Over the years I’ve been teaching, I’ve thought a lot about what is the most important and effective part of the process of language learning. Grammar? Pronunciation? Or something else?
I’ve come to the conclusion that one of the most important, and most neglected aspects of language learning is acquiring new vocabulary.
Why is it so important? Because even if you can’t understand or use grammar correctly, if you know the meanings of the words, you will understand – at least roughly – a good amount of the language. And if you’re able to use those words, even without a high degree of grammatical accuracy, you’ll be able to make yourself understood.
As I often say, the key to learning a language is understanding. If you can understand and make sense of a new piece of language that’s presented to you, particularly if it’s interesting and useful, you will learn the language. Unfortunately many language learners are presented with material that has very little inherent meaning and has little interest or usefulness.
So what is the best way to learn vocabulary? Well, one of the worst ways to learn vocabulary is trying to learn wordlists by rote. I’ve seen videos presenting endless lists of words that are out of context. The learner must try to memorise the words, one after the other.
This technique does not work! The reason is that in order to memorise a word properly it has to be linked to some meaningful thought or action, something that is important and memorable for the learner. When you try to learn a word as part of a list it is not linked to any meaning and so most of the time you can’t retain it.
Lists can be useful at the final stage perhaps before an exam and for checking to see if there any gaps in your knowledge.
The best way to learn new vocabulary is to work with interesting and useful material where 80% of it is already known to you and 20% is new. When you work with the new use of language you can figure out the meaning, using the words you know already. Then you try to deduce the meaning of the new words in context.
It is good to try and guess new words. You may be right or you may be wrong but simply attempting to guess develops your ability to decude meaning in context. This is something that can be developed, and it’s essential in situations where you don’t have access to a dictionary for instance in an exam or if you’re chatting to somebody.
Let’s assume you have understood most of the new language there are some words and phrases you don’t understand, then you find out their meaning using a dictionary – or maybe your tutor -and make a note of them. Try to link the word with something you already know.
Let me give an example of a word I’ve often found difficult to memorise in English: that word is perspicacious. I looked it up several times and could never remember it. Do you know how I finally managed to memorise it? By reference to the German meaning, which is scharfsinnig or sharp-witted.
You could also link the meaning of a new word to a person that you know. Take for instance the German word fleißig. Now whenever I think of this word think of a particular student of mine she is very fleißig, and always completes her homework on time and a very high standard.
I advise my students to learn 10 new words per day. It’s a bit like eating five portions of fruit and vegetables per day. It’s probably more than most people can manage but at least its something to aim for.
Knowing as many words as possible is absolutely essential in language learning and in an exam it can mean the difference between passing or failing. If only we could acquire the a vocabulary of a couple of hundred or maybe a couple of thousand words in a relatively short time language learning would be much quicker and easier.
So that’s it, in a nutshell. Make it your business to learn 10 new words per day. They don’t all have to be new words they can be compound words which are made up of words you know already.
But if you learn 10 new words per day that’s around 3600 a year.
Just imagine how much of the foreign language you would understand if you knew that many words.