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How to learn words with multiple meanings

21 Sep 2011
Two dragon heads
A word with two meanings is like a dragon with two heads. Photo by Art Siegel.

In all languages, there are words with several, seemingly unrelated meanings - and English is no exception.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word "get" has over 20 different meanings! It's even hard to count them all. :-)

So, what's the best way to learn words with multiple meanings?

Read more for my advice!

The challenge

Learning vocabulary is the biggest challenge in language learning. Although few examples are as extreme as "get," learning words with multiple meanings is one of the biggest challenges in learning vocabulary!

Let's look at the verb "to call":

  1. "I called him last night." = to telephone someone
  2. "The soup calls for minced garlic." = to require something
  3. "What's it called? It's called BiblioBird!" :-) = to be named something

To a native speaker of English, it's very natural that this word has all three of these meanings. But to an learner, this can be very confusing.

In many languages, each meaning of "to call" uses a separate word. For example, in Polish the words would be: (1) telefonować, (2) wymagać and (3) nazywać.

My advice

Learn each meaning as you encounter it!

I like to learn vocabulary using flashcards, preferably computerized flashcards systems like Anki which use spaced repetition.

If I encountered the verb "to call" for the first time in sense #3, I would make a flashcard for only that meaning!

If I later encountered "to call" again and it didn't make sense in that context, I'd return to the dictionary and see if it might make more sense associated with a different definition. If so, I'd make a new flashcard for that sense and update the old one, so I know the meaning is different. You can add an example sentence to the front of the card or add some context in parenthesis. For example: "to call (on the telephone)" and "to call (someone something)".

I know you might have the urge to try to learn all of one word's meanings at once. But, in my experience, if you learn one sense well before moving on to the next, you will know both meanings better in the end.

Similarly, this is why practicing 10 minutes a day is better than practicing 70 minutes once a week. Give your brain time to learn the distinction.

Other issues

Different parts of speech

A great number of English words function in multiple parts of speech. These words are a bit easier to learn, because the meanings are typically related. For example, "I went to the dance (noun) to watch my daughter dance (verb)."

The same technique can be applied here! Make a flashcard for the different parts of speech as you encounter them.

In fact, when learning English, I recommend always putting the part of speech on your flashcards! This is less of an issue with other languages, like Polish, where you can usually tell the part of speech from the word ending.

Heteronyms

There are also words which are spelled the same but pronounced differently, which frequently have drastically different meanings. These are called heteronyms.

For example, the word "content":

  • "I am content." (adjective, pronounced /kənˈtɛnt/) = I am happy or satisfied.
  • "This content is difficult." (noun, pronounced /ˈkɒn.tɛnt/) = This topic or material is difficult.

Again, you can use the same technique and add the pronunciation to your flashcard. However, these words are relatively rare. A nearly complete list of all heteronyms in English contains less than 100 words.

How do you learn words with multiple meanings? Do you have any other advice for learning these tricky words? Leave a comment below!

Anonymous's picture

dlaczego Pan nienakręca juz vlogów ?

Posted by: Anonymous (not verified) | Saturday, September 24, 2011 - 05:54
David Snopek's picture

Bo w ogóle jestem strasznie zajęty z pracą! Przypadkiem dzisiaj nagram vlog ale opublikuję go we wtorek. :-)

Posted by: David Snopek | Saturday, September 24, 2011 - 06:21
Anonymous's picture

Cytuję:
"
Bo w ogóle jestem strasznie zajęty z pracą! Przypadkiem dzisiaj nagram vlog ale opublikuję go we wtorek. :-)"

powinno być pracą, nie trzeba dodawać "z"
przed "ale", jest przecinek (zawsze przed "ale" stawiamy przecinek)

Pozdrawiam :)))

PS. Serial "Czas honoru" wspomniany kiedyś przeze mnie będzie emitowany za granicą jako "Days of honor"

Posted by: noname (not verified) | Sunday, September 25, 2011 - 14:52
David Snopek's picture

Dziękuję bardzo za poprawki i informacje o tym serialu. :-) Niestety nie miałem czasu oglądać go przez internet kiedy był darmowy ale mam nadzieję, że znowu będzie szansa!

Pozdrawiam,
David.

Posted by: David Snopek | Sunday, September 25, 2011 - 15:01
Anonymous's picture

Bardzo przydatne porady. Zawsze uczyłam się "złym" sposobem i się wkurzałam, że nie pamiętam wszystkiego. Twoja metoda wydaje się sensowniejsza:)

__PS Czytam True Blood i nie mam żadnych problemów ze zrozumieniem kontentu. Pojedyncze słowa tylko sprawiają trudności i nie mobilizuje to do wypisywania ich w programie. Czy jeśli się rozumie z kontekstu, to jest sens wypisywać słowa? Jak myślisz?

Posted by: Citta di Venezia (not verified) | Monday, September 26, 2011 - 03:53
David Snopek's picture

No, to zależy. Sam często nie dodaję słów, które rozumiem z kontekstu ale zwykle zapominam takie słowo właśnie potem, i żałuję, że nie zapisywałem go w programie. :-) Ale jeśli spotykam to same słowo parę jeszcze razy w tej książce lub w kolejnym, no, to działa prawie tak samo jak z programem tylko naturalnie.

Więc jeśli bardzo dużo czytasz, ten program nie jest całkiem konieczny ale pomaga z słowami trochę rzadziej spotykane. Z programem masz gwarancję, że nie zapomnisz. :-)

Pozdrawiam,
David.

Posted by: David Snopek | Monday, September 26, 2011 - 06:13
Anonymous's picture

Masz rację, przezorny zawsze ubezpieczony :)
Dzięki wielkie za odpowiedź:)

PS. Jak idzie nauka polskiego? Co teraz czytasz? Pozdrawiam:)

Posted by: Citta di Venezia (not verified) | Tuesday, September 27, 2011 - 04:45
David Snopek's picture

W chwili obecnej prawie nie idzie niestety. :-/ Jestem tak zajęty z pracą, że nie mam czasu na czytanie. Ale ponad miesiąc temu czytałem Quo Vadis. Wkrótce będę miał tydzień wolny z pracy. Będę tylko czytać, spotykać się z znajomymi, odpoczywać... Będzie fajnie! :-)

Pozdrawiam serdecznie,
David.

Posted by: David Snopek | Thursday, September 29, 2011 - 21:41
Anonymous's picture

What dictionary do you use? I don't know anyone which contains the sound /ɛ/. Everyone uses only /e/.

Posted by: Piotr PLrc (not verified) | Sunday, October 2, 2011 - 08:13
David Snopek's picture

I use a number of different dictionaries! But I always use IPA for pronunciation. You might be using dictionaries that use a different respelling system.

For example:
http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/content

They show [kon-tent] which is some other respelling, but if you click "Show IPA" you get /ˈkɒntɛnt/.

The Wiktionary shows SAMPA and IPA:
http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/content#Pronunciation

And, of course, BiblioBird, the dictionary I'm compiling, also uses IPA. ;-)

Hope that helps!

Regards,
David.

Posted by: David Snopek | Sunday, October 2, 2011 - 08:49

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