New Words for the New Year

New Words for the New Year

Vocabulary improvement might not be one of the favorites of the New Year Resolution crowd, but for those who like words maybe it should be. Like money management and weight loss, two of the most popular resolutions, vocab improvement does a lot for one’s self-image and sense of satisfaction and control. And unlike money management and weight loss, it has a chance of actually succeeding.

A method of vocabulary improvement that I’ve taught for many years is called the Frontier Word Vocabulary System. Much has been written about this system, and it is mentioned in study skills books. All such references include good information and instructions on what to do with the words you are targeting, and how to study them, but I’m not going to say much about that because the beauty and the key to success of this system lies in the selection of the words in your study.

Let’s think about all the words out there and picture them in 3 layers. The bottom layer contains the collection of words you know and use all the time: work, candy bar, whatever. The second layer contains words that are in your listening and perhaps reading vocabularies: you know them well enough to understand what you’re hearing or reading but you wouldn’t venture to use them in your own speaking or writing. The words in this category will be different for everyone. The third layer is all the words out there that you don’t know, haven’t heard or seen, and will probably never encounter. The names of tiny airplane parts or methods of extracting grim substances might be in this group. This group you can ignore and pretty much forget about.

We’re going to consider the words in your second layer, which area we’ll call your Frontier. The Frontier is the area in which reside words that you could easily move into the first layer of your vocabulary, since you already encounter them in your communication. This is your hunting ground, and this feature is the key to making your resolution a reality.

Here’s what you do: For the next few days pay attention to words that show up in your reading or listening and note those words about which you’ll say “Oh yeah- that word!” These will be words that you won’t use yourself but you understand in a vague way. Or that you don’t understand but you think it doesn’t make a difference in what you’re reading or hearing. These words are candidates. From your candidates, the best words to pick for your project are words that appeal to you. Maybe the context in which it was used is one that you want to be able to say more about, maybe the word just sounds good or is fun to say (ubiquitous!), maybe you’ve heard it used in different ways and you suspect some inaccuracy, or you’ve heard it so often you’re tired of wondering what makes it so…uh…ubiquitous. Gather about 5 of these.

For each one you’ll need to do some of those Word Study Things that all systems tell you, but since you’ve selected the word yourself you might find these tasks less onerous (onerous? A great word). Do as much of these things as you can stand:

– Write the word and its definition on a file card. With the definition from the dictionary, try to write a meaning in your own words too.

– Write a sentence using the word. Best would be the sentence in which you heard or saw the word used.

– Using the original sentence as a model, try to create a few sentences using the word. Make sentences that you would actually say.

– If you can fit all of that on one side of the card, you can put just the word on the other side so you have a flash card. Or put one of the sentences on the second side if you want.

Now for the next few days try to slip your new word(s) into as much conversation as you can. If you find that it doesn’t suit you for whatever reason, drop it. There are plenty of other words to work on. Dropping the ones that aren’t fun is another key to success, as you’ll only be working on words that you like.

Another tip is to deal with just a few at a time. If you’re facing a stack of 10 words this project will be over soon.

So- Here’s the New Word Resolution plan in a few easy steps:

1. Instead of buying a word-a-day anything, make your own target word list from the words that are swirling around you already.
2. Capture the sentence in which you encountered the word so you can use it as a model.
3. Use your word a lot.
4. If it doesn’t suit you, drop it and find another one.

And finally: let us know how you do! We love to know what words are interesting to others. And maybe they are Frontier words for us, too!