The Quickest Way To Learn New Vocabulary Words

Most words can be learned and taught most easily in groups, for example, words used by doctors, terms used every day by car mechanics, vocabulary typically heard in a lawyer’s office.

Imagine a photograph of a scientific laboratory with captions on the key elements: test tube, bunsen burner, beaker, pipette, thermometer, technician, lab coat, goggles, periodic table, fume hood, centrifuge.

A teacher can walk students through the lab, pointing out the most interesting sights. Quickly and naturally, children learn vocabulary, they have a glimpse of what scientists do, they learn about a new world that may excite their enthusiasm.

Words can be grouped in so many memorable ways. Words that came to us from German or Chinese. Words that indicate a color. Words that rhyme. Words that start with a kick-ass K-sound. A good rule of thumb is: any excuse for a group.

Consider words heard in the kitchen. Words you’re likely to encounter in Times Square. Words associated with computers. Words you need to study the American Revolution. Words found on a French menu.

Conversely, learning words one at a time, unconnected, no scaffolding between them, is blatantly inefficient. Membership in a group provides a mnemonic boost.

Some schools teach “the” as a high-frequency word which children are told to memorize as a separate design. Th- is a distinctive sound that occurs in almost 1000 English words, half from Greek (theory, thesis) and half from Old English (this, that, they, thin, they, their, and many others that children speak every day). How much better to teach dozens of words in one bolt, using this special sound that American children know intimately from the age of two. (But ze French never can get it right.)

So, what is the most noble cluster of all? Many years ago, in a book long lost, I read about a cluster that goes back 35 centuries. I was impressed. The Sanskrit root rg- means orderly, lawful, a field with straight furrows properly plowed, a kingdom skillfully governed. The roots reg-rect-rig flowed through Greek and Latin into more than 50 English words.

These words, about straightness, are similar but you might never think of the connection: direct, directly, director, direction, directive, rector, rectify, correct, correction, rectangle, dirigible, rictus, rectitude, erector, erection, erect.

These are more about control: regular, regimen, regulate, regulation, regulator, registry, regulatory, register, registration, rigor, rigorous, irregular, incorrigible.

Others are associated with kingship: regal, royal, regalia, regime, regimental, regiment, region, regional, regimentation, regency, regent, regulus, regnant, regius, regicide, Rex, Regina, Reginald, Reggie, Roger, Regis.

That’s a lot of descendants from one parent.

The Rig Veda, which date from about 1500 B.C., are Hindu holy texts written in Sanskrit, an Aryan language. Rig Veda might be translated Verses on Knowledge or Stanzas on Order. In a chaotic world, that’s the primal need.

Some scholars say that the Vedas, as chanted by Hindus today, are as close as you will get to Bronze Age language.