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Storing and Recalling Vocabulary

Today on the podcast we are taking a deep dive into how language is built, stored and recalled. This is fundamental to language learning as understanding vocabulary absorption has great implications for what strategies we should use as language learners. Because this directly impacts our vocabulary learning strategy, there are very few topics more important than this one.

First, let’s start with the idea of absorption. I intentionally picked this word when talking about language development or acquisition. I’d like to counter the notion that vocabulary needs to be memorized. I often see language learners get sucked into the idea that memorizing vocabulary words is an important strategy for their learning. This does little for them beyond stressing them out. Sadly, accumulated stress from attempts to memorize vocabulary often leads to burnout.

Language learning is not like other academic pursuits. If we can get away from that idea altogether, we will be much better off. But that is a topic for another podcast.

Back to absorption. I like this term because it implies a cause and effect to the act of listening to a lot of language. Exposure is what takes us there. Think about how many of you know your favorite song by heart. Did you sit down and learn it with flashcards and write it out? No, you listened over and over again.

The need for memorization of individual, stand alone words is a common mistaken belief in language acquisition. Not only is it a belief that many language learners arrive with, it is unfounded and, potentially, a language strategy that misplaces your valuable energy. It can discourage and exhaust perfectly good language learners from making progress in ways that are more efficient, effective and built on solid linguistic principles.

The Goal of Learning Language Is to Use the Language

It is the opinion of a vast number of linguists that too much focus on isolated vocabulary words causes us to miss out on the greater goal of language learning. The aim that all of us language learners have is language usage.

An individual aiming to acquire a language must have substantial exposure to spoken speech. The language learning process should not be reduced to the daily memorization of word lists. Language does not naturally assimilate in this manner. It’s not how you learned your first language. It’s not the method you use to continue to add to the vocabulary of your first language. It’s not the most effective approach to learning an additional language.

True emphasis on communicative competence in language learning necessitates absorption through the auditory senses. Rather than learning one word at a time, it should be acquired in meaningful chunks within the context where these words naturally occur. These chunks of language should only exist as singular words in the very early stage of language absorption, possibly in your first 100 hours of language learning where you are being exposed to vocabulary that can be easily represented by objects or pictures. But, a word of caution: even at that point, if you are not with a language tutor that is quickly putting those early vocabulary or lexical phrases into sentences, then you are doing yourself a huge disservice.

Memorizing Vocabulary Lists Can Stunt Your Growth

Learning vocabulary with lists, without quickly recording them, first in simple sentences, then in basic stories, is too elemental and will likely stunt your growth in a significant way. In our Arabic learning program we intentionally train our nurturers to quickly build every word we introduce into activities that also envelop patterns of speech as well as other lexical components that are essential to constructing a meaningful sentence; prepositions, adverbial phrases, gender agreement, conjunctions, negations, etc. This, in essence, kills two birds with one stone, as we say in English. If you have just been learning isolated words, you are likely to have some struggles in forming clear sentences, especially if you’ve been with a tutor that has simply introduced words to memorize.

Why is it so important that we get away from thinking about learning a second language as “memorizing” a list or set of new words? It’s because psycholinguists, those who study the way human brains process language, say that language is much more than individual words strung together by grammatical rules. Rather, language is actually learned in chunks.

Another way to think about this is by understanding the idea of collocation. Collocation refers to the phenomenon of words being combined with other words. Ronald Carter, who published research that transformed the world of linguistics, refers to collocation as, “the company a word keeps.”

1Carter, R. (1998). Vocabulary: Applied Linguistic Perspectives. London: Routledge. An easy way to understand this is thinking of it as “co-location,” words often being found in near proximity to other words; in the same location.

Now, why is this important? Collocation is important to the field of second language learning because, as Carter says, “words operate in a lexical environment.”

2Carter. Vocabulary. This means we should never divorce them from the original context in which they are found. If we separate them, we miss out on the essential placement which is foundational in the way our brains store communicative information. It’s like looking at a sunset through binoculars. Why would you do that? You are narrowing your scope of vision and robbing yourself of the full view.

