Increasing your English Vocabulary Using Vocabulary/Word Lists

When you are learning a language, certainly there are highs and lows. I remember back to my Spanish classes in college, when a young, very frustrated lady asked the professor how she could improve her language abilities. She felt like she was doing everything right. She was studying and got good grades on her exams, yet she felt the ability to really master Spanish and speak it at a functional level was still elusive to her.

I still remember my professor’s response: increase your vocabulary.

At first I thought his response was sort of simplistic, but I now understand and somewhat agree. Once you have learned the basics of a language and the rules that outline its usage, learning more vocabulary words becomes the only way to elevate your communication and express yourself in a more nuanced way.

Of course, along with this, I think lots of practice and spending time in a region where the language is spoken are also two key factors that aid in improving your language abilities.

In fact, one day at a dollar store (of all places, I promise I don’t usually shop at dollar stores, just occasionally when I am bored… although they have interesting things that you would never find anywhere else, well maybe between interesting/wasteful/bizarre… I promise I have good taste), I found a little book titled “4000 Most Common Words in Spanish.” I enjoy making a good (and cheap) purchase. So indeed, I purchased this book and went down the list of common words, studying them in my spare time. Please also note this was indeed an unusual occurrence – I don’t recommend book shopping at the dollar store. Books at the dollar store are usually sent there because they don’t sell anywhere else. And no, you probably don’t need more cheap, plastic utensils in your kitchen that break within two weeks. (And for those unaware of the concept of a dollar store, it is where everything costs $1)

Okay, enough about the dollar store.

I was happy to find that a similar (and much better) list exists for ESL (English as a second language) speakers: The New General Service List.

Yes, from the title you would never imagine that the general service is in fact a list of the most common English words, as determined by Dr. Charles Browne, Dr. Brent Culligan, and Joseph Phillips ( If you master the words on this list, you will understand up to 92% of English words in written texts (of the texts selected by these fine fellows). There is some more history about this list, at the wikipedia page.

I also was happy to see an Academic Word List! Yes, now this is really useful! These words are common to academic writing and also available in downloadable/excel format, also from their webpage (

I really enjoyed one image on their webpage, at following:


Wow! What amazes me the most about this is to think that while 600,000 words exist in the English language, even us native English speakers only have a command of approximately 30,000 words.

I think I might go read a dictionary, right now.


Shortest Book Review: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou, African-American writer and activist, passed away a little over two years ago. As they were commemorating her passing on the news, I wondered to myself why I had never read one of her books. After all, reading a Maya Angelou book has always been on my to-do list!

So, I found I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings at my local library. This book is actually an autobiography, but Maya Angelou recounts her childhood as if it were fiction. Her story reads more like a chronological narrative than a traditional autobiography.

This, in and of itself, is certainly an accomplishment and an expansion of the autobiographical genre.

However, I was touched by her experiences of discrimination and prejudice, and above all her matter-of-fact and very practical attitude in the face of such experiences. She doesn’t seek sympathy from the reader but instead gains the reader’s respect. Her childhood stories are often heartbreaking, yet they also tell a tale of a young woman coming into her own despite social, racial, and gender prejudices, which have collided with her own personal and familial tragedies.

Yet this story is far from being just a tragedy. There is a slight tinge of hope throughout her childhood recounting. In spite of memories of pain and suffering, her love for her brother, her friends, and for literature shine though as her guiding saviors. Her acceptance of her destiny (and subsequent desire to change it) and her sense of personal responsibility, perhaps instilled by her grandmother, are also notable.

Maya also gains you over slowly. Her attack is subtle, as what seems to be a simple recounting in her few first chapters turns into a profound experience by the end of the novel.

As I Caucasian female, perhaps I have often erred in believing that racism or prejudice no longer exist. Perhaps this is a reflection of my own tolerance and upbringing in racially diverse southern California. I remember growing up with friends from a wide range of racial backgrounds and believing it to be absolutely normal. I truly thought no differently of my white, black, and Mexican classmates.

In this sense, it was very touching to me to see that a woman like Maya Angelou had experienced such prejudices or difficulties in the not-so-distant past. I’m not talking about the 19th century, civil war era. Just in the past 50 to 60 years, or even more recent decades.

What I do know is that suffering tends to beget more suffering. Maya bore the brunt of a history and family that was not her own, yet transformed her story into that of her own making.