More from my muse, club-member Suzanne, who often emails interesting questions. Here’s her comment on my approach to learning vocablary, which I’ve paraphrased selectively:
‘I use EasyItalianNews.com and short stories in Italian to improve my vocabulary. It’s common pedagogy to use texts to learn at least 50% of the words used in them. Yes, I accept that paying too much attention to new vocabulary can lead to a feeling of hopelessness and being overwhelmed. But the same is true of of not caring about amassing a potent vocabulary…’
My emailed response was (quoted, not paraphrased):
You’re quite correct that standard language teaching often involves focusing on the vocabulary in a text, normally after the broader, then more focused comprehension tasks. But that doesn’t mean it’s the best use of students’ time. Improbable that the words in question, for instance, will be equally useful to all students in the group. Teachers do this because they don’t have better options, partly out of ignorance, too.
There’s no such thing as ‘amassing a potent vocabulary’, by the way, unless someone is preparing for a TV game show. Humans communicate using a range of frequent, well-understood linguistic tools. No point in knowing stuff that no one will understand. The opposite, in fact. Skilled communicators focus on refining the language that is most used, and using it in a way that gets noticed – see TV shows, advertising, etc.”
On the one hand, there’s the idea, perhaps familiar to us from our schooldays, that ‘educated’ people use big words, and lots of them! As adult language-learners we are always tripping over words and phrases that we’re not familiar with, so we naturally assume that memorising long vocabulary lists, as we may have done when children, will be a good use of our study time.
On the other hand, there’s the not-so-trivial matter of what we mean by ‘learning words’, and whether that actually helps. Plus there’s the fact that, as learners and as people, once past the most basic levels, we tend to use in speech and writing our own particular selection of words and phrases, which is likely to vary, at least in part, from person to person.
Consider two lawyers, who both love opera. We’d assume they’d have a similar vocabulary, right? In their mother tongue, but then hopefully in their foreign language (they’re in the same evening class!)
But Tom is a retired corporate lawyer, while Shania works as a public defence lawyer and volunteers in her free time.
Leaving aside the difference in their ages, just their jobs, and so their life experiences, make it likely they won’t communicate using the same set of words and phrases – one might find ‘eviction’ and ‘parole’ to be indispensable, while the other would perhaps consider M&A and I.P.O. essential linguistic tools of the trade.
So when speaking the same foreign language, in the same evening class, asked the same question about their jobs, their replies might go in completely different directions. See?
And then there’s the issue of what used to be called ‘active’ and ‘passive’ vocabulary, cioè words you use when you speak compared to words you recognise when you hear or read them.
Think about that for a moment – when you ‘learn’ a word, or ‘expand your vocabulary’, it could be your aim is to acquire an item so that you can use it when you speak – “This week I’m working on an ebook PROMOTION. It’s a half-price OFFER. Yes, I do a lot of MARKETING work.”
But perhaps not. Maybe you just need to have an idea, however vague, of what those words mean when you hear them? Who can actually define ‘marketing’, anyway? And is an ‘offer’ the same as a ‘promotion’? Always? I could have a good go at explaining these things, even in Swedish, but you might not care in the slightest.
This topic is a lot more complicated than it might initially seem, but we can make it simpler by asking ourselves what we actually need in terms of vocabulary, for our mother tongue and foreign language or languages, then what actions we should prioritise in order to meet that need.
If I were learning to sail a boat in Britain or the USA, for instance, I’d actually need to learn the lingo for the parts of a sailboat and the various verbs used in giving orders. Hoist the sail, for insance. But which sail? There are bound to be at least two hanging from the mast or those what-do-you-call-them, wire things. There are probably others ‘stowed’ below somewhere. Which sail, captain? This pretty colorful one in the bag? No?
Actually I know all that stuff, but in Italian, where I did once learn to sail, and owned a little boat. But I don’t know how it’s done in my native tongue. Hah hah!
What should I do to fix that before my hypothetical English-language sailing course? Well, I could study, if I could be bothered. Or I could just leap right in knowing that, given that I’ve sailed a boat many times and given instructions to my crew (wife), I’d probably pick it up quick enough. Or maybe not, who knows?
Which reminds me, ‘cazzare’ in Italian means something like ‘pull tight (on the rope)’, and conjugates in the way that regular verbs ending in ‘-are’ usually do. While ‘cazzo’ is a body part, and an exclamation, meaning something like ‘WTF!’, so is very rude. Check out this short Youtube video of non-sailor, Fantozzi, having issues with understanding the orders given (don’t worry if you don’t understand a word – just watch it anyway!)
Staying with the concept of ‘active’ and ‘passive’ vocabulary, for the moment, there’s also the matter of whether you can safely leave a word in the ‘more or less guessable when you hear/read it’ category, or whether you’re going to have to invest time and energy in ‘knowing it properly’.
In many cases, only you can know that, which was the point I made in response to Suzanne’s argument that ‘proper teachers’ ensure that students ‘learn’ at least some of the new words in a text.
My own approach, as a language learner, personally?