The full view, in this sense, is the way language is patterned together. Most communication and its meaning consists of several words that are frequently and often predictably occurring together. Let me give you an example. Let’s say I was listening to a recording and heard the word “torrential.” If I pull this word out of the original audio and never listen to how it came up organically, but rather put it in a word log and ask my tutor to record its definition, it would look something like this, “torrential: flowing or falling rapidly in great amounts.” How likely am I to understand how to use this word? This same learner is likely to consider themselves successful if they can define the word the following day. What practical good will that do them? More importantly, how likely is this learner to know when to use this word and which nouns typically follow it in order to sound like a native-speaker? I’m not optimistic they will. They may know a rote definition of the word but are they storing familiarity with common usage? It is more likely that they are getting bogged down and, in the process, slowing down their learning with the self-defeating technique of memorizing individual vocabulary words. Perhaps they are spending a lot of their sessions asking their nurturer or tutor detailed questions about word choice and definitions, rather than moving on to absorb more language and expose themselves to more content rapidly. The latter approach will do this work for them.

Language Is Best Learned in Chunks

It’s probably just a matter of time before this learner is discouraged with their learning because they are not trusting their brain to do its job. That’s because they may not realize that, equally important to the meaning of words are the words that come before and after it. Linguists pay attention to the four words that occur before and the four words that come after each vocabulary word. They suggest that the meaning of individual words is only fully realized in relation to all of the language surrounding it.

Back to the word “torrential.” Its usage is limited. There is no reason to memorize this word, but rather to continue listening to lots of audio, which will eventually cause you to notice how native speakers place this descriptive into their speech. “Torrential rains,” “torrential downpour,” “torrential water,” “torrential storm.” Those are the most common instances of the use of that word. How does a new language learner discover this? By listening to large quantities of speech.

That’s because knowing a word’s collocation (the company the word keeps), is crucial to understanding how to use it. As Dr. Crayton Walker, a senior lecturer at the University of Birmingham and expert in both language teaching and corpus linguistics, says, “ Use is meaning and meaning is use.” When we aim to acquire language in meaningful chunks, we provide our brains with the opportunity to grasp a greater amount of information compared to when we isolate words from their original context and treat them as standalone entities; as though they are islands. Many people invest considerable time on flashcards that concentrate highly efficient and capable minds on individual words, separating them from the essential context required to foster the highest level of communicative competence.

If we want to get to a place where we have the skill of speech prediction, the ability to know what should come next in the language we are learning, we have to hear a lot of language in chunks. You know how you can sometimes complete someone’s sentence? This powerful skill comes to you in your first language because you have heard tons of language assembled in strings of thought, not by memorizing individual vocabulary words. You can get to this place in your second or third or sixth language as well, if you do lots of listening to speech alongside its natural companions.

Reinforce Lexical Phrases and Common Expressions

Did you know that native speakers typically speak at a rate of 100-130 words per minute? This means that when you reach the advanced phases in your learning, you’ll be listening to audio content that quickly reinforces tons of lexical phrases and common expressions. Do not use those resources simply to set apart new words you’ve picked out for your flash card set. There is a reason that word logs are optional in Phases 4 and 5 of our program. They have the potential to become an unnecessary distraction from the original source recording. When reviewing and reinforcing audio you have worked hard to clarify, spend time listening to those recordings most. How these words were used in the first place is most important and should be the priority in your listening library.

If you insist on lists, that’s fine. Try to use a sentence log instead of a word list. A sentence log will at least allow you to retain the precious vocabulary that surrounds your new word. But don’t pick up your binoculars and miss the sunset. There is a wealth of psycholinguistic evidence to support the view that, even in our first language acquisition, young children move very quickly beyond the single-word stage and begin to pick up language as set phrases and routines. Work on second language acquisition suggests that learners become fluent faster and more efficiently when they, too, learn to produce and process language in chunks.

Words are best learned in the lexical environment in which they are found, without removing them, allowing them to remain surrounded by the words that support them.

Let’s take this one step further. Ronald Carter writes, “The basic principle of a structural semantic approach to word meaning is that words do not exist in isolation: their meanings are defined through the sense relations they have with other words.”

3Carter. 19.

