All English learners have faced this situation before: whether you are reading something and come across a word that you don’t know the meaning of or you are having a conversation and don’t know a specific word needed to express yourself. How do we deal with unfamiliar words in English? How do you learn these words without Google Translate?

Everyone asks these questions, so don’t worry. Does that mean your English vocabulary is not good? No, not at all. It just means there are many words in the English language and you are not supposed to know all of them!

That said, how do you deal with situations like this? Keep reading for three great strategies to help you deal with unfamiliar vocabulary in English. 

Google is great, but sometimes you can’t access it… 

If you are reading a book and see a word that you don’t know the meaning of, it is easy to open Google and just look for that specific word. For those who use Kindle, it is even easier, since you can simply press down the screen and the definition of the word will come up. However, when you are having a spontaneous conversation with someone, it is not so natural to stop everything you are doing to search for a specific word in the dictionary. So, what do you do? Take a look at three good strategies that help you learn new words in English. 

kindle
For those who use Kindle, simply press down the screen and the definition of the word will come up

Strategy #1 – What’s the context here? 

Sometimes my sister asks me to translate a specific word from English to Portuguese. My first question is always: what’s the context? I always ask her to send me the paragraph in which the word is located because that’s the best way to guarantee I will come up with the perfect translation for said word. And that’s something you can do, too.  

When coming across an unfamiliar word in English, try to read the sentence again and understand the words that are surrounding the word you don’t know the meaning of. Sometimes that’s enough for you to get the full meaning of that sentence. You can also try to identify if the word you don’t know is a verb, a noun, an adjective by looking at the position of such word in a sentence. 

Take this example from Breaking News English and imagine that you want to understand the word baggy:  

The latest trend in jeans is the baggy look. Many fashionistas are attributing this switch to looser-fitting jeans to coronavirus. Many of us have put on weight during the pandemic. As a result, we can no longer slide into our skinny jeans, which have been all the rage for the past few years. 

After reading this paragraph, you know that baggy is a type of jeans style. This paragraph also uses the phrase looser-fitting. Then, the writer compares this style of jeans to skinny jeans and how people can’t wear those anymore because of weight gain. With all these context clues, you may realize that baggy means: something that does not fit the shape of the body. 

jeans
Baggy jeans are a new trend.

Beware of false cognates 

How many Spanish learners have tried to say they are embarazado, only to learn that does not mean embarassed  it actually means pregnant! Whoops. This is a classic example of a false cognate.  

False cognates (or false friends) are pairs of words that look like they have the same meaning, but they don’t. In Brazilian Portuguese, for instance, the word actually may be confused with the word atualmente (translation: nowadays). However, actually means na verdade in Portuguese. If you want to avoid this false-friend problem, check out this list of some Brazilian Portuguese and English false cognates here. Or, you can get this list of Spanish and English amigos falsos.  Knowing the false cognates in your language are going to be helpful when dealing with unfamiliar vocabulary in English, believe me.

Strategy #2 – Break down the words 

It blew my mind when I found out the word breakfast can be broken down into two other very familiar words: break and fast. By breaking down words, you can definitely find out the meaning of many words in the English language. Learn more about prefixes and suffixes now, and find out how they can help you when you come across unfamiliar words in English.

Use prefixes to get the idea of the word

A prefix is a part of a word that comes in front of a root word. In English, there are more than 90 prefixes. Take a look at some examples of prefixes you should know in order to figure out the meaning of words. 

Prefix im like in impatient

The prefix -im means not. With that in mind, it is easy to understand that impatient means someone who has no patience. Some other examples are: impossible, immature, impolite. 

Prefix mis like in misunderstood 

The prefix -mis means wrong or mistaken. That way, we use the word misunderstood to say that someone understood something incorrectly. Some other examples are: misplace, misbehave, misfit, misread.  

Prefix re like in redo 

The prefix -re means again or back. That means redo is a word to say someone needs to do something again, for a second time. Other examples: recount, repaint, reapply. 

redo
Redo means that you have to do something again, for a second time.

Prefix un like in unhappy 

The prefix -un also means not. In this case, unhappy is used to describe someone who is not happy. Other examples: unlock, unreal, unusual, unable.  

Prefix dis like in dislike 

The prefix -dis also means not. Other examples: discontinue, disagree, disobey. 

dislike
Dislike is the opposite of like. The prefix –dis means not.

Suffixes can help too

A suffix is a part of a word that comes after a root word. Take a look at some examples of suffixes you should know in order to figure out the meaning of unfamiliar words in English.

Suffix dom like in boredom

The suffix -dom means place or state of being. With that in mind, we can understand that boredom means a state of being bored. Some other examples are: freedom, kingdom, wisdom. 

Suffix ism like in narcissism

The suffix -ism means doctrine or belief. Some other examples are: communism, skepticism, racism, feminism. 

Suffix ment like in argument 

The suffix -ment means the condition of. Other examples: endorsement, punishment, engagement, government. 

Suffix less like in endless

The suffix -less means without. Other examples: effortless, useless, homeless. 

Strategy #3 – Describe the word 

This is the best strategy for when you are having a conversation and need to use a specific word that you don’t know or that you can’t remember at the moment. You can simply say something like I don’t know the exact word, but… and continue to describe the word with other words. Keep reading for more details about this strategy for dealing with unfamiliar vocabulary in English.

For instance, let’s say you need to say the word fireworks, but you don’t know how to say it in English. Think about the idea. How could you describe it? Here is an example:

  • I don’t know the exact word, but it is that thing we usually see on New Year’s Eve. You know, those colorful and loud things we see in the sky.  
fireworks
Fireworks are commonly seen on New Year’s Eve.

Another example is the word traffic light. 

  • You know, that thing that allows us to keep driving or that makes us stop. It can be yellow, red, or green.  
traffic light
Traffic lights are red, yellow, and green.
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Actually, this is a great speaking practice for any English learner and you can even play with friends. Write down some words and each person needs to get a piece of paper and describe the word they get. The first one to get the word correctly gets a point. For more English games to play with friends, check out this blog post.  

We hope these three strategies help you navigate any situation in which you come across unfamiliar vocabulary in English. It’s normal to need help learning new words in a new language! There’s no shame in that! Keep these strategies in mind and you will do fine. See you next time!