Easy ways to master a Great English Vocabulary

Posted: June 10, 2014 in Uncategorized

Words, of whichever language, tell stories. For example, when we come across the word ‘Vaalarivan’  in the Tirukkural, roughly meaning ‘He who is possessed of pure or perfect intelligence’, we understand what a great concept our ancients had about God and especially so as the very purpose of all learning is said to be the veneration of the feet of that Being of Pure Intelligence!  Though Indian spiritual striving conceives of the Ultimate Truth as beyond all words, for us little beings roving in the realm of the phenomenal, words are all we have. Our lives and our loves, and our triumphs and our tribulations are the stuff of words, pure and simple and perhaps the  not-so-pure and simple!

English is a particularly rich language when it comes to words, one of the main reasons being that it has had no hesitation on borrowing words from many sources. Take the word, Kingly, for example. While ‘Kingly’ (meaning like a king) is Anglo-Saxon,  we have ‘Royal’ from French, and ‘Regal’ from Latin giving the same meaning.  As the book, ‘English Vocabulary in Use’ says,  there are many such sets of words ‘which add greatly to our opportunities to express subtle shades of meaning at various levels of style’. While English has god’s plenty when it comes to words, it can also express itself directly using a few thousand words. The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (sixth edition of 2000) claims that its more than 80,000 references are defined using just

As a lifelong student of English, and a practitioner of both its written and spoken word, a somewhat larger-than-life vocabulary has been one of my strengths. I recall the tingling sensation I used to feel during my school days while coming across a new word in the morning newspaper every day, and the breathless excitement while rifling through the dictionary to find out what this new word might mean. And with this I come to the first step to a vibrant vocabulary.    

 1. Read, read and read….and underscore new words in red or blue or whatever colour of your liking and find out what they mean from a good dictionary. New words are like new faces you see or the names of people you meet anew, and if you don’t refresh your memory often enough they might fade into insignificance. So jog your memory often enough to keep the word vividly in focus.  Know more about the word, about its etymology (study of where a word came from and how it changed meaning) and its usage. Not only that. While getting to know one word intimately, one gets to learn about many other related words.

To illustrate, let me take the word ‘numerous’. The word is an adjective, meaning, ‘existing in large numbers’, and can be used as in the sentence, ‘He has been late on numerous occasions’. The Latin root word of  ‘numerous’ is ‘numer’ and means number and is found in ‘enumerate’,  ‘numerology’ and ‘innumerable’, the last word meaning too numerous to count.. The synonyms for innumerable would open up another rich cache of words: myriad, countless, infinite, multitudinous, numberless, incalculable and so on. When one has such a rich and colourful resource of words at one’s disposal, written or spoken speech not only reflects subtle suggestions of signification but also flows to effective cadences. Winston Churchill, who earned both applause and opprobrium with his stingingly effective speech – applause for his WW II speech that had ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat’ and opprobrium with his description of Gandhiji as a half naked fakir – was known to be master of a particularly expansive vocabulary though he mostly aroused passion by using simple, common and powerful words.

2. Learn how to pronounce words right. In the good old days when the classroom was king, one was taught the phonetic alphabet to learn the correct pronunciation as English does not have phonemic orthography, meaning that the words are not pronounced as they are spelt.. But of course there were dictionaries like Chambers which used pronunciation re-spelling to give the correct pronunciation of words. For example, pronunciation is spelt as prə-nun-see-ay-shən. But in the present age of the internet, we have free online talking dictionaries like howjsay.com and forvo.com. Even youtube has a pronunciation guide. So if you are ready, the world is at the click of  a mouse.

3. Use the words you have learnt anew with friends who know English well, so that they can correct you in case correction is needed.

Numerous, for example can first be thought of many noun phrases like numerous friends, numerous fans, numerous ways, numerous times, numerous mistakes….and then in prepositional phrases like in numerous ways, from numerous sources, towards numerous end, on numerous subjects, of numerous books and so on.

Easy sentences with the noun phrases can be used like, ‘He has numerous friends’/’She has numerous fans’/ ‘There are numerous ways’/ ‘He made mistakes numerous times’/’There are numerous mistakes in the book’/ ‘They get money from numerous sources’/’He looked at the problem from numerous standpoints’/ and so on. Later the grammatical structure of sentences using numerous can be thought of.

Mani (Subject) has (Verb) numerous stamps (object) in his collection.

He (S) has won (V) numerous medals (object) all round the world.

Numerous disputes (S) arose (V).

Numerous problems (S) delayed (V) the venture (O).

Such practices will not only improve the vocabulary of a person, but improve expressiveness.

Specialist books on Vocabulary building can be very helpful in developing interest in words. In my own case, Norman Lewis’s Thirty Day to Word Power catalysed a huge interest in words. I not only completely absorbed the entire book but also got on to reading dictionaries with the interest of novels because of Thirty Days. But of course, nothing great is built in thirty days, but cannot a great journey begin even in 30 seconds!

