(This post comes from my experience of adding 5,000+ words to my active vocabulary, the one you can actually use when speaking and writing.)
Don’t you get impressed when a news anchor or other proficient speaker uses just the perfect word, and not a long-winded explanation, to describe a situation without a pause?
Those apt words are a result of a large active vocabulary.
We’ll learn more on what active vocabulary is later in the post, but in short it means vocabulary you can actually use when speaking and writing, the holy grail of any vocabulary-building exercise. If you introspect, you’ll realize that although you can understand lots of words when reading or listening (also called passive vocabulary), you can use only a minuscule fraction of that in speaking and writing (also called active vocabulary).
This post focuses on, first, building active vocabulary and, second, making this process efficient by building on words you already know – passive vocabulary – thereby making for faster progress.
Let’s start with few examples of what apt or ‘just the perfect word’ means. (You may take this as a test.)
Not the best response.
A better word is ‘emptied’. Even ‘dumped’ is great.
‘Is your dog dangerous?’
‘Does your dog attack?’
Both are fair descriptions, but a better question would be: ‘Does your dog bite?’
If you notice, these words – empty, dump, pluck, and bite – are simple. We can easily understand them while reading and listening, but rarely use them in speech or writing.
Does it sound familiar?
Why vocabulary is important?
Have you come across a person pause far too often, fumbling for the right word for what s/he has in mind? It’s in mind, but the person can’t find the word for it.
That’s the result of inadequate vocabulary.
It can speed-break your speech, and, worse, dent your confidence.
A less extreme, more common, inconspicuous situation is where you don’t pause often, but you use imprecise words, long-winding explanations to drive your message. Example:
‘The bridge was destroyed (or broken) by the flooded river.’
‘The bridge was washed away by the flooded river.’
Both will convey the message, but the latter will stand you out.
Little wonder, studies point to a correlation between strength of vocabulary and professional success. (Though there are plenty of studies linking professional success with fluency in English overall, I haven’t come across one linking it with any other component – grammar and pronunciation, for example – of English language.)
Earl Nightingale, a renowned self-help expert and author, in his 20-year study of college graduates found:
Without a single exception, those who had scored highest on the vocabulary test given in college, were in the top income group, while those who had scored the lowest were in the bottom income group.
He also refers to a study by Johnson O’Connor, an American educator and researcher, who gave vocabulary tests to executive and supervisory personnel in 39 large manufacturing companies. According to this study:
Presidents and vice presidents averaged 236 out of a possible 272 points; managers averaged 168; superintendents, 140; foremen, 114; floor bosses, 86. In virtually every case, vocabulary correlated with executive level and income.
Can this be a motivation for you?
If you need more convincing, read this:
Because active and passive vocabulary have been referred several times in this post, let’s understand the difference between the two before getting into the thick of things.
Active vs. passive vocabulary
Earlier, I referred to the words ‘dump’ and ‘pluck’. You’ll probably understand the meaning of these words when reading, but, if you’re like most, you don’t use them in your speech or writing. You likely don’t even use far simpler words such as ‘claim’, at least in your speech.
However, you use words such as ‘eat’, ‘sell’, ‘drink’, ‘see’ and ‘cook’ quite regularly.
The former list of words – dump, pluck, and claim – forms passive vocabulary. Through reading and listening over the years, you’ve gathered words in your vocabulary that you can understand, but they don’t flow into your speech or writing. That’s passive vocabulary.
In contrast, words in your active vocabulary – eat, sell, drink, see, and cook – flow into your speech and writing effortlessly, without pause.
Many mistakenly believe that they’ve strong vocabulary because they can understand most words when reading and listening. But the real magic, the real use of vocabulary is when you use it in speech and writing. When you evaluate your vocabulary against this benchmark, your confidence in your vocabulary will likely be shaken.
(Note: while the proportion of the two inner circles – active and passive vocabulary – bears some resemblance to reality, the outer rectangle is not proportionate because of paucity of space. In reality, the outer rectangle is much bigger, representing hundreds of thousands of words.)
