How to Supercharge the Growth of Your Business English Vocabulary
Updated: Dec 3, 2018
Have you ever had the feeling that your business English has plateaued? That, no matter what you do, you always seem to be limited to the same set of words when you want to speak?
You are not alone. At some point every language learner has had this feeling.
The reality is that you are progressing each time you listen to anything in English. Or read. Or write. Or speak the language. Each time you are exposed to English your brain becomes a tiny bit more familiar.
It is a subconscious process but eventually your brain begins to recognize patterns and build a mental map of the language. Over time this map becomes so developed and the streets and bridges of vocabulary, grammar and other parts of the language so connected that it becomes easier and easier to understand and use the language.
If you consistently expose yourself to any language this process will occur. Language acquisition is normal. It is human.
The problem is that it can take a very long time for this map to become clear in your brain. It’s like you get in your car and you’re ready to drive 100 miles per hour towards everything you’ve ever wanted. But you don’t know where you’re going. You don’t have GPS and your map was printed in 1850.
You make a wrong turn and then another. Most streets aren’t even on the map. You soon become discouraged and start to run out of gas. Eventually you do, the car stalls and you give up.
This is exactly what happens to most language learners. So the challenge is to get enough repetitions reading, hearing, writing and speaking the language so the brain can construct this map before you run out of gas, get frustrated and quit.
Unfortunately the traditional method of getting these repetitions has failed. Think of our school systems as the construction companies given the job of helping students build that language map. But their strategy doesn’t work. The streets and bridges never get built. We as language learners never develop that map to use the language to take us where we want to go.
But don’t give up! In this article I’m going to tell you why you feel like you’ve plateaued. I’ll tell you why your business English vocabulary is the key to breaking this perceived plateau.
And finally I’ll tell you about a method that I discovered that will exponentially reduce the time it takes you to build your business English map.
The Building Blocks of Language
There is an ongoing debate in the language-learning community as to what is more important, grammar or vocabulary.
To continue our analogy I like to think of grammar as the real infrastructure of language. Grammar is the streets and bridges.
Vocabulary, on the other hand, is like the street signs and addresses. It gives detail to your map and allows you to arrive exactly at your destination.
So which is more important? Of course you need both to become an intermediate or advanced speaker. But if I was limited to one and could only choose one then it would have to be vocabulary.
Sure it’s great to have roads and bridges, but what good are they if we can’t describe anything or arrive specifically at your destination?
If we completely eliminate some roads and bridges you still have a chance to somehow arrive at your destination. If we eliminate the street signs and addresses, however, you have no chance because you’ll never know if you got there or not.
Vocabulary is the same way. If you have words you at least have a chance to communicate. Sure it would be a jumbled mess without any grammar but you would have a chance.
When you began studying English you probably sat in a classroom and listened to a teacher tell you about the grammar rules of the language as he spoke in your native language. You were beginning to build the streets and bridges of the language.
As you moved through the English textbook you were probably given a list of vocabulary words to “learn.” You probably stared at a sheet of vocabulary words on a piece of paper along with their translations, memorized those words for the exam and then forgot them.
Meanwhile the teacher continued through the textbook, introducing new grammar concepts in each chapter. You memorized the list of vocabulary words for that chapter and then forgot them.
This cycle continued through your language education at school. You probably didn’t have any sort of meaningful conversation using those words. At best you were writing for your homework or exam.
After many years, a few streets and bridges began to take shape. Through repetition and a constant classroom focus on grammar, your brain began to pick up on its basic patterns.
Vocabulary, however, was a different story. You memorized and forgot, memorized and forgot.
Then you left school and, like the majority of people, were probably not very comfortable speaking English because you had some infrastructure or grammar but no street signs or vocabulary to make it useful.
This is not surprising. The Oxford English dictionary includes more than 170,000 words in active use. The average native speaker knows between 20,000 and 35,000 words and uses only about 5,000 of the most common vocabulary words on a daily basis.