So the next golden rule is,

4. Latch on to a good book on Word Power. What good books on the subject do is making them come alive in many ways. One of the ways that is very useful to the reader is the way in which such books group words. Take for example the words which describe different human beings by the way in which they react to society and to themselves. An optimist looks at the bright side of things; the pessimist makes it a point to emphasise only the dark side The extrovert is one whose vision is oriented towards the external world and thus refers to one who cheerfully embraces the world while an introvert , who is one who looks inward, and thus is likely to shy away from company and be moody, removed and keep to him or her/self! (This is a Western judgement; in the Indian context, the sage who looks sufficiently inward is said to know the source of all living things and become their friend!). The egoist is one always says, ‘Myself first’ meaning that he or she is selfish and self-centred while an egotist knows only one subject, himself! This is the one string in their violin, the one tune of their song. An altruist is quite the opposite of suchlike personalities, being one who finds true happiness in giving to his fellow beings. A misanthrope hates human beings and cries out ‘Enge Manidhar Yaarum Illaiyo Ange Enakkoar Idam Vendum’ (Give me a haven where I can do without human contact). A misogynist despises women while a misogamist hates the institution of marriage. (The gamos in the last word refers to marriage and figures in words like monogamy, life with one wife, and polygamy, life with many wives). The ascetic is somebody who renounces social life and takes to a contemplative life of self-denial and calm. While we learn and reflect on these words, entire lives and attitudes to life roll before our eyes! Vocabulary gives voice to so many differing approaches to life!!

5. Writing down words in a neat textbook along with the translations in your native tongue helps a great deal in remembering new words. Handwriting is linked to tactile memory, and helps solidify newly-acquired information into your long-term memory. The idea is not to memorise the words but to write them down in a nice book and with a smooth pen in a pleasant ambience. 

6. Get revitalized through root power!  ‘Spec’, ‘spect’, ‘spi’, or ‘spic’ which are variations of a root word referring to ‘see’ing yield a whole crop of great words. A ‘spectacle’ is a great sight that you see (though you wouldn’t like to make a spectacle of yourself while doing so), and spectacles are glasses through which you see it! ‘Spectacular’ is breathtaking action that you see while a ‘spectre’ is an apparition, phantom or daunting scene that threatens. ‘Inspect’ is what you do when you over‘see’ something, and ‘prospect’ is what you hope to see in the future while ‘retrospect’ is seeing, looking back. A ‘restrospective’ of say,  director Mahendran’s films, consists of the films that you find he had made in the past. ‘Circumspect’ means careful because you see all round (the prefix cirum means around).  ‘Introspect’ means looking inwards while ‘spectrum’ is a broad sequence or range of related qualities like the range of colours that you see when light is refracted through a prism. ‘De-spi-cable’ is an act that stands out darkly and abominably, for all to see its dastardliness.

The Latin verb ‘vivo’ meaning to live and the noun ‘vita’ meaning life, give life to numerous English words.  ‘Vivacious’ people are full of life and joy, and their vivacity infects others too with the zest for life. Timely and imaginative action can ‘revive’ meaning put new life into the fortunes of a sinking enterprise leading to its  ‘revival’. A good writer is able to give  ‘vivid’ (lively) expression to such a process. Those who fight to win, never lose life or liveliness, for they ‘sur-vive’ at any cost because ‘survival’ is always of the fittest. .A ‘viable’ projects ‘viability’ consists in its capacity to survive and retain life. A ‘convivial’ (from the Latin convivium, living together) atmosphere fosters feasting, merriment and festivity, obviously things that make for social life. A ‘viand’ is an item of food and of course food is essential to foster life. ‘Vita’ brings in it train a host of formidable words like vitality, vital, revitalize and vitamin!

Of course one must have love for one’s enterprise of learning the foreign language of English, and what better way for one’s love and involvement to manifest itself than to give ear to the sounds of English. After all listening forms the first of the LSRW skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing! Our own Valluvar too lays much stress of listening – Kelvi he calls it, and swears by the importance of Sevichelvam, the wealth that accrues through good listening. So, to another golden key for the mastery of words.

7. Listen up to as much English as you can.  News Channels, documentaries, feature films anything can form grist to your mill here; anything that is not ‘putoffing’ and allows you to make sense of what’s going on. Not all English speakers even on television news channels speak with clarity; so don’t worry if some seem like Greek and Latin to you. Travel with those whose clarity cuts across to you. You can listen to the great anti-war speech of Charlie Chaplin in ‘The Great Dictator’, full as it is of the noblest sentiments.  Victor Jory’s narrative baritone in the stunning western film, Mackenna’s Gold, Russell Crowe’s introduction of himself to the Emperor in the 2000 film Gladiator,  and Paul Scofield playing Sir Thomas More in ‘Man for all Seasons’ can all bowl you over. Scofield especially, arguing with extraordinary eloquence for giving the Devil himself the benefit of law for ‘my own safety’s sake’, is unforgettable. The magnetism of  the spoken screen words of titanic actors like Charles Laughton (say, in Captain Kidd), Orson Welles (in the one and only Citizen Kane), Sir Lawrence Olivier and Sir Alec Guinness can be felt palpably. In the real world, Martin Luther King’s ‘I had a dream speech’ of 1963 still reverberates in the great halls of human memory. Thanks to the internet, you can make the most of such resources with great ease. And nothing of course is equal to the listening pleasure one gets from India’s own broadcaster Melville de Mellow, who gave a seven hour account of Gandhiji’s final journey on radio.

According to Howard Gardner of Harvard University, “The most important and highest paid intelligence in our society is social intelligence. This refers to the ability to communicate, persuade and handle people. Vocabulary plays a very important role in this. A person who speaks powerfully impresses everybody. Great orators command a vast vocabulary, and hence they can express their opinions in a way that can influence listeners”. Success therefore hangs on words. It should make sense to you that you should hang on to every word that you hear. Change your language, change your thoughts and change your future for the better. And don’t ever worry that your future mastery of English will dampen your enthusiasm for your mother tongue. If your heart is in its right place, you will in fact make your own tongue go places with your mastery of a foreign tongue. 

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