There are plenty of words, almost inexhaustible, sitting underutilized in your passive vocabulary. Wouldn’t it be awesome if you could move some – or most – of them to your active vocabulary? That would be easier too because you don’t have to learn them from scratch. You already understand their meaning and usage, at least some. That’s like plucking – to use the word we’ve already overused – low hanging fruits.
Some of you may wonder, though: “Is my passive vocabulary sizeable enough for me to just shift some of the words to my active vocabulary and not worry about hunting new words?”
Your passive vocabulary will, of course, depend on how much reading and listening you’ve accumulated over the years. Unless it’s too low, your passive vocabulary is large enough for you to scout just few completely new words occasionally (blue region in the image above).
A word of caution here. When picking new words, don’t get seduced by difficulty (or rather rarity in day-to-day use) of the word. Use of such words doesn’t make you look smart. It makes your communication incomprehensible and it shows lack of empathy on your part. So avoid learning words such as ‘soliloquy’ and ‘twerking’. And certainly avoid ‘cetaceans’ as a replacement for ‘dolphins and whales’. The more the word is used in common parlance, the better it is. (The only exception to this I can think of is if you’re prepping such words for a test.)
Let’s dive into the tactics now.
How I added more than 5,000+ words to my active vocabulary?
(Note: To provide an illustration of some of the words that have now entered my active vocabulary, I’ve highlighted these words in red font in step 1. I could understand these words earlier, but not use.)
1. Get words, preferably passive
I started building my vocabulary list by noting down passive words – and occasional new words – I came across during my reading and listening. (My passive vocabulary was strong, but active was average. Those with limited passive vocabulary may have to list somewhat higher proportion of new words, but even then your list will be dominated by passive words.)
Once I had 20-25 words on the list, I would check the meaning, and equally important the usage in the form of examples, of each word on dictionary.com and copy-paste them on a word document. Thereafter, I would take a print and go through it few times over the next few months.
Few months after I started this exercise, one fine day the proverbial light bulb lit when I realized that I had started using some of these words in my speech as well as writing. (Although I had started using the words some time back, the trickle by now had become a thin, noticeable stream.) Buoyed by the green shoots, I became more deliberate about improving my vocabulary. In the next few weeks, I streamlined the process:
So far, I was getting few words per week through reading and listening. I decided to up this. I dusted off my Collins Cobuild English Language Dictionary and started noting down words alphabetically directly from there, all the while making sure they belonged to my passive vocabulary.
However, I didn’t stop my earlier practice of drawing words from reading and listening. But this now formed a minuscule (under 10 percent) proportion of the total volume.
Some of you may get spooked at this stage imagining the ocean of words this exercise would result in. It was voluminous, no doubt, but – as you’ll see later in the post – manageable over several months. And some of you may be surprised that I’ll finish – the exercise is still underway – the entire dictionary with only 6,000+ words although a dictionary typically has hundreds of thousands of words. (Oxford English Dictionary, for example, contains 170,000 words.) This is because I’m covering key passive words, and that’s what is required. If you do this exercise, you too will end up with a similar number.
Shifting just few thousand words from passive to active vocabulary can lift your communication skills to a higher pedestal. (Communication skills, of course, depend on number of factors, vocabulary being one of the strong ones.)
Let’s call this master page.
Let’s call this list page.
2. Go through few words every day
I go through 12-13, looking at their meaning and usage, followed by a quick 60-second review to cap. This takes 15-20 minutes. If you want to be regular at it, fix a particular part of the day when you take this up. (I cover one list page – see last image – in three days, and each such page accommodates 37 words. That’s the reason for 12-13 words a day. However, you don’t need such pace. As you’ll see toward the end of this post, even if you ace a word a day, you’ll be better than most people around you in the medium term.)
A tip here: make use of usage beyond just understanding how a word is used in sentences. To get more out of it, also look at how grammar, punctuation, and other words and phrases have been used in those sentences. You can even mark anything that attracts your attention on the print.
