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How to Expand Your Vocabulary

Throughout the last few years I have invested a significant amount of effort into expanding my vocabulary. I have found some methods to be more effective than others, and outline the most effective methods I have found in this article. There are two ways to learn new words— by deliberately looking them up, or by learning when exposed to them. I have found the latter to be more effective, and many of the below methods explore ways to do this.

By Blurpeace (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

1. Look Up Every New Word

The single most valuable aid in vocabulary development is this: every time you are exposed to a new word, look up the definition. Be relentless about it. If you’re busy, make a note to look it up later. I usually open up a new tab on my phone or computer, Google the new word, and come back to it when I have time. Note that you shouldn’t expect to master the word after your first exposure to it; you may go through this process multiple times before the word sticks.

This might sound obvious, but very few people actually do it. When hearing a new word, many people try to assume its definition from context alone. Not only does this give an incomplete definition, but it assumes that the word was used correctly when you first heard it. This method also helps prevent the tendency to become overwhelmed when starting to learn new words. There are so many words out there, and it can be difficult to know where to start. Make it easy on yourself: learn new words as you’re exposed to them.

2. Ask Your Friends

If your family or friends use a word that you don’t recognize, politely ask them what it means. Although the first method suggests that you write down the word and look it up later, in this scenario we recommend that you ask instead. Don’t be afraid of sounding dumb. While you may start off frequently asking friends for definitions, you will find yourself asking less often as your vocabulary grows. Eventually your friends will notice this, and perhaps they will associate your inquisitiveness with your excellent vocabulary.

Note that when you ask a friend for the definition of a word you should try to do so in a way that insinuates you admire their vocabulary. They will appreciate this, and be happy to share their knowledge.

One of the reasons this works so well is that it associates the memory of a social interaction with the definition of a new word. Memories are easier to remember than definitions, and this association allows you to use the memory as a retrieval cue for the definition. There are words that I learned years ago and still remember, not because I memorized the definition, but because I remember the conversation I had with one of my friends.

3. Read Every Day

This is the most obvious, cliche, and overused advice in the world. And that’s because it works. Read every single day, even if it’s just for a short period of time. Reading twenty minutes every night results in over one hundred and twenty hours of reading every year. Find a genre or author that you like and make it a priority.

4. Get a Kindle

The Amazon Kindle includes many features to help you expand your vocabulary. One of these is the ability to tap a word and look up its definition. This avoids the hassle of setting down your book, finding a dictionary, looking up the word, and trying to remember where you left off when you return. Additionally, words you look up are automatically added to flashcards that you can review later. Other features include easy reading in bright or low light, custom font size, and the capacity to hold a large number of books conveniently.

5. Be Patient

Allow your vocabulary to develop slowly, and give yourself time to get familiar with new words before you use them. I learned this the hard way, by using words I had just learned incorrectly and being politely corrected by family and friends. It’s best to wait until you’ve been exposed to a new word multiple times before using it. Learning is a marathon, not a sprint.

6. Podcasts and Audiobooks

In situations where you can’t read physical books, the auditory medium can be very convenient. If you have a long commute to work or school I highly recommend listening to an audiobook or podcast. An hour long commute can translate into two hours of reading every day — and it takes little effort.

7. Mnemonic Devices

A mnemonic device, also called a memory device, is a learning technique that aids in information retention and retrieval in the human brain. Types of mnemonic devices include memory encoding and retrieval cues, but there are many different types of memory devices and lots of people use them differently. To use this method effectively you should research this topic and find a method that works for you.

I use a mnemonic device to remember the definition of the word dogmatic. The definition of the word generally means to follow a set of rules relentlessly, as if the rules themselves cannot be disputed. The word dogmatic contains the word dog, and every time I am exposed to this word I imagine a dog on a leash that is trying to get away. The dog doesn’t care what the owner does, it maintains that it should be free by trying to run away. The attitude of the dog reminds me of the definition of the word dogmatic. Stories like these can be used as mnemonic devices that help recall definitions of words. It’s dumb, but it works. I encourage you to try this yourself; the more strange, random, and even vulgar the story is, the easier it will be to commit to memory.

8. Write It Down

When you have trouble learning a particular word you should write it down and review it later. I have a whiteboard in my room for this very purpose. If I am struggling to learn a word I will write it down and review it every morning. The next method explains why this one works so well.

9. Every Read is a Write

Our brains use neurons to store memories. When you learn a new word, an electrical signal travels through a neural pathway in your brain which you perceive as a memory. This event is perceived as a new memory if that neural pathway has never been traveled, and as an existing memory if it has. The more times this pathway is traversed by an electrical signal, the easier it will be for your brain to recall.

We say that we are reading from memory when we recall something, and that we are writing to memory when we are learning. We know that every time you read from memory an electrical signal is traveling through a neural pathway in your brain. This very act of reading also makes the pathway in your brain stronger — it makes it easier to recognize this memory in the future. We say that when it comes to human memory, every read is a write.

You can use this to your advantage when learning new words. By frequently reading from memory the words you have learned you also write them back to memory and make the neural pathway for that word stronger. One of my professors recommends that you spend a few minutes every night reviewing what you learned that day for this very reason.

10. Be Concise, Not Verbose

It’s always better to use a simple word correctly than it is to use an advanced word incorrectly. When you use an advanced word over a simple word, the advanced word should have a subtle but intentional distinction from the simple word. We want to express all necessary information with as few words as possible. Advanced words help us do this, but we should avoid using more words than are needed, and should avoid using unnecessarily advanced words when a simple word is just as informative. The goal is to communicate effectively, not sound smart.