‘I just need more vocabulary.’
This is a typical comment from English learners. The idea is that it is vocabulary holding them back from reaching fluency.
This may be true to an extent, but at that same time, it’s not totally accurate.
The right kind of vocabulary is important to becoming fluent in English. As is the importance of practicing a lot, as well as developing your other skills of comprehension, writing and reading.
But when it comes to focusing on vocabulary, there are definitely certain considerations that are important when looking to become more fluent in your English speaking.
Focus on developing active vocabulary
There are actually two types of vocabulary: passive vocabulary, and active vocabulary.
Passive vocabulary is the vocabulary that you understand when it is presented to you, either when you are listening or reading, and that which you understand.
Active vocabulary, on the other hand, consists of words that you would actually use when you are writing, and ultimately, when you are speaking (which is your smallest bank of vocabulary!). The same is true for both native English speakers and those who are learning the language.
Obviously, the key to improving your fluency is increasing the amount of active vocabulary you have, and that means a transfer of passive vocabulary into the category labeled ‘active’. The question is: how do you do this?
How to make vocabulary ‘active’
There is a useful well-known phrase to remember here: ‘If you don’t use it, you lose it!’
Quite simply, you need to use words – perhaps up to ten times – before you will actually retain that word for future use.
That means you have to find a practical way to apply the word that you want to become ‘active’.
The place to start is to make an example sentence using the word. But crucially, that example sentence must be something that is meaningful to you. Here’s an example using the word ‘precious’.
John had a precisions rock that he would show all his friends. – who is John? Why are you investing a sentence? This will give you no chance of retaining the word.
The possession that is most precious to me is a book my parents gave to me on my 5th birthday. – If this is true, then you have just made this word relevant to your life, and you have a much better chance of retaining it.
From here, you need to find ways to build the word into conversations that you have over the next few days. Explain to friends/colleagues etc. in advance that you will be doing this with your English – moving conversations in a direction that will help you practice the words that you are trying to move into your ‘active’ vocabulary bank.
But at the same time, you need to be very selective about the words that you want to retain and use.
The process of selecting the vocabulary to move into your ‘active’ vocabulary bank is very subjective: only you can decide, and you must be extremely selective as you do this. You may find a word interesting, but if you don’t think you will ever use it practically, then you should not waste your time with it. Prioritize the words that are the most relevant to you.
How can you decide if words are relevant?
That’s quite an easy thing to do:
1) Is the word useful for you? Is it relevant to your job / daily activities/hobbies / common topics of conversation?
2) Is it practical?
3) Have you heard the word more than once in use? The more often you have heard it, the more important that word becomes to learn!
4) Is it a word you would, under normal circumstances, have difficulty remembering?
If you answer ‘yes’ to any or all of the above questions, then that is a sure sign that this is a word that you need, and should then start using it in the ways previously explained.
Learn words that have great flexibility
‘stuff’ is a great word, because it represents more or less anything, but so many things at the same time. These vague words are really common in English. Other examples are ‘things’, ‘bits’, ‘others’ and so on. These words may not be precise, but they give you flexibility and an ‘out’ to finish your sentence.
Identify other words that are multi-functional, or expressions that allow you to communicate easily, such as ‘do you know what I mean?’ and ‘and so on’. Listen to how frequently native speakers use these kinds of words and expressions in order to facilitate smooth conversation.
Looking for precise words all the time just isn’t practical, or realistic, for you.
Some simple steps for learning vocabulary
· Be very selective
· Write words down
· Make relevant example sentences
· Say the words over and over and even record yourself saying them and listen back
· Explain to the people around you what you are trying to achieve and allow for these new words to be introduced.
And three more things:
1) Experience as much English as possible. Listen, read, watch and ask questions. Take it all in.
2) Focus on words that are relevant to particular activities. Make associations between words and actions.
3) Challenge yourself by speaking and learning about a diverse range of topics. Limited interests lead to a limited vocabulary.