Just why

My current English level is enough to communicate. Why do I need to expand my vocabulary?

If you could make sure that besides your specialty, you don’t need to communicate other aspects of life in English, then you might not need to expand your vocabulary. But this is very unlikely to happen. Just as we rarely notice the air we breathe, we rarely notice the medium of language as we speak. It must be embedded in our lives to be useful, but because it is as transparent and ubiquitous as air, it is hard to see the problem contained within the language.

80% of conversation is made up from just 20% of all vocabulary. This is known as the Pareto principle. So yes, if you are starting to learn a language, then learning the important 20% of vocabulary first is a smart start. Furthermore, it is safe to say that your vocabulary probably has covered at least 95% of English conversation, or 4000 – 5000 word families. 95% of all conversations is almost 100%, and that’s an impressive number. If you are not a native English speaker, it’s a long road to fluency and you will have traveled a long way to be where you are now.

The bad news is, 95% is only considered enough for adequate comprehension. To enjoy reading a book, you need at least 98% coverage. And starting from the fifth 1000 word families, it is hard to gain another 1% of coverage. In the movie Shrek, if you have a vocabulary of 4000 word families, for every 30 words you will see 1 unknown word. Given the fact that the average speech rate of adults in English is 150 words per minute, in a one-minute speaking scene of the movie you will likely encounter 5 new words. Just imagine how large your vocabulary needs to be in order to understand that movie. As Wittgenstein, one of the most important philosophers in the 20th century, has pointed out: “The limit of my language is the limit of my world”.

Nation, word family and coverage
Nation, I. S. P. (2006). How large a vocabulary is needed for reading and listening? Canadian Modern Language Review, 63, 59–82.

Why are there so many infrequent words? Because life is so diverse, and for every situation you need to use specific vocabulary. Without having the right words, it is impossible to construct a clear, interesting, or emotional message. Or to quote Mark Twain:

The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. It’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.

Note that he also said: “Thunder is good, thunder is impressive. But it is lightning that does all the work”.

I learn new words via context. Is that enough?

This is a common misperception. Yes, it is true that the word is alive only when it is connected with the context, and by repeated exposure to it you get more familiar with the words use. But that is about strengthening your memory, not forming them (more on that later). If your understanding of the context is only adequate because of not knowing the words, then your exposure to the words isn’t meaningful. To remember anything new, you need to associate it with other things you know well. Looking at an unknown word is nothing more than looking at a blank space. So let’s take a quick test. In the paragraph below I have taken out the three least frequent words in the paragraph. How much of it can you now understand? Based on what you understand, can you guess what words are missing?

There is increasing evidence that the impacts of meteorites have had important effects on Earth, particularly in the field of biological evolution. Such impacts continue to pose a natural hazard to life on Earth. Twice in the twentieth century, large meteorite objects are known to have collided with Earth.

(Open paragraph of the sample TOEFL iBT Reading section)

Without knowing the words, you can still guess what the text is about: something about an important event with large objects that happened on the Earth. It directly affected life and evolution. However, despite how hard you try, your understanding is just adequate, and simply not enough to draw this picture in your mind:

However if you still manage to understand the context without knowing the words, then that can be counted as a meaningful exposure. You are now guessing the words correctly with your understanding of the context (you can click that paragraph to reveal the hidden words). This is what “learning from context” really means. You understand the words because you understand the context. More importantly, you are not learning the words separately — you have a connection between them. Everything is linked together, and any isolated knowledge does not have a chance to stick in your mind.

Unfortunately, it is also applied to the context: without knowing exactly what the words mean, you cannot completely understand the text. You see, only 3 (or 8%) in a total of 38 unique words are missing, but without them, your understanding of the text is just adequate. Either from the context or in the vocabulary itself, one must be understood first in order to understand the other. So here we have a circular problem.

You can break this loop by knowing the words in advance. Usually this is done by looking it up in the dictionary straight away. Now thanks to the digital age, this is quicker and simpler than ever before. However, keep in mind that (1) your reading flow is interrupted to look up the words*, therefore adding cognitive workload, and (2) sometimes the words are defined by another unknown words**, hence creating another circular loop.

*At least it’s still better than getting interrupted by a ping from Facebook.
**For example, the Merriam – Webster dictionary defines the word Ostentatious: “marked by or fond of conspicuous or vainglorious and sometimes pretentious display”.

For (1), from just reading the text again, you can resume your reading flow, but it is not as efficient as not having interruption as first. If you are going to read a lot of high level articles, then it is better to learn the words ahead of time. Your time and your cognitive load is priceless, so it is recommended to optimize your vocabulary learning. For (2), many English dictionaries nowadays have dictionaries for learners. Their vocabulary definitions are restricted to between a range of 2000 and 3000 of the most frequently used word families (vocabulary range of a six-year-old child). Depending on the word, it may not be possible to define it accurately and precisely, but at least it is acceptable for learners.

However, we are not done yet. There are actually three points I want you to be aware of. I didn’t mention the last point earlier because it is worth having a separate section for this: (3) your newly acquired memory will fade away in time, if it’s not reinforced.

On the verge of forgetting

Oh, I’m sure that I’ve learned this stuff before, but I just can’t remember it now! Now I will have to look it up again. What a waste of time! — Isn’t that familiar? In that moment, you just wish that your brain would be able to memorize forever everything that you’ve learned.

But it would be a catastrophe if our only source of memory was Google. The true advantage of biological over computer memory is not about remembering everything. It’s about forgetting. Forgetting what isn’t relevant allows us to remember what’s important. The more exposure you have to something, the more we can recall when needed. You need to refresh it frequently to imprint the word into your memory.

However, by definition, an infrequent word isn’t the word that you need daily, weekly or even monthly. For example, only 57% of the 3rd 1000 word families from novels of Jack London repeat 6 times. This is not enough to enable it to be learned from exposure. As a result, active reviewing is necessary to not forget. But how should you review? Reviewing too soon when you haven’t forgotten much gives you the illusion of knowing it well, because the brain only looks for new things and skips the old. Reviewing too late when you have already forgotten it wastes your effort to memorize it. The optimum strategy is to review when you are about to forget. And this is a conundrum: how to identify when we are on the verge of forgetting?

The bright side of forgetting is that it seems to follow a mathematical function. This is fascinating, because now you can approximately predict when you are on the verge of forgetting and need to review again. Basically, that function reveals to us that after memorizing, the retention ability will drop fast after a short period of time. However, for each review, the new curve is less steep than before. After several reminders, you can remember the word for a couple of years. Any use of it in this stage will be a natural reminder for you. You now have some memories linked to that word. It’s not a strange word anymore, it’s your own word. It’s a part of you.

The forgetting curve and how the Spaced Repetition System works
Wired, Want to Remember Everything You’ll Ever Learn? Surrender to This Algorithm

Notice that this is a projected graph, because the result of the function largely depends on the initial conditions: the information and the person learning it. A high impact event to that person is not likely to be forgotten for a long time. That’s why it is important to spend effort to really understand the information and to understand that person.

So if someone doesn’t remember what you have already told them, then be patient. It’s not really their fault. They just don’t have full control over how their own memory works, even when they put in an effort to remember it. They don’t even foresee how quick their forgetting rate is. If the message is important, then make sure it is presented in a clear, interesting, and emotional way. Getting to the root of the problem and making it worth knowing is an arduous task. It takes time, but it’s worth it. Because someone who is willing to do an arduous task for another person is someone who really cares.

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