One of the joys in life is meeting new people and hearing their stories. When I travel, I carry family photos and pictures that tell the story of my life. This helps me to start a conversation. But very quickly, I run into my biggest limitation: vocabulary. That is, the lack of it.
I’d like to tell my new friend about the day my kids and I ran a 3k race at the Phoenix Zoo. That Mark had a sprained ankle, so he and I walked the whole thing together even though I was ready to run. That Matt is a Swiss boy who came to live with us for a year as an exchange student.
But I don’t know how to say, “race,” or “zoo,” or even, “ankle,” much less explain how my family is spread out over two continents.
In order to tell your story, you need thousands of words in your vocabulary.
Some experts say that a college-educated adult uses around 17,000 ‘word families’ with many words in each family. So the ‘cook’ word family includes: cooked, uncooked, cooking, … you get the idea.
Now let’s say you want to be fluent in 7 years. You’ll need to learn about 2,500 “word families” a year, or about 48 word families a week. Which means you should aim for 16 new words and their variations for each lesson. You can do that, right?
But what is the fastest way to learn? Which words should I learn? And in what order?
Begin using words that are used a lot in everyday conversation.
Your understanding soars when you focus on the words that are used the most. Most everyday conversation (even in business) is carried out with a small number of ‘high frequency’ words.
Nation and Waring estimate that if you learn 3,000 high frequency word families, you will understand 85% of most written texts.
So your first priority is to learn those high frequency words.
Learn like a Kindergartener.
How do children do it? They use a lot of high-frequency words. Let this be your road map.
First, you need nouns. Lots of them. Especially things in everyday life. It helps to know words for ‘street’. And ‘water.’ And even WC (water closet, or bathroom).
You also need words for relationships: biological (father, son, daughter); location (near, far, under); and qualities (big, small, round).
You also need verbs describing the actions of every day life: things that animate creatures do (eat, sleep, run, walk, etc); and things that inanimate objects do (break, spoil, cook, boil…).
Numbers will be important (I suppose that’s a sort of name).
Populate your vocabulary list with children’s books. Seriously.
Children’s picture books are a great place to find those high frequency words. While working with a native speaker and a book, you can capture hundreds of words for your vocabulary.
I’ll write more on how to use the books later, but these three will get you started:
- My First 1000 Words, Publications International (August 4, 2005) isbn-13: 978-1412711821
- Changes, Changes, by Pat Hutchins. Aladdin (April 30, 1987) isbn-13:978-0689711374.
- Frog Goes to Dinner, by Mercer Mayer. Dial (October 27, 2003) isbn-13: 978-0803728844
For more on building a vocabulary of well-used words, check out our YouTube channel.
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