top of page

How do you know if you really "know" a word in English? Is it just knowing one definition? Is it spelling it correctly or identifying a part of speech enough? Let's discuss.

One method of increasing your vocabulary is the increase the knowledge you have of words that you already know. For example, you probably think you know the word "run" in English. I'm going to guess, you don't know the 35 definitions of the word run. 35!!

You might not know that you can "run" for president and you can "run" a business, but you can also "run" in a race. These are all commonly used versions of the word. We haven't even talked about idioms or phrasal verbs.

My advice to you is to take the words you already know and expand your knowledge. Make sure you don't have any gaps in your understanding of a word.

What should I know about a word?


All words have a connotation. Connotation means that a word is positive, negative, or neutral. The word “fantastic” has a very positive connotation, but the word “awful” has a negative connotation. If I call my hairdresser and ask for an appointment, they may say they are “booked” or “busy.” Busy has a negative connotation, but booked means that business is good! Booked has a positive connotation.

Spelling and Pronunciation:

If you can not spell or pronounce a word correctly, people will not know what word you are talking about! In English, spelling is very inconsistent and while there are rules, we don’t always follow them.

Part of Speech:

You should know the part of speech for a vocabulary word. Let’s take the word “information.” Information is a noun and inform is a verb. Info is slang for information. These are called word families. If you know the other forms of the word, you multiply your vocabulary! Another example is the word “celebration.” Celebration is a noun, celebrate is a verb, celebratory is an adjective and celebrated is also an adjective. This strategy helps you build your vocabulary.


Collocations are words that usually go together. For example, “for example” is a collocation. We don’t say “at example” or “on example.” We always use “for.” Students should learn tricks like this to increase their use of a word.

Knowing a word is to know all of these parts of a word. This is a helpful learning strategy. You can take the words you currently know and multiply them by adding different parts of information to the word!

Do you want a way to organize your vocabulary knowledge?

Check out my vocabulary organizer!

Fluency is the goal for many people studying English, but it is hard to measure. Why would it be hard to measure? Because students have different end goals for their language skills. If you want to be a medical doctor, fluency standards are going to be higher with a lot of specialized vocabulary. If I want to be an English teacher, I'm going to need high levels of accuracy in all my uses of English. If I want to be an accountant, again, my goals will be different.

How many words are in English?

English has 600,000 word families. A word family describes a set of words that are all related. Let's look at the word information.

This chart describes the word family of "information"







Inform on

Phrasal Verb




adjective with the prefix "un-"




adjective with the prefix "un-"



Information Technology


This one word expands to 10 words when we look in the dictionary. There are many many many more collocations for this word. If we really know this word family, we will know most of these forms. You don't need to be perfect, but it's a good way to expand your vocabulary.

How many word families does a native speaker know?

A native speaker will know around 30,000 word families. Some may know more depending on their education levels, or area of speciality. It would be fair to think a lawyer knows many more words than your average American because legal English is a whole different set of vocabulary. Legal English contains many Latin words that are not used in everyday life.

So how many words do I need to be fluent?

If you learn the 3,000 most common words in English, that will cover around 90% of core daily vocabulary in English. There are 700 basic spoken words in English. This will get you really far!

But what do I mean by learn?

I mean learning the whole word family. Understand the forms of the word, the prefixes and suffixes, the phrasal verbs, and the common collocations. That one word family will expand to many different words. This should be one of your strategies to expanding your vocabulary.

How do I know what to focus on?

To find the words you should focus on you can use the New General Service List This list has been created by looking at many examples of written and spoken English. But downloading the list, won't give you a lot of direction on how to study.

Start here on Quizlet. The words are divided into blocks of 500 words. Starting with 1-500 might be frustrating if you've spoken English for a while. In the first block, you are going to find words like: the, be, at, in, etc. If you're advanced, try the last block to study.

What vocabulary do I learn if I already understand the foundational language?

If you already have a lot of English vocabulary, you can try a few different things. You can learn the Academic Word list if your goal is college or a professional job. You can also learn words specific to your field. Professions like engineers, doctors, dentists, architects and lawyers all have specific vocabulary for their field. Most of the vocabulary is learned in college for these specific fields. You might want to learn vocabulary around your hobbies or favorite sports.

Either way, vocabulary is a building block of fluency, and you should never stop learning it.

How can I organize the vocabulary I know?

Organizing the vocabulary that you know and use is a study skill that will serve you well. You can make your own flashcards, download an app, or use this method I used in my classes.

Are you a teacher?

If you are a teacher, you might be interested in the research behind this blog. Find more information from this Ted Talk or find more information on their website

Many of my advanced students in my university classes have come to me and said, "Teacher, I understand you, but I can't understand regular people." These students usually have a very high levels of English and they're been studying for years and years. So, what is it about native speakers that my students can't understand and can they learn it?

The answer is YES, you can easily learn the American accent. I'm going to take you through 5 examples of fast English where Americans are reducing or connecting sounds.

1. Did + you = Didya or Didja

The “ja” sound in this example doesn’t only happen with the word “did” it is common anytime a word ends in “d” and the next word starts with a “y.” You can say “would you” as “wouldja.” For example: Would you mind helping me?

Why would Americans combine these words and create a new sound? First, the answer has to do with the way the sounds work in the mouth, but also, these word combinations are very common. This spoken English habit also works because typically you are looking at the person when you say these phrases.

Americans will have more relaxed speech when they are face-to-face.

2. And as “n”

There are a lot of names in English with two nouns that are connected with “and.” In and Out, Johnson and Johnson, H and M, or Black and Decker. There are also many common nouns (or collocations) that have this combination. Macaroni and cheese, peas and carrots, tea and biscuits, dogs and cats. Adjectives and prepositions too! Up and down, top and bottom, black and white….

So, this one is EVERYWHERE.

3. You --> Ya

Once you learn this one, you will hear it everywhere! When “you” is not the focus of the sentence OR when I’m am looking at the person that I’m speaking with, Americans will not pronounce the formal “you” form of the word. Americans will shorten it to “ya.”

Remember, anytime Americans need to clarify a sentence or repeat an idea, they will say the formal version of the word. They will not use fast English or connected speech.

4. Your/You’re --> “yer”

This example is more common in different regions of the United States. I’m from Texas and if you plan to study or travel to Texas, you 100% need to learn this variation of your/you’re. In other areas of the country, this pronunciation is not as strong, but you can still hear it. Remember the United States is a big diverse country with many accents and dialects, so if this lesson isn’t true for you, it might be describing a different region.

5. Can you --> Kin-ya

“Can you” is a very frequent way to start a question in English. It is so frequent, in fact, that we have a reduction for it! “Can you” sounds exactly like the country Kenya which is in West Africa.

We don’t use “kin-ya” every time that we speak, but in a relaxed conversation you will find that it is very common. If we want to be a little more polite, we will enunciate or say the words clearly as a sign of respect. For many conversations, “kin-ya” is perfectly acceptable.

This does not cover every way that Americans reduce or combine sounds in English, but it will get you started. You can find more information about the technical side of fast English in this blog about linking and connected speech!

Recent Posts
Follow Us
  • Black YouTube Icon
  • Black Twitter Icon
  • Black RSS Icon
  • Black Pinterest Icon
  • Black Instagram Icon
  • Facebook - Black Circle
bottom of page