Synonyms: your shortcut to fluency

There is a lot of debate about what we should understand as “fluency” when learning a new language. Can you measure it by the size of your vocabulary? Is it how well you know and use the grammar? Or is it just how confident you sound and feel when speaking your new language?

These are all possible interpretations. I’ve always thought it’s difficult as a language learner to ever confidently declare yourself fluent in a language that you’re learning, because at the back of your mind you know you’re not finished yet. Even after years of studying and using your new language, you’re always more aware of what you don’t know than what you do.

Inevitably, you will always have a smaller vocabulary in your new language than in your mother tongue. The amount of years you’ve spent learning your first language can never be surpassed by how much time you’ve then dedicated to new ones. But once you’ve come to terms with that, you’re in a great position to make plans for how to overcome it.

Fluency is not just the ability to function in all contexts, it’s also the ability to function well. If you haven’t grown up with a language, you will probably be largely unaware of certain nuances or connotations that words and phrases may have. You will remain unaware of these, unless you immerse yourself culturally.

A friend of mine in Russia recently wrote to me to tell me to watch more Soviet films. He said it was impossible to really speak the language without using the turns of phrase that were coined in that era and persist in the language to this day. And you cannot truly grasp what these phrases mean without understanding the context of the film, as that is how Russians first came across them themselves. So in short, flashcards and vocab lists won’t help you here. If you get the reference, you understand the expression. If you understand the expression, you use it appropriately. This presents a different skill to just “learning a language”.

But there is an important element to increasing your fluency that can be learnt methodically, and will dramatically improve your grasp of the language: synonyms.

We use synonyms all the time in our native language, and we’re always aware of the difference in meaning and when to use which alternative. English speakers will have an instinctive sense of the difference between a “cordial reception” and a “hearty welcome”. They both mean the same thing – although one is from Latin and the other Germanic – but they couldn’t be more different in terms of when you’d use them both. The Germanic “hearty welcome” is much more familiar, more honest, more modest, and the kind of thing you’d say to good friends whom you haven’t seen for a long time. The Latin “cordial reception” is immediately more formal, as Latin-derived phrases in English often are. You would only offer a cordial reception to business contacts and officials, or guests at a formal event.

But while I might know this difference, how could someone learning English also develop a sense for it?

I try to be fairly conservative when starting to use new vocabulary. I try to make sure I use it only in the contexts where I first came across it. If I am amongst native speaker friends, I might take a moment to ask them whether it’s ok for me to say “угощайтесь!” (what you are often told in Russia when visiting acquiantances’ homes and they offer you anything to eat or drink) amongst friends as well. Once I get the green light, I start using it confidently. I can tell immediately by someone’s reaction whether I’ve said the right thing, or put my foot in it.

But I don’t live in Russia any more, so I can’t learn from these situations like I used to. Fortunately there are many ways to get round this.

Thesauruses are your friends. Especially if you can get one that tells you something about context as well, like whether it’s formal or familiar. If you really want to broaden your vocabulary, cross check every new word in a thesaurus and learn the alternatives as well. This actually shouldn’t be too difficult an exercise, because you’re just concentrating on one concept. Your brain will process that more easily than learning a list of ten loosely related words. My friend Julia who moved to England when she was 10, says her current fluency in English is entirely because her teacher made her thoroughly study an English thesaurus. There was no way to build the wide vocabulary she needed for school otherwise.

You can also try some of the synonym workbooks that are published for specific languages. I recently got hold of the German one and have been working my way through it. As I posted on my Facebook page, what you first see when you open it is that there are 20 words in German that all mean ‘to change’. What I love about the Cambridge “Using Synonyms” series is that they’re really clearly laid out, and have examples of the words in sentences to help you really internalise everything. I have ordered the Russian version by Terrence Wade, and there are more available in French, Italian, Spanish, Chinese, and Arabic. These are absolutely essential for any serious learner of those languages.

Learning synonyms and their appropriate registers is exactly what you need when you’re entering your end game with your language studies. You understand what’s going on around you, you can follow most conversations, you watch TV with no problems and reading isn’t too big a challenge, but when it comes to interacting you still sound like an 11 year old. Learn to speak how a native speaker would expect you to, learn the difference between words like “close” and “proximal”, and pay close attention to what message you send out when using one or the other. That is by far the most efficient way to broaden your vocabulary, and advance your studies of your chosen language.

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