In the age of predictive typing supported by machine learning and interpreting applications fuelled by adaptive algorithms people still want to learn languages. We carry (smart)devices on ourselves all the time, even to the bathroom or to bed. We can find the translation of nearly any word into many languages, and even into some less- or non-spoken ones. More and more complex sentences and texts can be translated with high accuracy, at whole-length. Copy, paste, click..That’s not a bad thing at all and I also use it in the everydays. But,
talking to people in their native tongue is something I very much enjoy; and from my own experience, besides the more obvious benefits of speaking another language than mine, I know that it does have an incredible effect on my understanding of the world, and the people within.
My mother tongue is Hungarian, with an estimated 13 million native speakers worldwide, an Indo-European language similarly to Germanic or Latin languages that has little to do with them. It’s like comparing an egg of a thrush to the one of a turtle. They are undoubtedly both eggs laid by an animal.
Although studying English has been a day-to-day task since the age of 5, from the moment I started to teach it, I’ve actually been studying it again, as well as my first language. I think learning is a never ending process, and beyond a point of understanding a language, a good vocabulary is key to enjoy speaking it, reading a good book or watching a movie.
Firstly, it is to mention that the two classic categories of vocabulary are the active and the passive. The former comprises all the words and expressions we would use with confidence while talking and the latter all those that we may understand correctly but wouldn’t use in everyday conversations.
In the article, 4 Things I did to improve my vocabulary, David Gleeson cleverly states:
‘Typically, when people say they want to improve their vocabulary, what they really mean is that they want to improve their active vocabulary; they want to expand their store of usable words.’
In the same post, he distinguishes two further categories of vocabulary, etymological and catachrestic. The whole piece can be found here: https://t.ly/lGWr
To arrive at the aim of this article, I’d like to share some routines, day by day habits and thoughts on improving (active) vocabulary.
As a big cliché it is, as true as well; practice makes the master. You have to do it every day, or at least on a regular basis; nevertheless, be persistent! Several apps offer the service of a word-a-day; a word (in-app) each day, with definition, and examples of using that word in a sentence.
However, I’ve often found these words less useful. Reading about or listening to something that I am interested in and using a dictionary to understand unknown words works better. Still, I do check the word of the day at dictionary.com (https://t.ly/irx8) and at spanishdict.com (https://t.ly/hjji).
When I arrived in the Netherlands (With intentions to stay for just a couple of months I settled down for nearly a decade.), my flatmate suggested that I read the news daily in Dutch to pick up some of the language. (I hadn’t been reading the news at all.) I’ve come to understand, it is a good option to build a vocabulary of everyday words, expressions and proverbs; also, it gives a good, up to date base for conversations with people anytime, anywhere..Perhaps go easy on straight politics.
TED Talks has a broad collection of short and movie length films, with a great variety of topics. https://t.ly/4KlG
One of the biggest barriers of language learning is that if you don’t use it you don’t really know it. It’s like biking or swimming. I used to take down simple sentences for myself, as a first step, but the best way to put your knowledge to the test is practice; talk to people. Having someone, a teacher or even a conversational partner to frequently talk to is essential.
Once we have a basic vocabulary, we are able to understand more and more elaborate notions and concepts. From that moment on, it is highly recommended to aim to comprehend within the language of our choice to learn.
I’ve found this a very effective way to broaden my active vocabulary. For instance, when I review the material before class, if there is a definition I am not certain about I look it up with synonyms, which also helps in a better understanding of the additional meaning(s) of a word. With the help of a good dictionary even the subtlest differences can be taken in. Obviously, when reading a book or watching a movie, you wouldn’t start to write down sentences, or look for synonyms. I used to take notes of unknown words while reading (it is a little less appealing while watching something). Then I would look them up together when I am done with a chapter or a page.
When writing an email or essay, I browse through the text to tackle using the same word too many times. First I always try to come up with a substitute, and if I can’t recall any, I can always open a thesaurus.
It is important to understand that similarly to Spanish, English is the (or an) official language of several countries, geographically scattered around the globe. And hence, it is spoken and used in various ways. There is a rather rich and diverse background behind idioms and usage of words throughout English speaking countries. The same word can carry a totally different (even opposing) meaning, depending on the context in which it is used. Try to read on the same current news topic by a British and a States news outlet, or listen to or watch various broadcasters. I am sure you will see or hear the difference.
The situational comedy show ‘The Office’ that had been made separately in both countries (UK first, then US) can be an entertaining example of such a comparison; using (English) subtitles might help. (Curious, I am about your preference.)
For some shows, there is even the choice between British or States English.
I’m not sure if it is true that people speak more than ever. I’d rather say, our voices can be heard farther than ever and vica-versa, we can hear thoughts from all over the world. We need to understand what someone says with its specific meaning to their location and/or vocation. Similarly to the former point, slang, urban and technical language is commonly used in the wide open these days. When I was a teenager (90s) and the internet was less than advanced (I remember that ISDN was a miracle..), it regularly took some time for me to understand what I had just heard, even though I had the lyrics of the song in my hands. I still have an English slang dictionary and a book titled ‘Anglicisms and Americanisms’ somewhere. Can’t stress enough, try to find the definition, avoid direct translation; it is slightly easier to do nowadays.
Furthermore, make an effort to use what you have just learnt. Send a Whapp or other message to a friend; writing on forums and talking to people online works just fine for me too.
The urbandictionary, https://t.ly/jAdx - for looking up slang and colloquial language.
The freedictionary, https://t.ly/j0gk - has an extensive library of idioms and proverbs.
The urbanthesaurus, https://t.ly/P5FX - for synonyms in slang and urban language.
When learning a language, I think the goal should be cultivating the skill of thinking in it. Getting familiar with dialects, specialised jargon and vernacular provides us with a comprehensive knowledge which supports the integration of all newly learnt things.
If you have a book or a poem you have already read in your own language, try to read it in English; pick classic (English) literature, or contemporary books.
I could say, read a lot (with a dictionary)..I know, I don’t have the time either.
Perhaps, one more (small) thing. I do use spell check, which shows the correct form if you click on the word, and you can opt for auto-correct. I just type in the right one myself; mostly, to be fair. I don’t know whether it helps; just a thought..
There are countless other pieces of advice to be taken out there, and it may be awhile until we find what suits us the best.
Keep your own pace, just keep on doing it.