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How To Deal With Vocabulary When Learning A New Language

by expat2003 (writer), central Mexico, April 22, 2008

You Need More Than 20,000 words in the target language to begin sounding "native-like".

In my quest to achieve native-like fluency in Spanish, I have struggled with an issue that is common to all language learners, whether one is learning a dead language like Latin or one of the many modern languages currently spoken on the planet: vocabulary. The one universal struggle is the monumental task of mastering enough vocabulary to sound as close to a native as possible.

"One needs perhaps 20,000 words to begin to sound somewhat native-like, but 100,000 words should be the goal of the second-language learner." (Winitz)

Imagine that! You need only a mere twenty thousand to begin to sound somewhat native-like, but your goal should be 100,000 words. No wonder so few Anglo-Saxons in the North American continent are bilingual. That little bit of linguistic trivia is enough to make anyone to run in the opposite direction when the subject of learning a second language is broached. And, it is no wonder why the dropout rate of students who attempt to learn a second language is so high.

Believe it or not, once we reach about the age of 12 and begin morphing into adolescence, emotion becomes a huge factor in Learning a Second Language failure and dropout rate. Suddenly, the fear of looking stupid in front of our peers becomes the motivating factor for everything we do, including when confronted with the idea of becoming bilingual. It is commonly believed, and really based on some very outdated and inaccurate science, that the younger you are the more likely you are to become bilingual when put into a foreign language environment. The false reason offered for this is that the older you become, the harder it is to learn.

"There used to be a theory on "brain development" from the 1960's which taught that there was a "crucial period" an individual had before the brain lost its "plasticity," making learning a second language too difficult." (Lenneberg, 1967)

Modern studies have shown though some differences between how a child and an adult learns a second language do exist, the older learner has the distinct advantage. The adult learner of Spanish can learn the language faster because of the following:

The adult's maturely-developed brain has the superior ability to understand the relationship between semantics and grammar.

The adult's brain is more mature in its ability to absorb vocabulary, grammatical structures, and to make more "higher order" generalizations and associations.

The adult learner's better-developed brain is better at "putting together all the pieces" with a more developed long-term memory.

The biggest obstacle for the adult is the emotional factor. Adults have bought into the myth that they just cannot learn a second language. They are also afraid of making fools of themselves. They believe the myth that they are "too old." I have often thought this is the reason children seem to learn Spanish faster than adults do-they do not have to contend with the embarrassment factor.

If the monolingual adult could get past the affective problems in second language acquisition, then the motivation soon could be crushed by the attempt at learning the vocabulary necessary for fluency.

I recently received a letter from a reader who said he has taken Spanish classes for more than seven years and still can't speak the language. He scores very high on written tests when tested for grammar competency but can't speak the language or understand what's spoken to him. His vocabulary, he told me, is so abysmal that it makes his speaking and understanding extremely difficult.

This is a common theme I hear too often.

C.A. Mace, author of Psychology Study (1932), was the first to postulate, in his book, a practical application of an idea called, spaced repetition.

Spaced repetitions, or graduated intervals, is a learning technique in which increasing increments of time intervals are used to review material you want to remember.

"There has been a great deal of research on how different spacing of repetitions in time affects the strength of memory and how the resulting findings could be applied in the practice of effective learning. It has been predicted, and to a large degree confirmed, that by changing the spacing of repetitions, a substantial gain in the effectiveness of learning might be obtained" (e.g., Bjork, 1979; Glenberg, 1979; Glenberg 1980; Clifford, 1981; Dempster, 1987; Bahrick, 1987). -- P.A.Wozniak, Economics of learning, Doctoral Dissertation, University of Economics, Wroclaw, 1995

Sebastian Leitner, a German science "popularizer," invented a learning system using flashcards based on the Spaced Repetition principle.

"A widely used method to efficiently use flashcards was proposed by the German science popularizer Sebastian Leitner in the 1970s. In his method, known as the Leitner system, flashcards are sorted into groups according to how well you know each one. This is how it works: you try to recall the solution written on a flashcard. If you succeed, you send the card to the next group. But if you fail, you send it back to the first group. Each succeeding group has a longer period of time before you are required to revisit the cards." (Wikipedia)

Paul Pimsleur, applied linguistic teacher and researcher, applied the spaced repetition principle to second language acquisition. Pimsleur's highly successful audio-only second language learning system was reviewed by Paul Nation, Professor in Applied Linguistics at the School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies (LALS) at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Professor Nation concluded that Pimsleur's application of the spaced repetition in his language learning programs had been verified in the research done before Pimsleur's 1967 essay detailing his research findings.

In Pimsleur's language learning system, you do not use rote memory to learn anything. The spaced repetition of vocabulary and natural grammar is programmed into the individual lessons.

You experience an immediate psychological feedback because you have learned as much material in a mere thirty minutes as you would have doing hours of boring rote-memory work using a traditional grammar-translation approach.

The Pimsleur systems are never touted as terminal programs. In other words, the program is just the beginning of one's language learning adventure. You get a huge boost using a program that guides you into a level of spoken fluency with no affective problems or motivation-killing boredom.

And how does one master those 100,000 vocabulary words? The Leitner system. You can Google the term "Leitner system" and get 758,000 pages showing you how to make your own Leitner system for just about any material you want to learn.

###

Sources:

Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning; Stephen D Krashen; University of Southern California; Copyright © 1981 Stephen Krashen

Why Can't I Speak Spanish?: The Critical Period Hypothesis of Language Acquisition; Stephanie Richardson

The Silent Period Hypothesis; Taeko Tomioka; SANNO Junior College

jMemorize is a free open-source Java application that manages your learning processes by using flashcards and the famous Leitner system. http://jmemorize.org/

What Language do You Want to Learn? - Learning a new language has never been easier.



About the Writer

expat2003 is a writer for BrooWaha. For more information, visit the writer's website.
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1 comments on How To Deal With Vocabulary When Learning A New Language

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By Zoey on April 29, 2008 at 05:44 pm

Fascinating stuff. After many years of language learning and spending time at adult language schools so so so much of what I have seen endorses your theory that one of the biggest obstacles to adult acquisition of a second language is the fear of 'making a fools of oneself'.

 In my experience of total immersion programs, it is often the person who gung-ho throws themselves into it, happily speaks aloud in the language, mimicks the language they hear around them, 'shamelessly'making mistakes for all to hear, comes out with funny foreign sounds, and who braves the odd looks they are getting from fellow adult classmates; this is the person who within a few weeks will be happily conversing in the language. I definitely recommend rediscovering the fearless side of your childhood to progress as much as possible!

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