The limited vocabulary is not a problem

As an ESL learner, when you are reading some contents that have some unfamiliar words, your first reaction is that your vocabulary is so limited, you need to improve your vocabulary. That's wrong. Many Chinese students have spent too much time to memorize the vocabulary, they also considered that learning English is the same as to memorize the vocabulary only. This is a typical cognition bias.

The contents that you are unable to comprehend, which might have three possibilities:

  1. You don't know the strange words.
  2. You don't know some grammar knowledge.
  3. You don't know some concepts or slang.

For the first situation, we can look up the dictionary and find the proper definition to put in the sentence that you've just read. But we always ignored the second and third situation, it is not obvious to see. For example:
The silhouette of a moving cat waved across the moonlight, and turning my head to watch it, I saw that I was not alone - fifty feet away a figure had emerged from the shadow of my neighbor's mansion and was standing with his hands in his pockets regarding the silver pepper of the stars.
As you can see, even you look up the dictionary, you still unable to understand this sentence. Because it has some metaphors and grammars that are not easy to understand. The concepts and slang need so much time to familiar, the grammar knowledge you can learn through many books, this article will tell you how to learn a word.

The practical advice that I provided here is to read the dictionary carefully and slowly. The faculty of your memory is not reliable, you are hard to memorize the things that you don't understand. Whenever you are trying to memorize anything, trying to understand it first.

A word has the forms, pronunciation, definitions, synonyms, and phrases construction, you can't just use your memory to store all these things. You must treat them as a cell in the language, not the only definition that you have memorized. Every word has its own structure to fill in the language, is like a free spirit, not a brick that build in a wall and can't be changed forever. It is also like a drop of water that can be flowed into any direction or be replaced in another drop of water.

When I started trying to read the dictionary carefully, I found that to memorize the vocabulary is total wrong. When I was memorizing a word, I'd always try to translate it to Chinese automatically. Even I have spent too much time to memorize, I still can't use it in the sentence correctly. There are many words can't just be translated as one-by-one mapping in another language. For example, we can translate "Apple" to "苹果", but we can't find a simple word or phrase to translate "vary" to Chinese. The Chinese word "打" can't just be translated to English word "hit". If you do this, how to translate 打架(fighting),打车(take a taxi),打电话(calling) in which start with "hit"? It's also the limitation of bilingual dictionary.

English vocabulary has a feature that the common word is hard to learn and the rare word is easy to learn. For example, "notorious", "propaganda" and "shimmer" is easy to learn in dictionary, because they just have one or few definitions. But some words we are common to see such as "by", "if", "make", that they are hard to learn, because they have many definitions which have the little differences. Many common and simple word are hard to be used correctly. For example, I need get some help. is not correct, we should say "need to do something" or "need doing something".

The hardest part of second language writing, it's not the limited of vocabulary, it's the suitable sentences to express your ideas, it's the right grammar syntax, it's the simple and clear words that you've chosen, not the rare and abstract words translated from your mother language. The common and simple words are more important than rare and complicated words. Simple is better than everything, it's easy to make, easy to find error, easy to be understood by readers. The limited of vocabulary is not worse, it's good, it makes your sentences to keep a simple style.

Looking up in the dictionary while reading a book will slow down your understanding, but it doesn't matter, some books need to read slowly, it gives your time to think clearly.

If you find some words that you don't fully understand, or find a word might has a little bit errors, don't hesitate, read the dictionary carefully, even it might be learned from your childhood.