How Can I Improve My Vocabulary?
Words in a Dictionary
Vocabulary and Language Proficiency
There is a direct correlation between vocabulary and language proficiency. The more vocabulary one can actively use, the easier and better it will be for you to express your ideas in both spoken and written English. Acquisition and use of vocabulary in all languages such as English are important for all speakers, but especially for the non-native learner who wants to advance from beginner to intermediate or advanced proficiency. This article first examines some facts about English language words, and then gives tips on how to improve your vocabulary.
English Language Facts
Did you know that English has the most number of words in any language in the world? Although the English language has over 600,000 words, the average educated person knows only 20,000 to varying degrees. Furthermore, the common person has a deep knowledge of merely 5,000-6,000 words. Did you also know that English is not one language, but a combination of German, French, and Latin? Finally, not many people are aware that the top five percent of wealthiest Americans are also the people who have the largest vocabularies.
Classes of Words in English
There are three classes of words in English: every day vernacular words borrowed from German; literary words which are French and Latin-based and from other languages; and specialized words used in the sciences, technology, and other academic disciplines. Let's take a look at examples of these three classes of words and where we acquire them.
1. Words Borrowed From German
English was originally only a dialect of German called Old English. Common daily concrete words in the spoken language such as a house, bread, school, sister, son, and water are Germanic-based and comprise 80 percent of a native speaker's speech. These are the first words learned by both native and non-native speakers of English, and they are acquired and reinforced through speaking.
2. Literary Words French and Latin Based and Acquired From Other Languages
French and Latin-based literary words are learned in school and from extensive reading. They are higher-order words which are used much more in writing than in speaking. They include words like telegraphic, calligraphy, macroscopic, intermediate, and coup d'etat. Also, there are words such as tsunami, ninja, and Fengshui which have been borrowed from Japanese and Chinese.
3. Specialized Words
Finally, English has several specialized words that are professionally oriented and seldom used outside of their academic discipline. They include words such as photosynthesis and protozoan from biology; the math words differential and integral calculus; and pedagogue and humanistic from education.
Steps to Improve Vocabulary
How Well Do I Know a Word?
Now that we have been introduced to the three classes of words, what does it mean when we say we know a word? According to American Scholar, an educational corporation in the United States, there are five levels of classification of knowing words as follows:
1. Level One - You Know the Word Exists but Have No Knowledge of Its Meaning
An example of a word with a level one classification would be onomatopoeia. Most people know this word exists, but they don't know whether it is a noun, verb, or adjective, or whether it has a negative or positive meaning.
2. Level Two - You've Seen The Word Before, Can Identify Its Part of Speech, but Can't Define It
The names of social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube would be level two words for many elderly persons who haven't used the computer or the Internet.
3. Level Three - You Have a General Sense of a Word, But Don't Have Deep Understanding
In a situation like this, you know whether a word has a good or bad connotation, but you can't define it. Examples of level three might be words referring to mental disorders such as dementia, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.
4. Level Four - You Can Define a Word, but Can't Use It in Speaking and Writing
For me, level four vocabulary would include words like subtle and fickle which I have just learned to define well but feel uncomfortable using in speaking and writing.
5. Level Five - You Understand Both the Literal and Figurative Meaning, and the Word Is Part of Your Working Vocabulary
If a person completely understands colloquialisms like: "It's off the beaten track," and "Can I bend your ear?" he or she has reached level five and can truly say they own a word or words.
How to Learn Literary And Specialized Vocabulary
If anyone wants to improve his or her vocabulary, it is necessary to learn and acquire literary and specialized vocabulary. This can be done in four basic ways.
1. Learn The Meaning of Latin and Greek-based Prefixes, Suffixes, and Root Words
One of the best things I did in school was to study Latin for two years in high school. With knowledge of Latin vocabulary, I was able to figure out a great number of literate words which have Latin-based prefixes, suffixes, and root words. For example, the word telegraph which means a device for sending messages across a distance is composed of the prefix tele which means from a distance, and graph meaning to write. Citing another example, the word microscope can be broken into two parts with Latin origins: micro and scope. Micro means very small, and scope means to see. By putting the two parts together, we can see that a microscope is a device for seeing small things. By putting together Greek-based prefixes, suffixes, and root words, you can also learn a lot of new vocabulary.
2. Listen to Lectures, Talk Shows, or Watch Films about Special Topics
I have never been able to learn new higher level vocabulary without first hearing it used in context, and then trying to use the new words in sentences. Rarely have I been able to remember and internalize new vocabulary by memorizing its definition in a dictionary or from other word lists. The best way to learn vocabulary, however, is by listening to lectures, talk shows, and watching films about special topics of interest. By doing this, you will learn how the new words are used in discussions.
3. Read about Special Topics of Interest in Newspapers, Magazines, and Books
If you have already heard and pronounced literary and specialized words, they will be much easier to comprehend and use in the written form. American newspapers such as the New York Times and Washington Post and a news magazine like Time have a wealth of literary and specialized terms on almost any topic of interest. Also, you can learn a lot of colloquialisms and figurative language by reading classic book authors like Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and Ernest Hemingway.
4. Actively Using New Vocabulary in Daily Speaking and Writing
To improve your vocabulary, you must actively practice using new words daily. I suggest the following for enhancing speaking and writing proficiency:
A. Limit New Words Related to the Same Social Situation or Topic to Five or Seven Per Day
For example, you might practice using five words all related to consumer economics on one day, and five words related to fashion the next day.
B. For Words with Multiple Meanings, Start with the Most Typical Use of the Word
Let's look at the word base. We can see the word base being used as a noun in the phrase "the base of the triangle." Also, we see base used as a verb in "to base the conclusion on." Finally, in the figurative language we see base used in expressions like "to touch base about something," or "You are off base about this." In teaching this word, I would begin with its meaning as a noun which is the most typical use of the word.
C. Learn Vocabulary in Contrasts
It is much easier to learn vocabulary when words are in contrast. For example, a collection of vocabulary words such as lounge chair, co-ed, building, vehicle, and giraffe will be integrated more quickly than a lion, tiger, panther, bobcat, and cheetah.
D. Segmenting Difficult Words into Smaller Chunks
Segmenting difficult words into smaller chunks makes them a lot easier to learn. If we look at the multi-syllabic words synonymous, hibernate, and intimidated, many students would be unclear about their correct pronunciation. By breaking these words into smaller units as sy-non-y-mous, hi-ber-nate, and in-tim-i-dat-ed, students won't be so intimidated to pronounce them.
It should be the goal of all language learners to improve their vocabulary. This can only be done by learning how to actively produce more literary and specialized vocabulary in speaking and writing as outlined above.
How to Increase Vocabulary
Improving Your Vocabulary
How do you think you can improve your vocabulary?
How to Improve Vocabulary
Hubs Related to Teaching and Learning Vocabulary
- How to Teach Vocabulary To ESL and EFL Students
Teaching vocabulary to ESL and EFL students can be a challenging task. Should it be done by pre-teaching vocabulary? This hub suggests an inductive approach as the best way to teach vocabulary.
- Homonyms, Homophones, and Homographs for ESL Students
The wise ESL and EFL teacher should spend extra time making sure that his or her students understand common words used as homonyms, homophones, and homographs. This can only be done through practice.
- Should We Use Translation When Teaching and Learning Vocabulary?
Teaching and learning vocabulary is one of the most important activities in EFL and ESL teaching. This hub points out the disadvantages of using translation, and suggests alternatives for learning vocabulary.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2013 Paul Richard Kuehn