Building Your Vocabulary

Few years back conducted an online experiment to determine the average vocabulary size of various age groups. The test results are given below. From this chart we can clearly see that between age 3 and 16, our vocabulary explodes at an average rate of 4 new words every day. Between ages of 16 and 50, our vocabulary growth is slower and beyond 50, vocabulary size appears to remain fairly constant.


One has to take this result with a pinch of salt as the participants might already have a rich set of vocabulary (sampling bias). But this does not preclude us from generalizing this test result to the entire population. By generalizing we can conclude that once we get out of college most of us don’t learn any new words. Why is that? There are couple of reasons I can think of (1) we don’t read any books (2) we don’t consciously look out for new words and hence our brain filters them out.

In the past, to build my vocabulary, I tried rote memorization of words from books and flashcards. But it didn’t work for several reasons (1) it was really boring as words are abstract in nature (2) the words never had any context so it never got into my long term memory (3) never recalled those words nor used it actively so they didn’t stick. At last I believe that I found out a way which seems to be working for me and this post is about that.

1. An idea from Sebastian Leitner

Sometime back I wrote a post on learning how to learn. If you haven’t read it already then I would strongly recommend you to read it. In order to learn something deeply we need to actively test ourselves by recalling it from our memory. The act of recalling something strengthens our memory and ensures that the information is available to us when needed. Also we need to do this regularly if not we will forget it because of brain’s use-it-or-lose-it tendency. We tend to remember things more effectively if we spread reviews out over time, instead of studying multiple times in one session. So for effective learning we need to (1) test ourselves by recalling it from memory (2) do it often so that we don’t forget it (3) use spaced repetition. A German scientist named Sebastian Leitner developed a system using flash cards which uses all of these techniques.

The German scientist Sebastian Leitner developed his own system for spaced practice of flashcards, known as the Leitner box. Think of it as a series of four file-card boxes. In the first are the study materials (be they musical scores, hockey moves, or Spanish vocabulary flashcards) that must be practiced frequently because you often make mistakes in them. In the second box are the cards you’re pretty good at, and that box gets practiced less often than the first, perhaps by a half. The cards in the third box are practiced less often than those in the second, and so on. If you miss a question, make mistakes in the music, flub the one-touch pass, you move it up a box so you will practice it more often. The underlying idea is simply that the better your mastery, the less frequent the practice, but if it’s important to retain, it will never disappear completely from your set of practice boxes. – Make It Stick


I know what’s going on inside your head. Do not worry you don’t need to create any of the Leitner’s boxes. Anki does it all for you and all you need to do is to install it in your computer. Anki is a flashcard software program which makes remembering things easy. Every time you answer a question, you tell Anki how well you were able to remember it. Anki uses this feedback to decide the optimal time to show you the question again. It has a powerful spaced repetition algorithm which enables it to show you word that you don’t know well more often compared to words that you know well.

2. Finding words to learn

After you installed Anki the next step in the process is to find out words to learn. How do we go about this? One way is to start with a list of SAT and GRE words. But this did not work for me as I found reading a list of unrelated words very boring. If this works for you then you should go for it. I get my list of words to learn while reading books. When I typed this line a scene from the movie Pay It Forward came to my mind. I highly recommend you to watch the fantastic scene from the movie.

If there is a word you hear that you don’t understand there is a dictionary in the front of the room. Look it up. And there are these dictionaries which you will carry with you at all times because in this class we are going to learn to love words and their meanings. – From the above video (3:30 to 3:52)

While reading if I don’t know a word then I do the following (1) if it is a physical book I circle the word (2) if it is kindle it pops up the dictionary and shows the meaning and it automatically adds the word to the vocabulary builder (3)  if it is an online webpage I use Google’s Chrome extension which pops up the dictionary and shows the meaning when I click on the word. As much as possible I try to guess the word from the context before looking up the meaning. The act of trying to answer a question or attempting to solve a problem rather than being presented with the information or the solution is known as generation. This is a powerful technique and helps you to learn the word deeply.

When you’re asked to supply an answer or a solution to something that’s new to you, the power of generation to aid learning is even more evident. One explanation for this effect is the idea that as you cast about for a solution, retrieving related knowledge from memory, you strengthen the route to a gap in your learning even before the answer is provided to fill it and, when you do fill it, connections are made to the related material that is fresh in your mind from the effort. For example, if you’re from Vermont and are asked to name the capital of Texas you might start ruminating on possibilities: Dallas? San Antonio? El Paso? Houston? Even if you’re unsure, thinking about alternatives before you hit on (or are given) the correct answer will help you. (Austin, of course.) Wrestling with the question, you rack your brain for something that might give you an idea. You may get curious, even stumped or frustrated and acutely aware of the hole in your knowledge that needs filling. When you’re then shown the solution, a light goes on. Unsuccessful attempts to solve a problem encourage deep processing of the answer when it is later supplied, creating fertile ground for its encoding, in a way that simply reading the answer cannot. It’s better to solve a problem than to memorize a solution. It’s better to attempt a solution and supply the incorrect answer than not to make the attempt. – Make It Stick

3. Putting words in Anki

Let us imagine that we got the words decimation and derision from step 2. Let us first start with the word decimation. It means to kill, destroy, or remove a large percentage or part of. After learning the meaning of this word, I will search how this word is used in my personal search index; Kindle. I have 110 books in my Kindle library so there is a good chance of finding this word. What did I find? I found this gem from Berkshire Hathaway – Letters To Shareholders.

Last year I told you that our US Air investment “should work out all right unless the industry is decimated during the next few years.” Unfortunately 1991 was a decimating period for the industry, as Midway, Pan Am and America West all entered bankruptcy. – Buffett; 1991 shareholder letter

What is the advantage of doing this? Words are abstract in nature. Human brain remembers things better if they are concrete in nature. Also if I link an unknown with a known then I can pull out the unknown from my head very easily. Now the word decimation is linked with Buffett’s investment in US Air. The next step is to create a visual image for this sentence. This is the most important step and I love doing this. Why is this important? Human brain devotes more than 30% of its cortex to visual processing. It’s a shame if we don’t use this to our advantage. If you don’t believe me then I would let you try this out on your own by reading this.

Part of the reason an image is so important to memory is that images connect directly to your right brain’s visuospatial centers. The image helps you encapsulate a seemingly humdrum and hard-to-remember concept by tapping into visual areas with enhanced memory abilities. The more neural hooks you can build by evoking the senses, the easier it will be for you to recall the concept and what it means. – A Mind For Numbers

I will add all this information to Anki. Given below is the screenshot from Anki.


Let us do the same thing for the word derision. The dictionary meaning is contemptuous ridicule or mockery. For a change I am going to search inside my head for some incidence direct or vicarious to associate with this word. There was a funny incident that happened in 1992 World Cup cricket which I would let you watch it. I will use this incidence as an image and associate with this word and add it to Anki.


4. Is this not a lot of work?

Yes it is. Who said learning is easy? I sincerely believe that we can all do one word every day. If we do that then in one year we would have mastered 365 words. In ten years it will be 3650 words. They key thing is to start and do it everyday without giving up.

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