Monday, June 17, 2013

Themes in learning new words

So we’re most of the way through the vocabulary acquisition class now. It’s over next week in fact. In my reading for the class, some common themes cropped up. The following are some take away points for people looking either to improve their vocabulary in their native language or learn vocabulary in a non-native language. Learning new words:
  • is a social process
  • follows your interests
  • depends on your level of engagement.
Let’s take a look at what I mean by this.

It’s a social process. You are somehow going to get these words and their meanings from other people. Period. (I suppose there might be an exception, but most people don’t coin new words the way Shakespeare did. So, period.) To be sure, some of those people will be face to face with you, but written langauge has a broader use of words. Slight data on this point: Of the words in my vocabulary project, only a handful were in any sort of spoken context. The vast majority were from written sources. (I’ll supply some numbers once I finish that project.) I suspect, though haven’t seen anything saying so in peer-reviewed research that
face-to-face > movies/tv > radio > reading
in terms of what format is likely to stick best.

It follows your interests. The words that I have the most trouble recalling are the words that other people gave me on a request. Ergodic is cool, but I’m not that interested in mathematics or thermodynamics. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure to remember bogey—I love riding on the train. My wife likes Scrabble sorts of games, so ai is likely to stay in her vocabulary while I’ll probably forget it because I don’t play those sorts of games.

It depends on your level of engagement. This is somewhat trickier. You are certainly more likely to be engaged when talking about things you are interested in. But you are also more likely to be engaged when you are talking face to face with a person and ask for an explanation of a new word. Likewise, explicit vocabulary instruction in a non-native language—whether from a teacher, fellow student or other speaker—will increase your level of engagement with the new vocabulary. Another anecdote, though involving grammar. On a trip to Spain, I wanted to know how to say “I’m ready to X”. So indicating to the man running the tapas bar, I told him that I wanted to pay and that I was ready. I then asked but how do I say those at the same time. I now know that you ESTAR list@ para INFINITIVE. Because I got a short explanation from him and engaged him in communication, I remember that information several years later.

Coming up: Points specific to non-native language vocabulary