3. Review yesterday’s work from the list page within a day
Within a day of learning the day’s work – 12-13 words – I review them. Here is what I do to get the maximum bang for the buck (I’ll explain why this works in a short while):
I carry the list page (unlike master page, this one has only words) with me and whenever I get time I look at a particular word and recall its meaning (sometimes it could be more than one) and as many sentences (usage, in other words) as possible containing that word. I aim for at least five usages. Sometimes, I come up with just two. Sometimes, seven or eight.
These usages aren’t necessarily the same that I copied in the master page. But because I’ve understood the meaning and have seen few usages in the master page, I can generate my own. Let your imagination run wild when thinking of these. Let few of them sound silly. Doesn’t matter. Not always possible, but wherever you can, try to come up with few usages that you’ve seen, heard, or experienced yourself. Nothing like anchoring what you’ve learnt to real-world experiences to consolidate the meaning and usage of a word.
I complete this first review of 12-13 words in 10-odd minutes, and this time comes entirely from time-wasters such as commute and waiting time. That’s why I carry the list page with me.
If I get stuck at one or two usages, I give up only after giving a fair amount of thinking.
In the evening, I do a quick check with the master page to see if I missed any meaning or a particular type of usage. (Each list page – 37 words – has approximately five corresponding master pages. Because of the bulk I don’t carry master pages, and refer to them in the evening.)
(If you notice, the two sets of pages act as flashcards. The list page provides cues and the master page contains the answer.)
In the initial months, I used to come up with usages containing only the word I looked at in the list page. But later on, as my vocabulary swelled, I started using multiple words in the same usage. For example, I used two words in one usage here: He had unfettered access to the powers that be.
4. Continue spaced repetition
I review the same set of words the same way few more times – after a week, a month, and three months. These repetitions, along with the first one within a day, constitutes what we call spaced repetition, the best way to embed anything to your long-term memory. In short, this process helps you retain stuff in your brain for long. You can use it even in your academics. I’ve used spaced repetition in variety of scenarios and have found it to work beautifully. You may learn more on this topic here:
Next up are three vocabulary activities I practice to consolidate the vocabulary I’ve learnt and, more importantly, make it easier to actually use in written and verbal communication. That’s why you’re acing vocabulary, right? To use in speech and writing. There are no prizes for building lists that you can’t use.
Blachowicz, Fisher, Ogle, and Watts-Taffe, in their paper, point out this yawning gap between knowing the meaning of words and using them in sentences:
Research suggests that students are able to select correct definitions for unknown words from a dictionary, but they have difficulty then using these words in production tasks such as writing sentences using the new words.
It’s even more difficult in verbal communication where, unlike writing, you don’t have the luxury of time.
The Holy Grail for application of vocabulary is to use it in verbal communication where you’ve to come up with an appropriate word in split second. The following three vocabulary exercises will prepare you for this goal.
5. Vocabulary exercise I: Create thematic webs
When reviewing from the list page, I also occasionally think of other words related to a particular word. Web of words on a particular theme, in short, and hence the name ‘thematic web’. These are few lists I’ve actually come up in my reviews:
(Note: where there is a string of words, the main word has been underlined. And, the theme for each group has been mentioned in the square bracket.)
If I see the word ‘gourmet’ in my list page, I’ll also quickly recall all the words related with food: tea strainer, kitchen cabinet, sink, dish cloth, wipe dishes, rinse utensils, immerse beans in water, simmer, steam, gourmet food, sprinkle salt, spread butter, smear butter, sauté, toss vegetables, and garnish the sweet dish [Food]
Prognosis, recuperate, frail, pass away, resting place, supplemental air, excruciating pain, and salubrious [Health]
Showy, gaudy, extravaganza, over the top, ostentatious, and grandstanding [Showing off]
Suave, urbane, rustic, debonair, polished, ill at ease, charismatic, give a good account of yourself, and personable [Impression you create]
Restive, expectant, hysteria, swoon, resounding welcome, rapturous, jeer, and cheer [Crowd behavior]
Deluge, cats and dogs, downpour, cloudburst, heavens opened, started pouring, submerged, embankment, inundate, waterlogged, soaked to the skin, take shelter, run for a cover, torrent, and thunderbolt [Rainfall]
Sleepless, restless, roll over, toss and turn, roll out, and insomnia [Sleep]
(If you notice, words in a particular theme are much wider in sweep than just synonyms.)
