Chapter 12: Developing a love for words

Focus on Vocabulary

As Miss Kramer said, “You can’t get past square one if you don’t know the vocabulary.” Words are the building blocks of any language. No matter how thoroughly you learn the grammar of a language, your ability to express yourself and understand others using the language will always be limited by your vocabulary. Therefore, the acquisition of vocabulary is one of your primary tasks when learning a new language.

In the Language Student’s Buying Guide section of this book, I describe several commercially available tools that can help you build your vocabulary. (These are primarily the VocabuLearn audio recordings and the flashcards made by Visual Education.) As helpful as these products are, though, they are not sufficient by themselves for building a powerful vocabulary in a language. Early in your language studies, you must develop the habit of collecting words. Your desire for vocabulary should extend to the verge of gluttony. You must learn to look at every new word as a new tool in your arsenal, as an incremental expansion of your powers of comprehension and expression in the language.

There are four primary sources of new vocabulary: textbooks, authentic reading materials, conversations, and dictionaries.

When you momentarily encounter a new word in one of these sources, you may or may not retain it.  Suppose that you come across the word 外交関係gaikoo-kankei in a Japanese newspaper. Even if you stop to look the word up in dictionary, you probably won’t remember a week or a year later that gaikoo-kankei means “diplomatic relations.”  Vocabulary retention requires repeated exposure. Therefore, you will need to cultivate the habit of extracting new words from the above sources and storing them for easy study.

There are many options for warehousing new vocabulary items. Many years ago, I used to keep new vocabulary lists in spiral-bound notebooks; but I found that the pages quickly became worn and fell out. Computer technology offers better solutions. You might build a two-column table in a Microsoft Word® file, fill the left column with new words in the target language, and then type the English definitions in the right column. This will give you the choice of printing the pages or viewing them on your computer screen.

My favorite method of storing vocabulary is decidedly more low-tech. In my home, I maintain a constant supply of unruled 3” x 5” index cards, which can be cheaply purchased in any office supply store. I orient the cards vertically, so that they appear tall and thin rather than long and fat. Then I write my entries down one side of the card, turn the card over, and fill the other side of the card in the opposite direction. I can usually fit about five vocabulary words, (plus the English definitions) on each side of the card. For example, a side of one of my Spanish-language cards might contain the following:

estar (to be)

ver  (to see)

el perro (the dog)

la casa (the house)

verde (green)

How many words is enough? The answer to this question depends upon your goals. It is estimated that William Shakespeare had a vocabulary of about 23,000 words. By contrast, a junior high school student might understand about 8,000 words in her own language.

While these numbers may seem daunting, vocabulary acquisition becomes much easier if you work on it a little every day. As the Japanese proverb says, 塵も積もれば、山と成る (chiri mo tsumoreba, yama to naru)—“Piled up grains of sand can make a mountain.”

Learning Vocabulary with a Dictionary

Most dictionaries have two sections: an English-to-foreign language section, and a foreign-language-to-English section. You use the English-to-foreign language section when you want to look up the translation of an English word in the foreign language. The foreign-language-to-English section is used to look up the English definitions of words you encounter in the foreign language.

Both sections of the dictionary are helpful for learning vocabulary. At least several times a week, flip through the pages of your dictionary. When you are in the English-to-foreign-language section, find a concept that you don’t yet know how to express in the foreign language. If you happen to be studying Spanish, then you might notice that the word for “sidewalk café” in Spanish is terraza. You will certainly be able to use this one on your next trip to Mexico City. Write the word and its English definition on one of your vocabulary cards. Now page through the Spanish-to-English section. Suppose that you come across the word matasellos, which means “postmark.” This is a word that you would like to add to your repertoire. Write it down on a card, and it can be yours.

Using Word Games to Learn Vocabulary

Imagine that you are just beginning to learn Japanese. You know that you will eventually learn thousands of Japanese words, but you want to start with the most high-frequency ones. It only makes sense to learn the words for “water,” “eat,” and “bathroom” before you learn how to say “root canal,” “proselytize,” and “vampire.” But how can you make sure that you learn the most high-frequency words first?

The following system has served me well in every language I have studied. All you need is a notepad and a dictionary. Look around your house. What do you see? Perhaps you are in the kitchen—and you see a window, an oven, and a kettle. Write down “window,” “oven,” and “kettle” on your notepad. Are you hungry? Would you like to snack on an apple? Good—now write down “hungry,” “snack,” “apple,” and “eat.”

After you have finished your apple, pull out some blank index cards and an English-Japanese dictionary. Look up the Japanese words for “window,” “oven,” “kettle,” “hungry,” “snack,” “apple,” and “eat.” Write them down beside their English definitions. These high-frequency words are now safely inscribed in your vocabulary card collection, and they will soon become part of your active vocabulary in Japanese.

The household examples were simple. Now let’s play the same game at work. What is on your schedule for this morning? A meeting? Then write down “meeting.” What is the topic of the meeting? The production schedule? You know what to do. Write down “production” and “schedule.”

This technique will ensure that you learn the vocabulary that you need most before you learn the vocabulary that would merely be nice to have at your disposal. This may seem like a lot of trouble, but it will become second nature. You will soon be compulsively looking up the target language words for everything you do, see, hear, eat or touch. One evening you will be watching a documentary about the latest blood transfusion techniques, and you will be unable to go to bed before you look up the  Portuguese words for “transfusion,” “thrombosis,” and “hematologist.”

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