Vocabulary Learning in a Second Language

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 of 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 focus 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, but 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.