Thursday 21 July 2016

From English as a Third Language to Author — How I Expanded My Vocabulary

From English as a Third Language to Author — How I Expanded My Vocabulary by Omar Cherif, One Lucky Soul

At 15 I had my first real girlfriend who was British-Egyptian but has lived all her life in London. Despite having multilingual parents, travelling to the States several times, and being constantly exposed to American and English movies and music, I still needed help to keep up during the few years we were together. After all, I went to a French school and English was my third language after French and Arabic respectively.

One way to enhance my existing vocabulary was to keep an English thesaurus next to my bed. Whenever the girl would use a word I didn’t know, like ‘annoying’, ‘obnoxious’, ‘fringe’ I would consult the thesaurus to find its meaning. This is how I learned a little bit more than the essentials we were taught at Les Jésuites.

Then I joined the American University in Cairo where I studied Mass Communication, Psychology, and Philosophy. It was a chance to truly enhance my linguistic abilities. Coming from a French school, I found myself significantly better in communicating in English than many students who were in ‘English’ schools where English is a first language, which they had been ‘using’ for 13 years of schooling. 

At first I thought the advantage was due to my strict Catholic school’s way of teaching. This, however, may be true for other subjects, because the school teaches you how to study; how to be able to remain focused for hours at a time. But when it comes to language and how to express yourself, it’s more of a personal endeavour which is directly linked to exposure as well as to your own personality.

Again, during this time music and movies were great teachers — especially music because there are lyrics to view. I first began with The Beatles, Dire Straits, Pink Floyd, even Garth Brooks (yes, don’t judge me). Then I graduated to Camel, Jethro Tull, and King Crimson. Being a young lexophile, I would follow the lyrics closely and check the thesaurus for all new words. Note that this was before the Internet when we read printed lyrics and used a physical thesaurus.

I specifically recall the first time I checked words like ‘grim’ and ‘intimation’ from Learning to Fly; ‘bleating’ and ‘babbling’, and ‘charade’ from Animals; ‘bog’, ‘shabby’, ‘rattling’ from Aqualung; ‘melee’ from Thick as a Brick; and ‘epitaph’. These additions serve as a reminder of how much I loved this kind of music. Not only because the artistic talent in the music-playing itself, but it also added my vocabulary with new and unusual words one doesn’t normally come across in everyday life, especially for a non-native English speaker.

After graduation, I worked in the vapid corporate world for 10 years before moving to Canada where I rediscovered myself. I needed to leave the comfort zone and the toxic life it had brought upon me, and Toronto was the perfect natural rehabilitation for the mind and soul. There, I joined the University of Toronto for a creative Writing Certificate, which apart from ‘training’ at work, was the first time to be back to the class setting since graduating in 1999-2000. I ended up taking two courses: Copywriting and Logic.

Those two classes were another major boost for my confidence and self-esteem. I had just come out of a seven-year hazy period of self-medication, so mingling again with people in a class setting was quite the experience.

By the second or third class, I once again realised that I was much more talkative than most of my class mates. These were Continuing Studies courses, so most were adults in their mid 20 to mid 30s.

I equally began noticing that my vocabulary is more expansive than the majority who are Canadians and whose English is supposed to be a first language. Of course, some were immigrants, but everyone is an immigrant in Canada and many spoke decent English. 

However, technically English was still a third language to me.

The copywriting teacher, Leslie, told me at some point that because I speak three languages, my vocabulary tend to be wider than the average person who speaks only one, or even two. I later researched that and it is true: Being multilingual is certainly a healthy feat. Eventually I got an ‘A’ in Copywriting and a ‘B’ in Logic.

This was around the time when I decided to take writing as a vocation. Leslie actually became my first editor. Throughout the following three years, I published hundreds of articles and exposés and founded One Lucky Soul. And here I am alacritously finalising a non-fiction, psycho-philosophical book about dreams — in English — where I’m sharing words with no direct translation to English from over 12 languages.

It was also then when I realised that I sincerely love, and had always loved, language, all of it. Or should I say, all of them. As proven, being multilingual sure has its benefits, as one ends up by thinking in different languages. When I’m writing and looking for a specific word, if I can’t find it in English, I’ll find it in French; if I don’t, I will in Arabic. The translation process usually follows either in my head or through the lovely Internet. This is something which is helping me tremendously with the book.

The more I wrote, the more I got complimented on my writing. Some of those compliments were from English-speaking folks, which always keep me in high spirits. English, Americans, Australians or Kiwis, whether they are people I meet in real life, virtual friends, fans or followers, it truly humbles me. It further makes me think. As mentioned, English is technically my third language, so coming from those who were born and bred into that one language, it means a lot.

As a writer, I naturally have to keep enhancing my vocabulary. As a lexophile it almost happens on the subconscious level. Currently, my knack is for more obscure, archaic words, as well as ones with No Direct Translation to English. That’s in addition to the exquisite fun I have with the Words I Made Up series.

Now that I’ve shared my story, know that whether it’s your first or third language, bettering your language skills in general and your vocabulary in particular require a few activities.

First, constant reading: Lots and lots of it. If you’re sincere about learning, you can circle the words you do not know and Google them later. Or as I often do, check them out one by one as you read. However, as explained before in On Reading, Listening, Speaking and Writing, in addition to reading, all those skills are equally needed if one were to be a good communicator.

Another, is making it a priority to notice new words you encounter, anywhere and everywhere. Adding them to a virtual file would do, though using a pen is preferred when it comes to better memory input.

One more way to enhance your vocabulary is to join Facebook pages and groups like Word Porn and Logophilia. This way, through your Newsfeed you can conveniently learn at least one new word per day.

An additional tool is taking vocabulary tests among other language games. 

Personally, I do not take said tests to know my “language level” or the density of my vocabulary. But rather, I’m much more interested in the new words they would expose me to.

In the last test there were about 40 new words. That’s a whole lot to take in at one time. 

Knowing that only about eight to ten words will be remembered, I devised a technique to acquire more. The process is simple.

You write down the words, using a pen. Google their meaning and skim through the synonyms. Then write down the closest two or three synonyms next to the word. 

Once this is done, perhaps about 10-15 words out of the 40 will be somewhat remembered.

Note that the meaning of the words may be remembered whenever you see them, but they are not yet cemented in your mind. Meaning, you wouldn’t really use them in your everyday conversation, which is the chief point of learning new words. For we’re not doing it to be tested.

To truly integrate the novel words into your vocabulary, you must keep the ‘list’ handy. You can read it once a day or so. I have done just that by choosing to use the recent list as a featured photo for this article, just to have it straight in my face — and yours. In actuality, I’ve used two herein. Can you spot them? Other times, it could be as simple as a title for one of my photographs. Like ‘Orphic’, for instance, which just came to mind. This way, I am equally introducing my readers to the new word. The interested learner may then Google it as I had first done.  

Slowly but surely, start adding some of the words into your writings and conversations. Once used, you are more likely to remember them more often, which will allow you to use them more often. Where and how remain a matter of choice and style. Though with unconventional words, one must be careful not to overuse or to appear pretentious, or even worse, a malapropist plonker.

Sometimes I use big words I don’t fully understand to appear more like a cathartic sesquipedalian snollygoster.


The Writing Process and the Creative Block
On Reading, Listening, Speaking and Writing

Words With No Direct Translation To English

More Words With No Direct Translation To English

Unusual English Words I learned Later in Life

Words With Italian Origin That Are Still Used Today In Egypt

Words I Made Up

Words I Made Up — The Sequel

Why Many Place Names End with ‘-Stan’

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