Video Transcript 6

In the last video we looked at two difficulties of English, the tense system and the spelling/pronunciation system. Now we will look at a third major area of difficulty: English vocabulary.

As an introduction to the topic of vocabulary we need to note that English has more than twice as many words as German, which is the next most word-heavy language. Depending on whom you believe English has between 500,000 and 1 million words. This huge difference is because of disagreement in what constitutes a word for counting purposes. For example, is 'book' one word or two words because it has two different meanings according to whether it is the readable object or what you do to ensure a seat at the train? Are the four verb forms of 'book': 'book', 'books', 'booked' and 'booking' four words or one word? Is 'hot dog' one word or two? What about 'swynke', a word that appears in Chaucer's writing seven hundred years ago, but is not used today? And if I coin the word 'macmerized' meaning to be addicted to Apple products and write it in a blog, does this now count as a word?

All this discussion about numbers of words in the English language may be interesting in theory, but what is difficult in practice for ESL students is that there are several varieties of English, and therefore more words to learn. For example, they read the word 'diversion' in a British newspaper and learn what it means. But then they come across the word 'detour 'in an American newspaper and now need to learn this too as a second word with the same meaning. There are numerous examples like this as you can see from this list, which shows just the differences in words beginning with the letter C.

A similar problem that arises from the size of the English vocabulary is that very many words have synonyms, sometimes several of them. So a learner may have learned the meaning of 'confused', but then finds out that all these words have exactly the same meaning.