Increasing your vocabulary Reply

A student came up to me the other day and exclaimed frustratingly: “I need more vocabulary! I can’t speak” I could feel his frustration as his threw up his hands in desperation, his feelings of discouragement electrifying the air and contaminating the positive atmosphere in the class that I was trying to develop (Yes we can!!), but my only Pavlovian reflex was to hand him a dictionary and tell him to start reading it. Certainly not the way a serious teacher wants to react.

After regaining my composure and I began to explain to him and the others how to learn vocabulary and more importantly how to retain it. Of course as with every other skill that we try to acquire whether physical or mental the simplest rule to follow is to practice, practice, practice! The more we practice speaking and listening to a language (as with any sport or musical endeavor), the more the words become reflexes which remain on the tip of our tongue or in the forefront of our cerebral cortex (or for those of you who are curious, you can google French neurologist Paul Broca’s and Carl Wernicke’s research into the speech areas of the brain and Pinker’s thesis supporting a language module in the brain thought to be the perisylvian area of the left hemispheric cortex…). Well we can try to understand the mechanisms of learning a language before and after puberty (the cut off age for using both the left and right side of our brains in stereo…a far easier task than depending only on one side of our brain as we have to do when we reach “adulthood”), but it doesn’t really give us practical advice about how to accomplish our linguistic goals, does it?. Well my dear students and my cyber friends, here are 12 practical tips that I’ve gathered over the years for acquiring new vocabulary and for improving our speaking and listening skills (2 skills required for participating in a conversation). If you can think of others, please share them with us!:

  1. LISTEN AND REPEAT: Listen to anything and everything and try to repeat out loud what you hear (in the car when you’re alone!). Combine pleasure with learning. Listen to subjects you’re interested in (sports, music, cooking, web technology, literature, etc.) and try to tune into people speaking spontaneously and using natural speech (not scripted like in the news or in movies). This will enable you to understand people in everyday situations and from all walks of life.
  2. ANALYZE BODY LANGUAGE AND CULTURAL CODES: While listening to people speak, try to analyze their body language and gestures to better understand their cultural codes and how English speakers interact with one another (some psychologists say that up to 93% of communication is non-verbal; check out psychologist Kevin Hogan’s webpage: The Secrets of Reading Body Language). Remember…we communicate with far more than our utterances…eyes, facial expressions, posture, hand gestures, all contribute to communicate our thoughts and ideas.
  3. BE INQUISITIVE: Don’t hesitate to ask questions or to make people repeat what they’ve just said (when face to face). When having a conversation when someone, try to second guess them…that is to say…try to think of some words to enhance what they are saying…and say them out loud. Remember having a conversation with someone is a two way street or like playing a game of volleyball…you say something and then they say something…and before hitting the ball over the net you can always toss the ball to someone else to allow them to help you express what you’re trying to say.
  4. USE A DICTIONARY OR TRANSLATOR: Bring along a pocket dictionary or pocket electronic translator (Franklin Electronic Dictionary is excellent) wherever you go. Try to describe mentally your surroundings thinking of the exact words to designate objects, people, emotions, etc. This mental exercise will limber up your brain enabling it to find words more easily when you need them. Keep a dictionary on your lap when you’re watching TV and look up words and expressions as you hear them. Write them down for future reference. Use online dictionaries to practice saying words out loud (The Webster online dictionary is excellent for this purpose: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/).
  5. MEMORY TOOLS: Use mnemonic techniques or memory tricks (graphics, sounds and rhymes, smells, tastes, touch, movements and feelings), to encode difficult to remember words, names (I remember how to say Ahmadinejad by thinking of the phrase: “I’m a dinner jacket”…ok…not so elegant but it works!) and expressions associating a word or expression with one of your senses. Remember the old adage: “Use it or lose it” so utilize all of your resources!
  6. READ: This is an excellent way to practice and learn new vocabulary and new expressions. Reading comic books and novels is also an excellent way to learn how people really express themselves in different situations. Try to guess new words from their context and look up in a dictionary or translator every 4th word. Try not to look up every word as it becomes quickly fastidious and tiring and your brain will quickly become saturated putting you at risk of a mental crash!
  7. LEARN WORD FAMILIES: When you learn a new word, try to think of all the words deriving from it (nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc.).
  8. TEST YOUR VOCABULARY: Do crossword puzzles, play scrabble, Boggle, etc. to test your capacity to use your new words. The Franklin Electronic Dictionary includes a lot of built in word games and on the internet there are literally thousands.
  9. REACH OUT: Get over your shyness and grab every opportunity to talk to native speakers. Go up to someone who is from an English-speaking country and introduce yourself. Offer help in French (or other languages) for conversation practice. This will not only help you with your conversational skills, but help you learn more about Anglosaxon culture and build up your social network!

10.   USE THE WEB AND HI-TECH REMOTE LISTENING DEVICES: The world wide web is full of forums (go to English Chat Forums or Live Chat Forums)where people can chat live or converse with other people learning English. There are also vast resources for listening to English in every shape or form and in every subject imaginable (go to live radio. net, choose a station, and off you go to discover a new world and language). Google video search is excellent for this and don’t forget about world radio stations for “working” on your English while you go about your daily tasks. Audio and video remote devices (speakers or internet radio) are excellent for listening to internet radio while doing other things around your home. Ipods or Iphones also are great for listening to English while on the go. Just download a podcast or video file and go for it!

11.  BE KIND ON YOURSELF: Allow yourself to make mistakes and remember…everyone makes mistakes (even native speakers) and the only way you can perfect your language is to speak and to be corrected. So…come out of your shell and start talking!

12.  PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE: Remember learning a language is a lifelong undertaking. We learn new words everyday either in our own language or in a foreign language and remember, language is never static just like people. We are forever changing and evolving. So…don’t stand on the sidelines or sit in the dugout (baseball term)…get out and jump on the world’s band wagon! Don’t let life pass you by!

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