Learning Vocabulary the Fun Way

Books are wonderful, but they’re not the protagonists of this story. (But they can be.)

This summer, we met an ESL student (we’ll call him Bryan) who was renowned for his expansive vocabulary. Although he was timid to speak to us at first (he was self-conscious about his accent), once he learned that we shared his favorite avocation, he waxed lyrical about the way he learned difficult and obscure words. During a half-hour conversation, he used the following words with ease: esoteric, visage, avarice, audacity, efficacious, resplendent, litany, paragon, conflagration, and evocation. These words run the gamut of usage and context, but Bryan incorporated them smoothly into his sentences.

Where did this high school student, who openly admitted that he rarely (his euphemism for “never”) reads, encounter these words in the first place?

Bryan was as loath to study vocabulary flash cards as to peruse novels. He didn’t subscribe to a newspaper or a magazine. His friends weren’t prodigies whose parents were renowned lexicographers. He had never even heard of Scrabble.

His secret? He played close to a thousand hours of this popular game:

Yup. No joke.

For those of you who are not familiar with Blizzard Entertainment, it is the game developer responsible for the Starcraft and Warcraft franchises, not to mention the aforementioned Diablo trilogy. These notoriously addictive video games have even led to deaths, so it wasn’t surprising for us to learn that Bryan had “invested” countless hours into slaying rift bosses and mobs of demons. But while he was frantically alternating between left and right clicks on his Logitech G900 Chaos Spectrum, he was also paying attention to the odd names of gear, gems, and skills required to transmogrify (another term he learned through the game) his character into a redoubtable Nephalem.

These are just some of the words he encountered while burning the midnight oil playing the game:

A “conflagration” is a large fire.
“Esoteric” means “intended for or likely to be understood by only a small number of people with a specialized knowledge or interest.”
“Visage” is a person’s face or facial expression.
“Avarice” is a fancy word for “greed.”
“Resplendent” is another way of saying “magnificent,” “dazzling,” or “impressive.”
“Evocation” is the act of bringing or recalling a feeling, memory, or image.

Our friends at Elite Educational Institute, who specialize in test prep (and therefore know a thing or two about useful vocabulary) recently tweeted a flashcard for the word raiment:

Bryan never saw the tweet, but we are absolutely positive that he knows this word. How? To borrow another famous game developer’s motto, it’s in the game:

What separates Bryan from hundreds of other people who play countless hours of Diablo III: Reaper of Souls and yet don’t have impressive vocabularies is that he actually takes time out to look up the words he doesn’t know. Don’t get us wrong: he doesn’t literally pause the game in the middle of combat and consult Dictionary.com to find out what “raiment” means. Bryan does that during the countless breaks the game allows, e.g., while examining the legendary loot and gear he won in battle before deciding whether to keep or salvage them. Obviously, 99% of all people who play video games do so exclusively for entertainment, i.e., to have mindless fun. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t learn something while you’re raining a bombardment of burning pitch and stone onto hordes of Cuddle Bears. Having fun and learning aren’t mutually exclusive. Bryan is living proof of that.

At this point, some of you might be thinking “But what if I don’t play video games? Isn’t this article completely irrelevant to me?”

Not so fast. Some of you have probably read our article that similarly praised the usefulness of comic books in improving one’s vocabulary. Had Bryan spent hundreds of hours reading comic books instead of playing Diablo III, the same thing would have happened.

If you don’t play video games or read comic books, you’re still not lost. Do you watch movies or TV shows? Watch your heart out, but turn on the subtitles (even if the program is originally in English); doing so will draw your attention to new words. Here are two words that a Japanese-to-English translator used (from “Tokyo Ghoul”):

To “prevaricate” is to speak or act in an evasive way to mislead or deceive.
“Tantamount” is a fancy word for “same as” or “equal to.”

Do you listen to music? Listen and sing your heart out, but take a look at the lyrics. A band like the Decemberists is renowned for its vocabulary. Even if you’ve never heard of them, you’re probably familiar with Eminem, who CNN reported has one of the largest vocabularies in the music industry. You are bound to encounter a cornucopia of advanced words.

Do you spend a large chunk of time on Twitter? Check what your favorite celebrity has eaten for lunch, but also take a glance at the timeline of accounts such as Dictionary.com, Oxford Dictionaries, Elite Test Prep, and … us! (And if you like archaic words, Haggard Hawks Words has you covered.)

You don’t have to do any extra work, other than the time it requires you to find the word in the dictionary and understand its meaning. But here’s the important part: after you figure out what a word means, use it as often as you can, as soon as you can. That’s easily the best way to learn the word—for life.

By the way, if you love reading 19th-century novels or informative magazines, don’t let anyone tell you that they’re not fun. Because they are. When it comes to expanding your vocabulary while enjoying yourself, you do you.

What is your favorite way of learning new words?