by Michael Stavropoulos
Learning our mother tongue is easy and takes a few years to be able to talk about the basics of the world we live in. When we learn a foreign language, though, things get more complicated. We have a number of obstacles to overcome. At first, learning is facilitated as we connect our new words with everyday objects, real things. But as our lexical input increases, we often stumble on obstacles. “What’s the right word for this?” we wonder. Or we learn a vocabulary item, but a few days or weeks later we can no longer remember it, especially when we need this word to do a speaking or writing task where we can produce language and prove we have made progress.
My teaching experience has shown me there are a few methods we can use to boost our lexical learning capacity and our ability to remember and retrieve the right word at the right time. Here are a few things I tell my students to do:
When first learning a new word, never learn only its translation into your first language; this is a common mistake made by many students who are in a hurry or who have never been shown another way. The reason for this is that words have connotations: in other words, they carry “feelings” and “colours” with them. Does the same word carry the same “feelings” and “colours” in our first language? Maybe yes, but more often than not, no.
“So”, my students say, “let’s say we don’t learn the translation only. What should we study?”
Here is my answer: “Always use a good monolingual dictionary that will have an accurate definition of the word. Study this definition carefully, but you need not learn it by heart as you will rarely be asked to define a word in any real context in everyday life.
“And why should we study something we will not learn?” they go.
“Because by reading the definition, you keep in your mind all -or most of- the essential knowledge you need to know about this word”.
“And then what?” they say.
“Every good monolingual dictionary will always have an example of how the word is used. Study it. Carefully. Repeatedly. Notice other words in the example that you can connect with the target word i.e. the word you are trying to learn. If you want, learn the example by heart. This will not do you any harm. If you learn things more easily by writing them down, then write the example down in a vocabulary notebook. If you can dedicate more time to this, write your own sentence with this word: this will enable you to connect the new word in your memory with a personal experience you may have had, somebody you know or any connection that is uniquely meaningful to you and your mind.”
My students look at me in disbelief. “It’s not right that learning a word should take so much time.” The class laughs.
“You may be right about the time”, I say. “But it is time well-spent and time saved.”
And I always finish this didactic conversation with my classes with a bang:
To paraphrase Ludwig Wittgenstein: “The meaning of a word is its use”. Prove to me you can put the word in the right context and I will know you have really learnt the word.