Working on Vocabulary
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins
A very common practice with language learners is the use of word cards. This technique is even encouraged by some teachers. Uh-oh! I hear the exclamations, the cries! And just what is wrong with word cards? Well, they are very limiting – unless used wisely. Let me explain.
Usually you have on each card a word in the language on the front of the card and a word thought to be equivalent in English on the back of the card. This is the first real problem.
There are hardly any direct equivalents in any two languages, since the meaning of a word depends on the actual usage of the word in the cultural and social context of that language. Then it limits the meaning of the new word to the meaning of an English word.
The vocabulary in any language derives it practical meaning from the cultural worldview and social interaction of the society that speaks that language. The learner must move into that real-life context.
This is a challenge for westerners oriented to abstract informational concepts. Most societies of the world are relational, oriented to relationships and social structures as the core of reality, not abstract analytical information.
Here is a list of some problems I see in the traditional use of vocab cards:
- It is abstract; there is no context for meaning, for the connotation, the usage
- The reference point is English – this assumes the "real" meaning is English or that meanings will match in the two languages
- This method overtaxes the memory it requires great effort, because it is an isolated word, out of any usage context; many cannot memorize easily. It takes time away from real-language learning of the vocabulary in the social usage context.
- It reinforces the mistaken notion that language consists in words. Language is primarily structure (sentence patterns, word order). Lewis Carroll's writing showed us that. Words can have no meaning without some way to put them together (structure). Words come and go and there are alternatives for many words.
How then should you learn vocabulary?
You can use word cards. But instead of an English word, put a simple sentence or phrase using the word in the target language. This helps you learn the social context and usage.
Use pictures of an object or activity. This could be on card-size material or posters. Draw stick figures (or real pictures if you are an artist) or cut out pictures from a magazine.
Stick up labels with the names of items in your house in the language. Then take some down for a while and test yourself.
Draw a diagram of the action or relationship. Verbs are harder to envision than nouns with their objects, but they often match English words even less. A diagram of the position or direction of action, etc., might help you envision the event.
Cut out pictures from magazines, then you can label whatever you find in the picture. This will help with related groups of words. Write verbs, titles of persons, words for objects on a picture of a situation. This is visual reinforcement that is appropriate for language. Since the meaning of words is in the way they are used, it will reinforce them when you learn them in the total visual context of the event.
Names for items ("nouns") are easy. You'll need to be more creative with actions, and position or direction words. Grammar particles are harder to visually represent. Maybe you could use arrows for prepositions and some adverbs. You could write prepositions on the pictures, too. Modifiers (commonly called adjectives) could use colors, fat and thin lines, long and short lines or stick-figure people, etc.
For difficult words you could use an English description for reference to give you a more complete context than just a single word equivalent.
How Words Grow
How Many Words?
Principles and Techniques of Language Learning
Quick Guide to Language Learning
Using a Dictionary
Real-Life Learning — The Principle of Association
Original version of this article published in Focus on Communication Effectiveness, April 1995.
This version developed and posted on Thoughts and Resources 28 July 2012
Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2012 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Please give credit and link back. Other rights reserved.