One of the interesting and useful things that you can do regarding widening your vocabulary in a foreign language is building your own thesaurus. Unlike traditional dictionaries in which words are listed alphabetically, in thesaurus words are grouped thematically.
There are two ways in which you can build thesaurus. The simpler approach is to simply create thematic groups, in which you put certain new words, instead of listing them alphabetically or randomly. You can create groups based upon whatever criteria you find most appropriate or most intuitive. For example you can make a group “emotions” and put all the words you learn that describe human emotions in that group.
The second approach is more advanced: each word is added to a group and groups themselves are hierarchically organized. For example the words from the sentence “A cat sleeps on the floor” could be classified like this:
a: Linguistics> Grammar > Grammatical words > Articles > A
cat: Natural sciences > Biology > Animals > Pets> Cat
sleeps: Natural sciences > Biology > Human and animal physiology > Verbs describing physiological processes > Sleep
on: Linguistics > Grammar > Grammatical words > Prepositions > On
the: Linguistics > Grammar > Grammatical words > Articles > The
floor: Applied sciences > Architecture and civil engineering > Buildings > Parts of buildings > Floor
All words could be classified into 10 main groups, which are further divided into numerous subgroups. It’s similar to Dewey Decimal Classification of books, a system very common for classifying books in libraries. Dewey classification has the following ten main categories:
- General works, computer science and information
- Philosophy and psychology
- Social sciences
- Pure Science
- Arts & recreation
- History & geography
You can use these groups, or you can create a different classification that you find more appropriate. I’ve been using a similar system with 9 groups instead of 10, for learning and classifying Italian words:
- General category (Basic concepts)
- Philosophy and psychology
- Religion and theology
- Social sciences
- Natural sciences and mathematics
- Applied sciences, medicine and technology
- Art, entertainment and sport
- Linguistics and literature
- Geography and history
Now the question is: what are the advantages of creating your personal thesaurus, what are the drawbacks, and in which phase of language learning process would such a system be most useful?
The advantages are numerous: when you put words in groups based on their meaning you can find them much more easily. Also, when you see a word surrounded by their semantic neighbors, that is, words of similar meaning, you can more easily discern subtle shades of meaning, which can be very helpful when you want to find the most appropriate word, (for example when you write an essay). By the way, words in a language do not exist in isolation, it is their relation to other words in a semantic field that gives them their precise meaning, their “color”, as well as their connotation. For example, looking at the group of words related to happiness can help you appreciate the small differences between words like: happy, joyful, satisfied, content, elated, cheerful, delighted, serene, etc…
Also, this is an easier and more natural way to learn a larger number of words, related to a given subject. It’s much easier to learn words for different types of fruit, if you group them together, or perhaps accompany them with pictures (though it’s not necessary), rather than learning them chaotically. This is especially useful in the first stage of learning language when you need to quickly acquire basic vocabulary from the most important areas of language. But it can also be useful in any stage of language learning process even when you are an advanced student. This can help you to intentionally focus on those areas of vocabulary in which you feel weakness and to overcome it through study.
There are some drawbacks to this method as well. The first is that classification process can be complicated, because a certain word can belong to more than one category (even if it has just one meaning), and also, because words have multiple meanings. The first problem does not have a solution, you simply have to make a decision where to group the word. The second problem is easier: if a word has multiple meanings you can list all those meanings in different groups. So thesaurus is essentially the classification of concepts or ideas, not of words. For example, the word plane would be listed in multiple categories:
- plane: Applied sciences and technology > Transportation > Air transportation > Types of aircrafts > plane
- plane: Natural sciences and mathematics > Mathematics > Geometry > Basic geometric concepts > plane
Finally, creating a thesaurus, especially if you use the advanced approach can be quite tricky and intellectually demanding. So if that’s a problem, opt for a simpler approach. But, on the other hand, you can look at it as an interesting intellectual challenge, which can make it even more appealing.
There are also already made, published thesauri for certain languages, so you can buy them (or find them online) instead of making your own, but in my personal opinion, you can learn more if you make your own thesaurus, as the effort and thought you put into it can help you remember more words. Also some published thesauri aren’t real thesauri at all, they just provide you with a list of synonyms and antonyms for a given word. To be a real thesaurus, it needs to classify words into categories according to some system. The first, and still the most famous such thesaurus for English language is Roget’s Thesaurus, by Peter Mark Roget, first published in 1852.
Here you can find his classification system: Wikipedia:Outline of Roget’s Thesaurus