However, in the beginning, when you’re still adding to your active vocabulary in tons, you’ll struggle to go beyond 2-3 words when thinking out such thematic lists. That’s absolutely fine. But try thinking out such webs even if your words are simple and few.
Alternatively, you can take a slightly more advanced route and make full sentences on a theme. An example from the rainfall theme:
‘It rained cats and dogs (or poured) inundating (or water-logging) the city. The water eventually receded, leaving thick sludge behind.’
Why thematic web, though?
Because that’s how we recall words when speaking or writing. (If you flip through Word Power Made Easy, a popular book on improving vocabulary by Norman Lewis, you’ll realize that its each chapter represents a particular idea, something similar to a theme.) Besides, building a web also quickly jogs you through more words.
6. Vocabulary exercise II: Describe what you see around
In a commute or other time-waster, I look around and speak softly an apt word in a split second for whatever I see. Few examples:
If I see grass on the roadside, I say ‘verdant’ or ‘luxurious’.
If I see a vehicle stopping by the roadside, I say ‘pull over’.
If I see a vehicle speeding away from other vehicles, I say ‘pull away’.
If I see a person carrying a load on the road side, I say ‘lug’ and ‘pavement’.
Key is to come up with these words in a flash. Go for speed, not accuracy. (You’ll have similar reaction time when speaking.) If you can’t think of an appropriate word for what you see instantaneously – and there will be plenty in the beginning – skip it.
This vocabulary exercise also serves an unintended, though important, objective of curbing the tendency to first think in the native language and then translating into English as you speak. This happens because the spontaneity in coming up with words forces you to think directly in English. You may learn more on how to control thinking in native language and other strategies to improve your spoken English here:
Last, you can also use this exercise to assess the level of your current vocabulary (for spoken English). If you struggle to come up with words for too many things/ situations, you’ve job on your hands.
7. Vocabulary exercise III: Focus on one object/ person
Another freestyle vocabulary exercise I practice during time-wasters is to focus on a single person and describe her/ his actions, as they unfold, for few minutes. An example:
“He is skimming Facebook on his phone. OK, he is done with it. Now, he is taking out his earphones. He has plugged them into his phone, and now he is watching some video. He is watching and watching. There is something funny there in that video, which makes him giggle. Simultaneously, he is adjusting the bag slung across his shoulder.”
The underlined words are few of the new additions to my active vocabulary I used on the fly when focusing on this person.
Feel free to improvise and modify this process to suit your unique conditions, keeping in mind the fundamentals such as spaced repetition, utilizing the time you waste, and putting what you’re learning to use (exercises in step 5, 6, and 7 are three of the ways).
Why I learnt English vocabulary this way?
For few reasons:
Covering mainly passive vocabulary has made sure that I’m building on what I already know, which makes for faster progress.
Learning vocabulary in significant volume is a challenge. Bigger challenge is to retain what you’re learning. But the biggest is to recall an apt word in split second while speaking. Spaced repetition and exercises described in step 5, 6, and 7 precisely prepared me for this real-world test. That’s what you want, right? Use the vocabulary you’re learning in your speech and writing.
Looking at just a word and recalling its meaning and coming up with rapid-fire examples where that word can be used introduced elements of deliberate practice, the fastest way to build neural connection and hence any skill. Exercises in step 5, 6, and 7 too do the same. For the uninitiated, deliberate practice is the way top performers in any field practice. You may learn more on this here:
We learnt ways to improve active vocabulary, but what about the traditional way of learning words from the context while reading and listening.
