How Big Is Your Dictionary?

English, unlike a lot of languages, has a rather large inventory of words, mostly in the way of synonyms. Take the word “blue”, for example. “Blue” can also be expressed as “sapphire, cyan, cobalt, aquamarine,” or “cerulean”. And that’s not even all of them! Granted, these are different shades or qualities of the color, but the fact remains that there are many ways to express almost any given sentence in English. This can be a good and a bad thing. On the plus side, it makes expression and poetry more versatile, and can allow people to describe the world and their experiences in a more precise. On the other hand, it makes English very complicated, dense, and difficult to learn past a certain level of proficiency for the non-native speaker. I can’t say for sure what that level is, but this problem is more present in reading than in speech.

The notion of having and using a lot of synonyms in basic, everyday speech is simply not as important in most other languages. The threshold of vocabulary at which one uses new words for things one already knows, such as for colors, is much higher in Spanish or Italian than in English. That is to say, Spanish or Italian looks different only at a very high level of education, somewhere in the realm of PhDs and intellectuals. English, on the other hand, begins employing varied and complex language in high school. Remember, I’m talking about this from the perspective of a non-native speaker.

But let’s consider why this is. A Romance language like Spanish derives most of its lexicon from Latin, as well as from the languages of indigenous people in South America. However, academic, or at least standardized Spanish, may not use these words, even in the country in which those words are in widespread use. It is much the same in English-speaking countries; there is no reason to use regionalisms in formal situations unless it is explicitly required. Now, from the viewpoint of a non-native speaker of Spanish, whose first language is English and has a pretty decent knowledge of English, technical and sometimes formal Spanish can be easily guessed through using a knowledge of Latin roots. This is because English has a technical lexicon drawing from Latin and Greek. However, this is not the case the other way around. English draws from many different languages across the world, due to its multinational presence and imperial history. The fundamentally Germanic vocabulary and syntax of English also prevents most non-natives of English from grasping the grammar and vocabulary very quickly.

The significance of having “larger” dictionary is hard to ascertain, because the use of language(s) varies by country, and even within those countries by region. In the United States, English is the primary language in all cases, and other languages are often used in a semi-official capacity, such as translation or interpretation. In contrast, India has a multitude of different languages within itself. The state languages, such as Kannada, Malayalam, or Marathi, are used on the state level, and are used in semi-official capacities at the federal level, where English is used, with Hindi occasionally alongside it. A larger number of synonyms for any given word may allow for more precision, but to the average speaker, native or non-native, subtle distinctions between such words are irrelevant. Very often, synonyms for things such as color are for descriptive effect and variation, rather than a genuine difference in color.

I hope you enjoyed this piece, and I would love to hear your comments. Don’t forget to share this on Facebook and Tumblr!

Practicing a Foreign Language By Yourself

Even if you’re enrolled in a class for a foreign language at school, chances are it’s mostly grammar drills and writing exercises, in my experience. I’ve started to read Fluent in 3 Months (the book), by Benny Lewis, an Irish polyglot who runs a blog with same name as his book (here’s a link: http://www.fluentin3months.com). In his book, he describes how conventional methods that schools use to teach foreign language might work for some people, but it’s hard to practice outside the classroom. I highly recommend that language learners read his book, by the way. It’s fascinating and really helpful. Thinking about this conundrum, I’ve thought of a couple of my own methods (which may look similar to other methods you’ve seen on the Internet):

1. Talk to yourself. This may sound really strange, but trying to speak the language you’re learning to yourself lets you practice and iron out awkwardness when you talk. If you don’t know a word, say it in English (or whatever your first language may be), and write it down to get the word later from a dictionary.

2. Go electronic with your learning. Take your electronic device (a good example is a smart phone), and go to settings, and change the language of your device. Recently, I changed my phone and computer to be in Italian, to practice my ability to read it. This helps because you begin to correlate words that you’d normally see in English with words in the target language, because they physically replace those words, and your usual instinct is to go to the location, without really looking at the word. Changing Siri on iPhones also helps, because then you can practice speaking a little bit.

3. Write more in the target language. Whether it’s posting on Facebook and/or Twitter, or going old-school with a notebook, write as much as you can in the language you’re learning, because it helps you become more literate in the language, and for kinesthetic (learn by doing) learners like me, it solidifies the foundation in your brain for learning the language. Although when you post on the Internet in your language, you should probably include a translation, so that friends who are fluent speakers can correct your mistakes by seeing what you want to say, and non-learner friends can read your posts without feeling excluded. Italki is a great way to do this with its notebook feature.

4. Get books in the target language. Whether they be children’s books or full-on Michael Crichton novels, reading is a surefire way to build vocabulary, due to the variety of contexts, and the fact the good writers usually use a wide range of vocabulary, allowing for a potentially greater number of words for you to learn to appear. Highlight words or phrases you don’t understand, or write them down. For popular book series such as Percy Jackson and the Olympians or the Harry Potter series, compare your native version and the target language version to see what it might be trying to say. You should also read out loud to practice your speaking.

5. Talk with other learners! You generally have more confidence when speaking with other learners of your language, because you know that you’re both still learning, and can’t be expected to be perfect right off the bat. Besides, it can be more social experience, and they’re more accessible, if you’re good friends with them (as you’ll probably become while learning together). Language is inherently social, so not talking with others is no excuse!

Anyway, thanks for reading! Please leave any thoughts you might have on this!