Word to Your Mother: 5 Tips for a Vibrant Vocabulary

Are you hungry? According to Susan Engel, a developmental psychologist and educator, curiosity is an appetite. And yet hunger is likely the most essential ingredient for acquiring and utilizing new words. In my required college classes, I routinely ask students about their personal goals for the course. Surprisingly, or perhaps not, students often list ‘improving their vocabulary’ as a goal.

From classrooms to cocktail parties, this topic seems to find me. There are the word nerds like myself, who find the discussion of Latin roots titillating, and the word wishers, who regret they cannot recall the plethora of the words they once crammed into their brain for the SAT. And there are even the word alarmists, who fear that emoticons and text vernacular are replacing lucid expression.

What the party goers and college students (sometimes they are one and the same) have in common is that they are hungry for new ways to grow their word bank. But according to linguists, we do the bulk of our language acquisition in the preschool years. So how do we go about adding in new words when the language ‘time of our life’ has already passed? Like almost everything else in life, it’s a mindset. Those who’ve attended my language pep talks have heard a similar list (party goers should beware of casual mention of semi-colons, as I have a reputation for exuberant and impromptu lessons), but for anyone else hoping to enhance their vocabulary knowledge or rekindle their love of language, here’s a word or two about just that.

  1. Word loss is a thing. New vocabulary words, much like a foreign language, are a ‘use or lose’ proposition. As you encounter new words, employ them in as many ways imaginable. Neuroscientists speak of building new pathways in your memory by creating associations with existing words, images, and experiences. And remember that homework exercise, where you write sentences with assigned vocabulary words? What happens when you insist that those sentences have actual relevance in your life, when the words must be associated with historical facts, movie characters, parents, or bosses? This is the important work of truly acquiring the language versus stuffing your brain with letters. The most natural way of regularly acquiring new words is not much of a secret, but you might like a reminder. Reading, especially fiction, increases vocabulary even as we age.
  2.  Word Trivia. What word connoisseurs have in common is that we think words are fun. Our affinity for language may happen below the surface of our awareness, but raising our awareness for new language is part of being hungry. As you encounter new words, don’t let them passively flit by you. There’s a reason why the preschool years, or the ‘Why?’ phase, tops the developmental stages for language acquisition. Notice unfamiliar words. Ask the dictionary more than why, but what, how, and when? Wonder about slang terms and usage. Just a quick search through google reveals that Vanilla Ice’s well-known lyric ‘word to your mother’ has more than one explanation, ranging from ‘give my regards to your mom’ or ‘a reference to Africa as the motherland.’ Word etymology is also a fantastic playground for memory. For example, when you discover that ‘belligerence’ and ‘bellicose’ both come from the latin root ‘bell’ for war, but are used in different contexts, you not only learn a new word but also a way of remembering it.
  3. Play with your Words. This point cannot be overstated. I often recommend that whole families get involved (and excited!) in language acquisition. It’s much more fun if everyone in the family is trying on new words together. No one at home to play with? Try it out on the unsuspecting public. Walk by a row of tulips in springtime and announce that the gardens are simply floriferous and just watch the faces of those around you. For more fun, act normal about it. You can even play with words all by yourself with great web games from freerice.com or vocabulary testers like testyourvocab.com.
  4. Word of the Day. I have a ‘word of the day’ calendar on my desk that my students see when they first walk into my office. Many of our sessions begin with talking about the new word, initiated not by me, but by them. You’d be surprised how many words you know (or don’t know) when you see a new one daily. Like #1 of this list, challenge yourself to use the new word to maximize the meaning. Maybe slip it into a Facebook post just see who’s reading.  (It’s likely a better test than asking someone to pass along your post if they really love you.) I also subscribe to dictionary.com‘s ‘Word of the Day,’ which rarely fails to introduce me to strange and exotic words ripe for usage. Today is May 3rd, 2017, and dictionary.com’s WOD is ‘minatory,’ meaning menacing or threatening but read further for the extra credit: “His features had lost their delicately benevolent aspect; his words were minatory.” Tucked in our sample sentence is an SAT favorite, benevolent; moreover, for total grammar geeks like me this sentence models a great application of the semi-colon. Plus, we get to see minatory in action!
  5. Word Transformers. Perhaps you are one of the lucky ones who already know the meaning of whoppers like ambiguous or bellicose. But can you easily name their part of speech? While many of us know they are adjectives, what happens when you consider their noun form? If you said ‘ambiguity’ or ‘bellicosity’ then you know a thing or two already, but for all of us, consider how testing your knowledge of parts of speech lends itself to even more delicious words. You may even feel your brain grow. This method is one of my favorites for showing students how they can magnify their learning by paying attention to something they learned in grade school. And who doesn’t like a reminder that they are already pretty smart?

When it comes to language, there really is something for everyone; it’s just a matter of your appetite. For most of us, the days of swallowing vocabulary words have long passed, and now it’s up to us to imbibe more thoughtfully or let the tasty language morsels fall like crumbs beneath the table. For me? I’ll take the word buffet please–for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.