Kids are often touted as better language learners than adults are. Hundreds of language learning products purport to facilitate learning like a child. Implicit within this assertion is that children learn organically and with minimal conscious effort. This is an enticing prospect for budding language learners, but is learning like a child really desirable?
Adult learners should not be underestimated. While it may take around six years for a child to be linguistically fully-functional (albeit without specialized vocabulary), an adult — with the potential to use both explicit (conscious) and implicit (subconscious) knowledge to his advantage — can reach an advanced communicative capacity in as little as one year. Perhaps that sounds bold, but I’m living proof of this; I currently speak 11 languages at an intermediate to advanced level — and I learned the majority of these languages in adulthood.
For me, the key to learning so many languages has been knowing how to combine the implicit skill development favored in childhood with the explicit acquisition of knowledge favored by adults. We can achieve the best of both learning styles by adhering to the following 5 key principles to learning vocabulary in any foreign language. I stick to these principles religiously when studying a new language and have expounded them in greater detail below.
“The five key principles to learn new vocabulary quickly and effectively are: Selection, Association, Revision, Storage and Use.”
When faced with new words, it’s important to learn how to select the vocabulary that is most interesting and applicable to you. There are hundred of thousands of words in every language, and the large majority of them won’t be immediately relevant to you when you’re starting out. The ability to filter out a language’s background noise is one of the most underestimated skills that seasoned language learners possess. Most language textbooks contain pages on topics ranging from shopping to air travel and even zoo animals. Many people follow these courses and learn these words begrudgingly, accepting it as “part of the process.” This is tantamount to reading an entire newspaper just to get to the sports section.
Don’t make this mistake. Opt instead for the most useful words in a language, and then expand outwards from there according to your needs and interests. Typically, the most frequent 3000 words make up 90% of the language that a native speaker uses on any given day.
“Typically, the most frequent 3000 words make up 90% of the language that a native speaker uses on any given day.”
Sure, native speakers know thousands of words across a remarkably wide range of topics, but the majority of these words were learned through exposure. As kids, native speakers only concern themselves with the words that are either interesting or necessary to daily communication. Other words come later as one’s interests become more nuanced and specialized. Even then, native speakers still only know a fraction of all the vocabulary in their mother tongue. English, for example, has reached one million words. I mean, who knows one million words? And more importantly, who needs to know one million words?!
Focus on the vocabulary that you need, and make sure that it’s universally useful. This vocabulary makes up the core of what I term basic fluency; the terms that relate to everyday life and conversations, such as the following verbs: to go, to walk, to sleep, to want — and nouns like name, house, car, city, hand, bed.
Once you move along and have familiarized yourself with the 3000 most frequent words in a
language, gaining knowledge of less common words is more of a challenge. At this point, a lot of language learners experience a so-called plateau. Here, they get the impression that they are no longer making any progress, and cannot figure out why.
One of the main reasons for this is because, as your vocabulary in a language grows, it becomes much more difficult to find more useful words to learn, let alone memorize them. In this phase, it is important that you focus on words that are useful and relevant to you — words applicable to your home life, your job, and your interests. This vocabulary forms the core of what I term personal fluency. If you are, say, a biologist, it might be useful to learn vocabulary such as gene, cell, synapses, or skeleton, while a history buff will learn words such as war, monarchy, society, and trade.
Interesting words are an important ally against forgetting. If you focus on the words that are meaningful to you, you’ll be much less likely to forget it in the long-term. This allows you to build your vocabulary in a progressive, structured and engaging way.
Identifying useful words is key to our learning process, but if you try to absorb these words in the absence of context, you’ll have a hard time fitting them all together when the time comes to use the language actively. Our key to building this context is association. Association is the process by which new, incoming information is connected to old, preexisting information. One piece of information could have thousands of associations to memories, emotions, sensory experiences, and discrete facts.
