Importance of Lexicons for Language Learning

Discover why lexicons are key to learning a language.

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By Barney Meekin · May 20, 2024 · 8 minute read

When you’ve mastered a language, you have an internal toolbox full of words and phrases. You can dip into this toolbox to communicate, pulling out the words and phrases you need. Everyone has one of these internal toolboxes. It’s your lexicon - a collection of all the words and phrases you know.

When you’re learning a new language, lexicons are key. There’s no doubt about it, to master a language, you need to understand the lexicon. Or you won’t be able to understand a thing.

In this article, you’ll learn all about lexicons and why they're important for language learning — with 4 useful tips to help you increase yours.

Want to know more about lexicons?

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You will learn that by expanding one's lexicon, individuals can express themselves more effectively and make their writing or speech more engaging, like what Doug suggests to Colin in the example. Try Busuu’s free online courses to learn more!

What is a lexicon?

A lexicon is all the words and phrases that people use. A lexicon can be an individual language, for example, the English lexicon is the vocabulary of English. Or it can be a more specific subset of vocabulary. The words teachers use, for example, is a lexicon. Lawyers have their own lexicon too which is full of legal jargon that most people won’t understand. Even activities like hobbies and sports have their own lexicon.

You can think of a lexicon as a dictionary (literally, sometimes) of the words people use. People in different age groups, locations, and professions all use different words. They have their own lexicons. Lexicons are part of vernaculars and they include everything from standard words to colloquial language and slang.

Lexicons are dynamic. Language naturally evolves — new words join the lexicon, and old words fall out of favor. They’re a living and fluid repository of the words and phrases people use.

But what does this mean for language learners? The lexicon is what you need to learn (plus the grammar structures, of course). You can’t learn a language without learning the lexicon. It’s a key part of your language-learning journey.

Types of lexicons

There are two types of lexicons: Mental and printed.

Let’s imagine you have a huge database in your brain. That database is full of all the words you know, their meanings, and their pronunciations. This is your mental lexicon. Every time you learn a new word, it goes into your mental lexicon. Your mental lexicon is constantly adapting and expanding.

Printed lexicons are the dictionaries and thesauruses you use to help you learn a language. These reference resources are vital for learning a language.

Lexicon examples

Every age group, profession, or even hobby has its own lexicon. Let’s take a look at some example lexicons and their words.

Baseball’s lexicon

Here are words that everyone who plays baseball uses when they’re playing baseball. Some of them are unique to baseball. Some of them are common words that have slightly different meanings in the context of baseball.

  • Bases loaded - a runner is waiting on every base

  • Batter’s box - where the batter must stand

  • Bunt - hitting the ball without swinging the bat

  • Change up - a slow pitch disguised as a fast pitch

  • Curveball - a pitch that moves unexpectedly in the air

  • Fly ball - a hit ball that goes high up in the air

  • Line drive - a ball hit hard that stays low

  • Shortstop - the fielder standing between second and third bases

  • Strike - when a batter swings at a pitch and misses

  • Walk - when a batter gets a free walk to first base because the pitcher threw four balls outside the strike zone

Legal lexicon

Here are the words that people in the justice system use on a daily basis. These are very profession-specific words that many people won’t understand.

  • Affidavit - a written statement made under oath

  • Bench trial - a trial that has no jury

  • Case file - a collection of all the documents used in a court case

  • Exculpatory evidence - evidence that shows someone is innocent of a crime

  • Oral argument - when lawyers can summarize their position in court

Lexicons are varied and ever-changing

As you can see from these two examples, lexicons can be wildly different. The good news for language learners is that you only need to learn these examples if you play baseball or work in the justice system. That’s the same for all the lexicon subsets.

You only need the lexicons that match your specific needs, interests, or industries. For example, if you plan to work in the tourism industry overseas, you need to know the tourism lexicon. Or if you move to a new country and want to continue your rock climbing hobby, you need to know the rock climbing lexicon.

This is not unique to English. No matter what language you learn, there are countless lexicon subsets that you may or may not need.

Express your point of view with lexicons

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Using lexicons can help you express a point of view more effectively, especially when communicating or discussing a specialized topic.With Busuu’s free online lessons, you can learn more lexicons to use to better express yourself!

Building your mental lexicon

The challenge for language learners is to increase your mental lexicon — the internal database of words you understand. You need to learn and practice the words and phrases of the language you’re learning. And then, when you’ve mastered the general and standard language, you can start working on the specific subsets that meet your needs (if you have any — for people who are learning as a hobby or for travel, the standard lexicon is plenty).

Let’s look at some tips to help you increase your mental lexicon.

1. Read

Reading is a fantastic way to learn new vocabulary. Two types of reading can help: Extensive and intensive reading.

Extensive reading is when you read a lot of easy and fun texts — your focus is on the overall meaning of the text. Vocabulary learning is natural and indirect because you encounter words many times in the many texts you read.

Intensive reading, on the other hand, is when you read difficult texts slowly, paying attention to the words you see. The focus here is more on the language than the overall meaning.

Both of these methods can help you increase your mental lexicon in whatever language you’re learning. You’ll get to see the lexicon in context. And it’s easy to get hold of specialized materials if you need to learn a specific subset of a lexicon.

2. Listen

Like reading, listening to lots of content is a great way to learn vocabulary. You can follow the extensive and intensive methods from reading to listening too. Choose easy podcasts or songs, listen to a lot of them, and focus on overall meaning. Choose more difficult podcasts or songs, listen slowly and carefully, and pay attention to the words you hear. Listening also has the added benefit of being great for your pronunciation because you hear natural intonation and rhythm.

3. Watch

Watching movies and TV shows is a legit way to learn vocabulary. Let’s say you want to learn baseball’s lexicon. Luckily for you, there are tons of games you can watch. You’ll hear the unique words used in context (and you’ll enjoy watching the game).

There are TV shows, movies, and documentaries about any topic so you can get access to tons of lexical subsets. For example, if you watch a documentary about the police, including interviews with police officers, you’ll hear authentic use of the police lexicon.

4. Interact

It’s not enough to just memorize vocabulary though. You need to get out there and use it. The best, and most fun, way to do this is by interacting with people. Communicate with native speakers. Communicate with other language learners. If you’re learning a specific subset, find people who use it and talk with them. These meaningful interactions will help you master the lexicon of whatever language you need.

Struggling to find people to interact with? Busuu’s community has millions of members for you to interact with.

Lexicons are key when learning a new language

You can’t learn a language without learning its lexicon. They’re the ever-evolving mental database of the words and phrases that make up the language. Each region, age group, profession, and activity has its own lexicon. As a language learner, you don’t need to worry about these unless you have a specific language need. Start with the standard lexicon and then niche down into the subsets when the need arises.

Because lexicons are evolving, you need to stay curious. Be ready to adapt when new words become common. There’s no doubt this is a challenge, but with patience, persistence, and consistent practice, you can master any language’s lexicon.

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