Guest post by Anne Sawyer
Language is our most-used and best communication tool. We begin using rudimentary words as infants and toddlers to get our needs met, often changing bottle to baba or water to wawa, as we gain linguistic control. As we grow older, it becomes more and more important to be able to articulate clearly what we want to express – whether it be to teach, give directions or instructions, to express emotions, or for gain – to flatter or bargain. Human beings are social animals and we yearn to connect with other humans, to understand them and to be understood.
Why is it important to have a good/strong vocabulary?
We are judged not just on the external cues, such as appearance, age, gender and race, but also by other categories, including education, social position and what we do for a living. The ability to move fluidly between social strata and turn situations to our advantage has a great deal to do with context, and how we speak, because this is one of the crucial ways in which we present ourselves. Just as you wouldn’t choose to wear a wedding gown to a job interview, or a bathing suit to the beach, you would be wise not to speak to your boss in the same ways and language that you use with your four-year-old child. Each situation demands different language choices, and the greater your vocabulary the more choices you have. Just as we want our doctor or our automobile mechanic to answer our questions in “layman’s terms”, there are times when it is necessary to skew ones word choices to the situation at hand.
How can one tell if one’s vocabulary is inadequate?
The New York Times can serve as a good litmus test. If you find that you are reading an article or novel and come across so many unfamiliar words that you lose track of the story, that’s one sign. When I was younger and came across a word that I did not know, rather than looking it up in the dictionary, I would just skip it, thinking that it wasn’t important. Of course that led to my missing important plot points on many occasions.
If, in social situations or at work, you find that you are hesitant to join the conversation because you don’t follow all the words that the people around you are using, or you hesitate because you are afraid of appearing stupid, that’s a sign.
If you find that you use the same words over and over to express yourself, words like “wow”, “yeah”, “awesome” and “like” – and you’re not a 13 year-old, then you may need to bolster your vocabulary.
What if you know words, but are hesitant to use them in conversation?
In a case like that, it would be helpful to look the word up in the dictionary, consult the definition, examples and pronunciation given, and begin to insert the word into conversation. Start with a new word each week or every few days, and don’t use it to impress people, but when the word truly serves to express exactly what you mean. For example, a word that you hear all the time, but probably don’t use often is “ubiquitous” which means omnipresent or “present everywhere” – not like God or oxygen, but as in cellular phones or handheld palm devices.
What are some tricks to improving vocabulary?
If you really want to improve your vocabulary then you need to become very aware of language. Listen for new words when you are out in the world or when watching television. Write them down when you can and later, look them up in a good dictionary. You can try to infer the meaning of the word from the context in which it is used, or the conversation around it.
Reading is the number one way to improve vocabulary. I recommend fiction – novels and short stories, as well as journalism – major newspapers, magazines that include fiction selections, such as The New Yorker, …. And make note of unfamiliar words so you can look them up.
If the situation is appropriate, such as with a friend or colleague in private conversation, then don’t hesitate to ask the person for the meaning of an unfamiliar word they have used. Even I have developed the ability to just ask – there are so many words in our language, that there’s always a new one just around the corner.
Other ways to improve are to engage in word related activities – such as playing Scrabble, doing the crossword puzzle in the newspaper, buying a Word of the Day calendar, subscribing to an online vocabulary booster, reading books of puns and jokes and then telling them to others.