As an actor, you are a bastion of your language. You are a storyteller. Your understanding of the text, and your ability to communicate it, is tantamount. With the diverse range of characters and styles you will encounter throughout a career as an actor, an expansive vocabulary and a command of words are imperative. And so spending time increasing your vocabulary is a shrewd investment.
Why vocabulary is important for an actor
Words have a subtlety of meaning. And if we look at our personal lexicon, we can see that we use words to colour our speech and emphasise our personality. When working on a character or a play that is either using archaic language or complex words, simply looking up the meaning in a dictionary often doesn’t allow you to embody the word. If you are familiar with it, and perhaps already using it personally, it will, in turn, feel natural when using it in character.
This is why I think experienced Shakespearean actors seem so much more natural when performing Shakespeare than equivalently experienced actors that haven’t worked much with the Bard.
It’s not that there are some steadfast rules that you must study to be a great Shakespearean actor, although of course, you can improve your Shakespearean skills, it is mostly because his language is familiar to the actor who frequently performs in Shakespeare’s plays or reads and watches a lot of his plays. Saying thou, thy and yonder doesn’t feel like gobbledegook to them; it is natural for them. Even if you intellectually understand these words, if they are not truly understood and embodied they will come out sounding silly.
Having a mastery of your language will help you to work effortlessly on any text, regardless of the density and complexity of the language, allowing you to rehearse and develop a play you are working on with confidence.
How to Improve Your Vocabulary
Read more (and read slowly)
This is a fairly obvious one. Reading is the main way to increase your vocabulary. It allows you to see words in context and get a sense of how to use a word. So read a lot!
I have found it is also vital to read slowly, or at least at a rate where you can really take in the words. In a rush to read books when I was younger, I would skim through novels, preferring to finish a book than to take it in. As if the sheer exercise of finishing a great novel would somehow make me better with words. However, since slowing down my reading, it has become increasingly more enjoyable and my understanding of words has increased.
Read diversely (early on, read what you like)
Reading widely is important. It opens your mind to different ways of thinking, as well as allowing you to see a greater number of words. Classic novels, poetry, plays and newspapers are all great. Always look for quality text.
If you are not an avid reader, start with what you like. You are better off reading 10 magazines than struggling through one classic novel. However, the more you read, the more you will seek out great writing and come to appreciate it.
Get yourself a dictionary
Okay, I was told by a lecturer to always have a dictionary by my bed. She advocated the old hardback and the process of scrambling through the pages and finding your mystery word. I think there is some value in doing that, but, to be honest, it is a slow process.
I downloaded the dictionary.com app and it is fantastic. You can also pay a few dollars and get information on word origins and example sentences, and it’s all on your phone. That means it is really quick to look up a word, get a general overview and get back to reading. The online Oxford English Dictionary is excellent as well, although, for an app, dictionary.com is great.
10 words a week
I have found that, although looking up words as you read is good, they often don’t stick, and the process of expanding your vocabulary is slow. I started choosing 10 words a week and really studying them. This means that you are getting at least 10 great words ingrained each week. If you stick to this every week, you are well on the way to growing a formidable vocabulary.
Listen to exceptional speeches
If you struggle with reading, or even if you enjoy it, listening to great speakers is another route. The wonderful TED talks, which, if you haven’t heard of them, are basically incisive lectures on various topics, are excellent. Don’t be thrown by the word ‘lecture’ however, they are usually 10-20 minutes long and highly engaging. I also like to listen to interviews with articulate people or those with a bolstered vocabulary. I have recently been watching a lot of Russell Brand videos. He is humorous and engaging, and every video so far has given me a handful of words to take to my dictionary.
Use new words in social situations
Using new words is scary, at least for me. You can feel like a bit of a show-pony using a new word, or even feel like it’s not you. However, if you don’t get them ingrained and start using them, you don’t find the nuance of the word. Sometimes understanding the dictionary meaning and using the word are very different. Some people like to try adding at least one new word a day, trying it out in a conversation with a friend or even at the check-out of a supermarket.
Similar to using words with friends, writing is a practical way to get words entrenched in your vocabulary. You also find the nuance of the words you are using and get a feel for when they sound right. When writing, always have a thesaurus nearby; this in itself will help improve your vocabulary.
Well, I hope this has been of some use. As actors, we have a responsibility to our language. We need to revere it and try our best to master it. The insatiable task of understanding words is ahead of you, and it’s exciting!
The more I delve into words, the more passionate I become. If, at first, the idea of getting out the dictionary is unbearable, trust me, you will come to love it.