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The art of juggling: developing the language learner’s vocabulary




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Diana Lea taught English in Czechoslovakia and Poland before joining Oxford University Press as a dictionary editor in 1994.  She is the editor of the Oxford Learner’s Thesaurus, and today looks at why and how language learners use a thesaurus ahead of World Thesaurus Day on January 18th.

The word ‘thesaurus’ comes from the Greek meaning ‘treasure’ or ‘storehouse’ and the traditional thesaurus is a kind of storehouse of language. Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases lists over 70 synonyms for fast, including zippy, fleet and nimble-footed. The editors have made no judgement about how useful each word is. The thesaurus marks words that are particularly formal or informal, but otherwise gives no information about how to use each word. The purpose of a thesaurus such as Roget is to remind native or expert speakers of the language of words they already know, but cannot quite bring to mind. It does not teach.

The needs of language learners are rather different. Even if they use a smaller thesaurus than Roget, with fewer synonyms, they may still not know which word to choose, without information on the exact meaning and use of each word. The result? According to teachers we interviewed, ‘Even high-level students use the same basic words again and again.’ ‘They need to be able to juggle synonyms.’ What information, precisely, do learners need to help them with this juggling act?

No two words are exactly the same

Consider the following pairs of sentences:

I used a very simple method to obtain the answer.

I used a very easy method to obtain the answer.

This encyclopedia is designed for quick and easy reference.

*This encyclopedia is designed for quick and simple reference.

I didn’t find it easy to persuade them to come.

*I didn’t find it simple to persuade them to come.

Say what you need to say, but keep it simple.

*Say what you need to say, but keep it easy.

In the first pair, either sentence sounds fine. But in the three following pairs, the second sentence sounds increasingly odd. Why is this? There are two main reasons: first, it is a question of meaning; and secondly, of collocation. The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines each word thus:

easy not difficult; done or obtained without a lot of effort or problems

simple not complicated; easy to understand or do

These are good, brief definitions, which do in fact get at the essential difference between the words, as well as the essential similarity. Nonetheless, probably for most learners looking up simple, it is the similarity and not the difference that will register. So what is the difference? The definition of simple in the Oxford Learner’s Thesaurus expands a little on the Oxford Advanced Learner’s definition to explain in what way something simple is ‘easy to understand or do’:

simple easy to understand or do because it contains very few, very basic parts or actions

There is also a note which clearly and simply compares and contrasts the two words, explaining exactly that difference between ‘not difficult’ and ‘not complicated’ which the Advanced Learner’s hints at but does not have space to explain.

Some of the collocational differences also become more intelligible: you can find something easy (or not!) according to your nature; but you keep something simple, according to its nature.

A more expressive vocabulary

There are two main ways in which students can improve their knowledge of synonyms. In the first place, they need to distinguish better between words they already partly know. Secondly, they need to learn new words. Consider these interesting sentences:

It was interesting to learn about daily life in Roman times.

The documentary makes interesting viewing.

We had an interesting discussion over lunch.

The book is an interesting adventure story.

The word interesting here may not fully convince you that these things are interesting. A far greater level of conviction is conveyed simply by substituting another word for interesting:

It was fascinating to learn about daily life in Roman times.

The documentary makes compelling viewing.

We had a stimulating discussion over lunch.

The book is a gripping adventure story.

Learners at upper-intermediate level may well have encountered some of these words in their reading. But how can they really access such words when they need them and become confident enough to use them?

A traditional thesaurus, as we have seen, does not really offer much help. Fascinating, compelling, stimulating and gripping can substitute for interesting in the contexts above, but not in all contexts, and they mostly cannot substitute for each other. What learners need is not just lists of synonyms, but a true dictionary of synonyms, a combination of thesaurus and learner’s dictionary. This is exactly what is offered by the Oxford Learner’s Thesaurus.

Look up any word and you will find a manageable group of 4-10 near-synonyms, all defined, but with the differences in meaning and usage carefully explained and illustrated with plenty of example sentences. Learners using this thesaurus can be much more confident of choosing exactly the right word.

Learning more words will not be completely easy, but it will improve your writing.

Let’s rephrase that: acquiring a broader vocabulary is never going to be completely painless, but it will enrich your writing.


  1. This is a pressing problem for any student, specially if they are supposed to exhibit a range of vocabulary in a test or otherwise in a usage context were it would look or sound badly to have a narrow or inappropriate choice of words. The truth is we use what we are familiar and comfortable with and in teaching you notice that sometimes a student will use correctly and context sensitively expressions “beyond their level”. This means they have interiorized them.

    There is a number of factors that make words sticky. Knowledge of the word’s meaning goes without saying, and it might seem silly but if they do not know the meaning and the teacher fails to realize that, progress will not happen. And this happens far too often. Students will often be afraid to ask because they do not want to look silly in the face of a word “they are supposed to know”!

    Besides that obvious point, The first factor of all is frequency and intensity of exposure. Then of course is context: if the word appears in a context which appeals to the student, if they find that context useful, they will pay more attention to the elements in it. Furthermore, learning words in context is something we do even in our native languages. Take the collocations that politicians or sports newsreaders repeat ad nauseam. It is the comfort zone. The moment a word, if possible as part of a collocation, becomes relevant and useful, it will become part of the learner’s comfort zone. Being aware of this kind of relevance and transmitting effectively to the learner is a fine grained task. Knowing why things are said is also important. Learners will refuse to learn things they may find absurd and bridging that culture gap will probably be the difference between effective learning or frustration leading to the learner giving up totally. So, knowledge, familiarity, exposure, and understanding of relevance are the factors that contribute to effective acquisition of vocabulary.

  2. I am sorry, this is my second try to respond. The article on Thesaurus and on word meaning is exactly what students and teachers require. If students learned words focusing on their precise meaning and teachers taught words emphasising how important their precise meaning is in English while not taking more than two synonyms at a time, success in learning English vocabulary would be enjoyable. Thank you very much.

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