How good is your vocabulary? | Sunday Observer

How good is your vocabulary?

Success in any field of activity goes hand in hand with the number of words you know. That is a truism but some people do not pay any attention to it. In fact vocabulary building remains a pleasurable activity during the period we educate ourselves. It takes a back seat when we are happily ensconced in some kind of profession. Most professionals, including teachers, make no attempt to expand their vocabulary thinking that what they know is sufficient for survival.

Recent research shows that if you have a good vocabulary, you do better in every area than others. Fortunately, vocabulary is not something beyond your capacity. It can be learned and enriched with constant practice. A serious student of English can read Johnson O’Connor’s Vocabulary Builder which lists difficult words and explains them vividly. On the other hand, WordMaster is intended essentially for learners of English at the middle, secondary and upper secondary levels. It can also serve as a general work of reference for professionals. Traditionally, a dictionary has been regarded as a reference book which is consulted only when the need arises. However, WordMaster has been designed as a kind of vade mecum which can be carried in your brief case.

Almost all of us have what might be called an inbuilt ‘wordfinder’ facility as part of our mental and psychological make-up. Often we come across unfamiliar words and wonder what they mean. Sometimes we do not know how to pronounce or spell them. This is a natural process any language learner will come across. For them the ideal book to read will be Adrian Room’s Dictionary of Word Origins or John Ayto’s Oxford School Dictionary of Word Origins. These books explain the meanings of new words, invented words and shortened words.

Different subjects

Apart from such dictionaries, you have to read books on different subjects, magazines and newspapers looking up the meanings of every unfamiliar word. I have the practice of copying them in a separate notebook to refresh my memory. If you do such activities regularly, your vocabulary rating will be doubled from the 23rd to the 56th percentile. However, this is still below average for professionals.

The close relationship of vocabulary was established by Johnson O’Connor, a slender man with a Vandyke beard and a vast word-hoard. He was the founder of the Human Engineering Laboratories. He discovered almost by accident that vice presidents of leading business organizations such as Eastman Kodak, General Motors, and General Electric showed a wide knowledge of words than other professionals including university professors, lawyers and doctors. Through constant research he found that they had a highly developed vocabulary. At the same time, he observed that musicians’ vocabulary was poor but composers and conductors were verbally competent.

You might wonder why vocabulary is so vital. This is because the words are the instruments with which we grasp the thoughts of others and do our own thinking. Through reading, listening, speaking and writing we develop our vocabulary. If you have a good vocabulary, you will be able to communicate with greater subtlety and precision than an average person. There are many jobs you cannot handle with a poor vocabulary.

Natural way

The million dollar question is how to improve your vocabulary effectively. The most natural way is to widen your interests. This is something most people do not do. They stick to their subjects and do not make an attempt to learn something new. Learning should not be confined to a few subjects. Even a scientist or doctor can learn literature or music depending on their aptitude. The average youngster six to 10 years old is curious about everything. He asks thousands of questions and learns more than 5,000 new words a year. But an average adult does not do so because his curiosity is satisfied on many subjects. His mind would remain resigned to ignorance on other subjects. As a result, he does not learn more than 150 new words a year. However, if an adult is interested in politics, economics, philosophy or psychology, he can enrich his vocabulary with the language of the new subjects.

A standard dictionary is the primary source of learning new words and their meanings. Although we cannot commit a whole dictionary to memory, constant reference to it will make you remember a large number of words. However, such learning should be done in a pleasurable way. As O’Connor puts it, “What’s learned with pleasure is learned full measure.” According to him, there is no difference between vocabulary you get by bone-hard work and one which some people seem to have come by effortlessly.

Michael McCarthy and Felicity O’Dell in Test Your English Vocabulary in Use, say, “Research has shown that you need to meet a word at least seven times before you know it properly.” That means we have to update our vocabulary continuously. There are many ways to do so. The easiest way is to maintain a notebook in which you can write down all the difficult and new words. Copy the words and write the dictionary meaning against them. The next step is to find a sentence which has used the particular word. Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary gives model sentences. In order to remember the word, you have to use it in your writing. Another way to improve your vocabulary is to do crossword puzzles found in many English newspapers. While mostly elderly people do crossword puzzles, they are not popular with the younger generation.

Vocabulary tests

The Reader’s Digest is perhaps the only international magazine which has been publishing vocabulary tests with exhaustive explanations about the words listed. Most readers collect them and learn the new words enriching their vocabulary. Test Your English Vocabulary in Use is another useful book to improve your vocabulary.

The world is in a sad state of affairs. Overwhelming social and environmental crises aside, let’s turn to the trauma that is being inflicted on the language. Mrs Malaprop and her cousins run rampant through our streets, speaking with no regard for proper context or rules of usage. Their mistakes are not always amusing. Common English is full of nonsensical constructions. Have you ever been offered a ‘free gift’ or been asked to ‘reserve ahead’? Well, what kind of a gift isn’t free and how can anyone reserve behind? Such usage is thoughtless and sloppy but most people use them. Those who are trying to grapple with vocabulary should be aware of such pitfalls.

As you go on building your vocabulary, pause for a moment to know the distinction between some words. For instance, people write ‘use’ or ‘utilize’ indiscriminately. Even a university college president once wondered whether to write ‘using resources’ or ‘utilizing resources’. Any standard dictionary would say ‘utilize’ means ‘to put to use for a specific purpose or to make practical, productive or worthwhile use of something not obviously intended for the job.’ On the other hand, ‘use’ is ‘to put into action or service.’ You can say, ‘The teachers used the display to teach long division.’

Vocabulary building cannot be done in a hurry. You have to spend a long time, may be some years, nay decades to enrich your vocabulary. When you become a master of words, you will find everything you need at your feet!

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