The most common method of thinking in the Western world is verbal thinking. Although we have a range of intelligences including numerical, musical, spatial, emotional, verbal and kinaesthetic intelligences, it is verbal intelligence that we depend on most. We tend to think and express ourselves in words.
It can be argued that mastery of the use of words and verbal intelligence is the most important skill we develop because acquiring further skills depends on our comprehension of language. A tremendous proportion of the early learning for an infant is in developing verbal skills – learning to speak, to understand speech, to read and to write. Whether a baby is brought up in Beijing, Madrid, Sydney or Moscow it will surely spend thousands of hours acquiring expertise in its native language. He or she will become proficient with the amazing range, power, complexity and sophisticated subtleties of language. However, once a certain competence has been acquired most people stop developing verbal skills.
Studies have shown that there is a strong correlation between people’s abilities with words and range of vocabulary and with success in their chosen fields. People who can express themselves clearly are perceived as more intelligent and higher status. They are accorded greater respect. So why do we not continue to enhance our verbal skills? Why do we stop doing what we spent most of our early years doing?
The trouble is that we take our verbal abilities for granted. Once we have mastered reading, writing and speaking we move on to other things. We have acquired the most important tool in our mental toolbox. We depend on it for all sorts of tasks but we rarely sharpen it. It makes better sense to maintain, enhance and extend the tool. Here are some ways we can do that.
1. Get a good dictionary and thesaurus
Two of the most loyal companions on your desk should be a dictionary and a thesaurus. Use the dictionary to learn the meanings and derivations of new words you encounter. Also use it to check the exact meanings and spellings of words that you are not sure of. The thesaurus is very helpful whenever you are writing and need an alternative to a word in order to avoid repetition or to achieve a variation in meaning. Your computer probably offers a spellchecker and a thesaurus so by all means use them but they should be seen as handy digital aids to be used alongside the mighty physical volumes.
It may seem silly to advise someone who is reading this text that they should read, but in the modern world we are so busy with work and we are bombarded with so much information by TV broadcast, telephone and internet that reading books and articles can be squeezed out of our agenda. Reading the works of really good writers is one of the best ways to develop our abilities with words. Modern and classic novels, leading non-fiction books and top quality newspaper and magazine articles are all important sources for us. How often do you find time to read poetry? Try some new poems and re-read old favourites for inspiration and appreciation of the sublime skills of the poet.
Reading works that are well written helps at two levels. It will increase our understanding of concepts and our acquisition of knowledge and at the same time it helps develop our core skills at comprehension, vocabulary and expression. Most of our reading should be speed reading so that we are taking in the information rapidly. There are various books and courses on speed reading. However, when we occasionally encounter a piece of text which is extremely cogent or well written we should re-read it, taking time to examine what it is that makes it so successful. We should savour the words and metaphors that the author uses, analyse his or her arguments, underline the key points and perhaps make a note to mimic some of this style in our own writing.
If you are fortunate enough to have a partner who likes reading then try reading aloud to each other. Choose an interesting short piece and read it for your partner with feeling and emphasis. Children learn by listening to their parents or teachers read and by reading to them. We can do the same and it should be a pleasurable activity. When you have read the piece you can discuss it with your partner. What did each of you get out of it? What aspects of the author’s style did you like most? What points did the author make and do you agree with them? Play at being students again.
3. Capture new words
There is a regular feature in the Reader’s Digest magazine entitled, ‘It pays to expand your Word Power’. It is sound advice. Whenever we bump into new words we should turn to the dictionary and spend a moment learning the meaning and derivation of the word. It is easy to skip new words and race on through the text so we need discipline if we are not to lose this opportunity.
Say we come across the word philology. It means the science of language and its historical development. It comes from the ancient Greek word philos, meaning a friend, and the Greek word logos, meaning a word – so philology’s roots means love of words. While we are in this section of the dictionary we might notice that philanthropy, philately, philharmonic and philosophy all use the same Greek root of philos and they all refer to the love of something. If we do this we are on our way to becoming a philologist, someone who loves words and the studies the science of language.
As you build your vocabulary you should try to use the new words in context as this helps you to remember them. However, it can look pompous or pretentious to use many long and obscure words in everyday speech. The main benefit of having a large vocabulary is the ability to use a word with exactly the right meaning at a time when it is appropriate. A secondary benefit is that we better understand intellectual writing. There are many guides to good writing style and you have to find one that suits you. In general it is better to keep your written and spoken sentences short and clear. But do not hesitate to occasionally use an unusual word when it conveys exactly the meaning you require.
4. Write, rewrite and edit
We all write, whether it is a text message on a cell phone, an email message or a novel, and we can all improve our writing. A good way to improve your writing is to read over what you have written and ask yourself these questions:
- Does what I have written express exactly what I mean?
- Will it be clear and comprehensible to the reader?
- Can I make it more concise or more accurate?
We should look for superfluous words and sentences. Most of our digital photographs can be improved by cropping in order to focus on the subject. In exactly the same way, most of our written work can be improved by cutting out unnecessary or repetitive elements.
5. Play with Words
Children learn language by playing with words, testing, experimenting, making mistakes and being gently corrected. We should adopt a playful attitude towards words and treat them as friends. Word games will increase your verbal dexterity and intelligence rating. Many standard IQ tests use word puzzles. Anagrams, cryptic crosswords, code-breakers, word searches, dingbats (also known as rebuses) and other verbal conundrums are excellent mental exercise. Scrabble is ideal in this regard. If you want to play it seriously you will have to learn many obscure short words that use the high value letters. The dictionary game is simple but fun. One person reads out a definition from the dictionary and others have to identify the word. The reader can choose a common word but start with one of its less common meanings.
Practice improves your performance with word puzzles which is one reason why people can prepare for IQ tests and improve their scores in them.
6. Listen to Yourself
In just the same way that you critically review your draft writing in order to sharpen it, you should try to do the same with your speech. If it is possible, try to view some video clips of yourself speaking. This is particularly useful it you are rehearsing for an important talk or presentation. Most people are surprised to discover that they display a number of errors or bad habits in their everyday speech. For example many people pepper their talk with filler words or phrases such as ‘like,’ ‘well,’or ‘you know’. Hesitation, repetition, rambling and mumbling are other common faults.
Rudyard Kipling wrote, ‘Words are the most powerful drug used by mankind.’ They can paint amazing images, inspire and intoxicate. If you continually work on developing your range of words and skills with words then you will reap the rewards. Blow your mind!