Tips from an Irvine ESL Tutor:  Learning the Emotional Meanings of Synonyms


Students who are learning English as their second language will need to start expanding their vocabulary at some point. The intermediate and advanced student will often rely on a thesaurus or translator to pick out the appropriate adjective to describe a situation. One thing teachers can work on with students is learning how to determine which synonym can be used as a directly similar word and which synonym is merely in the same category of description. In English, as in many languages, different words carry different emotional meanings even if they have the same root meaning. Take, for example, the word thoughtful. If I describe my friend as being a thoughtful person, I am paying her a compliment. But what if I describe her as attentive or cautious? These words are both synonyms of the term thoughtful, but they have different emotional meanings.

1. Positive, negative, or neutral?

One of the first things teachers can work on with their students is determining whether they want to use a word that is positive, negative, or neutral. It’s easy to think that all synonyms of a positive word will be positive themselves, but this is not always the case. For example, take the word rambunctious. If I describe a child as rambunctious, I’m saying that they make a lot of noise and have a lot of energy but it’s not necessarily an insult. However, take the synonym word rude and I’m insulting the person. On the other hand, simply using the term noisy can suggest a very neutral feeling. Students should be looking at a word that fits the mood they’re trying to express. In many cases, the best way to learn this is through practice with native speakers and watching TV shows with English-speaking characters. It’s important for students to be able to see a visual reaction when it comes to the emotional choice of a vocabulary term (READ: 5 Ways ESL Students Can Improve Their Everyday English).

2. The context of the sentence

Students should also look at the context of the word in a sentence. Look at the basic but important vocab term love. It can be confusing for students to hear how many different ways this word is used. For instance, stating that I love spaghetti is very different from saying I love my spouse. It might be easier for students to look at words that fit precisely within the situation. Someone has affection for their spouse but probably not for a plate of pasta. Teachers can have a lot of fun with these types of activities but should be aware that students might be embarrassed to have chosen the wrong synonym. It’s a good idea to look at the many different ways one word can be used to describe so many different degrees of emotion.

3. Emotionally appropriate language for the situation

In the English language, we have different terms to connotate the degree to which we feel a particular emotion. Let’s look at the word anger. I might express that I’m annoyed or exasperated that I had to sit in traffic, but I don’t feel a passionate rage. The words annoyed and exasperated express a mild to moderate sense of anger whereas rage expresses a very strong sense of anger. Knowing which synonym to use and in which situation can make it easier for students to communicate but also easier for them to understand the people around them and interpret situations without extensive clarification (READ: ESL Study Tips for Taking The SAT).

4. Common usage vs. formal language

Most English speakers in the United States use colloquialisms and common language on a daily basis. Normal language is reserved for the workplace, school, and the written word. Many students learning English will pick up formal vocab terms in their reading and use them in a casual situation where it seems out of place. Learning the difference between casual and formal can make their conversation easier and more productive. Let’s take the term relax and look at it in two different situations. If a student looks up synonyms to this word they’ll come across two formal terms: repose and tranquilized. Yes, both of these words are synonyms for the word relax but will not be used in a discussion to talk about leisure activities. However, the terms take it easy and chill out connotate a casual situation where people are going to relax and enjoy their day. Accurate conversational skills help ESL students feel comfortable and confident in social situations with native speakers.

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