It has often been suggested that learning a language is a simple process of learning a bunch of words. Students know that this is not entirely true because there is also a complex system of rules and structures that govern the usage of these words. Verbs tend to be the most fussy in so far as they need to be manipulated heavily in order to give sentences sense. But adjectives and nouns and yes, even verbs do need to be accumulated into our vast repository of words in order to have a rich vocabulary and communicate effectively. Let’s talk about the best ways to do that.
Writing it down
The very large majority of students approach the simple task of recording vocabulary in their notebook in the completely wrong manner!
Bench = ławka
Jealous = zazdrosny
To argue = kłocić sie
It has been proven time and time again that writing down a word and its explanation in English is a far more effective way of recording vocabulary. First of all it encourages monolingual thinking (thinking in the target language) as well as providing additional language practice through the definition itself.
Bench = a place to sit in a park usually for more than one person
Jealous = when you want what someone else has / you don’t like where your partner talks to other people of the opposite sex
To argue = to have a heated debate or discussion about something and you disagree with your interlocutor
The definitions above both explain what the word means AND give additional helpful vocabulary in the explanation itself. If any kind of translation to the mother tongue occurs incidentally in the learners head it may be helpful (or not) but it is completely unnecessary.
For fans of writing down words and their Polish translation I would jokingly ask them to write down the Polish translations for the English words cleavage, couch potato or ‘to look up a word’ because there happens to be NO simple precise Polish translations for these words or concepts and they therefore need an explanation rather than definition.
Knowing a Definition is Not Knowing a Word
I have had many students who can answer the question; What does ‘avoid’ mean? Students know, or at least can assume from a context that avoid = unikać or if we use the ‘good technique’ – avoid = to try and miss or not be present for something. This student seems to know the definition of the word ‘avoid’. Then the student will go on and say the sentence: “I always try to avoid see my boss on Monday mornings.” This sentence is grammatically wrong. When a student learns a word it is also important to learn its collocations and usage – that is to say: How does it connect with other words in a larger context.
Avoid = to miss or not be present in the presence of something else
Avoid a meeting
Avoid a disaster avoid + doing something (GERUND ALWAYS)
Regular past tense and participle – He avoided the problem by being extremely careful. I have avoided the issue until now.
(noun) Avoidance of the issue will only create more problems down the line.
Word Maps / Spider Diagrams
These are diagrams that help visual learners ‘see’ the word patterns and verbal connections as mentioned above. For example, a student writes the word ‘CLEAR’ on the centre of a page and then branches the word out showing the different parts of speech for example CLARITY and then out in another direction TO CLARIFY AN ANSWER and UNCLEAR / CLARFIYING etc. with everything branching out the student is able to visualize the scale of the word. Sometimes students use this technique to manage themes of language. For example CINEMA with branches PLACES (aisle, front row, screen) and PEOPLE (actor, producer, director) and GENRES (western, sci-fi, romance).
Google is Your Friend
I personally love seeing words in their natural environment. When I was a student of the Italian language, words didn’t become ‘real’ for me until I heard them in a song or film, or heard a native speaker use the word in a natural context. Up until that particular moment the word was simply a theoretical idea, a concept. When I heard it or saw it became ‘important’. I often joke that Google Images is the best dictionary in the world (for nouns mostly). I could spend a great deal of time trying to explain to a student what a weeping willow is, or a sparrow, or the colour fuchsia or a nerd. A much easier technique is simply to pop these words and expressions into Google images and see what pops up. If I teach students complicated phrasal verbs like ‘look forward to’ or ‘run out of’ I always encourage them to google them and see what comes up. This has led to students watching YouTube videos of someone talking about why they look forward to Christmas so much or endless song lyrics like Adele or Justin Bieber who both say that they are ‘running out of time’. Check out these words online and find out how they are being used in the real world. Something as random and innocuous as ‘run out of’ could cause an unintended avalanche of learning when put into a search engine.
A Friendly Mindset in your Approach to New Words
Familiarizing yourself with new vocabulary is like the slow and slightly uncomfortable process of making new friends. Have you ever had the experience of arriving at a wedding reception only to sit down at a table with complete strangers? In the beginning the conversation is slow and awkward but by the end of the night everyone is friends on Facebook and laughing and drinking vodka. This is like the process of learning new words. Through contact and inquiry new words can quickly go from ’stranger’ to ‘good friend’ in a relatively short time.