A Quick Way to Improve Your Vocabulary - Subtitled Videos

Learning Guide

One of the problems that we usually face when learning English is how to learn new vocabulary. At school we are usually taught new vocabulary by learning by heart big lists of words in English with their corresponding translation.

I personally think that this method is of limited value for several reasons:
  • It’s not a natural way of teaching but a “brute force” method.
  • It’s not useful to memorize a word and then never use it again; you’ll surely forget it in less than a week.
  • When you learn a word from a list you only learn how to write it but not how to pronounce or how to use it in context (in a sentence).
However, there is no doubt that the process of learning new vocabulary is a process of repetition where memory has vital importance. The better your memory, the fewer the number of times you’ll have to repeat a word in order to learn it.

I believe that you learn a word in English when you know how to pronounce it properly, write it and use it (in a sentence).

I’m going to describe below a method that I’ve used to learn new vocabulary. The idea is to use subtitled videos in English (in this case videos from TED mentioned in this post). You choose a video that you like and then through watching it several times you see the evolution in its understanding and learning of new words.

Subtitled videos are an excellent tool because they allow you to see the word (you learn how to write it), listen to it (how to pronounce it) and you see in which situations it’s used (its context).

Videos from TED are made by people that speak fluent English therefore they are recommended for people with an upper-intermediate or advanced level. Nevertheless, if you wish don’t hesitate to use this technique. You can also use it with other videos that are more appropriate for your level of English.

What does this method to learn new vocabulary consist of?

First thing you have to do is choose a video. In my case I chose the video which talks about the mathematics of war.

Video example

Link to the video

Then try to watch the video without subtitles and estimate how much you understood. In my case I understood 80%.

Watch the video a second time (without subtitles) and estimate your understanding again. In my case 85%.

Now a third time but turn on the subtitles in English. I understood 90%.

A fourth time with the subtitles again. I understood 90%.

In my case the improvement between the third and the fourth time is zero. This is because I wasn’t able to understand more words on account of the context; plus the words that I didn’t know I needed to look up in a dictionary.

I got down to work and I created the following table with four columns (Word, Meaning, Form and Example of use).

I watched the video again, stopping at those words that I didn’t know and filling in the following table:

Note: You might have to adapt the Meaning column to your native language.

Table 1: New Vocabulary from the Video
WordMeaningFormExample of use
NaiveIngenuoAdjectiveAs a naive New Zealander I thought, well, I’ll go to thePentagon.
StreamCanalNounIf we can get enough of these streams of information together.
RawSin tratar, sin filtrarAdjectiveWe brought this raw data in and we filtered it
Pull outSacar, extraerVerbIt’s all in the streams of information we consume daily; we just have to know how to pull it out.
PlotTrazar, marcarVerbWe plot data for sample on this (in a graph window).
Blew my mindMe rompió los esquemas, me dejó “flipando”Verb… of theway attacks are ordered in this conflict, and this blew our minds.
ClusteredApiñarse, agruparseVerbThe slope of these lines clustered around this value of Alpha equals 2.5.
SlopePendiente (término matemático)NounNegative Alpha is the slope of that line I showed you before.
CoalescenceCoalescencia – propiedad de las cosas de unirse o fundirse.NounSo we look at a process of group dynamics coalescence and fragmentation.
SeeminglyAparentementeAdverbWhy should these different, seemingly different conflicts have the same patterns?
SurgeLevantamientoNounThe system gets perturbed, it moves upwards to a fragmented state and this is when the surge happens.

A week later I reviewed the learned vocabulary and I watched the video one more time (without subtitles). I understood 98% - 99%.

Is it that simple?

Well, the way of learning depends a lot on everyone. If you want to optimize this particular method you’ll have to adapt to the way you learn and have regard to your own personal qualities. In my case I have a normal memory and thus it’s necessary for me to REPEAT things several times. If you have a good memory (which is really good to learn languages) you’ll probably be ok if you watch the video a couple of times.

Visit TED’s website and put this method into practise! :)
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