We should learn the words not as dead specimens in a dictionary, but as living units of thoughts and feeling in a book. This is undoubtedly the best method.
The question of vocabulary has tremendous importance for the students. If their stock of English words is not rich, they will be faced with insuperable difficulties at every step when they attempt to express themselves in English. An extensive acquaintance with English words would make composition easy, fluent, and impressive and even a pleasant exercise.
About vocabulary the student may well ask what to know and how to know? As for what to know there are many words, big and solemn words which we may do well without. There are also many technical terms which we need not learn. A knowledge of the archaic words may help one to understand parts of Chaucer, Spenser or Shakespeare, but for ordinary purposes we need not worry about this. There is only one principle about our choice of vocabulary. We should learn the words which are in common use: words which are expressive and well-known not out of the way, nor technical. There are many words which do not have the sanction of traditional literary use, yet they are living and racy. We should try to learn them too. But we need not descend to slang. We should draw the line at that. A cigarette need not be a ‘gasper’ to us nor should a man become a ‘chapie.
Then how to acquire a good vocabulary. Opinion in this respect would differ. There was a time when a school master would confidently recommend the study of an English dictionary as the best method. Those days are past. The study of words should not be such a dull and dead thing. That method would be the best, which would combine the maximum of profit with the maximum of pleasure. We should learn the words not as dead specimens in a dictionary, but as living units of thoughts and feeling in a book. This is undoubtedly the best method. Good and interesting books which have been written in English, should be intensively studied, and this is the only way of learning new words in the case of most of the students. We would recommend the study of good books written by the well-known masters of English. The student should read carefully, underlining the unfamiliar words and phrases. A good method is that of jotting down the freshly learnt words and phrases in one’s own writing. The students should make it a point to use the new words as frequently as they can. This will fix those words in their memory permanently.
But a large stock of words would not carry us far unless we know how to use them correctly. As Anatole France said, ‘The finest words in the world are only vain sounds, if you cannot comprehend them.’ There are many men who use learned words because they love high sounding words, though they do not understand the meaning. We must not be led away from clear and direct expression by the attraction of big words. If we do so, the result will be disastrous. Bishop Horone does not exaggerate when he says, Among the sources of those innumerable calamities which from age to age have overwhelmed mankind, the abuse of words may be reckoned as one of the principal.
The correct use of words
The correct use of words is then the main thing. It will not come for the asking. As we have already said, we must get to know thoroughly the words we are going to use. We should watch them for they are worth watching —- in the works of famous masters. We would form an intimate acquaintance with them by persistent efforts. Many of them are simple enough and are easily understood. But others will not yield their secret easily. Some acquire rare and fresh meanings in the writings of powerful authors. It would be our duty to know all these meanings of a word that we are going to use.
When and how to use a dictionary
The student is advised to use a dictionary. It should be an ELT (English language teaching) dictionary, e.g. Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, Collins Cobuild Advanced Learner’s Dictionary or Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary. All these dictionaries are equally good. An ELT dictionary is the one which tells not only the meanings of words but also demonstrates the use of words by using them in sentences. The student should not consult the dictionary to look up words which he comes across for the first time. Following the reading method to learn a language, he should continue reading good and relevant material. In this process, he will come across absolutely new words. He should not become curious about the meanings of these words. He should look at those words carefully and proceed. At the same time, he will find words which are quite familiar. The student has a vague understanding of their sense without knowing their exact meanings. This is the time to look up those words in the dictionary. He is advised to write down on his notebook all the sentences written in the dictionary showing different uses of those words. He should revise these sentences from time to time. This is the most beneficial and natural method of increasing one’s vocabulary.