Learning vocabulary just from context is inefficient
Most of us learn vocabulary unobtrusively from reading and listening by figuring out what a particular word means in the context of other words and sentences around that word.
This definitely works, but is this the best way to build vocabulary, especially active vocabulary?
To quote Blachowicz, Fisher, Ogle, and Watts-Taffe from their paper (referenced earlier):
Consider learning from context. Although there is research indicating that exposure to new words in written contexts results in some development of general vocabulary, it is difficult to predict what words can be learned through an examination of the context. Context does not always reveal meaning; indeed, it is sometimes misleading.
Even the meaning may not always be clear. (To give an example of this, till recently I thought ‘square meal’ means two meals a day.) We’re not even talking of more certain misses such as multiple meanings and usages many words have, which can best – and more efficiently – be skimmed by pouring through those multiple meanings and variety of precise sentences containing that word.
In his book Word Power Made Easy, Norman Lewis laments the tortoise-like rate of vocabulary-building among adults:
Educational testing indicates that children of ten who have grown up in families in which English is the native language have recognition vocabularies of over twenty thousand words. And that these same ten-year-olds have been learning new words at a rate of many hundreds a year since the age of four. In astonishing contrast, studies show that adults who are no longer attending school increase their vocabularies at a pace slower than twenty-five to fifty words annually [emphasis mine].
Adults improve English vocabulary at an astonishingly meagre rate of 25-50 words per annum. (Many are surprised when you tell them that they’ve small vocabulary. “But I read all the time,” they say. They’ve large passive vocabulary, but not active.)
And how do most improve vocabulary? Learning words in context through reading and listening. You need to take a step further. You need to explore words further in a dictionary. Know precise meaning. Other meanings too. And, equally important, see few sentences where the word has been used.
Don’t ignore these when building your vocabulary
1. Simple words
You wouldn’t usually bother to include words such as ‘slip’, ‘give’, and ‘move’ in your list because you think you know them inside out, after all you’ve been using them regularly for ages.
I also thought so… until I explored few of them.
I found that majority of simple words have few common usages we rarely use. Use of simple words for such common usages will stand your communication skills out on count of simplicity.
Most use the word in the meaning (b) and (c), but if use the word for meaning (e) to (h) – which BTW is common – you’ll impress people.
Most use the word ‘unmanned’ with a moving object such as an aircraft or a drone, but how about using it with an iPod (see (b) above).
2. Phrasal verbs and idioms
We use more phrasal verbs in spoken English than in written. Our conversations are full of them:
“I went to the airport to see my friend off.”
“He could see through my carefully-crafted ruse.”
“I took off my coat.”
“The new captain took over the reins of the company on June 25.”
Unfortunately, you can’t predict the meaning of a phrasal verb from the main verb. For example, it’s hard to guess the meaning of ‘take over’ or ‘take off’ from ‘take’. You’ve to learn each phrasal verb separately. However, you’ll be fine focusing on just the common ones.
What about idioms?
I don’t have the exact number, but my list of 5,000+ words would contain around 15 percent phrasal verbs and idioms.
3. Commonly used nouns
One of my goals while building vocabulary has been to learn what to call commonly used objects (or nouns).
It is used to filter tea.
Answer: Tea strainer.
You would sound far more impressive when you say, “My tea strainer has turned blackish because of months of filtering tea.”
Than when you say, “The implement that filters tea has turned blackish because of months of filtering tea.”
What do you say?
‘Should I follow what you did?’
You shouldn’t… not at this scale – 37 words every three days – at least.
Accumulating such large volume of vocabulary at a high quality – and that’s more important – wasn’t breeze for me, but, to be honest, was easy. But still you’re highly unlikely to pull this off at this scale.
Even if you follow the process I outlined earlier in this post for a word a day, you’ll be ahead of 99.99 percent of people in the medium term. (Remember, most adults add just 25-50 words a year to their vocabulary. So a word a day will make you 10x faster, which is humongous.)
