You don’t need to be told how many words you don’t know in Italian. In fact, you may often feel that the words you don’t know far out-number the ones you DO know, and at the beginning with a new foreign language it really is like this. Clearly, knowledge of lexis is a fundamental element of language-learning success. But how do you increase your vocabulary?
The Seventh Secret of Learning Italian
Learning new words is not as simple as it sounds, for two reasons:
1. WHICH WORDS?
There are so many unknown words, where do you start? Take any topic, “Driving a car”, for example, and think of all the words you know in your own language which are associated with this topic: parts of a car, verbs for driving, the Highway Code, mechanical problems, verbs for things that cars do, etc.
You could easily come up with a very long list of words which may be considered “basic” to any theme or topic. Where do you start? Driving a car? Cooking? Economics? Health? Most course-books and language courses will introduce the words gradually and link them to situations in which you can practise the language, and to important grammar structures.
2. WHAT DOES “LEARN” MEAN?
Well, it’s obvious what “learning a word” means, isn’t it? You just need to know what it means… No, actually, it can be a lot more complex than that. You need to know its grammatical function, or functions (It’s a verb!), plus the grammatical form, or forms (how to conjugate the new verb), the pronunciation (usually straightforward in Italian), the spelling (ditto), any homonyms (different meanings of the same word). And that’s just to start! There are also the synonyms (other words with the same meaning), idiomatic uses (“Why do people say “What a cabbage!” in Italian?), register (level of formality), whether the word is specific to a certain region, profession, or generation, and so on. In fact, some words are so complex that you can spend a life-time and not know all of the meanings or uses.
DON’T WORRY! THERE IS A SOLUTION
Given the above, it’s hard to avoid rushing to the conclusion that learning a language is a hopeless task, but no! Stop! There IS a simple solution, and that lies with the concept of CONTEXT. Instead of basing your learning entirely on the idea of studying words which you “might need one day”, what you need to do is include exposure to lots of “real” language which will act as a context to the vocabulary items contained in it.
What do I mean? Like this. Imagine you’re reading a recipe for “ragù” (Bolognese sauce, served with tagliatelle), and you get through the list of ingredients (onions, carrots, celery, etc.) with no problem. Then you get to the phrase:
“XXXX the onions and carrots and XXX them in hot olive oil for several minutes”.
Oh! My teacher didn’t tell me any cooking verbs. Panic! What shall I do?
And therein lies the solution to the problems described above: the context provides you with much of the information you need (it’s a verb) and, more importantly, it will tell you which words you REALLY need to know (the ones you see all of the time in the stuff you read, whatever it is). Moreover, it gives you enough clues so that you can begin to work out the meaning on your own, without a dictionary. Simply by repeated exposure to the same items in the same and in different contexts, your understanding of the word will grow and grow.
So, secret no. 7 is: GUESS UNKNOWN WORDS FROM CONTEXT.
Did you know, researchers have identified that one of the most important characteristics of a successful language learner is that they are “tolerant to ambiguity” (they don’t freak out when they don’t understand something). Instead they might just smile and nod (advice I often give to students!), and so the conversation or reading proceeds, and in due course other examples of the unknown word present themselves, or the concept is explained in other ways. Sooner or later, the problem goes away!
Conclusion: you really don’t have to understand every word when you read or listen. Be tolerant of ambiguity. Focus on what you can understand, not on what you can’t, and you will create a virtuous circle (the more you read, the more you understand, the more you understand, the more you read), which will personalise and accelerate your learning.
Read more: Secret no. 8