By keeping speech in its original context we enhance our ability to predict and comprehend it. The meaning of vocabulary resides not solely within individual words but also within the surrounding language context. Meaning in text is communicative because each word impacts what will follow or what precedes it. What a word means depends on what comes before or after it.

Some grammatical words do not, in and of themselves, carry much meaning. Words such as “if,” “by,” “but,” “indeed,” “could,” “because.” These are classified as grammatical words. These are pronouns, articles, auxiliary verbs, prepositions and conjunctions that support words that are classified as lexical: nouns, adjectives and adverbs. These lexical words carry more information, but without the grammatical words that envelop it, we do not learn how to properly place lexical words and, consequently, do not learn to speak in a way that communicates clearly.

Note Lexical Repetition

Another valuable concept to take note of as language learners is “lexical repetition.” Before my Master of Applied Linguistics course, I did not know the term, so don’t feel like you should either. Now that I am familiar with it, I’m noticing how much it plays a role in language learning all the time. Lexical repetition happens when certain items are referenced multiple times throughout a story or conversation. These can be objects, topics, subjects or nouns, including people. Throughout a story or text or conversation, these lexical items will be referred to multiple times, sometimes in the same way, but often, if an educated person is speaking, they will throw in synonyms or some kind of alternative label for the noun in order to vary their speech and be more colorful. Take for instance a news article that may mix things up throughout by first calling someone a “suspect,” then a “thief,” then a “bandit,” or a “robber.” All of those nouns refer back to the same subject.

In this podcast episode, I have sought to use a variety of nouns to describe the action of separating words from their context: “isolate,” “divorce,” “set apart,” “remove.” This is yet another reason why listening to chunks of language can expose us to many related words that both reinforce and give meaning to vocabulary.

Jean Aitchinson in her book Words in the Mind writes, “Words themselves cannot ultimately be regarded as a finite package. Since each word has links with so many others, and with general memory information, all these connections are in a sense part of the sum total of what we mean by a ‘word.’”

4Aitchison, J. (2003). Words in the Mind. Oxford: Blackwell. 245. For Aitchinson, these links are important when it comes to storing vocabulary in our memory.

Be Aware of Semantic Complexity

Words have semantic complexity. To illustrate, try to define the English word, off. It’s a bit tricky to nail down isn’t it? If we follow the advice of the linguists I’ve mentioned, we now know meaning is best picked up through the entirety of its context. Here are some sentences that should help:

Semantic complexities:

  • Turn the TV off
  • He’s a bit off today.
  • The milk tastes off.
  • Run off some copies please.
  • He jumped off the bridge.
  • The village is miles off.

Can you define the word off now? Its usage and partner words help us understand how to use it. If I want something shut down, I need to also use the verb turn. “Turn off the stove,” “turn off the car,” “turn off the lights.”

If I wish to express that something is “not as it should be,” I might mention that a person seems off today, or that the milk has an off taste or smell. However, I cannot use the phrase “my helmet is off” in the same manner. This conveys a different meaning. In this context, it implies that the helmet is not currently on my head, rather than suggesting that it is not as it should be.

Are you starting to see how important listening in context is? Can you see how dependent surrounding words are to supporting meaning? “Running off” copies signifies “making copies.” We “jump off” diving boards and “jump on” trampolines. When a village is described as being “miles off,” it indicates that it is a significant distance away.

Choosing a Language Learning Strategy

If you have been memorizing individual vocabulary words, I hope I have encouraged you to adjust your strategy of learning, especially if you have progressed beyond the beginning stages of learning your second language. If nothing else, I hope you begin noticing all of the lexical items in chunks of language that impact meaning or contribute to your understanding of how to use the language.

Let me leave you with a quote by Jean Aitchison, “Finding a word in the mental lexicon can be envisaged as following a path through this complex network, with some network links being stronger than others. For well-known common words, the paths are well worn, and it is easy to travel fast, but for words used only occasionally, the paths are narrow and dimly lit.”

5Aitchison. 244.

As you continue on your journey to learn Levantine Arabic, may all your paths be well worn and brightly lit, may all your links be strong.

Learn Levantine Arabic dialect in Jordan with an experiential approach to language learning.

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