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My level of English is at the C2-level (I have passed the Cambridge Proficiency in English exam, CPE, and according to https://www.cambridgeenglish.org/exams-and-tests/cefr/ that equals C2). Even though I don't live in an English speaking country I use English everyday at work, private, watching TV (with subtitles) and so on but this usage is usually on a quite basic level, simply because that is how one uses language in everyday settings.

However, I also read a lot of English at quite a bit higher level, e.g., The Economist, The New Yorker, academic papers and similar. And when doing so it is obvious English is not my native language. Even though I have no problems understanding what I read at a quite detailed level, there are still plenty of words that I only have a vague idea of their meaning.

Recently I therefore decided to do something about this - I started using the Anki flashcard system. Whenever I bump into a word I am unsure about the meaning of (or maybe I know the word but in another meaning, that doesn't make sense in this context) I add it to Anki and then once a week or so I look up the new words in a dictionary and add a translation. So far so good.

The problem is that the meaning of many of these new words is quite extensive (see the screenshot at the bottom for a translation of gather. Of course, I know that gather means assemble, come together but in the specific the context I read it it was the fourth meaning of it that was used, draw a conclusion.) which causes difficulties on many levels.

  1. It is hard to make Anki card. Gather has more than 10 different translations, just the word (Some of them clearly are related, while some are very different from the main meaning of gather.). Add to that a bunch of idioms or constructions.

A quick look tells me that I know about half of those more than 10 meaning. Of those 5-6 meanings, I could use half "actively" (e.g., use that meaning when I write or speak without thinking) while the other half is passive knowledge which I would understand when reading/listening but not use myself.

  1. When rehearsing, if I see a card that says gather I immediately come to think about the main meaning of gather and it is difficult to recall the secondary, tertiary or quaternary meanings since the primary meaning is so strongly imprinted in me.

  2. If I want to learn most of the meanings of gather I would need to create maybe 5 reversible cards (= 10 cards) in Anki. To separate them I need to add some hints but those hints often makes it too easy. On the other hand, creating one massive card with 5 meanings would mean that I almost always will fail that card because I only recall 3-4 of the translations.

  3. Many words are similar. These are some of the words I added in the last month:

    • conscientious
    • confound
    • conversely
    • congenial
    • concerted
    • contention
    • conviction
    • conciliatory
    • contemptible
    • compunction
    • conceivable
    • concession
    • compounded
    • commotion
    • convocation
    • countenance
    • concede

I guess you can appreciate that it is easy to mix up many of them...

For reference, I also study French at the B2-level and learning vocabulary at that level is much easier since it is almost always enough to learn the main translation of a word.

What are some good strategies to overcome the four problems listed above?

Footnote: a quick translation back to English of most of the meanings of gather my dictionary lists.

  • Come together
  • Collect
  • Harvest
  • get, gain
  • come to a conclusion
  • understand, realise
  • wrinkle, to wrinkle
  • lift up
  • sum up
  • grow in size
  • bad weather is incoming
  • a "ripe" boil
  • a swollen finger
  • something about sewing technique

Many translations of *gather*

2

Läsa mer och bruka engelsk-engelsk ordbok.

Read more

This one is quite simple. When you meet the word often, you start getting a feeling for what it means. Checking the words from dictionary is voluntary; understanding will come with time and practice, anyway. Read broadly and advanced material - older works, works in humanities, classics, and so on. No need to worry if you do not exactly understand what you are reading, as long as you are following the main points.

Monolingual dictionary

You are at a sufficient level to use a monolingual dictionary. It will also expose you to other words with a similar meaning, thus extending your vocabulary further.

Check etymology

Even though English has not figured out how to use compound words in a productive manner, they do use a fair amount of prefixes on their words. Many fancy words have their origins in Latin or Greek, possibly via French. Checking the etymology of the words often helps makes sense of the word, and can also indirectly benefit your French and maybe teach a word or two of Latin or Greek here and there. Maybe you'll even recognize some Swedish vocabulary with a shared origin.

Consider games and premade material

When I was young, there was a game online which offered English words and asked you to choose a synonym (probably https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freerice). The difficulty was adjusted according to your answers.

More modern games might be Clozemaster, which removes one word from each sentence and asks you to fill it based on translations of the sentence to another language. I do not the extent or presence of Swedish-English material there, but you can also go for French-English and English-French, or request a language combination.

Anki might also have premade decks for fancy English vocabulary. The nature of Anki is that you will see the material you know only rarely, while the difficult stuff will remain in circulation, as long as you remain honest while using it.

Consider Tatoeba

You can search for the word on Tatoeba. If you find it, there will be sentences where you see it used in context, often with translations to various languages, some of which you might know.

If the word is not found, you can (with a free account) add it to your vocabulary and hope someone adds relevant sentences.

Also, with an account, you can translate the sentences to Swedish. This has direct and indirect benefits:

  • You need to process the word more deeply when translating it and the sentence. This is more effective than simply seeing the definition(s).
  • If you check the word again on Tatoeba, you will be reminded of your own translations.
  • Tatoeba is CC-licensed and used by Clozemaster and the basis of several Anki decks, so this will improve the quality of learning materials in the longer run.
  • (Tatoeba is also occasionally used for research in computation linguistics and machine translation, so you are also helping research.)

Lykke till!

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