One of the hardest things about learning a foreign language is to get to the point where you know enough words to be able to decipher texts and speech, and to express your own thoughts.
So naturally, when we’re just starting out, we do lots and lots of vocabulary study.
Preparing flashcards, writing lists of words with translations, checking meanings in the dictionary, memorizing.
Repeating, repeating, repeating.
Typical beginner behavior. This sort of stuff is necessary at first, and feels terribly useful.
Plus, given that you can hardly understand anything anyway, you don’t have many other learning options.
But that phase soon passes.
You won’t stay a beginner for ever.
One day, you’ll get to the point where spending time learning new words offers what economists call ‘diminishing returns’.
The more time you spend finding out the meanings of the words you don’t know, the less overall value you get.
You may have already got there.
Not all words are equal
Some words you really must know: numbers, basic verbs, common nouns, adjectives and adverbs. Words for jobs, animals, and countries. How to ask for a beer.
But there’s an awful lot of vocabulary in any language that you could easily live without.
And that you SHOULD live without, at least at first.
For example, if you were studying English, you’d probably want to know the difference between ‘look’, ‘watch’ and ‘see’, right?
You wouldn’t get very far without those.
But what about the myriad verbs which all basically mean ‘look’?
‘Glance’, ‘glimpse’, ‘stare’, ‘gaze’, ‘observe’…
Plus verbs for the other things you DO with your eyes: ‘blink’, ‘wink’, ‘weep’ and so on.
And TO your eyes: ‘wipe’, ‘rub’.
And the actual PARTS of eyes: ‘lash’, ‘lid’, ‘brow’, .
All of these words I have taught (to paying clients) many, many times. And I can tell you for a fact, such vocabulary is the desperate last resort of a teacher who doesn’t know his/her job properly.
A waste of their time and money. (Sorry guys!)
Most languages have hundreds of thousands of words. Some have millions, many of which even native-speakers will never write or say in their lives.
And if you’re honest, you’ll admit that once in a while you even come across a word in your own language that you recognize but would be hard-pressed to accurately define.
I don’t believe there is anyone alive who knows every word in their own language.
And I don’t believe that a ‘normal’ person needs more than a few thousand key words to reach their initial foreign language learning objectives.
So why try?
Beyond a certain point you may find yourself committing to memory words that you will never, ever use (unless you’re a pretentious git), and will rarely hear.
In short, you’ll be wasting your time.
Don’t you have anything better to do?
Another useful term from economics is ‘opportunity cost’.
Learning ten (useless) new words might take you, say, thirty minutes.
Well, you HAVE thirty minutes, so what’s the problem?
You may as well learn as many words as you can, right?
The cost of learning each of those ten words was three minutes of your life.
The ‘opportunity cost’ represents what you could have been doing to improve your Italian in each of those 3 minute slots.
Reading an Italian newspaper, working on improving your listening, carrying on a love affair with a native-speaker who doesn’t know your language.
Something useful and fun.
Sure, take a course. Study. I’m not saying don’t do that.
But, when you’re watching an Italian film, or reading a newspaper article or a novel in Italian, and you come across words you don’t know, what you should do is…
just ignore them, and keep doing the fun stuff.
But I won’t understand!
Here’s a short extract from a novel I haven’t written yet, but which I hope will earn me more than teaching foreign languages does.
It’s approximately 60 words long, but 10% of those words are missing.
Take a look. Read it all through.
Giulia XXXXX at Paolo. He a was tall, handsome man, with a beard. And no ring on his finger.
Paolo knew she was XXXXX at him. He XXXXX nervously. Had he done something wrong?
He hoped she wasn’t angry with him. Paolo liked Giulia a lot. Embarrassed, he XXXXX his eyes.
“He doesn’t like me” XXXXX Giulia. She XXXXX down too.
The moment had passed.
So, how much of a problem were the missing words?
If they were, even a little, little, little bit of a problem….
then you have a learning strategy issue that you need to work on.
You have a brain, don’t you?
They’re standard issue, like underwear.
And like underwear they’re on for most of your waking hours, and do a lot of their best work without you noticing.
You read, you listen, and all the while your squishy gray pal is doing the hard stuff in the back room.
Suppose you buy my future novel and come across this:
“He doesn’t like me” XXXXX Giulia.
“But, oh, he’s such a dish!” Giulia XXXXX.
Giulia XXXXX Paolo must love someone else. Most men didn’t react like that around her.
Your back room linguistic expert is busy connecting up the dots and comes up with a working hypothesis, which would look something like:
XXXXX = “think/thought”.
Good enough to be going on with, and nothing that brain would need to worry you about. Just routine stuff.
The working hypothesis will get filed away until it’s encountered again, at which point it’ll be taken out, dusted off, and tweaked a bit.
Until one day, no significant doubt remains. The word has been ‘learnt’.
Garbage in, garbage out
Italians complain that they only English they ever learnt at school was “The pen is on the table”.
I’ve heard that SO many times.
But every now and again, I meet someone here who can actually speak and understand English well.
They tell me things like:
“I read all of the Harry Potter novels in English when I was a kid”
“I have all the series of Friends on DVD and watch them in English”
After you’ve got the basics down, you actually have to USE the language to develop the skills of speaking, listening, reading and writing.
It’s not just a case of ‘learning’ the grammar and as many words as you have time for, then opening your mouth and, magic, out comes perfect Italian.
No, you’re going to need to get out there and DO the language.
As soon as possible.
As much as possible.
And anxiety about unknown words is more likely to hinder you than to help.
So get over it.
Just ignore the words you don’t know.
Turn the page, change the subject.
Keep getting your brain the good-quality input that it needs to do its job of gradually putting the pieces together.
In time, you WILL begin to read like you do in your own language.
And one day you WILL be able to participate in conversations in Italian without being a liability.
This really works.
P.S. I love it when people tell me I’m wrong… Leave a comment on this article.