In BBC The Reading Group, we bring together listeners, students of English, literature teachers and other contributors from the world of books to share their enthusiasm for reading.
In today’s programme we discuss ways to improve your vocabulary by reading in English, and we visit the home of the famous lexicographer, Samuel Johnson.
Listen to the BBC The Reading Group Part 2 programme:
ANNOUNCER: You’re listening to “The Reading Group” from the BBC World Service. In this series we bring together listeners, students of English, literature teachers and other contributors from the world of books to share their enthusiasm for reading. We hope that following this series will encourage your own interest in reading books in English as a foreign language.
Insert 1 – presenter Gary Stevens outside Bush House
Hello. I’m standing a short distance away from Bush House – home of the BBC World Service – and I’ve come to see the statue of a famous man, described here as a critic, essayist, biographer, wit, poet, dramatist and talker. But Dr Samuel Johnson’s greatest achievement was perhaps as a ‘lexicographer’ – he was the creator of the first comprehensive English dictionary, published in 1755.
Dr Johnson spent much of his life in this part of London, and he once said “when a man’s tired of London, he’s tired of life”! He worshipped in the church across the road and he lived in a house about ten minutes’ walk from here.
Later in the programme, a Reading Group reporter visits this house – now a museum open to the public – to see the place where Dr Johnson wrote his dictionary, and to find out how he compiled it.
Gary: Now here we are – and I’m joined in the studio by two students and a teacher.
Annemarit: Hello, I’m Annemarit. I’m from the Netherlands. I started learning English at school when I was 12. As I was not very good at languages, I spent a few summers as au pair in England. It was here that I started to read English books for pleasure as well.
Adrian: Hello, I’m Adrian Sack, I’m a journalist from Argentina and I’m reading a play byWilliam Shakespeare, King Lear.
Jeremy: Hello. I’m Jeremy Page, Director of Studies at International House, a language school in London. I read and write a lot of poetry and short stories.
Gary: You’re all welcome! Now, Adrian and Annemarit, you’ve joined the Reading Group because you love reading books in English, but I wonder, where do you like to read?
Annemarit: Everywhere. I’m easily carried away by books so I take the book to the tube or the train, even when I have a bath I’ll read a book. It’s very difficult to put it aside.
Gary: Do you read in the bath Adrian?
Adrian: On the bus, in the train I can’t, because I lose my concentration. Maybe in my house, waiting room, and when I was a student at university I felt tempted to read when I had to study.
Gary: Do you use a dictionary when you read in English?
Annemarit: I do, sometimes. If I can figure out what the word more or less means I won’t look it up in the dictionary, but I think it’s better because if you do look it up you’ll remember them more easily.
Adrian: I only use a dictionary when I finish reading, I take note of the words and after Talk about English © BBC Learning English that I do it. Sometimes I have to give up because I can’t understand the meaning of a paragraph, and I go to the dictionary and I search the word but I try to avoid it until I finish my reading.
Gary: I’d like to turn to Jeremy now, our teacher from International House. How important do you think it is for students to have a dictionary on hand?
Jeremy: I think it’s important in terms of reader security but it’s not a good idea to go to the dictionary too often because it really does destroy the pleasure of reading.
Gary: Do you have any tips for listeners on how to maximise their vocabulary learning when they’re reading?
Jeremy: I think that it’s important to be an active reader, not a passive reader. In other words to make a note of any unfamiliar collocations that you may come across within a text, any moments that you think when you’re reading, “oh, so that’s how you say that.” Any language that you can imagine needing to use in your everyday life, any language that you would like to become part of your own active repertoire. I think that it’s important to note that down and go back to it when you’ve finished reading.
Gary: Thank you Jeremy. Now, each week in our BBC World Service Reading Group programme, we’re featuring an on-location report. And today’s reporter is our studio guest, Adrian Sack.
Adrian, you’ve been finding out about the first comprehensive dictionary of the English language, and your investigations took you on a short journey to find where it was written.
Insert 2 – tour of Samuel Johnson’s house package Adrian (Reporter):
Yes … Walk for ten minutes east from Bush House along the famous Fleet Street. Turn left up a narrow passageway, and after a few twists and turns you may find yourself staring at a house that’s more than 300 years old. It’s the place where Dr Samuel Johnson wrote his celebrated dictionary. The house is now a museum, and the museum curator, Natasha McEnroe, gave me a short tour and told me about Dr Johnson and his work.
Natasha: I think he’s arguably one of the greatest characters of the 18th century – great as a writer but also as an individual. He was a very charitable man, he had a great sense of fun, he was a really very strong character who stands out in society of that time. He was great company, people often described how much they loved talking to him, and that really comes across very strongly from all the letters that his friends have left behind.
He did suffer throughout his life from poverty and from ill-health and certainly this is something that we can see is starting in his very early years. He contracted scrofula, which is tuberculosis of the lymph nodes in his neck, and this left him very badly scarred around his neck, but also with very bad hearing and eyesight.
Adrian: What is the significance of this house?
