“I know more words… I just don’t use them.”
Jan was a student who had been learning English for years.
For more than two decades, in fact. Since he was a kid in school.
When he met me he already knew a few thousand words.
But he wasn’t satisfied.
Because he still had problems when he spoke.
It was difficult to find the right words. And he used the same words again and again.
It’s one of the most common complaints I hear from students.
What I told him is the same I’m about to tell you.
And it made Jan feel a lot better…
Vocab Secret #144
Everyone knows more words than they use.
The average English natives speaker knows 20,000 words* but only uses a few thousand every day.
On average, the difference between the words we use and the words we know is 1/3.**
And that’s also true for your native language and every language you’ll learn.
Well, don’t get too comfortable.
Because the problem still exists: how do you use more words in conversation?
The Empty Refrigerator Effect
This is my refrigerator in Prague.
Not very exciting.
It probably won’t surprise you to hear that I eat out a lot.
And when I do cook, my meals are simple.
Sunday morning, for example: scrambled eggs and toast.
It takes about five ingredients to make.
empty refrigerator = simple meals
But now let’s travel over to the US, to my sister’s home, and look inside her refrigerator.
Every day she has to feed four kids and a husband.
So there’s a lot of food in there. And in the freezer. And in the freezer in the basement. And in the food pantry.
And, no surprise, the meals at her house are much bigger: there are main dishes and side dishes and sometimes appetizers and desserts.
full refrigerator = large meals
Fill Your Refrigerator
And it’s the same with your vocabulary.
Just like if you have more food, you’ll cook more food…
If you know more words, you’ll use more words.
You won’t use all the words you know, just like you never cook all the food in your refrigerator…
But when you have more words in your head, you’ll use more in conversation.
A brain full of words = easy conversation, jealous colleagues, international customers, a private jet with a champagne jacuzzi, fame, honour, glory…
So increase your passive vocabulary by learning more words, and when you speak you’ll naturally use more words.
- * www.victoria.ac.nz/lals/about/staff/publications/paul-nation/2006-How-large-a-vocab.pdf
- ** https://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/8013859.stm