Adding simple words expands vocabulary | Bangkok Post: learning

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Adding simple words expands vocabulary

Reduce learning stress by using what you already know

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One of the biggest difficulties language learners face both in and outside class when using the target language is being able to explain things with the same skill or range of nuances as in their native language. 

During an anti-human trafficking project in Dok Kham Tai village, Thai and Japanese youngsters jointly paint a Thai national flag on a school wall. SUBIN KHUENKAEW

Adding nuances

Although English, as with other languages, is rich in words that can provide a range of subtle differences, the similarities between closely related vocabulary terms - for example, puce and lilac, check and gingham, gigantic and gargantuan - can create needless learning stress for students at any level.


With colours, we can add quite a variety of shades quite easily with the simple addition of "dark" and "light', which, when coupled with "very", offer five shades of colour with very little learning stress.

Very light blue, light blue, blue, dark blue and very dark blue, while offering students quite a wide range of choices, can be expanded even further with three more words: bright, shiny and dull. Students can now add more colours to their range: bright blue, shiny blue and dull blue.

While it might seem a bit strange, bright, shiny and dull can also be added to the previous five, giving students a choice of 15 different ways to describe blue - using eight different words, seven of which can be used with any colour.

In short, it is a much better method in that learning stress is greatly reduced and should be much easier for students than introducing and expecting them to employ a range of vocabulary that describes, for example, various shades of blue, such as: cobalt, sapphire, azure, turquoise, cerulean, aquamarine.

'Wayne's World'

When the cult movie Wayne's World first came out, it was a tremendous boon for English teachers - not!

For anyone who has seen the movie, this particular play on words will be familiar, but it does reflect a truth in that many coursebooks and classes tend to teach contrasting pairs of words - big and small, expensive and cheap, thick and thin, fat and skinny.

Knowing and being able to use contrasting pairs of adjectives is important, but with the simple addition of "not", students learning only half of the pair can still express an opposite simply by using "not", as in, for example, "not expensive", "not thick" and "not fat".

In addition, with the use of the intensifier "very", students once again have a range of nuances they can express with minimum learning stress.

With this simple idea, students now have four different ways to describe cost with the use of three words: not very expensive, not expensive, expensive and very expensive.

Prefixes and suffixes

When teaching adjectives and adverbs, the addition of affixes to words can provide another means to extend both active and passive vocabulary. For example, expensive and inexpensive, happy and unhappy. However, the concern is that there is a huge variety of prefixes that reflect a negative meaning, and they can be confusing, but again, while "illogical" is the better choice, "unlogical" works in expressing the idea, albeit incorrectly.

Suffixes, of course, add a tremendous variety of easy-to-build erector-set-style vocabulary. For example, employ, employee, employer, employment, employable, and then supplemented with affixes to obtain unemployment, unemployable.

Having fun

If students are having fun, in a class that is being taught awfully well, even if it involves using textbooks that are pretty ugly, there is a much better chance that they will remember things.

As in this sentence, "awfully" as an intensifier to describe something positive and pretty to intensify something negative is something I find many students consider intriguing.

For example, "It was a pretty ugly dog but he was awfully friendly."

Dr Timothy Cornwall has been teaching EFL for 30 years and is part of the Shinawatra University faculty. Co-founder of Thailand Educators Network, he can be reached through, at, at or on 081-834-8982.

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