How to build a better English vocabulary

How to build a better English vocabulary
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First Published: Thu, Apr 08 2010. 09 26 PM IST

Updated: Thu, Apr 08 2010. 09 26 PM IST
During my visits to Mumbai in the 1980s, I used to see advertisements on the walls on either side of the track, inviting people to learn English speaking. In the years since, teaching English has become a major industry in our country, as it has in China and Japan. There are established brand names and slogans that most of us are familiar with.
“It Pays to Increase Your Word Power” is the title of a well-known quiz series in Reader’s Digest. Speakeasy, English Guru and Fluentzy are other associated names. There are books with titles such as Word Power Made Easy and Thirty Days to a Powerful Vocabulary. Many young men at entry-level jobs seek to improve their English, motivated by the prospect of doing well in tests such as the US’ Graduate Record Examination (GRE) and the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL).
In discussing the English vocabulary, there are some basic questions we need to answer. First, what is a word? If I know the word set, for which my dictionary gives five meanings, do I know five words or one word? The Oxford English Dictionary lists 47 senses for set.
Secondly, what does knowing a word mean? If you know that pusillanimous means timid, garrulous means talkative and ignominious means dishonourable, do you really know the words? Words do not exist in a vacuum: they are a part of a bigger entity, and their meaning is often determined by context and collocation, by the occasion when they are used and by other words with which they are associated.
Each user of English has two layers of vocabulary. These are called active and passive vocabularies. Your passive vocabulary comprises words that you understand as you listen or read. Those words which you are able to use in your own speech and writing make up your active vocabulary. This distinction is widely accepted, and should console those who fear that their vocabulary is limited.
How many words should you learn? One study has pointed out that if you know 2,000 words of the highest frequency, you can cover 80% of the text you are reading. This statement is rather simplistic, as a major part of these 2,000 words will be prepositions, conjunctions, articles and other grammatical words, the bones of the language as distinct from the flesh. A study by David Crystal suggests that a college graduate might have an active vocabulary of 60,000 words. Earlier estimates had placed the figure at 20,000-25,000 for a graduate.
An attempt to prune the enormous size of the English vocabulary came from Michael West, who prepared the General Service List. His concern was with English teaching. His list consists of 2,000 high-frequency words and was adopted by writers of textbooks, and influenced the teaching of English in India, where West propounded his teaching ideas.
In any case, it would be unwise to deny ourselves the advantages of possessing such a rich, luxuriant, vibrant vocabulary as that of English. A GRE word list contains Latinate words like effrontery, sequester, supererogatory, verisimilitude and vituperative.
Vocabulary acquisition is not a daunting task. Systematic effort can give you a good command of the vocabulary. Here are some tips.
Reading and listening come first as means of familiarizing yourself with new words. Words that are often repeated become part of your passive vocabulary. When you start using them, they become part of your active vocabulary. Do not try to learn words that belong to abstruse subjects unrelated to your interests. There are too many specialized words around and you don’t really need them.
You can write the words in a small notebook or on cards, and study the list as often as you can. Write the word, its meaning and an example phrase or sentence. For example, vitriolic—bitter—vitriolic criticism.
Learn words in context or in association with other words. Here is an example from the thematic vocabulary builder in the Oxford Paperback Dictionary: Four: quadrilateral, quadruped, quadruplet, and quadrant. For every word you learn, try to gather a few other words that occur in the same context.
A productive method of learning words is to link them to their Greek or Latin roots. A common example is the root aud (hear). This root is found in audible, auditorium, audition and audience. If you have terr (land) as a root, you find related words like terrestrial, subterranean and territory. Likewise, prefixes and suffixes can lead you to the meanings of words. Bene means good; we get words like benefit, beneficent, benefactor, benevolent.
The dictionary is an indispensable resource for those who want to expand their vocabulary. The Internet offers abundant dictionary resources, and you can keep a dictionary of your choice on the desktop for easy access. Quizzes, crossword puzzles and games on the computer can make your exercise interesting.
When you have found a word to add to your vocabulary, put it to work, use it in your own contexts, and find associations for the word. Learning new words without putting them to use in your communication will be a pointless exercise.
V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.
Comments can be sent to plainspeaking@livemint.com
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First Published: Thu, Apr 08 2010. 09 26 PM IST