If you want to be a great communicator, do you need to have a great vocabulary?
You might be surprised to learn that a really big vocabulary is not necessary in order to express yourself clearly and to move others with your words.
Some of the most dramatic messages that have ever been uttered in the English language actually used very simple words to stir the blood, or touch the heart.
Look at any well-known passage in the Bible. Chances are that the passage does not rely on sophisticated words to create its power.
Think of Lincoln’s Gettysberg Address. Although President Lincoln spoke in a style that is very different from the way we usually speak today, his words still have the power to move us deeply with their clarity and their deep emotion. During the darkest days of World War II, Winston Churchill’s rousing speeches to the British people used very simple, common, powerful words to successfully ignite the courage and determination of his people.
So if it’s possible to communicate effectively without using a lot of very big words, why should we bother to try to expand our vocabulary? The reason is that learning new words expands our understanding and improves our “mental muscles”. Every new word we learn entices our mind to stretch into new areas.
When we have a larger bank of words to draw on, we improve our ability to think and express ourselves. Our thinking will become more fluid and supple, and we will understand more of the world around us and within us, when we have a larger vocabulary. In the modern world the ability to use words effectively is often highly rewarded.
The English language has an enormous number of words, perhaps more than half a million of them. Most people however, use a vocabulary of just a few thousand common words on a daily basis. It is possible to get by in the English language with a limited number of words, but you expand your options as you expand your vocabulary. When you understand very few words, you are limited in your ability to learn new information.
If you want to increase your vocabulary, there are many approaches you can use. One good way is to read books or articles that are slightly more difficult than what you are accustomed to. When you come across a word you don’t know, see if you can figure out its meaning from the context. Look at the way the word is made up, with its letters and syllables. Does it remind you of any words you already know? What parts of it are familiar?
Many words in the English language are made up of common roots they share with other words. You may be able to deduce the meaning of the new word from the way the syllables are put together and the way it is used. You should consult a dictionary to be sure.
If you come across a word you don’t understand during the course of a lecture or a conversation, you can ask someone to explain the meaning of the word. Many people are reluctant to do this because they are afraid of exposing their ignorance by asking.
It is occasionally true that other people may choose to look down on you if you confess that you don’t understand a certain word. On the other hand, they may be happy to teach you something new. If you decide you don’t want to ask anyone else for the meaning of words you don’t know, be sure to make a note of those new words and look them up later.
Should you try to learn new words directly from a dictionary? It depends on your learning style and your preference. Some people will become bored very quickly while reading a dictionary, while others will find it fascinating.
All dictionaries are not alike, and you may find a certain version far more useful than the rest. Good dictionaries will do more than just give a definition of a word. Some will show you an example of the word used in a sentence. Often they will show you alternate spellings, and give the plural forms of nouns and the past tense of verbs. Most dictionaries will show you correct pronunciation. Some will tell you the historical derivation of the word. Many English words have their roots in ancient Anglo-Saxon, French, or German.
Language is always evolving and new words are being created every day. New words can come from technology, from scientific discoveries, from other languages, from pop culture, and from the streets.
When learning new vocabulary, you can better integrate it into your brain if you actively involve yourself in the learning process.
When you encounter a new word, write out a definition of it in your own words, and write one or more sentences using the new word in context. Visualize the word in its printed form. Say the word out loud, and spell it out loud. Say a sentence out loud that uses the new word. Make up an image in your mind that will help you remember the word. If you make the image funny or bizarre, you will probably remember it better.
To improve your use of language and your ability to think, practice summarizing the theme of an entire article or book using just one or two paragraphs. After you have read an article or book, try writing out two different versions summarizing your ideas. Do one version using very simple, everyday words. Make it as clear and simple as you possibly can while still maintaining accuracy. Do another version that uses very complex sentences and advanced vocabulary, like you imagine a university professor might write.
This will give your brain a good work-out and increase your verbal and mental flexibility.
If you are committed to expanding your vocabulary, how many new words should you try to learn in a day? It’s up to you. Just two new words a day will add up to more than 7000 words in ten years. Ten words a day would add 36,000 words in ten years.
Once you have learned a lot of new words, should you work them into your conversation every chance you get? The kind of vocabulary you use should always be appropriate to the context in which you are writing or speaking. For example, if you are speaking to a group of high school dropouts you may want to use different words than if you are speaking to a group of scientists.
Don’t use an impressive vocabulary merely as a means of showing off, always using big words when small ones would do. People can often intuitively feel when you are using fancy words merely for effect, and not because you need them to communicate.
But if your new vocabulary really has become a part of you and has a useful place in your writing and conversation, by all means, go ahead and use it!