Would you like to know how you can really increase your vocabulary? I don’t mean just to recognise a word when you see it, but to be able to put it in the right context within a sentence and create something stunning with it?

I would like to share a few secrets with you from someone I have been working with for over a year now.  These are not the words of an English teacher but the hard won experience of someone who has put many hours of commitment and strategic determination into learning. You can be confident that HE knows what he’s talking about as he had already got a Band 8 in IELTS even before he started working with me!

So let me share with you part of an interview I did recently with Alexei.

Tell us about your job

I’m an IT manager for the Russian branch of a large American multinational company, specializing in computer security across countries. My role involves managing a team whose tasks involve regulating privacy and protecting computers from threat and accidental damage.

How do you use English in your job?

Quite a bit. All our business communication is done in English except the internal verbal stuff. 80-90% of incoming emails are in English and every day I send 2-3 outgoing ones in English. Every week I have between 3 and 8 meetings in English.

How did you learn the English you need to do your job?

I learnt English at school and a bit at university and had a couple of trips to the UK. In 2008, the global financial crisis hit Russia really badly and the benefits programme in my job at that time was slashed significantly. I wanted to work for a company that offered a salary and benefits package commensurate with my skills and realized that the only ones who offered that needed English! So I started by reading professional literature in IT, which is all in English. From these materials I picked up words here and there but, at that time, I couldn’t have got through an interview.

I pushed myself to listen to BBC radio to train my listening skills. It was hard! When I got home from work I would dedicate one hour to learning something. That’s when my interest in professional English started.

After about half a year of study and applying for jobs in international companies, I eventually got a job offer although this was probably not entirely because of my level of English! At that time, my manager allowed me to participate in meetings even though I couldn’t get involved in any complex matters; I just listened and tried to follow what was going on. I used to only raise very simple questions and get very simple answers but that’s when my listening skills improved!

It was through reading emails that my reading abilities started to improve. As I didn’t have any managerial responsibility I didn’t have to speak in English- my manager did that- but that’s how I gained traction.

If I had the chance to go back, I’d probably have found some kind of method to memorize words because at that time I didn’t have any kind of structure to help me remember. It’s not just about reading a lot, listening a lot, speaking a lot – when you’re not surrounded by the language, you need to have some kind of framework to memorize vocabulary and not to lose it.

So what are your Top Tips for improvement?

1 Persevere
“Diligence is the mother of good luck”. You have to spend time in English; you have to incorporate it into your daily habits and push yourself to do a little more every day.

2 Surround yourself with English as much as possible and listen to podcasts during your commute as even passive listening trains your comprehension, watch TV series and work with these.  Listen to them twice and write down new words. Pick up materials that satisfy your natural interests and that you can understand. If you can only understand 50% of something you will be frustrated.

3 Invest in your vocabulary

  • Learn collocations and prepositions.
  • Attack vocabulary from a statistically frequent level. Only focus on the vocabulary that can be widely used and a google search will show you which form is most common. Force yourself to go through the list of the first 5000 most frequently used words of English (you can find this online). If you’re advanced you can probably skip the first 5000, but by about 7000 you will start to find widely used words that you don’t know.
  • Find out how to use the word; the Cambridge and Longman’s online dictionaries have tonnes of examples of how to use them in a wider context.
  • Find an approach to memorize them. Anki, for example is a repetition-based flashcard software that doesn’t just repeat everyday but with increasing lapses of time that gives you incremental exposure to words. Everyone is focused on their own professional set of vocabulary but if you spot a new word in daily emails or newsletters, stop for a moment and put it in your memorizer

It’s statistically proven that it takes 8000 hours of study before you become a professional. If you spend this in your daily activities this will have a huge pay back!
Probably people may not like this advice and want more fun but if you’re busy you want to maximize your investment!

So there you have it. No quick solutions, sorry!