Regardless of your job title, writing and public speaking probably make up a large part of the work you do, whether it’s brainstorming ideas with colleagues or sending emails to clients. Being able to express our thoughts both accurately and concisely has a huge effect on our productivity, yet the breadth of the average person’s vocabulary is on the decline.
That’s bad news, according to Katie McKnight, the CEO and founder of Engaging Learners. McKnight is a literacy expert who regularly works with companies on vocabulary development, comprehension, and writing for the professional sector.
McKnight says it’s not just important for professionals to have a good knowledge of the vocabulary used in their specific field. In order to communicate effectively a broad vocabulary that is understood by the general population is needed as it allows us to better demonstrate what we know and understand to others. And if we can demonstrate our understanding and expertise of something through our written and spoken communication the prospective client is more likely to choose us to do the job.
So, just how do you increase your vocabulary? The good news is it’s not too hard and doesn’t take much time. “Vocabulary development is about exposure and our ability to manipulate and use language. The more we use it and develop it, the greater our vocabulary,” says McKnight. Here are four things she recommends you do to help expand your vocabulary.
Play With Language Like A Child
“Word games help build vocabulary and they increase awareness of language and its possibilities. And I’m not just referring to the NY Times crossword puzzle and word search games, although they certainly do help us all learn new words,” says McKnight. “Consider, instead, the way children play with language. A 5-year-old who says, ‘He was a snowman and he snowmanned up my yard in the snowmaniest way!’ demonstrates a solid understanding of language mechanics.”
As a professional adult, McKnight says you probably wouldn’t want to use words in exactly the same way as a child, but you can use the same technique to explore language as they do. She gives the word “sanitation” as an example. “If sanitation is a noun that is commonly used in your field, think about its other word forms and make sure you’re using them when appropriate. ‘Sanitize’ would be the verb form; ‘sanitary’ or ‘sanitized’ would be adjectives; and ‘sanitization’ is an alternative noun form.
“It seems simple, but having all word forms at your disposal is a quick and easy way to make sure you’re using jargon in the richest possible way to succinctly express your thoughts,” says McKnight.
Use The Built-In Thesaurus
While few of us would send an email or document to a client or colleague without hitting the spell-check button in Word, most of us probably don’t often use that other powerful built-in tool: the thesaurus. Using a word processor’s built-in thesaurus has a dual benefit. It can quickly make your writing more punchy and concise, but also the very act of using it introduces you to alternative word choices your brain will remember for the future.
“If you think about it, our language contains so many words that English speakers and writers can often pick and choose from a range of words to imply specific meaning,” says McKnight. “Advertisers know that happy, delighted, jolly, content, and giddy all have slightly different connotations. Are there common words or phrases in your field that might be a little overused? Probably. Take a few minutes to look for alternatives and consider how they might help you convey more subtle gradations of meaning–while making your writing flow more naturally and your speaking seem more interesting.”
Read Anything (It Doesn’t Have To Be Shakespeare)
While the Bard is one of the greatest wordsmiths in the history of the English language, you needn’t read his complete works to improve your vocabulary. Matter of fact, you don’t need to read anything highbrow at all if you don’t want to. The important thing is just that you read–and doing so will automatically increase your vocabulary.
“What we read is not nearly as important as being in the habit of reading,” says McKnight. “Read for pleasure, read what you enjoy. Having more exposure to language and how it’s used is what truly matters.”
And it gets even better. You don’t need to read for hours a day to improve your vocabulary. McKnight says even 20 minutes will do. Still too much? Then how about this: technically you don’t even need to read at all. “Listening to audio books counts too!” says McKnight. “It really doesn’t matter what you read or listen to. The more we engage with language, the more we learn and develop our vocabulary.”
The only caveat is that if you really want to expand your vocabulary you should occasionally go outside your comfort zone. If you like reading about tech news, introduce some sports journalism or restaurant reviews into your daily news feed. If you like reading crime novels, switch it up with sci-fi every now and then.
“Authors of each genre tend to use a specialized language all their own,” says McKnight. “Seeing or hearing all those words being used in a variety of contexts will help them ‘stick’ and increase the likelihood that the reader will be comfortable using them in his own conversation.”
Use A “Word A Day” App
“These apps are a far cry from the old flip-a-page calendars,” says McKnight. “They not only display and define a new word every day, but they often include audio support so you’ll know how to pronounce it correctly.”
McKnight says many of the apps also allow you to create your own personalized dictionary so you can access your new words whenever you want as well as share word lists with other users, and send you push notification reminders to check out the latest daily words. While the iOS and Android app stores are flooded with such apps, McKnight suggests looking for recommendations on which app to use on educational websites like Vocabulary.com.
“If you’re the kind of person who likes setting goals, these apps might be just the thing.” says McKnight.