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Breadth and Depth in vocabulary learning for higher-level learners

One of the top priorities for most people who are using English as their second language is to continually expand their vocabulary range. This journey never stops as there is always more to learn; as an educated native speaker, I still find new words or meanings of words on a fairly regular basis. However, for some people this state of perpetual learning can be which can be unsettling as there can be a desire to feel that they 'know everything'. While it may not be possible, or even desirable, to know everything, it is possible to extend your vocabulary range well beyond C2 level, and it is important that you do so. For me, the balance point lies in seeking continuous improvement and refinement while also accepting that you have enough vocabulary to complete the tasks you need English for. I would also add that increasing your vocabulary range once you have reached a very high level is different from the earlier stages - the changes may be more subtle and harder to notice and the words and phrases more abstract.

Most people are very concerned to learn 'more' vocabulary. By this, they generally mean new words and new phrases. While this is true to a certain extent, high-level users of English also need to be working on the breadth and depth of their vocabulary range as this will give greater flexibility and precision when using English. Breadth of Vocabulary Expanding the breadth of your vocabulary range means learning and integrating a wide range of lexis to say the same thing. In other words, we are talking about synonyms and paraphrases. This is particularly important for increasing your ability to speak or write at different levels of formality, a notoriously difficult area for many people to get right.

To take one very simple example, look at this (short!) list of possible ways to say "I think"

  • I reckon

  • I (would) imagine

  • I would have thought

  • I expect

  • I suspect

  • I assume

  • I presume

  • in my (humble) opinion

  • personally speaking

  • as far as I'm concerned

  • the way I see it

  • to my mind

Each of these synonyms for "I think" has a slight difference from the others. It's quite difficult to become sensitive to the subtle differences between these words, yet this is a vital skill for increasing you ability to communicate in a more nuanced way.

Depth of Vocabulary Expanding your depth of vocabulary range means learning multiple meanings of the same word. Many English words have more than one meaning and becoming aware of this can greatly enhance your understanding of how the word fits into the language. Some words come in different forms (nouns, verbs and so on) and can also be inserted into idiomatic phrases.

Again, to take "to think" as an example:

  • to think to believe something to have an opinion

  • to think about to remember or imagine

  • to think of to consider a person's needs or wishes

  • have a good think to carefully consider a situation

  • to think long and hard about something to carefully consider a situation

  • to not be thinking straight to not be using good judgement

This list is a good example of how learning more meanings for the same word can really give you a deep understanding of that word and also provides you with a set of vocabulary items that are easy to learn and remember because they are connected.

How to increase your breadth and depth of vocabulary

By the C-levels, you really need to have developed the ability to find, record and memorise language without the help of a teacher. As I said earlier, vocabulary learning never stops and the more autonomous you are, the better. As a general guide, keep an eye out for interesting ways of saying things. In particular, keep alert for ways of saying things that you would never use yourself as this is highlighting a little gap in your language. The words themselves may not be new, but the way the words are combined could be. For example, with my own language learning, although I do learn new words, I am far more interested in phrases and ways of expressing ideas that are more nuanced than those I currently use. Make sure you are accessing a really wide range of text types! Reading the Economist is great, but you will end up with a very formal set of lexis if this is all you read! Make sure you are feeding yourself with formal and informal language so that you have the opportunity to come across those different ways of saying things. Finally, time permitting, you will do better at learning new language if you have a review system. Although this does take time, it is absolutely worth it if you are serious about expanding your vocabulary.

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