When compared with grammar, however, this is a massive amount to learn. If you learn the twelve basic tenses of English (nine if you exclude three very infrequent forms) then you can say anything that you need to say in English.
These basic patterns will repeat themselves in any exposure that you have to English going forward. When combined with proper corrections, the brain will automatically adjust.
Vocabulary, on the other hand becomes the limiting factor. If you have constant exposure to English then sure you will hear many of these basic 5,000 day-to-day English words. If you are exposed to these 5,000 words enough over the years you might remember and even be able to use some of them to express yourself.
Sure you probably still make some grammar mistakes when you speak but your brain has heard and continues to hear the same grammar patterns over and over again. The grammar infrastructure is there but you lack the street signs and addresses to really get where you want to go with the language.
You have arrived at about an intermediate level and your progress slows drastically. You feel like you’ve plateaued and are constantly using the same limited set of vocabulary.
Active Versus Passive Vocabulary
In the meantime you’ve worked hard over the years. Maybe you’ve built your own business or consistently increased your responsibility within your company.
In fact, you’ve grown so much professionally that your country can no longer contain you! You’re ready to expand and experience the tremendous international opportunities awaiting your substantial professional skills.
But you’re still stuck with those basic 5,000 English words. Over the years you have occasionally read the Financial Times and watched the business news in English. You might even understand some of what you hear but when it comes time to speak, you feel incapable of using any of those specialized words.
You have expanded your passive vocabulary through passive exposure to the language (reading and listening) but when you want to write or speak in English you don’t remember any of these words. They’re simply not available to you. They’re not active.
To improve your business English vocabulary you now need to massively increase your exposure to business English vocabulary. Sounds fairly straightforward but remember there are more than 170,000 active words in the English language.
How many English words do you need to know to comfortably do business in the English-speaking world? Sure it’s not 170,000 but it’s way more than 5,000.
I was once curious so I took an online exam designed to test vocabulary size in foreign languages. It told me I knew more than 20,000 words in both German and Spanish. How many of those words were related to business, politics, finance and macroeconomics? I’m not sure but I would guess at least 50%.
I don’t write that to brag but rather to show you that the only way to improve your business English vocabulary is to focus intensely on hunting business English vocabulary.
As I was learning German and Spanish I was focused almost exclusively on business vocabulary because my goal was related to those areas. If you were a chef I would tell you to do the same thing with cooking vocabulary. If you were a doctor. You get my point.
You have to hunt words by exposing yourself to massive amounts of business-related content. Naturally you will also be reinforcing and perfecting the language infrastructure (grammar) through this exposure.
Another key requirement is that you are consuming real content. This means that the words that you are learning are in their proper context.
If you need some ideas as to where you can find business English vocabulary in context, check out these articles that I wrote about my favorite business English resources to read and my favorite business English resources to watch.
Context is so crucially important because it helps you remember.
Think back to when you were studying English vocabulary at school. There was no context for anything that you were doing. You were just memorizing and forgetting. Your brain didn’t know where to place those street signs and addresses on the language map.
Sadly, most school systems and language schools around the world are still using these traditional methods. They lack context and they lack results.
Good But Not Great
You’re now moving towards your goal. You’re intensely focused on consuming the right content and it’s all in proper context. You’re beginning to notice that there are more streets and bridges and there are more signs and addresses to direct you.
But the construction process is still progressing quite slowly. You need to learn as much business English vocabulary as fast as you can!
The problem is that even though you are consuming the right content, there is still a massive amount of business English vocabulary, idioms and expressions that you might encounter while doing business in English.
Imagine you are reading the business news and you see the word “conglomerate” for the first time. It is in context so you think you understand it. Maybe you write it down, maybe you don’t. You continue reading.
Perhaps you then take that word and write it in some sort of business English vocabulary journal. You do this for a week and each day you review the list of words in your journal.
This works for about two weeks but soon your list is taking up three pages. It is taking more and more time to review the words each day. Eventually it is nearly impossible to do this efficiently.
