Vocabulary-Building: an ongoing process

How do I begin to increase my vocabulary?

Vocabulary-building is an ongoing process that continues throughout your life. But the rate at which you are learning new words now has slowed to a snail's pace compared to when you were first learning your native language. When you were younger, you learned new things day in and day out. You continually asked questions and drove yourself to learn more. For example:

- By the age of 4 you probably knew 5,600 words
- Bythe age of 5 you probably knew 9,600 words
- By the age of 6 you probably knew 14,700 words
- By the age of 7 you probably knew 21,200 words
- By the age of 8 you probably knew 26,300 words
- By the age of 9 you probably knew 29,300 words
- By the age of 10 you probably knew 34,300 words
- By college sophomore age you probably knew 120,000 words

What this tells you is that the more you learn, the more vocabulary you will know. No matter what your age, you must continue to learn. Words are symbols for ideas; you must learn new words to understand and to express new knowledge.

Some suggestions that may help you to build your vocabulary:

- Read. Read books for pleasure and magazines on topics that interest you. Read newspapers. The more you read, the more words you will come in contact with.
- Use new-found vocabulary in your everyday communication (writing, speaking) to cement its meaning in your memory.
- Become familiar with the glossary of your textbooks.
- Become familiar with the dictionary. Understand the pronunciation keys as well as why there are multiple meanings for words. Reading the etymology of words you look up (where they come from) may make it easier to remember their meanings. [As an example, look up the derivation of the word "panache" and see if that doesn't make it memorable. Some dictionaries, of course, will have more detailed etymology than others.*]
- Deliberately try to learn new words every day. Don't just try to memorize them—use them right away and repeatedly in order to get them fixed in your long-term memory.
- Play word games such as Scrabble, or do crossword puzzles while waiting in lines or at traffic lights.

If you don't like to read, chances are you haven't tried reading really interesting things just for pleasure. Make sure that you don't read only what and when assigned—you deserve to enjoy this process, as well as finding it useful.


* "Panache" may be defined as "dash or flamboyance in style and action." When you do something with panache, you are doing it particularly stylishly. It comes from the small scarf or other colorful cloth from his lady love that a medieval knight used to wear on his helmet when going into battle or entering the lists for competition. It is still used to describe, for example, the feather plume on a marching band uniform hat.

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