Natasha: Well, it’s very significant in that it’s the only house that Johnson lived in in London that’s still standing. It’s particularly important as it was here that he wrote the English dictionary, so he took on the house as somewhere to live but also as a place to work. In this room we’ve got a facsimile of the first edition of the dictionary, open on the table, and as it’s a facsimile, people can flick through and read it.
Adrian: The dictionary contains about 40,000 words and was published as two large books. I wanted to know how Dr Johnson wrote his definitions, and as there are copies of the dictionary on the table for people to touch and read, we decided to look something up. I chose the word ‘education.’
Natasha: Let’s have a look, that will be in the first volume. To educate, education…
Actor: Education – from educate. Formation of manners in youth, the manner of breading youth; nurture.
Adrian: What in particular is special about Samuel Johnson’s dictionary?
Natasha: Well, it was the first modern dictionary. So he was the first to write a dictionary that gives a proper definition of the word and who actually looks at the route of each of the words, and in addition to this he actually gives illustrative quotations that contain the word.
Actor: Education and instruction are the means (the one by use, the other by precept) to make our natural faculty of reason both the better and the sooner to judge rightly between truth and error, good and evil.
Natasha: The quotations are interesting for two reasons. Firstly because they very much reflect Johnson’s own tastes, as obviously they are poets and writers that he has chosen, but also it’s really a very modern way of actually explaining what the word means as you really get to see the word in action.
Adrian: Where did he work on the dictionary?
Natasha: I’m afraid it’s right at the very top of the house in the famous dictionary garret, so we can go and see that now….
Adrian: … So, this is the room where he wrote the dictionary.
Natasha: That’s right. We’re actually standing in the dictionary garret itself. We do know that it was set out with long trestle tables, in the centre of the room, and he had six copyists who helped him with the physical writing out, although all of the actual work, the brain power was Johnson’s own.
The way in which he wrote it was quite interesting. He first of all made very long lists of all the different words and then he wrote out with one word per slip of paper, and these were all filed alphabetically. He then wrote out the definition, and then when he’d finished it was handed over to his copyists (who we can imagine all working for hours on end) and they would copy out the slips onto one sheet of paper, and the sheet would be sent out to the printers on Fleet Street.
Adrian: How long did the whole process take?
Natasha: It took nearly ten years. He was commissioned to write the dictionary in the mid-1740’s and it wasn’t actually published until 1755.
Gary: Adrian, thank you very much for that report.
We stay on the subject of words and vocabulary now, and Gillian Lazar joins us once again, and draws together some of the themes of today’s programme with advice on how to gain a better understanding of the words you read.
Insert 3 – Gillian Lazar
Gillian: Reading a book is like being a detective. A good detective carefully gathers clues in order to solve a mystery – who committed the crime and why? A good reader carefully gathers together the clues in a book in order to make sense of it– what is the book about? But while the detective’s clues are dusty fingerprints or footprints in the snow, the reader’s clues are simply the black and white marks on the page which make up the language in which the book is written. And it is often this language which is so difficult to understand. So when we read, how can we understand the language we read more easily? How can we become better ‘book detectives’?
First of all, we should probably choose a book that is relatively easy to understand. Pleasure in understanding helps with confidence, and along the way we will find ourselves acquiring some new words.
Ah, words! Yes, when we read we will have some decisions to take about these.
Which words are really important for understanding the book? Which words can we safely ignore, as we don’t really need to know what they mean? Apparently, good readers in both a first and second language don’t bother to find out the meaning of every single word. They are selective, focusing on words which seem important for understanding the gist of a story or the key ideas of a book.
And when good readers decide they do need to know the meaning of a word, they use a number of helpful strategies. Firstly, they may use the context to guess the meaning of an unfamiliar word. Can you guess what the meaning of ‘toofle’ is in this sentence: ‘We gave him a toofle for his fifth birthday’? Well, I don’t know what a toofle is, even though I invented the word, but we can guess that it is something that a five-year-old would enjoy because the context of the sentence tells us this.
As well as using context, good readers also use the structure of the word itself to help them guess the meaning. For example, the word may include a prefix, such as Un- as in ‘uncomfortable’ and Dis- as in ‘dislike’, or a suffix, such as – ful as in ‘helpful’ or ‘ness’ as in ‘happiness’. If we know the meaning of these prefixes and suffixes they can help us to guess the meaning of the whole word.
But when good readers can’t guess the meaning of a word, they do make use of dictionaries by carefully selecting the relevant meaning, the meaning of the word in the book, from all the possible meanings in the dictionary. And it is useful to record these words and their meaning in a small notebook or address book to make a personal dictionary.
So next time you pick up a book, enjoy the detective work.
Gary: Gillian Lazar. And we’ll have more clues on how to improve your detective skills and reading techniques in the next programme – so join us then.
ANNOUNCER: And that brings us to the end of today’s programme. If you’d like to share your reading experiences, you can join our BBC Learning English group on Facebook. We’ll have topics on the Discussion board linked to the subjects covered in The Reading Group programmes. So, until next time, happy reading!
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