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Approaches to Language Learning Beyond the Textbook

Learning Words by Frequency

Learning a new language is invariably a major undertaking, especially if the learner cannot actually live in a country where the language is spoken. To efficiently learn it is furthermore essential to acquire language knowledge in a most-frequent-first fashion, i.e. learning the most frequently used words, idioms and grammatical patterns first. This is especially important for vocabulary learning, because in most languages a relatively small amount of words makes up a very large part of the average text. Thus learning words in order of their frequency enables the learner to quickly grasp a large part of the target language. This is essentially an instance of the 80/20 work rule which posits that for many things doing 80% requires 20% of the total needed amount of work.

Language courses and learning material often introduce new words in an order that intuitively might seem very logical, but that uses a lot of words which are not as often used in everyday language and conversely skips over many words which would enable understanding faster and more efficiently. The usual traps these courses fall into are assembling words from thematic groups together and requiring the student to learn them all. While thematic grouping of new vocabulary has shown to promote word retention, the inclusion of relatively rarely used words in such word groups can ultimately slow the learning process down to a point where the benefits of the thematic introduction are overcome by the overall reduction of learning speed.

In terms of understanding the most in the least amount of learning time it is best to learn items in their order of frequency in a sufficiently large example corpus. Such a corpus can for example consist of a large number of books, newspaper articles, Wikipedia entries and movie transcripts. For the analysis it’s important to select input material that fits the language learning goal. If a student wants to use a language primarily for conversation and understanding of modern writing, it makes sense to exclude older material, because languages are constantly evolving and words that might have been in frequent use just a couple decades ago can be more or less out of fashion today. On the other hand if someone wants to read old manuscripts, it would be rather pointless to include movies and other modern media in the analysis corpus.

Furthermore if specific works are the focus of attention for a language student it makes perfect sense to analyze these separately. The word frequency lists gathered from individual works can be incorporated into the main part of the learning effort and become a shortcut to understanding them while adding to the overall understanding of the language.

It also makes sense to keep a list of already known words and subtract them from any newly compiled word list, thus quickly skipping to the core of words that need to be learned.

Conjugations & Co.

Languages where words frequently assume a number of different forms through conjugations and other grammatical modifiers, e.g. French, pose an interesting challenge to the concept of learning by frequency. The usual wisdom has been to learn the unmodified dictionary form of any word and learn conjugation rules more or less separately. This approach of course cuts down the number of learning items but in the case of many languages actually burdens the learner with often hard to memorize rules and just as often a seizable amount of exceptions which have to be learned and recognized too.

Another approach, and possibly also a solution to a number of grammatical woes facing the language student, is to treat every form of any word as a new entity. This effectively means to disregard separate rules for word modification of any kind at the cost of an increased number of learning items. The frequency guided approach makes sure that every newly learned item adds the maximum language understanding to the learner’s knowledge though.

For example the French word “aller” (go) assumes wildly different forms its conjugations: “je vais” (I go), “tu vas” (you go), “il va” (he goes). Treating these as distinct words not only avoids the burden of learning the conjugation rules in a contextual void, it also makes perfect sense from a natural recognition standpoint, because the different forms actually have different meanings. “I go” means something else than “you go”, so treating these as separate objects is logical and actually adds to the understanding of the different usage patterns.

Learning Words in Context

Learning words in context is another often overlooked concept. The listing of bare words in language books often leads to students rote-memorizing from those same lists, while largely ignoring the context a word can and should be used in. The optimal context for the acquisition of new vocabulary is of course the sentence. Learning a word surrounded by a correct, meaningful, understandable sentence improves the memorability immediately. There is a difference between merely reading a sentence and actively using it to learn a word though. Reading, in the context of vocabulary learning, is a passive process, because it doesn't require the active production of any words. In contrast writing a sentence is an active process that requires the understanding and memorization of grammatical structures and words.

When focusing on the learning of a single word at a time it is thus useful and efficient to use sentences, but writing entire sentences is counter-productive for a number of reasons: It would require preexisting active knowledge of all necessary words and the understanding of all involved grammar patterns. A solution is to use sentences where the word to be learned is blanked out and the translation of the missing word is given in the student’s native language, e.g.:

“Je ____ au restaurant.” (I go to the restaurant.)

(I) go

This learning pattern has many advantages over other forms of vocabulary learning. It is an active memorization process because it requires the production of the target word and it represents the word in question in a natural context in the target language. Grammatical structures and words surrounding the target word can thus the picked up passively, preparing for their later active acquisition. To make this process as effective as possible, it’s important to use sentences that consist of words and structures that have either be learned before or which are intuitively understandable for the learner. Reusing already learned words in the sentence reinforces their understanding through passive repetition while the careful usage of yet unknown words can lead to a natural understanding of their meaning. To that end it’s also a good idea to add a correct and natural translation of the whole sentence to aid the student.

Education | Language_and_Linguistics


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