Selecting words and assembling your vocabulary

It is always better to know as many words as possible and to be able to use correct grammatical forms, but you need time to learn those things.

The truth is that we are always short of time, and so often we have to deal with a very small set of words.  In that case, it is important to ensure that you can put this seemingly negligible knowledge to work.  I will repeat myself, but I do want to say again that of importance here is not the number of words that you know, but instead the skill to use them in a thoughtful and creative way.  It is also important to choose the correct words to learn.  Of use here will be the statement “You don’t need too much of a good thing.”

If you learn the fundamentals of “juggling” words, which we discussed previously, then believe me when I say that you will do fine in any language with a minimal set of words. The minimum number of words that you have to learn to communicate in a foreign language is around 100, plus a small number of specific words and the names of places which will be of importance to you in the specific situation.


Basic words

Basic words are words without which you can hardly communicate.  Various combinations of such words allow you to describe frequently encountered and important everyday situations, which we discussed in the previous chapter.  Basic words, with very few exceptions, can be used anywhere in the world.

We’ll look at an optimal list of basic words a bit later, but here I will mention a few examples as to why the list contains some words, but not others.

When it comes to numbers, it is enough to learn the words for “one” and “two.” To manipulate with other numbers, you can always use the basic words “more” and “less”.  You can also use your fingers or write down numbers.  To discuss the time when something happened, it is quite enough to know the words for “now”, “then”, and “later.” You can describe any living being with the word for “animal.”

It takes much more time to discuss words that are not on this list than those which are, but let me cite a few vivid examples.  We can do perfectly well in a foreign environment without knowing such words as pressure, greedy, refreshing, speeding, centrifuge, scope, itchiness, pine cone, ungulates, and so on.  There are words with importance that cannot be discussed, but if you think about them for a moment, it turns out that they have no linkage to survival or attaining the necessary minimum.  Classic examples include the words “mother” and “father.” These are words which are very important for each of us, but adults have to speak them quite seldom, so they are not part of the survival minimum.


Special words

Special words are ones which apply to a fairly narrow range of activities, a specific geographic location, or a specific hobby such as fishing, construction or some type of sports.  Before visiting a foreign location, you must think about what will be specific in terms of these things and then prepare appropriately for them.  You will add a few specific words to the necessary minimum of basic words, and usually 10 to 20 additional words will be enough to talk about the specific activity.

Here you should remember a few simple truths.  Learn something about the place where you are going and try to determine what is specific about it.  In some places of the world there may be words which must be known even though no one will have heard about them elsewhere on the planet.  These, too, are special words.  The name of a poisonous snake, for instance, will not be useful to a skier in the North of Canada, but it will be of great importance to a hunter in the jungles of Brazil.

The same can be said about various hobbies.  If you are travelling to a foreign country to go windsurfing, then in addition to the 100 necessary words, you should learn words such as “sail”, “mast”, “wind”, “waves”, and so on.  Those will not be words which you will need, in turn, if you are planning to play golf.

If you are leaving your native country to work as a chef abroad, then you will have to learn the names of various food products and spices, but those words will not be important if you get a job as a builder.

Place names are a specific category, and learning them is a matter of safety.  You should be able not just to name, but also write down place names so that you can always explain from where you have come and where you are going.  Learning to write the foreign language will also be of use when the pronunciation of words in a specific region differs from that of the official language.