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Making Vocabulary Lists in your Mother Tongue
Home > Guide > Tips & Tricks > Mother tongue vocabulary

The french languages has more than 200'000 different words, in english there are more than 400'000. Even as one's own mother tongue, who can pretend to know them all ?

Beginning at age 15, I did something that may be useful for some of you, so here it is :

Realising that I did not understand some words in novels or "technical" books I read, I began writing every word I did not understand in a little piece of paper I used as a bookmark. Then, on a little computer I wrote the words and looked them up in the dictionary, writing on the second column their definition. I ended with about 700 words and stopped when no new unknown word showed up for months. Did I know every (non scientific) word in french then ? Maybe.

Anyway, I think that any cultivated person who likes to understand what he reads should look the unknown words in the dictionary and why not, make a list. The list has no other virtue than helping you remember the words and motivating you to amass as many new words as possible as a kind of treasury. Of course, for new languages that would also be a fine thing to do, but if you speak more than one, a time consuming one as well.

My tips if you do this are :

  1. Always have a piece of paper and a pen when you read

  2. If you suspect a word to have different meanings in different contexts, also write the context.

  3. If you don't find the word in the dictionary, just put it aside. When you find an exhaustive dictionary (like the Littré in french or the Webster's in english), look them up.

  4. Keep your list updated and be proud when you write a new word in it : it will motivate you to look for new words

  5. If no new word appears for weeks, no matter how difficult are the texts that you read, congratulations ! You probably know more then 90% of the words that are currently used in your language. Give yourself a break and move to the next language.

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