The Importance of a Good Vocabulary
Estimated Lesson Time: 5 minutes
I wish I knew in my school years what I know today about the importance of a good vocabulary. Back then, when teachers gave us scores of words to learn, all I could think about was the fact that I had never heard any of these words spoken by my peers. To me, they were just words randomly interjected into our readings so we could be tricked into thinking that they were important. I never realized this one important fact: as my peers began to learn these new words, they began to use them, which left me “below the curve.” I was only thinking about my present and not my future. Many adults don't bother to increase their vocabulary for the same reason.
Nobody really knows for sure how many words there are in the English language because several sources do not seem to agree on what constitutes a word. However, the estimates I have seen suggest there are between 500,000 and 1,000,000 words. David Crystal, in the Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, suggests that the average active (used, not just recognized) vocabulary for a college graduate might be 60,000 words. This means to have a firm grasp of the English language we just need to learn about 10% of all the available words in the English language and not worry about the other 90%.
So why is having a good vocabulary important to your success? In short, if you speak like an idiot, people will treat you like one. I am not saying this is right since it is a form of prejudice; however, it does happen in both personal and professional situations. Here are a few more reasons directly related to your success:
- Increasing your vocabulary allows you to use more descriptive words to communicate your thoughts better.
- Understanding the meaning of more words will allow you to understand information that you are reading or listening to (comprehension) better, thus increasing your retention.
- Having a larger vocabulary to call upon will help your verbal communication flow and allow you to start eliminating noises such as “umm” and “uhh.”
- Being able to use more colorful words in speaking to others will allow you to project a more intelligent image.
- Knowing more words will make you a better Scrabble® player.
Bookstores and libraries are full of vocabulary building courses. However, these courses all lack one important ingredient: focus on the words that will be beneficial to your specific needs and goals. For example, I recently completed an audio course on communication in which over one hour was focused on learning the collective nouns for animals. I do not think I will ever in my lifetime need to say, “Hey look! There goes a crash of rhinoceros.” Before making the effort to increase your vocabulary, make sure you have your long-term goals in mind. Learn the vocabulary, terms, and jargon that will help bring you closer to your goals. For example, if you are currently a mechanic but your ambition is to become a doctor, then learn to speak and write like a doctor. By focusing on learning words relevant to your current and future environments, you can appear more learned while not wasting your time memorizing words you are unlikely to ever use or hear.
Another tip for expanding your vocabulary is to look up unfamiliar words as you encounter them; you are much more likely to remember words this way rather than memorizing random words that have no specific meaning to you at the time.
A word of caution... perhaps the biggest vocabulary blunder one can make is not misusing or misspelling words, but abusing them by trying to impress others with his or her vocabulary rather than focusing on effective communication. It is more important to build a strong rapport with your audience by using words you are quite sure they understand. When you must use a word you feel they might not understand, define it for them. This is especially helpful when using technical terms or industry jargon. Effective communication is about sharing ideas in a way that best translates one’s thoughts into a form of communication that others can understand. Effective communication will get you much further than an extensive vocabulary ever will, and the overuse of complex words can make you seem pretentious.
The goal of expanding your vocabulary should be to lift you slightly above the crowd without losing the audience in words unfamiliar to them. You should be able to understand and use the words and terms encountered in your daily life, as well as prepare yourself by learning the vocabulary needed to bring you closer to your goals. Expand your vocabulary and expand your opportunities.
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Some discussion questions (some may not apply to this lesson):
- Have you implemented this idea in your life? How has it been working for you?
- Do you have any interesting stories related to this lesson? Do tell!
- What do you admire most about this person? (success biography days)