How to Improve Your Vocabulary: Reading and More Reading

I’m often asked how one can improve vocabulary. By this, people mean they want to know more words. Of course, the old-fashioned way to do that is to open a dictionary and start reading. But after five words, you either get bored, or you find you need to read the first one again to refresh your memory.

So in that case you learned the easy way that studying lists of words is no good.

Just for your information, according to the Oxford dictionary, there are about 250,000 words in the English language. Some of these are old or aren’t used often, but let’s say if you know 60,000 you will be at the level of a college graduate. An English college graduate, that is. If you think you can learn 10 new words in a day, you can calculate yourself how long it will take you to reach your target of 60,000 words.

What you really should be doing, and I’m sure I’m not telling you anything new, is this: You should be reading texts, and in that way you can remember a new word in its context. The added bonus is that you practice the words you already know at the same time.

Why is it so important to learn new words in their context? Because of two things: 1. You’ll remember the word much better. 2. You’ll be able to use the word in the correct way.

If you know any people who are in the habit of studying words from lists or from a computer program which teaches individual words, you will have noticed that they speak a very strange English, often ungrammatical. That is because when people learn separate words, they don’t know how to make sentences. And if you want to communicate with other people, you need to be able to speak in sentences.

A good way to learn words in sentences, I said, is by reading texts. You can include with that songs and poems. If you don’t have the stomach to get through a novel or a story in a magazine, maybe you like songs. Anything can work, especially when you like the text you’re working with, and it’s not too hard for you. Let’s get you off to a good start and read a poem together. It’s a very famous poem. I hope you like it as much as I do.

When You Are Old – William Butler Yeats

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

If there are any words that you don’t know, try to guess what they mean first, and then check them in the dictionary.

Here is some background information that may help you enjoy or appreciate the poem even more:

William Butler Yeats was an Irish poet who lived from 1865 to 1939. A few weeks ago (on 13 June) he had his birthday. During the time of Yeats’ life, Ireland was seeking more independence from England (the country was part of England then). As a young man he met the actress and radical nationalist Maud Gonne, and fell desperately in love with her. In her pictures and from the stories about her, we understand that Maud was an intelligent, red-headed beauty. The poet asked her for her hand several times, but she refused each time. After she had several children with other men far more revolutionary than him, he tried again, and thereafter even asked to marry her daughter! That didn’t go either. Yeats eventually married someone else. When You Are Old, for sure, like many other works by Yeats, is written about Maud. Although the woman in the poem is old, the poem was actually written in 1891, at a time when Maud and Yeats were still young.


What is the poem about?

I think the poem succeeds very well in painting a picture of an old, lonely woman sitting by the fire. You only need to close your eyes and you see her in front of you. What I like about it is that there are several contrasts. First there is the contrast of the old woman who sits there, but the poet is reminiscing about the days when she was young. She is thinking back, too, with the help of the book the poet has written for her and about her. To him she is still just as interesting as she was long ago. And here the poet mentions another contrast, and that is that other people only liked the way she looked then, when she was young and beautiful, but he loved her soul. We are meant to understand that he loved her with a true love. Besides loving her soul, he loved the changes in her face. Also a sign of true love, presumably, when your lover carries on loving you when you grow older and uglier. The poet calls her soul a “pilgrim soul.” Where is her soul traveling to? It surely has to do with the spiritual vision that Yeats had about life as a journey from childhood to old age, gathering experience along the way. Yet, in the last stanza of the poem, sadly enough, it seems that the poet doesn’t love her anymore, because he says that Love has fled and hides its face. Their affair is over, and the woman by the fire can only dream about what could have been. So you could say that the ending is rather cruel. The last contrast that I think is done very beautifully is how you can see a picture of all those brightly sparkling stars up in the sky, while the woman is somewhere down on earth, in the dark, bending down to pick up the last warmth and glow of her dying fire.

I think you’ll agree with me that this poem, if it’s true that it was written about Maud, wasn’t meant to give her a good feeling.

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