‘E’ seems to be for ‘expressions’ in the club’s Vocabulary section.
Personally I’m just holding on until we get to ‘F’, as I’m not a great fan of teaching or learning ‘expressions’.
Today’s free material covers advanced-level ‘Common expressions with high frequency verbs‘ – that is to say verbs like ‘venire’, ‘andare’, ‘fare’, ‘prendere’ and ‘parlare’.
My objection to this type of teaching, and to this type of material in general, basically comes down to the problem of how you, poor student, can know which expressions are worth spending your time studying and remembering.
After all, most languages have hundreds of thousands of words, whilst most people have an ‘active’ vocabulary set of at most a few tens of thousands of words, a fraction of the total.
Take your own native language – English, for the sake of argument.
You are certainly an educated and discerning indvidual, or you wouldn’t be a member of our club.
But it’s reasonable to assume that your knowledge of English vocabulary is less than total.
Unless you’re a lawyer, for example, you might struggle with the small print in a contract or privacy agreement.
If you don’t own a sailing boat, it seems improbable that you’d be familiar with the words used to describe the multitude of sails, ropes and other paraphernalia.
And if you’re not a teenager or a high-school teacher, youth-speak is likely to be as easy to comprehend as double-Dutch.
Insomma, there are lots of words that you are never going to know, but that’s just fine. Who cares about contracts, boats or teenage memes, anyway?
But when learning a foreign language, you have to make constant decisions about resource allocation, the resources in question being your time and mental energy.
Study today’s list of advanced expressions, or do something else instead?
A lot of us will abdicate this decision-making to a teacher, course designer or materials writer.
But just because one of those ‘experts’ suggests you learn a given word or expression, it doesn’t mean that you couldn’t be making better use of your time.
Yesterday, for example, I was learning the Swedish for ‘Watch out for the three swimming moose!’
Follow the book, the course or the website and hope for the best is a good way to save time, but doesn’t guarantee the best results.
Assume that the most FREQUENT words are the most useful and focus on those.
Let’s say that you were able to understand what you read or heard 90% of the time by focusing on just a few thousand words.
Well that would be pretty good, right?
You’d have avoided wasting time on stuff that just wasn’t very useful, while achieving the best possible result for the time invested.
A course or workbook should go some way towards solving this problem, focusing on the essential and ignoring the infrequent or less useful.
That’s particularly true at lower levels, where it’s obvious to just about everyone what the priorities should be.
But as you get better and better, the choices made by the course designer are more hit and miss.
Advanced level study material correctly tends to focus more on how to learn, and on motivating you to do so, rather than setting out essential words and expressions that you simply have to know.
This is because at higher levels, each of us will have different needs.
You’re a lawyer?
Learn these words.
Got a boat?
You’ll need to know how to say ‘Hoist the mainsail, dammit!’
The words you’ll need to study will be specific to your situation and interests. It should be clear to you what these are, but it won’t be so obvious to the materials writer.
Learning specific words for your job or hobby, though, is rarely an issue for people.
They may come and say they need a course in, say, ‘English for marketing’, but it’s rarely true.
If they already work in or study marketing, they’ll almost certainly know more of the language than the teacher or course designer, or could easily pick it up when needed.
Usually the problem is that the level is simply not high enough, or that certain skills (listening for example) are weak.
We can assume that you’ll learn the words you REALLY NEED naturally and without too much effort, because the need is just so clear, and the situations in which the word occurs so frequent.
The problem is the less obvious stuff.
You’re studying a language to speak and write, but you’ll also need to listen and read.
And while you can control what goes out (using only what you know…), you have less influence on what others say or write.
If you don’t know a significant percentage of the words the other person uses when they address you, well you’re going to have a hard time getting even the gist of what’s being said.
So you study more, right? More words, and yet more words, I need to know them all!!!
Nope, that’ll bang you right up against the ‘too many words, not enough time’ problem.
The answer is to look for context.
Lots and lots of context.
You’ve heard of these clever Artificial Intelligence algorithms which, given sufficient examples, can pick out your face from a crowd or predict whether you’ll default on your car loan?
Your brain is a little like that.
Train it by watching, say, 1000 episodes of ‘Friends’, in Italian and without the subtitles, and you can be fairly sure that it’ll have learnt the most frequent words and expressions.
The first time you hear an unknown word, you may hypothesise something about what it could mean.
You may be right, or wrong, but you’ll likely remain uncertain.
The next time you hear the same word, you get another go. Your hypothesis may be confirmed, or not.
But the more frequently you hear the term, the more likely it is that you’ll figure it out, and the more likely it is that it’ll be something good to know.
Words which are less frequently heard or read will remain unknown or partially known, but THAT’S OK.
Materials like today’s Common expressions with high frequency verbs don’t ring my bell because they don’t provide any useful information about frequency.
You just have to take our word for it that this is a good use of your time.
That approach works well for beginners.
But if you’re no longer a beginner?
You’d be better off reading an Italian book, newspaper or website, or watching TV.
Comments on the above are welcome.
Gert Schwaner says
I very much share your observations. To understand and use words and expressions in their right context is what comes after having learned the basic grammar.
But it’s a never-ending process….