16. Vobabulary acquisition and how it has changed – a message to language learners


When a person sets out to learn a foreign language, whilst still living in their own country, they face several dilemas like how to find the opportunity to practise and when to find time to pick up new vocabulary. When you learn a language in the country, in which it is the first language, it is easy to find the opportunity to practice and to learn new vocabulary as the learner is immersed in the language and the culture. They need to use the language in day to day life to get by. What I want to say by this is that the adquisition of language is much easier as it is learned passively through constant repetition and reinfocement. What can language students to to make up for this lack of input?

The acquisition of new vocabulary is simple when you know how. CONTEXT. When we learn new words we need context with which to relate them or they are very difficult to recall when needed. It is useless to review long lists of words and translate them or only look up the definition. In the past people believed that we could memorize large amounts of information and try to recall it on demand but seeing the results of this in our education system and through personal experience, something needs to change. We need to use the new vocabulary to give it a link to something that we can relate to when we wish to use it. What we need to do is form a type of ´language web or database´in which we can easily access the information that we are likely to use. The vocabulary we are likely to use is usually more limited than what we understand, this is normal in our mother tongue and is also true for our second language. What we need to do when starting out, is start in order of importance and build a base of vocabulary that we will use most frequently. This needs to be based on the learner´s own interests and therefore, will be easier to take in. The base of a person´s vocabulary needs to be solid and well established to later push on and advance in level. (See out previous post 14. Speaking – Keeping it real for more background information on this).

Native speakers with higher education (University studies) usually only use between 25-30,000 words, about 5% of the generally recognized number of words in the English language. Language learners who do not live in an English speaking country use up to 2,000 words. This is a small amount so what learners need to do is prioritize what they need to learn. English contains an almost incomprehensible number of words but as you can see in the video below, our students can get by with as few as 2,800 (access the generally recognized list HERE). This data has been compiled by Charles Brown, a language expert working in Japan. See the video below to find out more.

There are numerous methods to be able to develop out language database. Notice that they are simple and can be related to everyday activities, keep it simple and do what you enjoy.

  1. TV – watch movies with subtitles, write down and research new vocabulary and expressions. The film will give it relevance (it is also a good idea to see things that you have already seen in your own language).
  2. Games – playing games such as taboo or boggle are a great way to improve vocabulary and can be easily adapted according to level. The fun side of it makes it a much more interesting way of picking up new vocabulary.
  3. Word linking – word association and word grouping are great methods of expanding vocabulary and relating new vocabulary to already known words.
  4. Read – reading is a great way of learning new vocabulary. Even if it is at a basic level (children´s books) it is great reinforcement.
  5. Music – listening in general is an essential part of language learning but it is essential in the aquisition of new vocabulary. Music is great as it is repetetive and easy to remember due to the rhythm and rhyme.
  6. Images – describe images and see where you have gaps in your knowledge.
  7. Shower conversations (I say the shower because it is a personal space) – think over or act out everyday conversations to see where you have mental blocks or missing links in vocabulary. That can be as simple as going blank or finding it hard to recall words. In short it means talk to yourself or think in English to see where you are likely to stumble when you want to converse.

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