According to the Global Language Monitor (2014), there are 1,025,109.8 words in the English language [an estimate, hence the .8]; according to a recent Google/Harvard study, there are 1,022,000. Separately, research into the relationship between vocabulary size and the level of education has yielded vocabulary size estimates ranging from 17,000 to 23,000+ for educated older adults. These two separate bits of information clearly depict the scale of the Dictionary Challenge.

Firstly, to keep matters practical, let us use a physical, single-volume version of the dictionary. Personally, I like Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English; when you choose a dictionary, it is generally better if multiple colours are used and if pictures are utilised where needed. The fifth edition of the aforementioned dictionary contains 230,000 words and phrases (the single-volume Oxford English Dictionary and single-volume Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary both contain a similar number of definitions). Down to 230,000 relevant words: practical yet still challenging.

Assuming that you already know 20,000 words, that leaves about 210,000 words to be learnt. At a rate of 200 words a day, the challenge would require 1,050 days to complete—or roughly three years. (It is not called a challenge for no reason). If you have neither the will nor the desire to proceed, stop reading now and find a more worthwhile intellectual adventure.

If you are still reading, the recommended strategy is as follows:

(In the descriptions below, I will use the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English as an example. In the edition that I own, there are 2,043 pages. Rather than count the number of words you learn, it is easier to work with sets of pages. The strategy below is just an example: it can be scaled up or down to match the time you have available for study.)

  1. Do Not Memorise the Definitions Word-for-Word. You can if you wish to, but that would again tilt the task towards being a pure memory challenge rather than a personal intellectual challenge. It is also much less practical. Memorising your understanding of the definition is the only thing that counts, and the only thing you should memorise. Words are accessed by the mind when a particular meaning is required; definitions that are based on your interpretation are indexed better and are thus more easily recalled to match the thought that you wish to express.
  2. Use the Link System (for more information about the Link System, see The Manual). This way, each new word is only connected to its definition. Alternatively, using the Loci System would allow you to memorise the words in the order in which they are written in the dictionary; however, it would require a painfully large locus to be utilised and maintained. Apart from allowing you to perform revision without the physical copy of the dictionary, the Loci System offers no significant advantage while being more costly in time and effort. So for these reasons, the Link System is the preferred approach.
  3. Set a Clear Schedule. Set a period of time (as much as your other priorities will permit) each day both for memorising new words and for revising old ones. The key point here is revision: you can miss a session of acquiring new words, but you cannot miss a revision session. A missed revision session sets you back significantly.
  4. The Importance of Revision. To perform a pragmatic yet effective revision that accounts for the optimal revision intervals, I propose you use the following 3-cycle revision approach. (It is advisable to mark in your dictionary where each set begins and ends.)
  5.  Cycle 1. Say you memorised five pages with words on the morning of Day 1; review the five pages by testing yourself immediately after having memorised all five. Then, in the evening of the same day, review said five pages. On Day 2, first review the aforementioned five pages and only then begin to memorise the next five (immediately after memorising five new pages, review them by testing yourself). At the end of Day 2, review the five new pages that were learnt on Day 2. On Day 3, review the ten pages of words you already know before learning five new pages; at the end of Day 3, review the five new pages. On Day 4, review the 15 pages you already know before learning five new ones. Continue in this way until you have learnt 50 pages of words (call this Set 1), then proceed to Cycle 2.   
  6.  Cycle 2. Continue applying Cycle 1 to new words; however, now the revision session begins by first reviewing ten pages from Set 1. So, overall, you would review ten pages from Set 1, and then review all the new pages already learnt from Set 2—and only then can you begin learning more new pages from Set 2. Continue in this way for each set of  50 pages. Once you have memorised the entire dictionary, proceed to Cycle 3.
  7. Cycle 3. You simply review a set each day—that is, 50 pages of words each day. For long-term memory storage, it is advisable to perform this cycle once a year for two years. Thereafter, each fifth year should be used as a review year for the dictionary.
  8. Skip Words You Already Know. Obviously, you do not need to memorise that which you are already familiar with. Nonetheless, to make it easy to keep track of sets, all words written in the dictionary count towards each set. For example, say the first 10 pages contain 50 words you already know. You do not memorise these, but the full 10 pages count towards Set 1. And when you review Set 1, you simply skip those 50 words you already know. Similarly, if your target is 5 pages per day, and, say all the words of the next 2 pages are already known, they still count towards your daily page count.
  9. A Note on Reviewing: when you perform a review of known words as part of the revision process, you should not merely re-read the definitions. You should instead test your ability to independently recall the information (for more on the mechanics of the revision process, see The Manual).

Challenging enough? The first few weeks will be the most difficult, but it gets easier as you gain proficiency. Both the review and new-word-acquisition periods will take very long at first, but they will shorten dramatically with practice. If you are new to USM, it is advisable to start with smaller sets—say 1 page of words a day, and scale it up once you become comfortable.

Most importantly: HAVE FUN. If you are not having fun, I suggest you stop. Learning should—first and foremost—be enjoyable.

Good Luck!

(For more about The Manual, see here.)

Memorize the Dictionary

If you be pungent, be brief; for it is with words as with sunbeams—the more they are condensed the deeper they burn.

—John Dryden

When writing The Manual, I focused on keeping it practical and on promoting the applications of the techniques to endeavours that have intellectual merit. Expanding one’s vocabulary must be at the top of the list of worthwhile applications. Memorising the dictionary is taking that application to its extreme.  




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