My English is impeccable. Say what?

I have to be honest with you. I have always treated the English language with a tad of disdain. If you’re Dutch, then you pick up on it at school, by watching tv or by scouring the internet. Since so many people speak it, I have never really bothered to expand on my knowledge of it. Who — in these days — will be pleasantly surprised you speak a word or two?

It wasn’t until I moved to the USA as an expat, that I began realizing that my command of English was subpar. Besides the obvious cultural background differences, I found it hard to mingle with Americans, since I couldn’t level with them verbally. I was struggling to find words and as the non-native in a group, I always felt inferior.

Things got even ‘worse’ when I started dating a foreign girl with a better comprehension of the English language (she’s Chinese Malaysian, it’s amazing how they can juggle with multiple languages from different language groups). If at an emotional level one cannot express oneself in a relationship, it can feel rather disheartening. I started feeling ashamed of my incompetence.

I had already started reading much more non-fiction since 2015, but it wasn’t until I started working for a startup — with English as the primary communication language — in May of 2016 that I felt compelled to brush up on my global lingua franca skill set. By googling on ‘vocabulary’ I found the website Vocabulary.com (it’s the top search). I have been a devoted user ever since.

Why I enjoy using Vocabulary.com

Vocabulary.com is a very effective way of enlarging and diversifying your vocabulary. Although the platform’s pricing strategy is aimed towards US-based schools, teachers, and students, the website (and its app) can be used for aspiring non-native individuals. It makes a great way to improve active and passive lexicon because of:

  • Gamification: Vocabulary.com lets you earn points every time you answer a question correctly. The daily (and at some point monthly) leadership boards had me sweat those extra hours to end up as number 1.
  • Context-based learning: All of the questions in Vocabulary.com are curated and some of them rely on contexts within contemporary literature, such as books, journals, and newspapers to have you ponder about several nuances a word can have.
  • Layman clarifications: Some words are explained as if you are an 8-year-old. Literally. It may seem condescending, but it helped me grasp the gist much quicker.
  • Personalization: The site’s algorithm adaptively serves you with words you probably know least. Over time it will get to know you better, such that pertinacious mistakes in a word’s meaning will be repeated more often.
  • Mastery: By just answering one question correctly, doesn’t mean you have mastered the word. It takes some time to learn it (both in meanings of the word and as a way of rote repetition). Every word is consummated by an auditive question: you also need to be able to spell the word.

So are you fluent now?

Since the end of May this year I can proudly say I mastered all the 14,000 somewhat words (and counting) in 11 months. Although I am not as addicted anymore (the points aren’t as easily gained once all the words have been played), I still open the app to take a refresher on some words. Plus, I am getting close to the ‘Running Dictionary’ badge/achievement…

So am I fluent now? Definitely not. But, I have noticed in reading (and listening) that I have started to discern much more nuance in what people are trying to convey. Speaking and writing aren’t covered though, so the next step is to put my newfound vocabulary into practice. For example, by writing this story on Medium 😉.

Vocabulary.com is free when using it web-based. But let’s face it, the ~3 dollars/euros you pay for the app is a no-brainer in terms of return on investment.