Our brains do this naturally, but we can also take conscious control of the process. Let’s consider the aforementioned words: gene, cell, synapses, skeleton… If we try to learn them on their own, we’ll soon forget them, or have to relearn them. If we learn these words in a larger context such as a sentence, however, we’ll have a much better ability to connect them together in our minds. Think about it for just 10 seconds and try to link the four words.
You might end up with something like this:
The genes affect the development of such diverse elements as the skeleton, brain synapses, and even individual cells.
All four words now fit into a context like pieces of a puzzle. There’s more information there, but since we’re only trying to focus on four distinct words, completing exercises like this will aid recall.
An exercise like this even works for words that have no obvious relationship between them. Consider the following words:
Snake, whiteboard, dinner, pebble, tomb.
It may seem difficult at first, but with practice, you’ll be able to join together even the most disparate words to create a coherent narrative or discourse. This particular exercise is a great way to improve your speaking, association and imagination in your target language. It is an effective way to get a large variety of words into your vocabulary, while still ensuring that each word is part of a larger context.
Just remember to exercise your capacities of association progressively. First, work with batches of words that already share a common context, like physics or politics and then attempt building more complex networks with unrelated words. The more you do it, the better you will become at it.
More than a century ago, a German psychiatrist named Ebbinghaus found that we tend to forget information according to a precise mechanism which he described as the forgetting curve. According to this mechanism, when we learn a piece of information, we initially remember it extremely well, but that same memory deteriorates to nothing in a matter of days.
Ebbinghaus discovered that there was a way to combat our rapid forgetting mechanism. If new information is reviewed at precise time intervals, it will become less and less easy to forget. After several such intervals, the information will have made it into long-term memory, and you’ll likely remember it forever. So, without getting into the precise details of the forgetting curve, you must make sure that you regularly and consistently review old information, while simultaneously learning new information as well.
The ancient Romans had a saying: “Verba volant sed script manent.”
Literally, “Spoken words fly away, but written words stay.” Essentially, the Romans were trying to tell us that in order for information to be recalled, it must first be recorded or stored in a permanent or semi-permanent form. This means that when you learn new words, you must write them down or type them somewhere for safekeeping and later review. But there are other ways to remember vocabulary without using flashcards.
Every time you learn a new, useful word or phrase — be it while speaking with someone, watching a movie, or reading a book — make sure that you store the information on your phone or a notebook you keep in your pocket. This way you can review your recorded information whenever you have a free moment.
The last key principle for remembering vocabulary effectively is to use what you learn while engaging in meaningful communication.
Researchers Victor Boucher and Alexis Lafleur, of the University of Montreal in Canada, have discovered that repeating words out loud to another person is much more effective in terms of memorization than if you say them aloud to yourself.
This points to the fact that the more you engage actively with other human beings, the more your fluency and linguistic memory can develop. So, always make an effort to use the material you have learned with a living, breathing person. This will benefit your learning in myriad ways, and will give you further experience with new and pre-existing vocabulary that will strengthen your language knowledge in the long run.
Let me give you an example. Let’s suppose that you read an article about a topic that is interesting to you. After selecting and looking up some unknown words, you can engage in a brief, simple discussion with your language partner a few days later. You want to convey the content of the article to him, and you are doing it by using a few, key words that you have selected and reviewed. You will see how effectively you will remember them after this brief conversation.
Contrary to what we may have learned in school, languages are not something that can just be dissected and memorized, like subjects in a textbook. Languages are complex human phenomena which demand the use of both explicit and implicit learning in order to be internalized and mastered. This is especially true when it comes to learning vocabulary, and every learner has potentially millions of words to choose from. With the five step system I have outlined above, you have the tools necessary to:
1) Choose the words you want/need to learn.
2) Relate them to what you already know.
3) Review them until they’ve reached your long-term memory.
4) Record them so learning is never lost.
5) Use them in meaningful human conversation and communication.
It is through applying these principles that I, as an adult, have been capable of learning more than eleven languages to a high level. You can do this too. By following the above steps, you’ll be using your brain in a more efficient and effective manner, and you’ll be able to boost your learning in a way that you never thought was possible.