WASHINGTON, February 18, 2014 – Improving your vocabulary isn’t like running in an Olympic race. But even if you tend to regard learning new words as a competitive sport, try being the tortoise, not the hare. Better yet, why not turn the whole process into an informal game?
If you’re like most people, it’s likely you actually have a lot more words in your head than you generally use in everyday speech. Usually you discover new words when you’re reading, where you can get a general idea of meaning from the context of the sentence or the article. But actually knowing what a word means doesn’t mean you know how to say it or even use it properly.
Sometimes, you’ll pick up a new word when you’ve heard it once or twice in a conversation. But once again, you may not be sure of the word’s correct pronunciation or may not be entirely comfortable with exactly how to use it. It’s a dilemma we all run into from time to time.
What’s a learner to do?
Humans learn fastest when learning is entertaining and easy. One of the wonderful things about deciding to learn something on your own is that you don’t have to teach yourself according to anyone else’s plan—not even this one.
In fact, our plan is: there is no plan. Just jump in and have some fun. But if you’re looking for some practical angles, you’ll find a few useful ideas below.
- You’ve just run across a new word. How does it sound? Bookmark a pronouncing dictionary online or put it in your browser toolbar. Access the link when you find words you want to use but don’t know how to say. A good free online pronouncing dictionary is http://www.macmillandictionary.com/us/british-and-american-pronunciation.html.
- How do you sound? Get audio and text versions of a classic novel, the Bible, or other motivational reading. Download free audiobooks from www.librivox.com. All the material they use is in the public domain. Then get the text version of your audio from http://www.Gutenberg.org. If you don’t feel like scouting around for material, here are a few well-known, representative authors guaranteed to show up in both places:
- Try listening to and reading Edgar Allan Poe if you’re into spooky stories and early detective fiction written in a dramatic style.
- If you like politics or deadpan humor Jonathan Swift, satirist extraordinaire might be your guy. Think “Gulliver’s Travels,” “A Modest Proposal.” This guy had attitude way before it was fashionable.
- In a crusading mood? There’s always Mary Wollstonecraft, primal feminist and author of “A Vindication of the Rights of Women,” a treatise written way back in 1792 describing what women didn’t realize they wanted until well into the 20th century.
- Keeping it all in the family, there’s also Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Mary W’s daughter and author of the original “Frankenstein,” a still famous novel that’s a lot deeper and stranger than its many film descendants.
Note: Although they have the virtue of being in the public domain and therefore free to use, some of the quick reading suggestions above can be surprisingly heavy going. So if you just want to work with the sound of your voice rather than the somewhat dusty grammar and vocabulary of a bygone era, go for anything by Mark Twain. Though he flourished back in the 19th century, he’s easy to read and understand, and, like the others, he’s also in both Librivox and Gutenberg.
Now that you have some material to work with, here’s how you improve your voice in just three minutes a day:
- Download the corresponding text and audio files of the author or authors you’ve chosen and put them in a folder.
- When have the time and are in the mood, listen to the audio version for a minute or two.
- Then record yourself reading the same passage out loud.
- Play back your version and compare it to the professional recording.
Obviously, you don’t need to sound exactly like the professionally recorded version, particularly if the actor or reader is employing a foreign accent. Instead, regard the professional recording as just a good example, and ask yourself, “Do I sound as good as I could?” If not, try again until you like what you hear.
As you practice, switch passages when you sound good to yourself or get bored with listening to the same stuff, whichever happens first. It’s better to do this exercise for just a few minutes a couple times a week than to exhaust yourself with overwork in random marathon sessions that are likely to make you give up the whole idea.
That’s all there is to it. Set up the online pronouncing dictionary and use it when you remember. Grab text and audio to use when you feel inspired to do more. Little by little, you’ll build vocabulary and confidence.
Next week: Apps for vocab.
Fran Ponick, MA, is certified in P-ESL (Pronouncing English as a Second Language) She provides training in business presentations and interpersonal conversation skills for native and non-native speakers of English. Her company, Leadership English®, offers communications skills, training and coaching for non-native and native English speakers, as well as award-winning writing and editorial services for businesses large and small.