How to learn new words? I had this conversation with Alberto, an Italian that I teach for two hours online each Wednesday evening.
He’s a star, has learnt a lot in the six months we’ve been working together, and is very responsive to new ideas, especially learning how to learn (he wasn’t the most interested student at school twenty-five years before, he tells me). In part he’s motivated by the fact that his girlfriend is ‘advanced’ in English. He’s keen to show her what he can do, and she encourages him, which is nice.
Alberto and his lady watch The Crown, with no subtitles, as I advised. And now he’s started his first real book, non-fiction as he doesn’t have time to waste on stories, he says.
He plans to read a couple of pages each day, when he gets in from work. I asked how it was going. Slowly, he told me. Finishing a page takes ages, as he’s constantly stopping to look up new words.
Well don’t, I suggested. Just read on. Just keep swimming, as Dory advises. You’ll get through the book more quickly and…
I’ll press pause on that conversation because I already know all the objections (I have this discussion often.) They all boil down to this:
“I won’t understand the text if I don’t check the unknown words.”
To which I usually reply, in detail, with examples, (I could write a book about this) that:
- you may or may not understand that sentence, that paragraph, that page, without looking up the word, but if you don’t try to do so without the dictionary, you won’t ever know, will you?
- some of the words you don’t know are vital, and learning them would be a good investment of your time. Most aren’t though. Looking up all of them means time wasted, and remembering words you might never see again is pointless
- how will you know which words are vital and which are pointless?
- FREQUENCY. Just keep reading. If a word crops up again and again, it’s a goodie!
- and each time you see it, each time in a context, you have another chance to figure out what it might mean…
- The ideal approach to reading in a foreign language? Never look up anything, unless you’re signing or writing a contract. And only then, if it’s an important clause that will cost you money if you get the wrong idea
- “But what about all the words/sentences/paragraphs/pages I don’t understand?”
- Why are you reading? To improve your reading skills or to learn random items of new vocabulary? Choose one answer only
- And does ‘improving your reading skills’ require that you understand everything you read?
- Practising piano doesn’t mean playing every note of a concerto perfectly first time. Reading is a skill, just like piano playing. It takes time and effort to develop the multiple sub-skills that go into it
- And one vital sub-skill of ‘reading’ is ‘dealing with unknown items of vocabulary’, which is normally done by ignoring them (descriptions of scenery in a detective novel), or if it’s something that seems critical to the text, hypothesizing what it might mean and looking for confirmation of that as you read on, a process which is otherwise know as ‘guessing’
I could go on, but Alberto got the point, I hope. I’ll ask him on Wednesday.
N.b. The one time when it IS useful to memorise lists of vocabulary, so actually ‘studying’, is when you’re at a low level, say beginner or near beginner. Because you know virtually nothing of the language, focusing on common ‘lexical sets’ (numbers, foods, jobs, etc.) is one of the most obvious ways forward.
Learning numbers is a no-brainer, because everyone needs numbers. Dates, too, and telling the time. And prices. But do you need percentages, decimal points, fractions, formulas? At some point, the idea of knowing ‘everything’, or trying to, becomes ridiculous. Your brain remembers what it needs, once it’s been exposed to it enough times. Everything else is a distraction.
And how will your brain know what it needs, you ask?
Through reading, listening and speaking practice, of course.
Saturday’s free bulletin of ‘easy’ Italian news is here.
Notice I wrote ‘easy’, not ‘slow’, which is a much better-known competitor. ‘Slow’ will cost you $19.90 USD billed monthly, whereas ‘easy’ is free.
Why don’t we do ‘slow’, despite people nagging at us for buttons that will reduce the speed of the audio and so on? Is it because ‘slow’ was already taken?
Nope, it’s because we’re professional language teachers FIRST, and website operators only second. And you know what? In the world of ‘proper’ language teaching, students are routinely exposed to normal-speed audio, also to different accents, also to speech with background noise, etc., the objective being to TRAIN them for the challenges ahead, rather than CODDLE them with unnatural practice material which resembles nothing they will encounter in real life.
This is not to imply that our competitor’s materials are in any way other than professionally-produced and useful. They offer a free trial, so go make your own decision.) What prompted this P.S. was our own readers begging me to slow down the audio recording.
The world’s best-selling foreign language textbooks use normal-speed audio from the lowest levels. But how is that possible??? How could students miraculously understand what is being said???
Simple. The audio stays the same no matter what the level (say a weather forecast from the radio), but the TASK is modififed to suit the level of the learner.
Listen and tell us what the temperature will be in Roma and Milano today (from a long list of cities) = a task suitable for near-beginners, who need only fish out the city name and a number from the river of sound they’re exposed to.
Listen and tell us which days in the next week would be best for: a.) going to the beach b.) flying a kite c.) staying home to study Italian = a task suitable for intermediate-or-above learners who need to practice understanding the general meaning of the text and identifying different data points, under controlled conditions, so perhaps in preparation for an exam.
How do we make our ‘easy’ news bulletins ‘easy’, if they’re not ‘slow’?
Easy. There’s no task. To design a task, we’d need to know your level, right?
But there IS a transcript, which gives you the option to read/listen at the same time, to listen first and check what you’ve understood afterwards, or even to read first then listen. In effect, you’re deciding your own task.
Those options, by the way, are discussed on our Advice page.
Hope that clears things up? Want ‘slow’? Then pay our competitors. Or save $19.90 USD a month and stick with ‘easy’ but ‘normal speed’.