Once past the basics, where most sets of vocabulary are going to be worth investing in (numbers, colours, days of the week, etc.), I usually rely on the concept of ‘frequency’ to guide me.
Some words I’m going to hear or read all the time, the frequent ones. In which case, repeated exposure to them in context means I’ll have every chance to (often gradually, over time) figure out what they approximately mean, and how they’re typically used. I don’t have to think much about it, though. It just happens.
IF you listen and read, that is. If you don’t, if you just ‘study’, then sure, perhaps you’ll ‘learn’ more (in the short term), but how will you know that what you’re learning will offer a good return on investment? Also, while you’re busy ‘learning’, you’re not practicing listening, reading, or speaking.
A classic case in point are the extremely-common-in-English ‘phrasal verbs’, such as for instance, ‘get on with’ and ‘get off with’ (not opposites!) There are millions of them, and teachers waste vast amounts of advanced learners’ time badgering them to learn lists of these, so they can pass exams and/or make a good impression in oral tests.
But there’s no master list of ‘phrasal verbs everyone needs to know’, and certainly no master list helpfully divided into ‘active’ and ‘passive’ categories. Which is why trying to learn even just a few percent of the galaxy of phrasal verbs can be a poor investment.
The alternative? Recognise that they exist (that IS a good lesson for teachers to give), then get good at guessing their meanings from context.
That’s what I do in Swedish, which also has phrasal verbs. I swear, I’ve never studied even a single one, but when I read or hear a ‘multi-word verb’, I can at least have a stab at figuring out what it might mean.
You’re not good at guessing, you say? And in any case, you like to know things properly, you like ‘studying’?
Bene per te, but you’ll probably make a lousy language learner. Guessing is critical to comprehension, and very, very efficient (if not always very effective).
Back to our two lawyers, the probably-a-Republican-voter and the hip, woke youngster.
Bet they don’t understand what the other’s talking about, half the time, even in their own language. Bet they don’t overmuch care.
Language is like that. It’s a shared code, but no one has the whole corpus in their heads, and anyone who tried to acquire it would be a fool. What would be the point, when you can get by perfectly well with just a small percentage of the whole? And a little guesswork.
P.S. Half-price ‘Ebooks of the week’!
Don’t forget this week’s half-price offer on four ebooks we published back in 2018. The cost is just £3.99, instead of the regular ‘easy reader’ ebook price of £7.99. But only until Sunday 5th February 2023.
Yue a Bologna (A1)
Yue, a talented young Japanese from a rural community in Hokkaido, wins a one-year scholarship to study opera at the ‘Conservatorio’ in Bologna, home to Europe’s oldest university. But the thought of leaving her parents and brother for a whole year disturbs her. And, before studying at the ‘Conservatorio’, she’ll first have to learn Italian…
Le italiane (B2)
A cool-headed resistance fighter, an Oscar-winning actor, a doctor, a singer, an Olympian, an astronaut, a TV presenter, and a victim of the mafia. What do they all have in common? Read and listen to the moving stories of these eight determined Italians to find out!
Valeria has been single for months now. She meets men but after going out a few times they seem reluctant to commit, or even return her messages! She wonders whether the dating app, Tinder, might be worth a try? Michele spends his Saturday evenings alone, playing computer games. If only he wasn’t so shy, he’d meet more people. And then, maybe find a girlfriend? Perhaps the solution is online… Read and listen to find out!
La Via Francigena (C2)
“Venti giorni di cammino, di fatica, di entusiasmo e di scoperta. Venti giorni di avventura lungo una delle vie più importanti d’Europa, percorsa, negli ultimi mille anni, da principi, imperatori, cardinali, pellegrini, viandanti, giovani, vecchi, bambini, donne, uomini e animali. Una via che racchiude in sé la storia del nostro Paese, una storia fatta di accoglienza, generosità, passione e paesaggi mozzafiato: la Via Francigena.” Join Italian teacher and author, Roberto Gamberini as he follows this famous route of pilgrimage from Lucca in Tuscany to Rome in Lazio.
How do I access my ebooks?
When your order is ‘completed’ (normally, immediately after your payment), a download link will be automatically emailed to you. It’s valid for 7 days and 3 download attempts so please save a copy of the .pdf ebook in a safe place. Other versions of the ebook (.mobi/Kindle-compatible, .epub) cannot be downloaded but will be emailed to people who request them.
Tuesday’s FREE bulletin of ‘easy’ Italian news should, we are told, have been delivered successfully. We got ours. Hope you did, too!
Our bulk-mail providers tell us they have identified and resolved the problem. Fingers crossed!
Many thanks from the ‘easy news’ team to everyone who sent a donation over the last week. The appeal for support ended yesterday, but if you were meaning to send some cash yet didn’t get around to it… Donate to EasyItalianNews!
N.b. Subscribing is free, too. Subscribers receive three emailed bulletins (text plus audio) each week, with absolutely no obbligation (assuming there are no technical issues…)
And you can unsubscribe anytime, with just one click., so what’s to lose?