Monday, December 23, 2013

Learning Vocabulary: My Personal Dictionary Project

I once asked a non-native colleague about expanding one’s own vocabulary.  She expressed a certain frustration as she commented that it is a never-ending challenge and for this very reason she enjoyed grammar because it was from her perspective, a more finite system that could eventually be mastered whereas vocabulary, beyond the high and mid-frequency words that you are likely to come across in general reading, the rest, low-frequency words or those limited to specific fields, are more difficult to learn.  Her point was well taken.  Although I no longer am particularly interested in  grammar, (read more about how I learned Spanish here), we agreed that acquiring vocabulary beyond the words needed for most everyday conversations can sometimes be frustrating.  Her comments prompted me to share with her my personal dictionary project which I had begun not long after graduate school.

This project originated with the realization that I was lacking vocabulary which started in my first college Spanish literature class.  I was already very comfortable with grammar, conversation, understanding the professor’s lectures and speakers on the radio (DJ’s, commercials, news).  So when I made it to literature, I naively accepted this new challenge as a way to learn more language in general, specifically vocabulary.  

The first selection we had to read was from the 18th century about scientific discovery in Spain.
I could only understand about 50% and had to look up most of the rest because little was guessable from context.  It was up to us to figure out the meaning.  Of the 20 students in the class, 75% were native speakers.  There was little incentive for the professor to give us non-natives any assistance.  So, I looked up words and wrote the translations on the pages.  It was time-consuming so I did what my classmates suggested and read without a dictionary and tried to guess meanings from context.  That was frustrating too because really there wasn’t enough to support contextualized guessing and overall it seemed imprecise and inefficient.  What I sometimes thought a word meant was at best, only a vague and superficial understanding of it, not to mention its other uses, register or collocations (natural combinations with other words that form common or accepted phrasings).  

As I continued with this approach, it got easier.  The more I read of a particular author,   I became more familiar with certain vocabulary he or she tended to use.  For example, I learned the word “talante” (will) from reading different works by Unamuno because it came up repeatedly in many of his writings dealing with conflicts between faith and doubt.  Read more about this experience here.

 My last two years of university went on like this-looking up words as I needed to in order to understand a piece of literature.   I know I acquired some incidental vocabulary, at least for reading some literary texts but it was quite random and what’s more a lot didn’t stay with me not only because most of the time I only had one encounter with a particular word but also because I didn’t do anything with them beyond mere recognition.  During the two years between college and graduate school I continued to acquire vocabulary (individual words and phrases) as I had done before studying literature- mostly listening to radio (talk shows, news, songs), some TV (this was before the internet and wide availability of Spanish-language stations on cable) and interacting with people in different situations (friends, boyfriends, people in the community).

Graduate school was mostly more of the same but a bit easier because my vocabulary had grown and I had became a better reader.  Now I was focusing on deliberately learning new words I found myself needing in writing, particularly synonyms.  I relied a lot on a Spanish thesaurus I had bought just before school started and on my experience listening to the language to feel how natural a phrase or sentence sounded.  Both during grad school and just after when I went to live in Puerto Rico, I found myself in situations needing and not knowing how to say words like hose, handle, slice, bucket.  Read more about this here.

The project

Dissatisfied with the gaps left in my vocabulary, I decided to pull out all the stops in an effort to immerse myself once again in learning more vocabulary.   By vocabulary I don’t necessarily mean individual words but rather anything other than grammar itself.   I began reading newspapers and magazines and writing down any word or phrase that wasn’t part of my active vocabulary even cognates or things I could easily recognize the meaning of.  I’d also write the sentence in which I found the word or phrase to remember the context or the other words that it combined with.  After several months I had gathered a couple of legal pads filled with words.  From time to time I’d look over what I had accumulated; this was my only “study” of these items.  Nonetheless, it helped me remember many of them.  I also continued listening to a talk station and music on the radio for several hours a week.  About every month or two I’d go to Miami for a weekend to stay with my dad where I‘d spend time studying and collecting more vocabulary. Read more about my bilingual weekends in Miami here.  There I had more access to Spanish-language materials and TV and radio.  I’d rent videos of American movies with Spanish subtitles (especially those with a technical or legal theme), read the white and yellow pages (which were bilingual), read El Nuevo Herald (including advertisements), and county documents my dad received that were bilingual or trilingual (Haitian Creole is the 3rd language).  My dad and other family members would also give me bilingual owner’s manuals for anything they bought.  All of these materials were very helpful in learning practical but also more specific vocabulary.  After I had filled several legal pads with words, I found reviewing them problematic.  Since there was no order to these pages I had created, I began categorizing the words by topic in order to be able to look up an item that I recalled seeing but couldn’t remember.  So far, I only had random words.  I had begun to broaden my lexical base but it was still full of holes.  Why wasn’t reading as effective as I thought it would be?  In analyzing this process of acquiring vocabulary I realized I was only picking up what others happen to write.  If I kept doing this I’d forever be dependent on what other people wanted to say.  Although I was reading what I could about the most practical things for me, it always seemed that I still was missing words I thought I needed and didn’t come up in reading.  The solution was to decide what I wanted to learn and purposefully look for it.  It was difficult before the internet but at least I was focusing on what I was missing.  In an effort to compensate for not having primary education in Spanish, as well as to round out commonly taught semantic fields like colors, sports, professions and family, I created some 175 categories to include ones such as names (popular and historical), car parts, tools, math phrases, geographical terms, countries and nationalities.  This last one I researched as much as I could and ended up with about 8 pages of them.

No doubt a lot of people maintain lists of new vocabulary words or create their own personal dictionary at different stages of learning but perhaps one difference is the scope that I intended it to be.  It’s still a work in progress but no longer encyclopedic.  However, I have been able to actually to use it to look up words I couldn’t find in a conventional dictionary or vocabulary book. Through this project I significantly increased my active vocabulary which I feel helped me reach a higher level of proficiency.  Do you have a story about increasing your vocabulary?   Please share it in the comments section below.


  1. This is an interesting article. I have obtained some good tips on expanding vocabulary. I have had some similar experiences where due to certain life situations I quickly learned new words and phrases dealing with those situations. One example is medical conditions that various friends family members have gone through during our time of speaking. It's amazing how quickly you can become fluent in a specific area with repeated discussions. I believe the process of learning a new language is a never ending process and one that I can enjoy for the rest of my life. Thanks for the information contained herein.

  2. Please share more of the 175 categories. I've been doing lists alphabetically but that isn't terribly useful. I started a Pre-AP list by theme for my students and have students fill that in but it is difficult at times to know where to put words.

  3. Hi Anonymous,
    I had the same problem. At first I focused on relatively easy to identify semantic fields such as family, colors, sports, body parts, and nationalities. All of these lists were intentionally meant to be far more extensive than anything found in books. Even these seemed limited so I created other categories for related topics. For example, car parts got extended into phrases and verbs for describing accidents, tools became household repairs (stopped up toilet, clogged drain), body parts became body actions or phrases for movement. I was mostly interested in words and phrases that we would learn in elementary school or that are practical for an adult. If the words you are trying to organize are random and abstract or there aren't enough of one topic to make a category, then putting them in alphabetical order in both directions might be OK. Otherwise, consider what topic they are for and put it in one. Any word could ,and maybe should be in more than one category. Some of my abstract categories for difficult-to-place words, I named "words denoting force/destruction" (golpear, tumbar, derrocar), "synonyms" , one of the uses of this was to pair educated or academic words of higher register, with ones that are more familiar, but they should have examples and explanations of how and when to use them.
    I hope this helps. If you want to ask more or if you want to continue the conversation, please post a comment.

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