• We learn vocabulary by interacting with it in appropriate contexts.
• Conversational and academic English use different processes for creating new
• Synonyms are not always interchangeable since the appropriate use of
vocabulary is closely related to context.
English has the largest vocabulary of any language in the world, an estimated
400,000words and growing. No one knows all the words, but educated English
speakers can figure out the meaning of between one third and one half of the
words when they see them in a context. Try out Awareness Activity as an informal
check on your vocabulary.
AWARENESS ACTIVITY: HOW BIG IS YOUR VOCABULARY?
The following 50 words were randomly selected from the Shorter Oxford English
Dictionary.Quickly read through the list and mark the ones that you would
probably be able to define if you saw them in your reading:
anachronism; inhibiter; tamandua; fernticle; imber; meant;
cavernulous; mammoth; stonemason; release; peacock-fish;
meistersinger; clamber; pyroligneous; dedentitio; supplemental;
redcoat; bumbaze; arsenical; pyrozylin; post-road; occult; emodin;
non-importation; meiostemonous; bongrace; one-legged; cantred;
flesher; dotter; Jew; ship; inutile; statement; forager;
invincible; inoculable; presbyter; rubicelle; tellurion; misguide;
perchlor-; auriform; importer; infantilism; gospel; binervate;
This activity looks at your passive vocabulary, theEnglish words that you might
not use yourself but would probably understand in the right context. The words
that you actively use are called your active vocabulary. Count how many words
you marked then multiply your number by 2. This is a rough estimate of the
percentage English words you passively know.
Note that most of these words are seldom used in conversation. In fact
researchers findthat when ranked by frequency of occurrence, the following 13
words account for one third of the words we hear in conversation:
is; the; and; a; to; I; that; it; he; of; she; not; be
Add to these thirteen the following 20 and we have half of the words that we
hear in a conversation.
in; look; this; or; like; do; her; there; what; on; well; on; well; has; his; they; think; know; but; have; just; very
Notice that although these words account for half the words in a running text,
there are only three content words, the verbs look, think, and know. The rest
are structure words, such as pronouns, prepositions, and auxiliary verbs, that
form the grammatical frames that we listen for to identify the nouns and verbsin a sentence. It would be difficult to hold even a simple conversation using
only these high frequency words. The words in our random list from the
dictionary occur must less frequently. In fact, we might even remember the few
times we have encounter them.
AWARENESS ACTIVITY: STREET TALK VERSUS SCHOOL TALK.
English language learners need to know only 1.000 to 2,000 words to expressthemselves adequately in interpersonal language but 7,000 to 10,000 words for
serious reading. To see the difference between the basic words needed for
conversation and the extended vocabulary of serious reading, let’s look at two
passages. One is from a cowboy story written for middle school children, the
other from a history book. Which one uses street talk and which one school talk?
How can youtell? Which one do you think is easier for an adult English language
learner? Be careful, this may be a trick question.
A.- Pete got out his rifle, jumped on this horse, and took off. We just knew he
would never give up.
B.- Upon the termination of hostilities in 1945, several European nations
avoided the issue of independence for their colonies. Prolonged violent wars of