Sunday, 25 March 2012 00:00
There are 1,013,913 words in the English language, according to the Global Language Monitor, but how many do you use? Do know just enough words to get by, or are you a master of erudite, insightful commentary?
Vocabulary is about more than communication; it helps shape people's thoughts and ambitions.
Orwell's novel 1984 depicts a dystopian future where language is being phased out in favour of 'newspeak', an impoverished alternative that suppresses individual thought. He knew that language is about more than making yourself understood.
Limited vocabularies can affect people's lives and their self-esteem. Mum-of-one Emma said: "I have a wide vocab, my partner doesn't and people are prejudiced. When we have meetings at my daughter's school, they dismiss him. And at job interviews it's a huge problem."
Whether you're writing, interviewing for a job, talking to your friends or just thinking, your vocabulary really matters. But are we increasingly impoverished when it comes to language? And how can we build word wealth?
Is it a problem?
Professor David Crystal is one of the world's leading experts on language. In fact, he's written around 100 books and presented several TV programmes on the subject. Despite modern fears of 'dumbing down' and text speak, he doesn't think vocabulary standards are falling, and says the average person knows around 50,000 words.
"It's no worse than it was a generation ago, when people were complaining of this, or a hundred years ago, when the same complaints were being made. It's another myth."
But what about texting? Surely all that 'Av a gr8 nite m8' culture must gradually damage the writer's language skills. But the professor says that actually only 10% of words in text messages are abbreviated, and that it's not the problem people think it is:
"All the research in recent years is showing that the more you text the better your literacy scores, because texting is yet another technology that motivates people to read and write."
How to learn new words
Whether it's a growing problem or not, if you want to improve your vocabulary, what's the answer? Should you sit down and read the dictionary? That approach horrifies Professor Crystal: "Heaven forbid! That's not the way vocabulary is learned.
"The best approach is simply to read and write as much as possible - which is what the internet motivates one to do."
So that's good news for anyone reading this; the internet, with its mountains of features and news stories, Wikipedia entries, discussions and debates can help you expand your vocabulary just as well as reading War and Peace.
Challenge yourself by ditching dull words in favour of more dynamic adjectives. You may know 50,000 words, but how many do you regularly use? Abandon words like 'nice' in favour of more descriptive and exciting terms. Using swear words for emphasis can become an bad habit, so try to find alternatives.
If you're struggling for a word then you can find alternatives in any online thesaurus.
Improving your child's vocabulary
Many people are more ambitious for their children than themselves. You may not have time to read and improve your vocabulary, but you almost certainly want your children to shine.
Sir Jim Rose used to be director of inspection at Ofsted but he's now a government consultant and member of the CFBT Education Trust. He's done a lot to raise awareness of 'word poverty' in the nation's children and says reading with them in the early years is essential.
"There's evidence that by the age of three, children from impoverished environments were using less than half the words of more advantaged kids. That's why it's so important to have books in the home and to listen to stories from parents. It's just common sense."
He also argues that there's too much focus on reading and writing, when actually it's command of the spoken word that makes a real difference early on. This can be improved through drama, discussion and stories, so even if a child is struggling with reading and writing, their vocabulary can still be nourished.
By aaravind | British Gas Smart Meter
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