Everything you need to know about individual words by English with Stephen

Learning Strategies: What’s in a word?

This is the transcript for the English with Stephen podcast episode that looks at everything you might need to know about individual words in English.

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Hello and a warm welcome to everyone. My name is Stephen Greene and this is the English with Stephen podcast, the podcast that gives you everything you need in order to learn English in under 10 minutes.

Don’t forget, you can find a transcript for today’s episode on my site, EnglishwithStephen.com

Today, we are looking at a word. Not any specific word, but just a word.

Have I confused you? Well, maybe if I asked a more specific question it would help. Ready?

What do you need to know about a word to truly, deeply, understand it?

Does that make it clearer? What I hope to do today is investigate all the different aspects of a word, what it means and how it behaves.

All of that, after this.

I’ve mentioned this podcast a few times now, but here we go again. If you love your music and want to improve your English listening skills, go check it out.

So, what is a word?

Well, the first thing we need to know is its meaning. This is pretty obvious, right? The problem is that there can be many meanings for the same word. For example, if you look in a dictionary for the word “dog” you will find something about a four-legged animal that is man’s best friend and says ‘woof’.

But “dog” is also used to show you are talking about the male of the species, while “bitch” is used to talk about females.

“the dogs” is often used to talk about dog races.

So we could say these are the different denotations of a word.

Also associated with meaning, but different to denotation is the connotation of a word. Some words have a more positive feeling associated with them, while others might be more neutral or negative. This connotation is because of social, cultural or personal experiences and beliefs.

For example, I love dogs. They are great, friendly and guaranteed to brighten my day.

However, if somebody says “He is such a dog” it carries the connotation of ugliness or shamefulness.

So, in terms of meaning, we have to think about the denotation and the connotation of a word.

Something else we need to consider is the spelling of a word. If we want to read a word, we have to be able to recognise it, if we want to write an email or something, we need to know how to write it. So, spelling is another aspect of truly understanding a word.

Next, we have the pronunciation of a word. If you don’t know how to say a word, then it is next to useless. When thinking about pronunciation, we need to think not only about the individual sounds but also about where the stress comes in the word and how it might change when placed next to other words. But pronunciation is not just about speaking, it is also about listening. Being aware of how a word is pronounced is vital to understanding it.

Following this, we have the grammar of a word. Now, the grammar will change depending on the word. However, it might include things like the past tense of the word, if it is a verb. Can It be used in the passive? Is it commonly used in the continuous tense?

If it is a noun, is it countable or uncountable? What is the plural? Are there any prepositions that need to be used with it?

Similar to the grammar of a word is the word family relationships. How can we change a word from a noun to a verb or an adjective? What prefixes and suffixes can be used to alter a word to make it positive or negative, for example. Anyone who has tried to do a Cambridge exam will know that they love testing this aspect of vocabulary knowledge.

Another, related aspect, of truly understanding a word is how it can be used in collocations and phrases. For example, do you say, “create a bank account”, “open a bank account”, or “start a bank account”? Well, if you go into a bank and use any of those examples you will be successful in finding a place to put your money. However, the most common phrase would be “open a bank account”. Why? Because “open” and “bank account” collocate with each other. In other words, you often find these words together, not for any reason to do with meaning, but simply because we like to use them in this way.

Phrasal verbs are a particular problem for many students. In fact, Episode 31 of this podcast is all about how to learn phrasal verbs. While I often tell my students not to worry too much about phrasal verbs, if you truly want to know everything about a word, you need to know how it can be used in phrasal verbs.

The final thing I want to mention if you really want to understand a word is its synonyms and antonyms. A synonym is a word that has a similar meaning, while an antonym is the opposite meaning. Synonyms are useful so that you can use alternatives instead of always using the same word. But they are also useful because there is never a true synonym. There is always a difference, even if it is only a very small difference. Understanding the differences can help you understand the essential meaning of the word you are focussing on in the first place.

Right, so now we know what different aspects there are to a word, there are two obvious questions: First, do we really need to know all of this? And second, what are we supposed to do with this information?

The simple answer to the first question is no, you do not need to know all of this. You can easily use words without knowing all of the possible meanings. In fact, there are many native speakers of any language who do not know all of the possible meanings, collocations, and phrases of a word.

Also, you might know some of this stuff implicitly, but not explicitly. This means that you are able to use words in an appropriate way (implicit knowledge), but when someone asks you about your knowledge you find it difficult to say why you know something (explicit knowledge). This is ok. Implicit knowledge of a language is more important because it allows you to at least use it.

As for the second question, well there is a lot we can do with this information. Knowing what we need to know can help us to plan our learning. When we are learning a new item of vocabulary, we can ask ourselves about pronunciation, opposites, or the grammar of a word to make sure we have understood it properly.

It can also help us to structure revision as we go back through previous words and think about what we don’t know, and so organise what we need to find out.

Finally, if you use a lexical notebook to organise your vocabulary, this kind of information can and should be added to your notebook. If you don’t know what a lexical notebook is, then it is one of the best ways I have found to organise and remember vocabulary. In episode 6 I talked about why lexical notebooks are so good and how you can start one.

Before I leave you for today, I’d like to remind you that there is a transcript for this podcast on my site, EnglishwithStephen.com. That’s S T E P H E N, EnglishwithStephen.com.

Thanks for listening, and I hope to speak to you again next week.

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