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Vocabulary Learning for Advanced and Proficient Learners

Updated: Mar 29, 2022




I work a lot with advanced and proficient level English students. A common concern of these highly capable and skilful English speakers is that they don't 'know enough' vocabulary. It can be very difficult for these learners to pinpoint exactly what kind of words they think are missing from their vocabulary range; it's more of a feeling that they can't express themselves as fluidly and subtly as they can in their first language. There's a section in my favourite book 'A Wizard of Earthsea' by Ursula le Guin where the main character, a wizard named Ged, is talking to a dragon. In the story, the dragons speak in the Old Speech. This is the dragons' native language and they can use it to lie and twist the truth. However, humans have to learn the Old Speech like a second language and as such do not have the same linguistic abilities when they speak it; they are unable to lie. Obviously, this puts the dragons at an advantage over the people!


I'm guessing that you are not a wizard who is learning English to speak to a dragon, or possibly even the Loch Ness Monster. But for me, there are parallels between this example from the story and what many advanced and proficient English users expect of themselves:


My English should be equal to my first language and that I should be able to perform all tasks in English with the same degree of flexibility and fluency that I can in their first language.


If that rings true for you, I would suggest that you gently consider whether it is realistic and fair to expect this of yourself.


However, this does not mean that you cannot and should not keep on growing your language. Vocabulary development is an ongoing process with no end; as an educated native speaker, I still find new words to this day! The challenges advanced and proficient learners face with this are different to those at the lower levels so in the rest of this post I'm going to offer some suggestions for how you can best continue to expand your vocabulary range. If you do have a specific topic or function that you know you are weak in, the onus is on you to go out there are find the language you need. By C1, you should not be relying on your teacher to spoon-feed you with language, you have to take responsibility for your learning. Let's say that you find it difficult to manage the discussions that you have in meetings. You would need to do some research into how this is done in English. There is so much information available online - YouTube videos, podcasts, blogs, websites and so on - where you can really plug any language gap you think you have.


Another way is to be aware of times when you feel that you didn't quite have the range of language you needed to say what you wanted. What did you want to say? How would you say it in your first language? Was it a specific word that you didn't know or simply the turn of phrase that a native speaker would have? By noticing these times and trying to solve them (afterwards, if necessary) you can begin to develop the language that you need.


Finally, the best, best way to grow your language is to listen and read as much as possible. There is no better way to learn that by flooding your mind with as much language as you can so look for opportunities to listen (while cleaning / cooking / driving) or read (on the bus / in the bath) and make the most of them.


And for a last suggestion, have you considered that as an advanced or proficient level user of English, you actually do 'know enough'? You may not know everything, but you know enough to do a Masters degree, or a PhD, or have a job in English. Be content with knowing what you know, while at the same time gently pushing yourself to grow and expand.


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