And even if you want to achieve more than a word a day, start small. Start at a word a day. Streamline process, build habit, and then expand.
A practical approach is to note down words you come across in your daily reading and listening. Ideally, the words you note down should be:
Commonly-used words and
Those you don’t use in your writing and speech.
‘Does my brain have enough capacity to store so much information?’
Some mistakenly believe that they can’t retain so many words along with their meaning and multiple usages because their brains have limited memory space.
According to some estimates, human brain has memory storage capacity close to 2.5 petabytes (or a million GB). If your brain worked like a digital video recorder in a television, this storage capacity will be good enough to store 3 million hours (or approximately 300 years) of TV shows.
That’s infinite for all practical purposes.
You’re not going to run out of memory space in your life time.
My progress so far
Few months into this, I observed I had started using some of these words in my writing as well speech. This was real bottom-line, real success, which propelled me to a path that was more deliberate, efficient, and scientific – the one you’ve read in this post. (This is akin to scaling up after a pilot has worked.)
So in mid-2016, I started with the first page of my Collins Cobuild English Language Dictionary, noting down words sitting in my passive vocabulary. Most of them were simple, commonly-used words that I hadn’t been using in writing or speech. In the remaining half of the year, I covered nearly 1,200 words, taking the total for the year to 1,574 words.
Somehow, the momentum got lost in January and February 2017 when I could barely complete twenty words. I came back on track from the beginning of March, and since have continued my breakneck speed of 37 words every three days without diluting my process. It’s not that I didn’t miss a single day in the last nine months. I have, may be on 3-4 occasions. But each time I bridged the gap the very next day. (Quick tip: if you’ve to make up for a lost day in any pursuit, spread the work over two sessions – one morning, one evening – and not finish in one. You’ll retain better this way. It’s similar to feeling bloated if you eat too much in one sitting after a fast.)
At my current pace, I’ll finish 2017 at 3,900+ words, taking the tally to nearly 5,500 words (adding 2016 numbers). After this, I’ll be left with another 1,200+ words to go, which I’ll finish in the first half of 2018. Imagine, the entire dictionary will be done, and this will be at a quality that enables me to use these words. And most of this was accomplished in times that otherwise are wasted. (Words will flow into this list even after completing this first bout, but that will be a trickle, like it has already happened to my pronunciation list.)
This exercise is an example of achieving much more than you expect if you do something day in and day out over a reasonable period of time. You may read more on this here:
More than 10 words a day in detail for over a year is, no doubt, arduous… but it wasn’t for me.
As mentioned earlier, I tasted success at the beginning of my journey – I started using the words in my speech and writing. Success toward a meaningful goal is the fastest way to build passion for something, and I was no exception. (I’ve experienced this multiple times and if you take a hard look in the rearview mirror about things you’re motivated about, you’ll find a similar underlying story.) And if you develop passion for something, the effort into it looks effortless
Building sound vocabulary is probably the hardest part in improving communication skills, and for precisely this reason strong vocabulary can be a differentiator over others. This and the fact that I’ll use it for the rest of my life were strong motivators for me to undertake this mammoth exercise.
I’ll end with a brief reference to the UIDAI project that is providing unique biometric ID to every Indian. This project, launched in 2009, has so far issued a unique ID (popularly called Aadhaar card) to more than 1.1 billion people. The project faced many teething problems and has been a one big grind for the implementers. But once this massive data of billion + people was collected, so many obstinate, long-standing problems are being eased using this data, which otherwise would’ve been difficult to pull off. It has enabled faster delivery of scores of government and private services, checked duplication on many fronts, and brought in more transparency in financial and other transactions, denting parallel economy. There are many more. And many more are being conceived on top of this data.
At some level, vocabulary is somewhat similar. It’ll take effort, but once you’ve sizable active vocabulary, it’ll strengthen the most challenging part of communication. And because it takes some doing, it’s not easy for others to catch up.