Speak a New Language: Learning Vocabulary
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So this week on The Five Week Linguist Show, we’re going to continue 50 things I’ve learned about languages in my nearly 50 years. I want to talk about vocabulary this week. So the first thing that I wanted to talk about is sort of breaking down that path to fluency, right? Learning vocabulary and how that relates to becoming fluent. So obviously when you start a language, you don’t know anything, right? You start learning words and phrases and then the things that you say start looking more like phrases that you’re kind of putting together, perhaps choppily, that start looking a little bit more like sentences, maybe choppy sentences.
Speak a New Language: Road to Fluency
Then you can start saying some sentences and then those sentences start looking more like paragraphs, right? Sort of two or three sentences at a time. Those paragraphs become stronger and more accurate with the vocabulary that you’ve learned. And then those paragraphs become connected where you can speak for a long time at once. Then those paragraphs, those connected paragraphs become extended and accurate, really detailed up into levels that you may not even have achieved in your native language. We’re talking college professor who knows a great deal about a topic and can speak very accurately and for extended periods of time about something. Right?
So all of that was the path to fluency, and in fact, I’ll leave that in the show notes. So how do you achieve that? You did this when you were in school, through your family, right? You started with nothing. As a baby you made sounds, you understood things and then you started on this path to fluency where the things you say when you were a kindergartner and look much different than the things you say when you were finishing high school or a teenager. So the takeaways for this, for learning languages that can really help you take control of this because you weren’t in charge of that, your journey on that path necessarily, but if you want to learn another language or you’re teaching another language, certainly you have a lot of control over what that path looks like.
Speak a New Language: Chunks
So we learn vocabulary, realistically we acquire vocabulary. If you want to focus and really learn to get communicating, whether you have a situation that allows you to do that naturally or not is to learn vocabulary in chunks. When I say chunks, I’m talking about meaningful chunks. So don’t just learn separate words, maybe all the words for fruit. You’re going to want to learn how to be able to do things. I always like to start with travel because it naturally offers language in chunks. Meaning think about talking to someone at the airport, for example. “I’d like a …” “I need …” Those are chunks, right? Those are meaningful groups of words and phrases that are going to get you communicating. I always recommend people to start with phrasebooks because they naturally serve that. The whole point is just to be able to survive with language. I’ve created a whole bunch of phrasebooks with audio that I share for travel and beginners and I’ve shared the audio on iTunes, just like I’m sharing this here.
Plenty of comments have been left about it. It’s not really a proper podcast, even though I’ve got a feed there and it’s not meant to be. Those are meant to be bite-sized files that you hear in meaningful chunks and you can arrange them any way you want. They’re linked to the book. So I’ll leave some of those for you there. The next thing is high interest content. So what interests you? Does traveling interest you? Well, a great place to start is that language for travel and beginners, right? I really like to just get a clean notebook and I would pick one theme and maybe 10 to 15 words a week to learn. So perhaps I want to learn language for an emergency or for a hotel or for meeting and greeting, whatever that is, and write down all the words down in a column. Then you keep testing yourself.
I will leave a link to talk about that in detail and show you how to do that in detail, as well as the Gold List Method, which Lydia Machova explains beautifully. But those are a couple of ways to use notebooks. I’ll leave that in the show notes for you to link to, and that you can actually see some visuals there. In a language you’ve got to learn how to read. So back to when you were a student or a child, you learned how to read. When you learn how to read the most basic skills is that you learned what the words we say, our spoken language, looks like, right? Visual representations. Then as you became more and more competent, as you learned how to read, you then suddenly began to read to learn, right?
Speak a New Language: Reading
So if you can read, you can learn anything, which makes learning vocabulary in a language like Korean or Japanese difficult. So factor that in to your learning. And fortunately there’s lots and lots of materials out there to get you reading in another language and learning a language like Korean or Japanese or Arabic. I would definitely take some really focused learning time and invest in learning those scripts. Among those, some are much more difficult than others. Korean I learned how to read in about two hours and I really believe that anybody could. There’s a great resource called Script Hacking that teaches how to read languages. It’s from Teach Yourself. I’ll link to that.
If you can learn to read, you can read to learn. There’s an interesting story behind Korean and literacy. They have a really high literacy rate. I didn’t learn how to read Korean so easily because I’m so smart. It was designed that way. So a group of scholars with King St. John designed an alphabet that is meant to mimic the shape your mouth makes when you make the sound. It’s incredibly clever. It’s a lot less complicated than it looks and I highly recommend it. But be realistic. If you don’t know how to read in your target language, you’re going to have to learn how to read. Then once you can read, you can learn anything. And the next lesson is just all about taking that and spending a lot of time reading.
They don’t have to be academic books. I highly recommend recipes and blogs and anything that personally interests you. Spend time, your pleasure time. I talk about in a few episodes, a study done by Dr. Stephen Krashen, who talks about a couple of hyperpolyglots. One of them, Steve Kaufman, amazing guy. The other one is someone who I’m not sure how their paths crossed. This person spoke, I feel like it could have been 23 languages or something absolutely insane. They spent all of their pleasure time, their pleasure reading time, so whatever that looks like for them, reading in different languages. They did their pleasure reading in different languages and that’s how they were able to achieve that.
Speak a New Language: Tasks
The last lesson I want to talk about here is tasks. So when you learn vocabulary, focus it on tasks. So what a task is, is something that we want to do in a language. So for example, complaining at a restaurant or perhaps giving a taxi driver directions to your house. Think about that specific task, things you want to accomplish in the language. When you’re having your focused learning periods, not necessarily your reading, but focused learning periods where you’ve got a notebook, think about tasks. One way I like to learn tasks is to take a clean notebook and I open up a page and I write what the task is at the top of the page. So for example, Korean at a restaurant. I write down everything that I need, including pronunciation, all the words and phrases, maybe a couple of cultural notes.
Then that gives me something to study. So basically it’s a context that I’m going to learn languages in chunks. So your takeaways here is get really deliberate with how you learn vocabulary. So think about communication and whether that communication is very basic, like meeting and greeting, or much more advanced, like being able to talk about science. Get focused on learning how to talk about different tasks. Invest some time in learning how to read. Again, phrase books are a great place to start, but think longterm. Think about what you like. Do you like science fiction? Do you like fan fiction? There are lots of resources out there that are completely for free on the internet. Think about how you’re going to invest some time in learning.
Get a notebook. It’s a great place to learn vocabulary sets and as a beginner, maybe you can learn 10 to 15 words by working in your notebook every day. Again, we’ll link to those resources. As you become more advanced, you can do fluency exercises where I like to set a timer and write everything I can in a language. Then when the timer’s up, I go back and I look up the things I don’t know. Another way to approach that is to record yourself with voice memos. And lastly, don’t forget to have fun and make sure it fits into your life, because if it doesn’t fit into your life, it’s not going to work because you’ll give it up because you’ll have too many other things to do. Until next time.
Thank you for listening to The Five Week Linguist Show with Janina Klimas. Join us each week here and visit us at reallifelanguage.com/reallifelanguageblog for more resources for learning and teaching languages.