The Best Way to Learn New Vocabulary
This post is a transcript of a video on my YouTube channel.
Studying English? Here’s the transcript as a lesson to study on LingQ.
Hi there, Steve Kaufmann here. Today I’m going to talk about vocabulary, words, the most important thing in language learning. Remember if you enjoy these videos, please subscribe. Click on the bell to get notifications.
The reason I’m talking about this is that I saw in a discussion the other day on language learning. Someone said “what does it mean to know a word?” There are all these different stages of knowing a word. And there was a great analysis of knowing the grammar of the word, which word it’s used with the different meanings of the word, the scope of meaning of the word, whether you can just recognize it in context.
And to me, all of that is not important. I think there is far too much analysis. Yes, there is a continuum. The first time we see a word, we don’t know what it means, of course, or we may guess at it, or we’re probably better not to guess by the way, better to look it up has been my experience. But we get a sense of what the word might mean in a certain context. And gradually we see the word in other contexts, and we have a sense of the scope of meaning of that word.
Maybe the word only has one obvious, meaning like wood. Wood can only be wood, W-O-O-D. But wooden can mean that someone is not very responsive or emotional, so there can be shades of meaning of these different words. But these are all things that we gradually acquire and there’s no particular benefit in analyzing these different ways in which we know a word, in my opinion. For example, at LingQ. I think one of the very useful things that LingQ does is count words.
We count the words that you have read. We count the number of words or phrases that you have saved. We tell you how many words you don’t know, because you haven’t seen them before at LingQ. And from that, we develop a lot of statistics, which are motivating. We have milestones of your achievements, or you can judge the difficulty of a certain text by how many unknown words there are. I personally find 10 to 15% unknown words is kind of ideal because I’m learning enough new words, but I’m not having to look up every second or third word. But it’ll vary from person to person, so we don’t worry. People say, “you can’t claim to know 15,000 words” because at LingQ we count each form of the word as a different word.
Yeah, it’s easier for the computer to measure that. The computer has a hard time working out if this word is part of a word family or not. “Activity”, “active”, “action”, are they part of the same family? So words, I think it’s best to simplify, to have a Gordian knot approach. The Gordian knot of course, was Alexander was asked to untie this knot, and he just cut it with a sword.
Simplify: the number of words that you can recognize passively in a given context. Good enough. For LingQ, it’s good enough. You may find the next time you see it you don’t know what it means because we forget so much. Forgetting is such a big part of language learning. Forgetting and relearning, forgetting and relearning is, is such an important part.
And because, therefore, the process is kind of fuzzy, we are gradually absorbing the language and the brain is starting to connect certain things and forgets… to forget certain things. As long as we are motivated and keep going, we will acquire more and more of the language.
Now, I decided to do a little bit of research for today’s video. By the way, you’ll notice that my thumb is okay. Some people expressed the wish that my thumb get better. And all it is is that with the winter weather, and I do all the dishwashing and I really should wear gloves, but then I started getting these little chaps or splits in my thumb. And so I put a little bit of cream there, a little bit of saran wrap and bandage it, and that way it gets better.
So I went to my book shelf. Now I have a lot of books on a variety of subjects. I like history. I like politics. I like a lot of different things, but also on language. So I just went and got the books that I have here that deal with words: “Vocabulary, and Language Teaching”, “Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition”, Vocabulary Description: Acquisition, and Pedagogy”, “The Online Educator”, that’s a little different… “Second Language Acquisition”, Rod Ellis. “Language Teaching Methodology”, “How Languages are Learned”. I have a lot of books. I’ve read them. I think they’re overly complicated.
I think that the Gordian solution is Stephen Krashen. So here is one book that I got when I was in Taiwan, attending a language conference where he was speaking. It’s called “Explorations in Language Acquisition and Use, The Taipei Lectures”. Very inexpensive and tremendous value, and it cuts through all the unnecessary stuff.
“Learning Vocabulary in Another Language”. I could go through them and it doesn’t really matter. Any page you open: designing and using a simplified reading scheme for vocabulary development, making decisions, using labeled diagrams, vocabulary in discourse, reading and sentence completion… it’s a whole bunch of stuff that just complicates everything.
Just keep enjoying the language. Also on the subject of how to accumulate words, you have TOEFL. So they have a bunch of words and essential TOEFL vocabulary. You’ll work very hard to learn the word “treasury” or “preconception” or whatever in the hope that that word will show up on your TOEFL test. But the reality is that word frequency declines so quickly that a lot of those low frequency words that you’ll go to all that trouble to try and learn, you’re going to forget them and chances are, they won’t show up on the TOEFL exam. So you’re better off to simply spend your time enjoying the language, reading and listening as much as you can to acquire the language naturally.
And in that natural way, eventually words will stick and words can stick quite quickly. It all depends, really. You know, it all depends on how similar the language is to a language you already know. So I did a video where I was doing Czech and with my knowledge of Russian I accumulated words very quickly. If you know Spanish and you do Portuguese, you’re accumulating, you’re going to accumulate words very quickly. On the other hand, learning Arabic or Persian, not so fast. And in fact, the biggest help is Arabic words in Persian or Persian words in Turkish.
So it depends what language you know. If you’re dealing with a language that has very few common bits of vocabulary, it’s going to take you quite a while, but the process is still the same. It’s not doing these TOEFL books. I was going to read you something too. I Googled “what does it mean to know a word?” And so you got this tremendously complicated explanation: understanding its basic meaning, denotation, connotation, understanding the grammatical form, understanding that words may have more than one meaning. We know that from every language. Understanding what variety of English word belongs to. The word doesn’t belong to any variety.
Just by dint of reading or listening to English around a certain context you’re going to learn that vocabulary. And knowing how it relates to other words in lexical sets: hyponomy, meronymy, synonymy, antonomy, I mean, all of this stuff is tremendously complicated. It keeps the language teachers busy, but it has very little to do with learning. Learning is very simple. If you want to learn fast, then choose a language which has a lot of words in common with a language you already know, otherwise be resigned to the fact that it’s going to take as long as it takes.
As long as you are enjoying what you are doing, as long as you are enjoying the language, as long as you have done the things that I referred to in my video on having a language plan and you’ve got content surrounding you that meets your needs and meets your interests and is that your level, and you keep at it, the words are eventually going to stick. And that’s all you can really do.
To finish off, I would direct you to two videos that I did on the subject of vocabulary acquisition, and the importance of words to reinforce what I’ve been talking about today. So there you go.
Thank you for listening. Bye for now.