly look up unfamiliar words and add them to your multimedia flashcard deck for further review.
Let’s practice with the following hard English words:
Definition: To create space for something/someone; to adapt to someone’s wishes or needs
Where it’s used: This is an everyday word that’s especially important to interpersonal and business relationships.
This is a tricky word because it can refer to both physical space and more abstract ideas. English learners may also mix this up with the similar word accommodation (a place to live), plus with four syllables it’s not very easy to pronounce.
You can get a perfect sense of what this word means in the beginning of John Mellencamp’s song “John Cockers:”
“I don’t accommodate nobody, I just take care of myself”
The singer is only interested in their own wellbeing and doesn’t want to accommodate anyone else’s needs.
Definition: An amount that’s removed from a larger amount; a logical conclusion based on other information
Where it’s used: You’ll almost always hear this word used in reference to taxes, as in, “My charitable donations allowed me to get a deduction on my tax payments.” The second definition for this word is a less common usage, but you may hear it occasionally.
Aretha Franklin’s song “Who Needs You?” has an example of the second use of deduction:
“All this big production leads to one deduction: Who needs you?”
Definition: Someone born roughly between the early 1980s and late 1990s
Where it’s used: You’ll see this word over and over again in the media. There are lots of articles evaluating the tastes and trends of Millennials, especially as they compare to Generation X or Baby Boomers (two older generations) and Generation Z (the younger generation).
This is another tough one for English learners since it’s so similar to other English words, like millennium (a span of a thousand years). You can see how these words are related, as Millennials were growing up at the turn of the century, 1999 to 2000. It’s also hard to spell—don’t forget that double “l” and double “n!”
You can see this word in The 1975 song “Give Yourself a Try:”
“I was 25… a Millennial that Baby Boomers like.”
Definition: Completely shocked or confused
Where it’s used: This is a descriptive word that you might encounter most often in writing, or when someone is trying to speak in an animated or funny way.
It’s a silly word to pronounce and to even write out, so it’s perfectly normal to feel confused yourself when you see it!
Van Morrison’s song “Rough God Goes Riding” has a very clear use of this word:
“I was flabbergasted by the headlines”
This means the singer was completely taken off guard by what he read in the news.
Definition: Not conscious or aware of someone or something
Where it’s used: This is a very common, everyday word.
This word takes a bit of practice when spelling and saying out loud, but you’ll get it real soon! Try saying it slowly and then placing the word all into one swift move. And don’t get it mixed up with the word obvious, which means “very clear and easy to understand.”
This song, which is actually called “Oblivious,” uses the word repeatedly throughout the lyrics. The singer talks about wishing he was oblivious to the troubles he had in a difficult relationship.
2. Visualize Hard English Words with Art
When you catch yourself staring at a piece of art for a long period of time, whether it be in an art museum or online, that art is bound to stick in your mind. Associating difficult vocabulary terms with beautiful images is another way to help you remember them.
For the following words, we’ll use Leonardo da Vinci’s famous “Mona Lisa” painting to make our vocabulary associations. You can of course use any image that’s meaningful to you!
Definition: Capable of being sustained; eco-friendly
Where it’s used: You’ll most often hear this word in reference to the second definition above, usually in the media and in advertising. For example, an electric car manufacturer might boast that their cars are more sustainable than gas cars, which pollute the air.
Find it in “Mona Lisa:” Think of how the woman in this painting has sustained her mysterious smile for centuries! To remember the environmental aspect of this word, fix your mind on the green background behind her.
Definition: Attractively old-fashioned
Where it’s used: This is a fairly common, descriptive word, often used to describe the way a house or its decorations look.
This can be a difficult word for English learners because it’s difficult to understand without a visual aid.
Find it in “Mona Lisa:” Quaint would be a great way to describe Mona Lisa since this word means having an old-fashioned appearance that’s also attractive or appealing.
Definition: A state of elated bliss
Where it’s used: Similar to flabbergasted, this is a descriptive word that English speakers use to describe extreme emotions. It’s typically used within the phrase “in ecstasy,” as in, “I was in ecstasy when I found out that I won the lottery!”
Find it in “Mona Lisa:” …Or don’t! This is a good example of how artistic images can even be used to show you the opposite of hard English words. The woman in this painting has a famously subdued, flat smile. You can imagine how different she would look if she were in ecstasy—mouth open, arms waving!
3. Use Your Everyday Routine
What does your morning routine look like?
Probably something like this: wake up, check your social media, get out of bed, make coffee, drink that coffee, get dressed, put on make-up, brush your hair and head out the door for work.
Because this is a regular schedule you’ve made for yourself, you know it inside and out. There are objects you see every day as you go through this routine, like your mirror or coffee pot. These are opportunities to create memorable associations for hard English words.
If you’re a mother, father, aunt, uncle, grandmother, grandfather or big brother or sister, you can also use this exercise with younger children. This is a great interaction with children who also want to learn hard English words.
