The limitation of vocabulary is not a problem

As an ESL learner, when you read some contents that have some unfamiliar words. Your first reaction is that your vocabulary is so limited, you need to increase your vocabularies. That's wrong. Many Chinese students have spent too much time to memorize the vocabulary, they also considered that learning English is equal to memorize the vocabulary only. This is a typical cognition bias.

The contents that you are unable to comprehend, which might have 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, we can look up the dictionary and find the proper definition to put in the sentence that you've just read. But we always ignored the second and third situation, it is not obvious to see. 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.
As you can see, even you've looked the strange words up in a dictionary, you still unable to understand what this sentence means. 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 store all of them all. 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 I have spent too much time to memorize, I still can't use it in sentences correctly. 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.

While you reading, consult the dictionary might slow down your comprehension. It doesn't matter, slowly reading gives you clearly thinking.

Whenever you find a word that you don't not understand well, or used unproperly. Don't hesitate, go to read the dictionary carefully, even the word might had been learned in your childhood.