July 29, 2021 , by Dr Julian Northbrook

The answer to both questions is: stop focusing on words and grammar.

The big difference between people who are intermediate in English and people who are advanced (and beyond) is that they’ve learned to CHUNK their English well, and this has little to do with grammar.

For example: “take a picture” and “make a picture” are both grammatical – but only one sounds natural; “thanks very much” is ungrammatical, but every native speaker says it.

So studying grammar isn’t enough, or even the best way to do it.

Same if you keep forgetting your words — it’s because you’re trying to remember words, but you should be learning “chunks” of words.

Linguist John Rupert Firth said:

“You shall know a word by the company it keeps.”

And this is true.

What it means is, to really understand a wordーits true meaning, nuance and useーyou’ve got to understand how it combines with other words. Words rarely appear alone. And indeed, native speakers aren’t, for the most part, speaking using grammar rules and individual words like you were taught.

Rather, as I said, we speak using ‘chunks’.

We used to think native speakers had grammar rules in their head, and that they combined these with words to make sentences… but this never made much sense. Speaking like this, we shouldn’t be able to speak fluently because the brain’s RAM (working memory) simply isn’t that good. Using grammar and words, we’d speak slowly and awkwardly (like most non-native speakers who have learned to speak in this way). Also, we shouldn’t sound natural simply because most “grammatical” English isn’t natural (again, “make a picture” is grammatical — but only, “take a picture is natural”).

Native speakers speak in chunks. And if you also want to speak in an advanced, native-like way, that’s how you need to speak, too.

The easiest way to do this is to learn in chunks right from the beginning.

And I have a free training here that will show you how to do that.

Julian Northbrook

Filed Under: Learning Vocabulary
July 8, 2021 , by Dr Julian Northbrook

First of all, I don’t recommend making vocabulary your “primary” focus. This depends on your goal, but for most people, it won’t help that much.

Here’s an extract:

If your goal is to speak well in a conversation in general, you’re better off focusing on larger blocks of English or “chunks”, because these are what will help you sound fluent and natural when you speak.

I won’t bother talking too much about chunking here, but if you’re interested I’ve got a free training course that teaches about this (go here).

This said, if your goal is to get good at a very specific topic, then yes, you might need to focus on vocabulary.

For example, say you need to buy some bike parts or accessories in a bike shop. You’re not going to be able to talk about all this if you don’t know the specific language (e.g. “pannier”, “chainstay”, etc.).

So the point is, vocabulary learning is definitely better done in specific topics.

Now, as for the how to:

Whether you’re learning chunks for conversation or specific vocabulary, the best way is to learn from context. Find high-quality samples of English (whether good materials that someone has designed for English learners or “real” English) and learn what you see (this is often called “data-driven learning” – i.e. learning from real data and mimicking that, rather than learning from lists and trying to create sentences yourself). Avoid memorising from lists, as this is pretty much useless for actually remembering what you learned.

As well as chunking, there’s a section in the free training I mentioned about what the best materials to use are (and what to avoid).

Hope that helps.

Dr Julian Northbrook

December 27, 2020 , by Dr Julian Northbrook

Is Vocabulary an Indicator of Intelligence?

Generally speaking, yes.

But at the same time, no, not really.

It’s a good indicator of education. Which of course, goes hand in hand with intelligence.

Intelligent people tend to read more.

And people who read more are naturally going to know more words… and be more intelligent because they learn more from reading.

Make sense?

The thing is tough, when it comes to speaking or writing, what’s important is how succinctly and clearly you express yourself.

A big mistake a lot of people make–native speakers included–is thinking that big, clever-sounding words are intrinsically more intelligent sounding. They’re not. And a sure-fire way to make yourself look pretty silly is by using them where it isn’t appropriate. Or worse, in an incorrect way.

Daniel Oppenheimer of the University of Princeton researched this and found the most intelligent sounding essays were ones that used simple vocabulary. It showed confidence and made the good ideas stand out.

The people who tried to use clever words in order to make their work sound more intelligent, on the other hand, just confused their reader. And often, it seemed like these people were actually trying to hide the fact they had nothing interesting (or intelligent) to say.

So yes and no…

While it is true intelligent people do tend to have better vocabularies…

… correlation doesn’t equal causation.

What matters is how effectively you use the words, phrases and expressions you know.

And that’s what we focus on in MEFA:


Dr Julian Northbrook

Filed Under: Learning Vocabulary
December 15, 2020 , by Dr Julian Northbrook

This is a question that came up recently:

Is it useful to learn vocabulary (only words) in English instead of phrases? How can I easily remember these when I start to speak?

So this is two very different questions, and they have contradictory answers.

Yes, it’s always “useful” to learn vocabulary.

All words are used somewhere, after all. But that doesn’t mean that memorising lists of words will be the best thing for improving your English proficiency (it almost definitely won’t be).

Once you hit the intermediate level, just learning more vocabulary won’t do much (or anything) for your fluency. In fact, it might make it worse. Learning random vocabulary also won’t do much for your naturalness — in fact, it might make it worse.

The point is, if your goal is to speak more fluently and naturally, no just learning more and more (only) words won’t help much and there are much better things you can do.

More: memorising only words is the worst way to “easily remember” them.

The reason is the same as why it won’t help build fluency and naturalness much — with few exceptions, we don’t speak in individual words.

We speak in “chunks” of language (and yes, phrases are a kind “chunk”).

Human memory isn’t designed to learn random individual bits of information and remember it — it’s designed to build information into a network, with every bit connected to something else. There are many ways I help my clients do this, but the quickest and simplest is to learn English in context, not from lists, and learn in larger blocks of English (phrases and chunks) and not in tiny bits (words).


You get the idea.

If you’re stuck with your English and not moving forward, things like “just learn more words” really aren’t going to help you much.

I can show you a better way, but it’ll be a shit-ton of work and my time is very expensive. So it’s only for people who see real value in better English.

If that’s you?

MEFA enrolment will open for January 2021 on Dec 24th.

This is normally the fastest-filling month of the year and if you want a place I advise you to add yourself to the waiting list:


Julian Northbrook