Definition: To take the place of something or someone that’s no longer useful
Where it’s used: This is a fairly common English word that you might see most often in news articles.
Okay. This word seems a bit intense, but I promise you that it’s really not. The reason why you might find it a bit scary is because you only recognize half the word (super), and you might not know how to pronounce the sede part (it sounds like “seed”).
Find it in your daily routine: The brand new electric toothbrush you replaced the old one with
For a very long time, I’ve been using a scratchy, cheap old toothbrush. Today, my new electric toothbrush arrived and superseded the old one.
Definition: Not necessary
Where it’s used: This word can be found in all arenas.
There’s that super again! This is a tricky one because it sounds like it should be a positive adjective, since super is in there. However, it’s an adjective with a negative connotation.
Find it in your daily routine: Those 10 pairs of shoes you never wear
Whenever my mother comes by the apartment, she shakes her head and comments on all my superfluous shoes.
Definition: The upkeep of property or equipment
Where it’s used: Usually in reference to your home or belongings, but this is a very common word you’ll hear all the time.
This word looks long and even a bit overwhelming but if you look closely, you can see the root word in this word, which is “maintain.” If you already know what that word means, then you have more than half of the meaning already. However, if you didn’t, that’s still perfectly fine! Maintain means to keep something in good condition by making repairs, correcting problems, etc., so right away you know the word maintenance would have to mean something very close to it.
Find it in your daily routine: The oven you must call your landlord to take care of
Today I called my apartment complex’s maintenance service to fix my oven, which I’ve been wanting to cook in for a very long time.
Definition: A person who helps organizations or groups to work together and provide information to each other
This funny looking word can also be difficult to understand. I mean, just look it! Three vowels in a row? Fortunately, its definition isn’t too complicated.
Find it in your daily routine: The photo of your mother
Every time my family and I go on vacation, my mom turns into a liaison between us and the travel agent.
4. Use Context Clues
Let’s say you’re taking an English exam. No Wi-Fi, no dictionary. And you still don’t understand what the heck a word means.
There’s another way you can figure it out. Can you guess what it is?
If you thought of the answer context clues, you’ve already won the game! If you haven’t, that’s still okay!
Context clues might not get you the exact meaning of the word, but they do give you a strong hint or idea (in other words, a clue!). Here’s how you can use this process with some more hard English words that are important to know:
Definition: A product that can be bought or sold
Where it’s used: You’ll hear this most often in business English.
For English learners, this word can be difficult because it seems to have more of a general sense rather than referring to a specific thing you would either buy or sell. However, commodities are usually talked about in a general sense where it’s a group of things.
I’ve written an example of what the word commodity means with the definition hidden somewhere deep inside:
This week’s history assignment was to get to know more about our relatives that had flown from another country to live in the U.S. I spoke to my grandpa about his experience. I asked about his life back in South Korea. He answered that in his job, he was in charge of the commodities between his farm and one of the factories that still runs even to this day. He sold his vegetables, fruits and other crops and the factory bought them from him so they could produce food.
From this passage, you can see that the commodities must be the same as the vegetables, fruits and other crops. You can figure out that they must be the products the narrator’s grandpa was selling.
Definition: Express a good opinion of something; suggest something to someone else
Where it’s used: This is a very common, everyday English word.
So let’s put this word into a passage:
Today was my very first day on campus and I had no idea what I wanted to eat for lunch. I’d forgotten my packed lunch back home on the kitchen counter. Because I’d never visited outside of the campus, I decided to ask my classmates what they thought I should eat. They recommended the new pizzeria that had just opened across the street. I took their suggestion and enjoyed it very much.
Using the words and what’s going on in the text, does the definition of recommend make a bit more sense? We can see that it involves a suggestion between two people or groups of people, with positive associations.
Use a Dictionary to Learn Hard English Words Every Day
At a restaurant and confused by a word on the menu? Not sure what that character just said in an English TV show?
You need a good English dictionary to help you quickly learn the hard words you encounter.
I know, I know—it might feel uncool to be looking up words in a dictionary all the time. However according to the New York Times, dictionary use is on the rise in the U.S., so if you use one you’ll fit in well with native speakers!
You should get comfortable using a dictionary anytime, anywhere, so that you’re prepared to learn and practice words correctly using the methods we’ll discuss below.
My favorite online dictionary is Vocabulary.com, because it’s a great tool where you can get both the audio, definition and simplified outline of what the word means.
Compared to other dictionary apps or online dictionaries, this site breaks down what the word means in ways you can understand whether you’re a beginner learner or a native speaker. It also gives you the option to see where the word can be found in other online resources.
Now you can use a dictionary to show off your vocabulary skills and boost your knowledge of hard English words every time you see one!
Hard English words don’t have to be hard forever. These techniques should make your vocabulary studies a lot more manageable and memorable.