Specialists in language instruction spend a lot of time doing research and debating the best ways to learn new vocabulary. All agree that a word has to be seen often before it can be learned.
Some educators stress the importance of learning in context. Others feel that there is a faster and more direct route. This latter group feels that there is an order in which words should be learned. The most frequently used words should be learned first, followed by the less frequently used words etc. These people feel that the deliberate study of word lists prepared by “experts” is a shortcut that can speed up the learning process. They point out that less frequent words appear so seldom that a person would have to read or listen to a lot of context in order to meet these new words often enough to learn them.
My view is that vocabulary learning cannot be looked outside the context of language learning itself. In language learning there are three cardinal rules.
1) The motivation of the learner to cross into another language and culture is the key to success. It needs to be constantly stimulated, encouraged and fed .
2) Fluency is the only meaningful goal of language learning.
3) The learner has to direct the course of his/her own learning.
Reading and listening to a lot of content is the best way to keep most learners motivated and to achieve fluency in the language. It is entertaining and motivating. It will improve the learner’s understanding, familiarity and enjoyment of the language as long as the learner can choose content of interest to learn from.
Learners, if allowed to, will normally choose content in areas that are of interest and therefore familiar to them. Vocabulary specific to the chosen subject matter will naturally appear more frequently and therefore be easier to learn. Words that do not reappear frequently are not yet needed and will not be learned. Later as the learner moves to other content, a different range of words and phrases will appear more often. The learner will then be able to learn them.
That said, there are ways to increase the efficiency of word acquisition. Developing lists of frequency of use of different words is one, but not a very important one. There are others that are more effective. More later.
I sometimes hear language teachers talking about cross-cultural communication as if it was something that the language teacher needed to learn in order to be a more effective teacher.
I do not believe this to be the case. It is the learner who must learn, not the teacher who must teach. The willingness and ability of the learner to cross into another culture is the single most important factor in language learning. The learner needs to be good at cross-cultural communication, not the teacher.
The more the learner listens and reads in another language the easier it becomes to cross into that culture, and , as long as the learner can choose content of interest, the more enjoyable it becomes. L’appetit vient en mangeant.” as they say in French.
I have been away for a few weeks. After my business trip to Europe, I was able to spend two weeks in Arizona, mostly in Phoenix. When the weather in Vancouver gets wet and cool, it is nice to go where the sun shines every day. Arizona is such a place. My wife, Carmen and I played golf many times. I was also able to go jogging and play tennis in the sun. I had plenty of opportunity to listen to my Italian audio book, I Promessi Sposi, by Alessandro Manzoni, narrated and produced by Il Narratore.I Promessi Sposi is one of the classics of Italian literature. The book is a simple story but rich in descriptions of life in early 17th century in Italy, and full of insightful observations about human character. Listening to Il Narratore’s wonderful story telling is a rich cultural experience that can enjoyed while jogging and doing other activities, although not while playing golf.
The CD is an MP3 CD so that this long book can be narrated in its entirety in just 2 CDs. As I have said many times before, I really recommend audio books for language learners. It is a meaningful way to communicate with the language and the culture. It is portable and flexible. It is a rich experience, quite different from reading. After all, for most of history, books were written to be read out loud, and to be listened to. It is also easier to listen than to read.
MP3 files and the portable MP3 player represent a revolution in language learning and learning generally. This is not yet fully understood.
The best investment any learner can make is in an MP3 player. This makes it possible to accumulate lots of content for regular listening whenever and wherever you want. The range of content that is available is constantly expanding. Some universities are now posting courses on web sites for download by students.
So far much of the effort towards MP3 learning seems directed towards combining audio and video. I believe this is wrong. The advantage of MP3 players is their portability. You can listen while doing other things. You can multi-task. You do not need to look at a professor on a small screen to understand what he/she is saying. If you do look at a video you are stuck. You cannot jog and watch a video, wash dishes and watch a video, drive a car and watch a video. You are stuck! You might as well be in a classroom.
The advantage of the MP3 player is that it takes you out of the classroom. The logical complement to the MP3 player is e-text, not video. With e-text you can search for explanations, connect to dictionnaries, connect to forums of other learners, build up personal databases of words, phrases, concepts and contexts, and much more. You can also print when you want. Then you just go back o listening, typically more than once.
That is the core concept of The Linguist. Flexibility, portability, intensity, learner responsibility; these are the keys to life-long learning in the 21st century. Long live the MP3 revolution and watch it grow!