Now you have a problem because even though “conglomerate” is a normal business English vocabulary word, there are also several other synonyms that could be used to express the same idea. This means you may not see this word again for another six months, a year, or even longer.
While you may be able to recognize and have a general idea what “conglomerate” means when you encounter it again, it is unlikely that you’re going to get enough repetitions seeing and hearing this word for it to even become a part of your passive vocabulary. If this word never becomes part of your passive vocabulary then it can never become part of your active vocabulary.
So if you consume a ton of very focused content like I am suggesting you should do, your business English vocabulary will grow faster than using school-based methods. But it is still going to grow very slowly.
In late 2012 I was in a similar position. I had to learn German to start a business. Except I not only had to improve my vocabulary, I had no infrastructure to start with. My German map was completely blank!
After studying different language-learning techniques I did exactly what I described above.
I built a very basic foundation of grammar at the beginning of the process and then just continued to hunt vocabulary, piling massive heaps of street signs and addresses on top of that infrastructure.
Within nine months I was able to reach a C1 level. Two years after I began I reached C2 in German. In 2014 I used the same method to learn Spanish to a C2 level within a year.
How did I do it?
In two words: spaced repetition.
Do I think you can improve your business English vocabulary to an advanced level using another method? Yes, I do. But I also think it would take you a very long time to do so.
If you haven’t heard of spaced repetition, here’s how it works.
Spaced repetition allows you to learn massive amounts of vocabulary in a short period of time by using a scientifically proven method to put information in your long-term memory.
In short, you only see a portion of the information each day. That will be new information and information that you had difficulty remembering previous days.
When I began with German I was skeptical if spaced repetition could work. Very quickly I realized that all I had to do was put the information into the program and it was as good as done.
I might not remember the word the first day or even the second, but once I put it into the program, I knew the information would end up in my long-term memory.
Once I realized this I used spaced repetition for more than just vocabulary. I used it for vocabulary, grammar, and every other part of the language. I couldn’t believe I could learn and remember so much in such a short amount of time each day. It was like hacking into my own brain!
And best of all it solved all of the problems that I mentioned above. It solved the repetition problem as through the spacing algorithm you can see massive amounts of vocabulary just before you forget it. It solved the context problem because you can customize the program to make it memorable.
So when I created my business English courses I created a product called the Business English Power Pack. With the Power Pack I integrated the spaced repetition program with all of the course materials, so students can massively expand their business English vocabularies, grammar, etc. in a short period of time.
If you haven’t heard of or used spaced repetition before, then from one language learner to another, I highly recommend it to upload tons of business English vocabulary to your Business English map as quickly as possible.
If you want to burst through your business English plateau then you need to do something differently. Traditional school-based methods of language learning have proven ineffective.
Both grammar and vocabulary are important, but once you get past a beginner level, you should be focusing intensely on acquiring new vocabulary. For you this means exposure to as much business English vocabulary as possible.
While any exposure to real content is preferred over staring at endless pages of grammar exercises, if you want to build a huge vocabulary as quickly as possible then simply exposing yourself to the language is not enough.
You need to get a ton of repetitions seeing and hearing relevant business vocabulary in context. Only then can your brain convert the most important words into passive vocabulary which, in turn, can be converted into active vocabulary.
Fortunately technology offers many amazing tools to assist in this process. Spaced repetition is one such tool that I can highly recommend. By intelligently scheduling your exposure to information, spaced repetition gives you a way to upload a massive amount of business English vocabulary to your long-term memory in a short amount of time.
Before you know it you’ll have a global business English map of streets and bridges, addresses and street signs.
Before you know it you will once again be accelerating towards unlimited professional opportunity.
About the Author
Jason Gower is the creator and instructor of Expand Life Business English courses. He has more than fifteen years of business experience and has learned both German and Spanish to a C2 level. Click to learn more about Expand Life Business English courses.