Yesterday evening I studied Swedish for an hour, as the plan dictates.
Tuesdays and Thursdays I don’t teach in the evening, so I schedule an hour for each of those two days.
Many thanks, by the way, to my wife, who helps out with my learning by washing the dinner dishes.
Friday, Saturday and Sunday are, of course, the weekend.
So, as this year’s New Year resolution was to have more fun and work less, I try to fit in an hour of study on those evenings, too.
Yesterday evening I copied out, and then listened to, a text about Alfred Nobel, inventor of dynamite.
Apparently Nobel “hade relationer med några kvinnor men gifte sig inte” (had relationships with several women but never married).
Gossip is very motivating, don’t you think?
Doing that text got me thinking about learning vocabulary, a subject I’ve been meaning to write about for a while.
How come I could understand most of it (it was almost a page) EVEN THOUGH I hadn’t bothered to learn all those words from the course book???
Hundreds of words, maybe even a thousand, have piled up in my ‘to memorise’ file over the four months since I began with Swedish.
I have a nagging feeling that I really should make an effort to learn them…
With a little focused study now, there’s no doubt that many of them would remain fixed in my skull for ever.
After all, I can still remember some of the French I studied at school (though I can’t speak a word of the language.)
Make the effort now, so as to provide a solid basis for later.
Ideally, I’d need to incorporate a ‘vocabulary learning plan’ in my otherwise very simple approach to studying.
It would include, say, two or three sets of vocabulary a week, maybe 10 words in each set.
I’d do the initial heavy-lifting of memorising each set, then review it 24 hours later, at the end of each week, and at the end of each month.
That would certainly work.
But I’m reluctant.
Could be I’m just lazy.
Or maybe there’s a logic to NOT spending time memorising vocabulary.
economists use the term ‘opportunity cost’.
Say you have half a million dollars and spend it on a McMansion in Sarasota (a big house).
In which case, you lose the opportunity to invest that very same pile of cash in the latest social media I.P.O.
Either you live in a swanky new house.
Or you bet the farm on the next Apple or Microsoft.
By choosing one, you lose the opportunity to do the other.
Back to my study plan – Tuesday and Thursday, plus ideally an hour each evening on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Five hours a week max, likely fewer.
Were I to activate the ‘don’t be lazy, learn the damn words’ plan, it would have to come at the cost of something else.
I’d do fewer gossipy texts about famous Swedes, for example.
“But..!” you interject.
“You’d know more words! You wouldn’t have to live with the guilt of skipping pages from the book!”
True, and true again.
Which brings me to Argument two, which is a little more complicated.
I could sum it up in two questions:
Which words should I learn?
How should I best learn them?
Going back to the hundreds, maybe a thousand, words that have piled up in my notes since I started studying four months ago, one approach is to try to learn all of them, in the order in which they appear.
No word is more important than any other.
They’re all important!
But ‘opportunity cost’?
Presumably there ARE some words which are less important, at least at my beginner/elementary level.
Wouldn’t I be best off ignoring the less important ones and studying only the ones I really need?
A good course book writer, or a teacher who knows what he/she is doing, can help with that.
But in the end, everyone is likely to need a different mix of words.
We all live different lives, right?
I might need to know how to say ‘Hoist the mainsail’ in Italian but it’s likely you don’t.
The problem with teaching / learning vocabulary can be summed up in these three words:
frequency, importance, relevance
If you see/hear a word often (jag = I, och = and) then it’s frequent.
That may also make it important and relevant.
‘Mainsail’ and ‘hoist’ are important and relevant if you’re taking a course with an Italian sailing school, as I once did.
And so, to the point.
Suppose I don’t bother to assuage my guilt about not even having attempted to learn all those words from the book?
Imagine that I spend my time reading and listening instead, especially to material prepared for someone of my level, such as the Nobel text from my course book.
Then the words I read/hear FREQUENTLY are likely to be the ones I need right now, the ones that are judged to be IMPORTANT and RELEVANT for most poeple in my situation.
If I see a word just the once, then ignoring it would be a reasonable strategy.
But if it crops up often, even if it’s got a horrible accented character like ‘också’ (also), then I’d be well advised to pay attention.
And the fact that it DOES crop up often should not only remind me of its importance, but also provide a context that will make it easy to remember.
So making ‘memorizing’ unnecessary…
Another example is ‘år’, which to me looks and sounds like a million other Swedish words.
“Fem år efter hans död…” Five years after his death (the first Nobel prizes were awarded.)
Context shows you how a word is used, and potentially makes it easier to learn by associating it with other words that you already know (‘fem’ = five, ‘efter’ = after).
You’d not just be learning the word ‘år’, but a ‘chunk’ of language (‘fem år efter’) which you could modify and re-use whenever appropriate.
So, here we have the two extremes.
Study the words in the book, ideally all of them, and properly mind!
Skip the lot of it. Life’s too short! Get on with the reading and listening and trust that the rest will fall into place.
Despite my own inclinations, perhaps the best approach would be somewhere in the middle, especially at lower levels.
Note, though, that as you progress, vocabulary becomes more abtruse.
My most advanced students love it when I present them with a list of new words, but it’s rarely a good use of class time.
They’d be better off reading a text and talking about it.
A lot of my job involves getting them to practice the skills they actually need outside class, and so hopefully creating a ‘virtuous circle’ for future learning…
Remember ‘opportunity cost’.
Time spent learning long lists of vocabulary is time not spent reading, listening or chatting with your online teacher.
All of which will furnish you with information about ‘frequency’, ‘importance’ and ‘relevance’ that you need but which flashcards and vocabulary lists are devoid of.
And if you STILL feel bad about not having memorised all of the words in your book or online course?
‘Il meglio è nemico del bene’.
‘Perfect is the enemy of good’.
You want to be perfect?
Or you want to go up to the next level?
Final reminder about the ‘first week’ discount on our newest ‘Ebook of the Classic Italian Movie’, Accattone.
Until Sunday night it costs just £5.99. From Monday onwards, it’ll go for the usual easy reader price of £7.99.
- ‘Accattone’, FREE sample chapter (.pdf)
- ‘Accattone’ easy reader, full version
- 9-Ebook Bundle at half price!