Oh, the intermediate level, that feeling of so close but still so far, we love it because we know we are not beginners anymore, but we hate it because… it’s the intermediate level, we just want it to go away, after all, it’s just the middleman.
Fret not, this part of the guide will help you say goodbye to the intermediate level by crushing intermediate level vocabulary.
We’ll go through three field-tested methods for learning intermediate level vocabulary. Unlikely the beginner part of the guide, the intermediate and advanced parts complement each other, regardless if you are an intermediate or advanced learner, you can go back and forth between them to learn different vocabulary depending on its difficulty, not on your fluency level.
Base word synonym hint
Have you noticed how people with lots of friends seem to effortlessly make friends with every new person they meet? Well, the same is true for words, the more you know, the easier it is to learn even more; this is because (among other reasons) all words can be organized in a set of similar words arranged thematically. Most of these words share a very close meaning, or sometimes, the exact same meaning. This means that by only knowing one base word, you can learn its exact synonyms easily. However, most words do not have exact synonyms, but still share a level of commonality with other words that allows for safe association.
Before diving into the method itself, I want to establish the definition for “base word”; throughout this article, we’ll consider a base word to be a word from which other words branch out, a word that has a rather general underlying concept and that works as a foundation for similar but more specific words.
Let’s take for example the base word “smile”. Most dictionaries and thesauruses will list “grin” and “smirk” as synonyms. However, even though these words belong to the same category and thus share a similar underlying concept, most of the time, they can’t be interchanged freely without change in meaning; these are near-synonyms.
If we read “John smiles when he sees Anna”, it’s safe for us to assume there’s some level of affection between them, but if you were reading 50 Shades of Grey and a passage said: “John grins when he sees Anna” you would assume that John’s happiness arouses not necessarily from a feeling of sincere joy and affection towards Anna, but that he might also have ulterior motives for grinning.
If we read “John smiles when he sees Anna”, it’s safe for us to assume there’s some level of affection between them, but if we read “John smirks when he sees Anna” rather than thinking that there’s a level of affection between them, we are going to assume that there’s some sort of conflict between them, and that John is actually not happy when he sees Anna.
The same is true for “grin”, where your facial expression expresses smile rather than expressing joy expresses confidence in a self-satisfied or smug manner.
Of course, this all depends on context, as indicated by Wikipedia, words that are not exact synonyms “can be synonymous when meant in certain senses, even if they are not synonymous in all of their senses.” *
So if these are not exact synonyms, then how can we learn them by using a base word that is not completely interchangeable? By using the near-synonym AND a little description around it as hint. To do this, we’ll use Anki, a card would look like this:
In the introduction to this guide, I pointed out that conversational exchange isn’t a good way to learn vocabulary, simply because a conversation is an efficient exchange of ideas, and for this exchange to truly be efficient, speakers in the conversation must share the same level of fluency, otherwise the conversation will become crippled and it will serve as neither an efficient exchange of ideas nor an efficient language learning experience.
Conversations are marvelous for consolidating your already acquired knowledge, but not so much for acquiring new knowledge, in short, conversations are not the most efficient use of your time if your focus is on learning vocabulary, not on consolidating vocabulary.
Pre-determined conversations are the solution to this. A pre-determined conversation is a non-organic conversation, with well-defined boundaries and topics.
For this, you will need a teacher (you can also try asking your language exchange partner to help you with this, but I strongly recommend a teacher) who has already assessed your current level. You are going to tell your teacher what you want to talk about before the actual lesson takes place, your teacher is then going to look up on the internet an article that deals with the topic you chose and whose structure and syntax is a challenge for you (but that is not frustrating) and they are going to send it to you so you can prepare for the upcoming lesson by reading the article and looking up the words in the article that you don’t know. During the lesson you will discuss that article, don’t go beyond what the article comprises.
When you choose a topic, be as specific as possible, don’t choose “science” because that’s too broad; tell your teacher you want your conversation to be about “the invention of the light bulb”. Being specific like this will help your teacher find an article that suits your level, and will help you too by knowing exactly what you will talk about during your conversation, thus you are not going to be intimidated by the unknown.
Let me give you a transcript you can use to ask your teacher you do this:
- You: I would like our next lesson to be a pre-determined conversation.
- Your teacher: What’s that?
- You: It’s a conversation whose topic we’ve agreed upon beforehand, I want to talk about the mysteries behind the Mona Lisa painting. Could you look up an article on the internet that you believe will be a challenge for me but that is not too cumbersome and email it to me? My email address is: email@example.com
Your teacher plays a huge role in making pre-determined conversations work for you. Because of this, it is imperative that you choose a teacher who is really looking forward for their students to succeed. Read my guide on how to find a language teacher online right here.
Bilingual books are pretty straightforward in their use. I suggest taking entire sentences from the book, adding such sentence to your Anki deck and cloze delete the word or words you want to learn. You can add the translation as a hint with the target word in boldface, like this:
You can also play around with the sentence you selected and its translation, where the front would be the sentence in your target language and the back, its translation in your native language, like this:
This type of card is not only good for vocabulary consolidation, but also for getting acquainted and comfortable with your target language’s syntax.
I recommend against using the sentence in your native language on the front of the card as you will feel the need to remember its exact translation in your target language as the answer or you’ll believe you got it wrong, when this might not be the case, it’s just you are not comfortable enough in your target language yet to interpret your sentence differently than it is presented in your book. However, if the front of the card is in your target language you’ll be presented a sentence which you have to interpret back into your native language, not translate. This is key for effective language learning, because to learn a language you need to interpret it, not translate it.
Pro tip: If you can’t find an interesting bilingual book, you can purchase a monolingual book that you find interesting both in your native and target language; this will make it a little harder to select sentences as the aim of the book is not to educate but to entertain, as opposed to a truly bilingual book, but it can definitely be done.