Tuesday, 28 April 2009

The importance of vocabulary

A common misconception about what is being an advanced student is that "advanced English is complex grammar". Students want to practice unimaginable constructions such as if you had seen how dirty he was you would have known that he would have had to have been under the car (a real example). The fact is, there are certain rules which govern things like word order and structure in English, and those rules are finite. Once you have mastered them, there´s not much more to learn, grammaticaly speaking. In fact, all of English grammar could be described in the length of a 250 page book. Not so for the other, usually neglected, area of English - lexis (vocabulary). Whereas grammar rules are limited to about a hundred or so, fluent speakers of English have thousands of lexical items to draw from as they speak. On balance, it is vocabulary that will contribute most to a learner´s level of fluency. What do you think about it?

For example, did you happen to know that....?

assassinate - Unlike Portuguese, only presidents and other very important people get
"assassinated." Otherwise, it´s murder, not "assassination."
Example: Four presidents have been assassinated in US history.

propaganda - It isn´t "advertising" as it means in Portuguese, but it is public relations material sent out by political parties or a government - and has a negative connotation.
Example: Some old cartoons have a lot of propaganda in favor of the war.

notorious - Notorious mostly means "noteworthy" or "famous" in Portuguese, but in English it only means "famous for something bad."
Example: He´s notorious for being late.


vanity - Vaidoso in Portuguese is a good thing, meaning someone who looks after him or
herself. However, in English it means someone who thinks too highly of himself. The same goes for the word vanity.
Example: Her boyfriend is so vain. Every time he passes a window he looks at his own reflection.

Adapted from "Como dizer tudo em inglês" Avançado by Ron Martinez, 2006
Do you know what punting is?

What is advanced English?

Does being advanced mean being able to pass a formal examination like the Cambridge Certificate of Proficiency in English (CPE) or the the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) with a high score? Or does being advanced perhaps mean sounding like a native speaker? Maybe.
But I can tell you what advanced language for learners of English is not: It isn´t what native speakers usuallly consider advanced. When Americans, for example, study "advanced" vocabulary in the United States, they learn words such as firmament, errant and replete - words which for their relation to Latin origins are relatively easy to Brazilians. Or we learn "advanced" terms like callow, prevaricate and abeyance, which may not seem familiar to Brazilians, but, for that matter, aren´t very familiar to the majority of native speakers either.
Instead, what seems to be advanced to a high-level Brazilian learner of English would probably seem simple and common to most native speakers. To reiterate a term cited above, a Brazilian would know the meaning of replete with, but would most likely be unfamiliar with the terms packed with or chock full of . The former maybe useful in certain written or formal contexts, but it the latter terms which are most familiar and used by the majority of fluent speakers of English.
(Selected from "Como dizer tudo em inglês avançado" by Ron Martinez, 2006)