Vocabulary Learning in a Second Language

“When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy.”
by ~Rumi~

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Concentrating on vocabulary learning to the exclusion of all else is a common mistake that many language learners make. That is not surprising as I have seen so much emphasis made in language learning books and courses, about the importance of vocabulary. There is no doubt about the importance of vocabulary. However I feel that its importance has been and is being overemphasised to the detriment of the development language proficiency in the learner.  Alongside this comment, I also want to offer the observation made by many by language learners that they feel frustrated and are disappointed in their seeming lack of skill in remembering the vocabulary they learn.

Just imagine, if all you knew in a new language was vocabulary, how far would you get in communicating anything beyond your immediate physical needs … I would suggest not very far.  So clearly we need more than vocabulary.

What we need is the scaffolding in which we can locate vocabulary.  And here lies one of the main reasons why learners easily forget vocabulary – they don’t locate it in the scaffolding, they are not quite sure where to put it and how to use it  – they just set out to learn it by translation hoping by some miracle their brain will be able to put it in a place where it can be used. Here is some interesting research on how infants learn vocabulary in this way.

If the scaffolding is shaky or the understanding of where the word sits is not carefully defined by the learner then forgetting is the only sensible thing the mind can do, because it makes no sense of the new word beyond its connection to the first language.  That link is a very weak one and is not the link we call upon when we attempt to use it in our natural speech.

Eg. Imagine for a minute that you are learning English and want to know the meaning of  “tűzőgép   (or choose any word in another language you know)  So you turn to your bilingual dictionary and find that it means “stapler“. So now you think you know the word.  

Compare that to writing out or speaking the following from your own work ( not from a dictionary):

I use my stapler to hold together many pieces of paper. I bought my stapler at the supermarket. I forgot to buy staples for it.  I had to go back and get them later.  My stapler will only staple 6 pieces of paper together.

To do the latter, you need to have a basic understanding of the language and how it “hangs” together.  You need to be thinking in the language, at some level,  to form these sentences.  You are linking the word, contextually, syntactically, grammatically, historically and personally! Isn’t that better than just linking the vocabulary item across languages?

If language learners spent more time initially in concentrating on how the language is held together, then once they had the basics in place it would be MUCH easier to add vocabulary to that working understanding.  Of course we need some vocabulary to do that. But by minimising the vocabulary that is learned initially and focussing on how the language works and how we can use it, it is possible to build that structure in which later we can easily place the vocabulary. The trouble is that many language learners try to do both at the same time and hence succeed in getting frustrated.  This is because our brain is working at vocabulary learning at the same time as trying to sort out the way that the language is held together. 

Minimise the vocabulary issue, while you are working on how to say the things you want to say and it is amazing what the mind can sort out. Once you have done that, then you can add appropriate vocabulary items to what you learned.  So not only do you need to pay attention to how you add the new vocabulary items, you also need to know when to add them. By paying close attention to these two suggestions, you can significantly improve your vocabulary learning abilities.

  • Anonymous

    Yes Justin, working with the various word forms sits well with what I talked about in this post.
    As for that wee question about translation – in a classroom setting I never allow it when I am working with a student. (there may be once or twice in a year – just in case one of my ex students comes back and says i remember 🙂 …). Translation has a place in learning, I am not saying it hasn’t.  I am saying that there are so many other skills one can use to figure out the meaning of a word that are not being worked, at once I allow that to happen.My main aim in my classes, or when I work one on one, is to enable my students to become better language learners.  By not allowing my students to translate, I am asking them to engage other parts of their minds, parts that may well have been dormant since they learnt their first language. Most students are not happy about it when they start, but once it is explained they inevitably get with the program.  I have done the same thing with beginning students…they also get it! (they may well resort to it when I am not there, but that’s fine)

  • Justin McLeod

    Hi Andrew

    I also like to promote the word itslef as a singular entity by looking at the different forms it can take with the use of tenses, suffixes and prefixes. I think this really helps the students and also applies to your “where does it go on the scaffolding” theory of vocabulary retention.

    Example: PLAY- I love to play playfully. Yesterday I went to a play and then I played with my friend. When we were playing we saw another friend who is so playful. (here we have used the same word as a present verb, adverb, past verb, continuous verb, noun and adjective).

    Like you said. If the student (or their mind) does not know what to do with or where to put the word then it is lost. This method helps.

    What do you think?

  • Justin McLeod

    Hi Andrew

    I agree with the above. I still use translation though just for the word….then make the students get back to English ASAP. I get them to find or work out the meaning in English. Then they must recognize the type of word it is (verb noun….) so that they have an idea of “where it fits on the scaffolding” then they have to write their own sentences using the word or other forms of the same word. As a teacher it is easy to see if they did this or they just copied it from somewhere. As I usualy set this exercise as homework or extra study.

    Overall I agree with you and I feel that I am also teaching vocabulary properly. The only thing I am doing is that initial translation. I jus cannot pull myself away fom it. When students find the word, you can see their face and a lightbulb blinks in their eyes, then I carry on with only using English from that point. Is this still detrimental to the learner?

    Regards

    Justin McLeod