March 1, 2018

How Much Vocabulary is Really Needed to Talk With Americans?

In India, preparing offshore team members to talk with Americans or in readying professionals to come on expat assignments to the U.S., vocabulary was always a hot topic. Often people wanted to learn idioms, American English vs. Indian English and as many new words as they could. 

While we attempted to include as much as we could into a session, it’s impossible to cram all possible words into an hour session AND practice them (both in usage and ways to respond). So, to alleviate some fears, I’d also mention that typical Americans may use about 5,000 common English words in their normal lexicon, and in most cases Americans (unlike, probably British counterparts) use simple English (many newspapers are written at a fifth grade reading level). It wouldn’t be about learning long, complex vocabulary (unless it was corporate jargon or technical vocabulary needed for work conversations), but about learning short words and putting them into phrases or idioms. While this alleviated more fears (and at this point in the training program those with more experience interacting with Americans or who have been to the US would also share their experience, which would correlate with this), many still may have wondered,
“What happens if an American says a word I don’t know, how will I make sense of it and answer their question or continue the conversation?”
This is a very understandable fear. Let’s look beyond accent (as even native American English speakers can get confused with words based on regional accents) to words. What happens when we don’t know a word and how can we deal with that? Does this happen to native speakers in the U.S.? 

I’ll answer the second question first from my own personal experience- YES- all the time! And, it depends on the context. Let me share a few examples from my life after moving back to the U.S. from six years living in Kerala, India


Author and coach, Jennifer Kumar, fixing a cairn
on Lamb's Canyon Trail near Salt Lake City.
Native speakers do not know every word in their own language. No two people would have the same exact vocabulary. Think about this in your own native language, I am sure these basic facts can apply to any language, not just American English. So, when meeting new people or taking up a new job or a new hobby, or in interacting with people in those areas, one will naturally encounter new words. When we moved back to the US from India, we took up hiking. So, I started hanging out with people who used words like ‘peak bagger,’ saddle, cairn, trailhead, elevation, microspikes, gaiters, boondocking, and more. Some of these words I could make out from the context of the sentence, but many more (not listed here), I could not. Sometimes I had to ask the person I was talking to what the word meant. Sometimes I just ignored it thinking it wasn’t important at the time to the overall meaning of the conversation and looked it up later. I know some second language learners will say, "But if I don't know every word which is being said, how can I answer? I will get caught on that one word and freeze up." Yes, this does happen to many people, even many people I coached, but over time this habit is broken with confidence building techniques. 

There were even cases where I learned regional words for things that took me off guard (by surprise). For example, at restaurants in the West many waiters or waitresses often mention they will get you the ‘ticket’ when it’s time to pay for your order. On the east coast, most say ‘bill’ for this. 

Tips to Handle Conversations When You Don’t Know the Word
Now that I answered the second question, back to the first question, “What happens when we don’t know a word and how can we deal with that?”

Interestingly, I have already answered that. Above, I shared quite a few tips that I personally used as a native speaker of American English to get the meaning or context of new words. What were some of the tips you could extract?

Regardless of being a native or a second language speaker of American English, the tips to understanding new words are often the same. What are some other strategies you have used to continue conversations or make sense of words or phrases you did not know?

If you need some personalized assistance in improving your English fluency to speak more confidently with Americans from offshore or in the U.S., contact us for individualized training. We can meet over the Internet or phone to target and overcome your specific communication challenges. The trainer is currently (March 2017) in the Mountain Time Zone in the US (Salt Lake City). Contact us by clicking here

Note: Though we have more experience working with people from India, you do not need to be from India to benefit from this service. As long as you have the motivation to learn and want to improve your American English, get in touch with us

Related Posts: 
Native English Speakers Struggle With English, Too! 
Common Grammar Mistakes 
Common Questions in American English  

Photo credits: Networking, Greentech Media, creative commons at flickr. Jennifer with cairns, Krishna Kumar

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