The Lexical Approach – How to Study a Language Fast!

How to Study a Language Fast & Effectively - The Lexical Approach (
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The lexical Approach is a great way to study a language fast. It has gained popularity in the English teaching world with the construction of large corpus such as COBUILD and the Bank of English.

The Lexical Approach started with Michael Lewis and his publication of ‘The Lexical Approach – The state of ELT and the way forward’ in 1993. Michael Lewis further wrote about the Lexical Approach by writing other books or chapters such as:

  • Implementing the lexical approach: Putting theory into practice (1997)
  • Pedagogical implications of the lexical approach. In J. Coady & T. Huckin (Eds.), Second language vocabulary acquisition: A rationale for pedagogy (pp. 255-270) (1997)

In general, Michael Lewis advocated that instead of focusing on grammar learners of a language should focus on vocabulary (i.e. lexis).

Why focus on vocabulary?
Here are some reasons:

  1. Words often only collocate with (i.e. are used together with) some other words, not all possible words. For example, we say “have an accident” NOT “make an accident”. The word ‘have’ collocates with ‘an accident’, but ‘make’ does not.
  2. Grammar doesn’t always tell us everything we need to make a natural/correct sentence. e.g. Both “have an accident” and “make an accident” are grammatically correct, but only “have an accident” is a phrase that is used by native speakers.
  3. It is easier to learn chunks of lexis, rather than vocabulary one at a time. Some examples of these chunks of lexis are ‘by the way’, ‘up to now’, ‘upside down’, ‘If I were you’, ‘a long way off’, etc., etc.
  4. It is easier to learn collocations of words together, rather than try to piece them together through grammar rules. Some examples of collocations are ‘totally convinced’, ‘strong accent’, ‘terrible accident’, sounds exciting’, ‘brings good luck’, etc., etc.

Who should use the Lexical Approach in their language studies?

The lexical approach stresses the importance of lexis/vocabulary over only learning grammar. But here at, we take the ‘middle way’ approach and suggest that it’s important for you to learn the basics of grammar first (e.g. present tense, past tense, future tense, etc.). After you have learnt how to construct simple sentences, then you can move more into utilizing the lexical approach in your own language studies.

In other words, the lexical approach is a great method for those who are upper beginners and intermediates in their language studies. You already know the basic grammar rules for the past, present, and future tenses. You also know how to conjugate verbs and adjectives appropriately in your target language.

For upper beginners, intermediates and above the lexical approach can help you drastically improve your abilities in your target language. This is because instead of learning hundreds of words in isolation and then attempting to plug them into grammar, you learn how words work together in the first instance.

The Lexical Approach Helps Save You Time and Energy

The lexical approach helps save you time because you learn what native speakers actually say rather than what is only grammatically correct. This helps with words which have different meanings when used with different words (>> polysemy). For example, with tough we have many different meanings depending on which words it is used with:

  • “He’s had a tough time at work recently.” (= difficult)
  • Tough new laws on noise pollution.” (= severe)
  • “This meat’s very tough.” (= hard to chew)
  • “Children’s shoes have to be tough.” (= not easily damaged)
  • “He’s a tough guy.” (= physically strong and not afraid of violence)
  • “It can be tough on kids when parents get divorced.” (= unfair or unlucky)

This can be even worse in other languages. Take the example of 내다 in the Korean language. There are over 30 different meanings for this simple verb in the Korean language, depending on what other words 내다 is used with.

If you learn that 내다 only means “to submit (a document)” in a simple L1 to L2 list, you will be in for a world of hurt later down the track. The fact is that “내다” means “to submit (a document)” only when it used with certain other words. For example:

  • 리포트를 내다 (= submit a report)
  • 사표를 내다 (= submit a resignation)
  • 답안지를 내다 (= submit an answer sheet)

But if you use 내다 with hundreds of other words then 내다 will not mean ‘submit’, but in fact it will mean something entirely different. Here are just some examples (you can see all the other examples by clicking this link):

  • 길을 내다 (= make a new road)
  • 세금을 내다 (= pay one’s taxes)
  • 사무실을 내다 (= open an office)
  • 시험문제를 내다 (= make up questions for a test)
  • 화재를 내다 (= cause a fire)
  • 이번에는 제가 내죠 (= let me treat you)

And there are many many more different meanings of 내다 and 내다 is just one example. There are hundreds of other words that have polysemy (many diverse meanings) as well in the Korean language. Learning them all one at a time would be an extremely time-consuming and difficult process…

How to Study a Language More Efficiently

Traditional approaches to learning a language which only focus on learning grammar cause many problems for students.

You might know what the grammar rules of a language are. You might even be able to construct grammatically-correct sentences. However, if you don’t know how lexis / vocabulary joins together in naturally-sounding sentences, your language skills will always fall behind.

The Lexis Approach helps solve the problems associated with a curriculum focused only on grammar.

The Lexis Approach helps you study a language more efficiently because its main focus is vocabulary, word chunks, and how words collocate in naturally-sounding sentences which are actually spoken by native speakers.

Some of the advantages of using the Lexical Approach when learning a new language are:

  1. Learn the most common lexical chunks that are used by native speakers in their everyday conversations to speed up your language acquisition
  2. Make your spoken language sound more natural, without having to worry about every little bit of grammar in the sentences you produce
  3. Learn vocabulary in a more efficient and easy-to-remember way by learning word collocations together with each new word
  4. Learn the way native speakers really speak by getting massive exposure to real natural conversations in large and professionally gathered corpora
  5. And many, many more!

So what do you think? Do you want to supercharge your language-learning experience by using the Lexical Approach in your own language journey?

Then we are here to help!

Get started in the Korean Language by looking at our Korean Language Walkthrough here.

A.J. McMahon

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By A.J. McMahon

I write about chess and books on my blog at I love reading books - especially non-fiction books and science fiction books. I am also a really avid player of chess on

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