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Interview with Ultimate Vocabulary

by Torsten Daerr

Marc, could you please tell us how Ultimate Vocabulary came into being. How and when did it all begin?

I first conceived the idea of Ultimate Vocabulary about 2 years ago while attempting to improve my own English vocabulary. I purchased a number of books and tape courses and was unhappy with the results. First, I wanted to define my own word lists and have some way of learning them and keeping track of them (something that's obviously not possible with books or audio courses). Second, I didn't feel that listening or reading alone was improving my vocabulary very much. I thought there must be some software out there to do what I need. Unfortunately, after searching for weeks on the Internet, I couldn't find any products that really suited my needs.

At the time I was working as a senior product development specialist for an Australian software company. I was pretty keen to start my own company and I thought this would be a great opportunity to create a product that would really help people. Soon after this I secured financial support, put together a small team of experts to work on the software, and left my job to work on Ultimate Vocabulary full-time.

That's a very interesting story. You said that you wanted to improve your own English vocabulary and keep track of the words you know. What was the reason for that?

I am always working on my vocabulary because I believe an improved vocabulary is one of the best self-investments anyone can make. The first reason for this is pretty obvious – better communication skills allow improved self-expression in the workplace and personal relationships. This will almost certainly lead to improved career prospects and increased respect among peers. The second reason, which I believe is more important, is not so obvious.

Studies in psychology and language show that human thought relies heavily on vocabulary. For example, try to solve a problem without thinking in words. You can’t – it’s just impossible. Now, imagine you had to solve a problem by thinking in only 5 words. This being the case, you would only be able to solve the simplest of problems. The more words you know, the better your ability to think in abstract terms and solve the demanding problems that occur in modern life.

As far as word lists go, I think it’s great for a vocabulary program to provide lists of vocabulary words. For example Ultimate Vocabulary provides lists of words recommended by experts. However, I also wanted the ability to create and keep track of my own lists. Personally, I wanted to keep track of unfamiliar words that I read in books. Everyone is different and different people will want to use the software to meet their own needs. I have some customers who use the software to keep track of crosswords, while ESL students often create lists to suit activities in their lives such as “at the gym”.

Marc, you mentioned earlier that you wanted to keep track of your own vocabulary learning process. Do you have any idea as how many vocabulary words you know and how many of them you use on a daily basis?

Over the last few months I have been working through the “Ultimate Words” in Ultimate Vocabulary success edition. Currently I am up to level 8, which means that I’ve covered about 800 new words in quite a short amount of time. I try to use them on a daily basis as much as possible. Anyone who studies English vocabulary knows that when you start to use a word you really feel like you have mastered it. The main idea of Ultimate Vocabulary is to speed up the rate at which a person can learn new words. Without the assistance of software, the average adult only learns 50-100 new words per year. With Ultimate Vocabulary it’s possible to speed this up a great deal. This is especially important for the GRE and TOEFL versions of the software where students are studying for a test and have a limited amount of time.

Have you ever run into a situation where you used a word that another native speaker of English did not know? I'm asking because I had such an experience and I felt somewhat awkward because the person I was talking to was a British business professional with a university degree.

Yes, that has happened to me quite a few times. And you’re right – it can be very awkward. I have found that one way to deal with this is to include “redundancy” in your message. By this I mean including extra words and information so that anyone can understand you, even if they don’t know all the words you are using. Doing this gives you the best of both worlds – you get to use powerful words to express yourself, while still making your message easy enough for everyone to understand.

For example, I may feel that the word belligerent (meaning hostile and eager to fight) is perfect for describing an angry driver who is screaming at me and making rude gestures because I changed lanes in front of him.

Now, I could say to a friend: “Don’t you hate belligerent drivers?” However, if my friend doesn’t know the meaning of the word belligerent, an awkward situation could ensue.

Another way to approach this would be to say “Don’t you hate those aggressive, rude, and belligerent drivers?”

Now, even if my friend doesn’t know the meaning of the word belligerent, he will still understand me, and my sentence may even help him figure out what belligerent means.

Aha, I'm starting to get the drift. I know this might be a difficult question to answer but do you have any idea how many words a native English speaker uses on average?

According to prominent linguist Richard Lederer, an average English speaker has a vocabulary of between 10,000-20,000 words. However, I have also heard other figures that estimate the average English vocabulary to be as high as 40,000 words.

We also need to draw a distinction between active vocabulary and words that can simply be recognised. That is, people will be able to recognise many more words than they can actually use. One goal of vocabulary building is to take those words that one merely recognises and start using them actively to communicate more effectively.

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