What do we mean by “advanced English vocabulary”? Let’s examine the following situations: what language skills do you need to use to order food in a restaurant, to buy groceries or for engaging in small talk with a neighbor? What language, instead, would you need to read a novel, or to give a conference, or to write a formal letter? The point is, that even in everyday life, we use different registers, i.e. different choices of language. At one extreme, we have the language for most informal everyday situations, with a limited vocabulary (how many ways are there to say: “please give me four potatoes and two carrots”): in some other contexts, like for example writing a report for work or school or a letter to a governmental office, we need a more specific, and sometimes more “elegant”, or precise kind of language. How much more of a specific and precise language should we need for academic activity, where complex ideas are a must? It is precisely for this kind of language (technical, academic) that we can provide a useful and interesting method.
Our method can be summarized in the following five steps:
Understanding the origins of the English language and the basics of language change. This initial phase deals on the one hand with history, in order to understand the complex interactions of ancient peoples and states leading to the formation of English, which, by coincidence, received considerable influence only of related languages (the case is different with, for example, Japanese, which being not related to Chinese, received a major vocabulary stock from it.). On the one hand, some basic notions of phonetics (i.e. the study of the sounds of a language) can help you understand what sorts of sound changes are likely to happen in a language as history goes on.
Linking elementary English vocabulary learned at school with advanced vocabulary. English is a Germanic language, and as such, most of the common words used in everyday communication are of Germanic origin: words like foot, teach, five, warm all come from a Germanic origin. Due to the prestige of Latin and Greek in Western society for centuries, English has drawn heavily from such languages to shape its own technical and academic vocabulary (mostly as Japanese draws from Chinese elements to do so). Nevertheless, if, as we said before, all the languages English has received loanwords from are related, i.e. they also belong to the Indo-European family of languages. Therefore, we can look for the common elements between Greek and Latin roots occurring in “difficult words” and the easy Germanic vocabulary most intermediate learners know. Thus, English “foot” and “fetter” are related to the Greek root
pod- and the Latin root
ped-, that occur in words as octopus, podology, expeditionary, peduncle; English “teach” and “token” are related to the Greek root
dig- and the Latin root
dic-, that occur in words as paradigm, dictionary, diction, dedication; English “five” is related (although it doesn’t seem at first sight, but most of the difference can be explained scientifically) to the Greek root
pent- and the Latin root
quin-, that occur in words as pentateuch, pentagon, quintile…
Grouping new words according to their derivation from PIE roots. Once we have a grasp of all these ancient Proto-Indo-European roots, we can proceed represent through an inverted tree-shaped scheme the process by which such roots evolved into English, Latin, Greek, French and Old Norse.
A deeper understanding of synonyms and antonyms. Having gained this rich insight into the origin of words we can proceed to analyze the subtle differences between different choices of synonyms and antonyms. Therefore, the delicate nuances of words like “banal”, “insipid” and “flat” can be distinguished: “banal” is related to the common people, and is akin to “vulgar”; the
-sip- part in “insipid” is related to “savory”, and so “insipid” means “lacking flavor”, and therefore “lacking interest”; “flat” is related to “plate” and “plane”: it indicates an extended surface without any point worthy of attention.
Contextual illustration. Finally if following the idea of noted Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, “the meaning of a word is its use in the language”, it is vital to see how a word behaves in its own context. To achieve this purpose, we have designed a series of teaching materials that include tests and readings in order to show in the most clear and interesting way what the “field of activity” of a certain word is.