Students often ask for tips on expanding their vocabulary. Most of them have little difficulty when it comes to reading about topics they are already familiar with, but struggle with coming up with the right words when discussing an unfamiliar topic. Learning new words, or using the right ones, can be tricky.
Your mind as a garden
Each new word that enters your brain begins as a seed. It needs to take root, and requires nourishment to survive. Expanding your vocabulary is a lifetime process and largely depends on building habits and maintaining regular practice. Adding new words to your active vocabulary takes time so it’s better to start small and repeat often to ensure long-term success.
Quality over quantity
Reading is arguably one of the best means of grasping new vocabulary. Go beyond the traditional novel and try magazines, journals, and so forth. Make an effort to read things from different time periods and different geographic regions. If you read any book older than fifty years, even if its language is not considered elevated or educated, it will probably contain certain words that seem unusual. Reading one piece of writing on an unfamiliar topic could be more effective than reading ten novels on a topic you are regularly exposed to.
Active usage and repetition
Reading increases exposure to new words and makes it easier for words to stick. However reading itself does not guarantee a high vocabulary. It’s more important to be curious about words around you and to verify that you actually know their meanings. The more often a word is used, the longer it will endure. Engage in active repetition and usage; this is when you get to play with your new words and put them into context. Practice with a friend or a colleague, or even the shopkeeper at the corner store.
Keep track of new words
You need to keep track of new words you encounter while reading. It might seem like a lot of trouble, but it makes it easier to identify problem words. Writing them down forces you to move them into you active treasury of words. Most people aren’t bothered to look up the definition of a specific word while reading; they don’t want to interrupt their enjoyment. Instead, they might note the page number or circle that word and define its meaning later on using an English dictionary or thesaurus.
I always advise my students to keep a word list nearby, perhaps in a small notebook that they carry around with them or keep at their desk at work. Three words a day is a good number to aim for in a busy life. As you begin to track your new words, you will have the opportunity to recall other words that you had previously written down and test your memory. Try making connections and visual associations with other words to activate them in your memory. This will directly enrich and expand your vocabulary pool. And finally, try to have some fun with it. For example, knowing the meaning of the word ‘apricity’ might help you appreciate the warmth of the sun in cold weather even more!
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