The limitation of vocabulary is not a problem

As an ESL learner, when you come across content with unfamiliar words, it may be tempting to think that your vocabulary is limited and that you need to increase it. However, this is a common misconception among Chinese students who often view learning English as simply memorizing vocabulary. This is a cognitive bias.

The difficulty in understanding certain content may stem from one of 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, looking up words in a dictionary can find the proper definition to understand the sentence you've just read. However, the second and third possibilities are not as obvious. 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.
Even if you look up all the unfamiliar words, the sentence may still not make sense for you. Because it has some metaphors and grammars that are not easy to understand. Some concepts and slang need time to familiar, but the grammar knowledges you can learn fastly. In case of talk about vocabulary, I will tell you how to learn a word in this article.

The most practical advice that I provided here is to read the dictionary carefully and slowly. Your memory is not reliable, memorizing the strange word is so hard. Whenever you try to memorize anything, try to understand it first.

A word in a dictionary has forms, pronunciation, definitions, synonyms, and phrases construction, you can't memorise all of them. You should treat them as a cell in context, not the only definition that you have memorized. Every word has its own structure to fill in the context. A word is like a free spirit, not be a brick that build in a wall and can't be changed forever. It is also like a water drop to flow into any direction or be replaced in another.

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 though I have spent too much time to memorize, I still can't use it properly in sentences. Between English and Chinese, Many words are not the one-on-one mapping. 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 that begin with "hit"? That's also the limitation of bilingual dictionary.

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

The hardest part of second language writing is not the limitation of vocabularies, it's the suitable sentences for expressing 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 limitation of vocabulary is not worse, it is your special advantage that limited your sentences to be simple.

If you consult the dictionary whil reading, it may slow down your comprehension. It doesn't matter, reading slowly allows you to think clearly.

Whenever you come across a word that you are not familiar with or are not sure how to use properly, don't hesitate to look it up in a dictionary. Even if it is a word that you may have learned in the past, it is important to refresh your understanding of it.