The most vivid memory of my high school French experience is that of the vocabulary lists at the beginning of each chapter in the textbook. We would repeat them after the teacher, make flashcards, quiz ourselves and hope to pass the test on Friday. Sadly, most of these words were never truly available to me; a reality brought into sharp focus by my three short weeks in France my senior year.
Conjugate all you want, but if you haven’t the vocabulary, you can’t communicate.
After four years of studying, surely I had been exposed to thousands of words. But I struggled to communicate with an embarrassingly small vocabulary. This led to many, many misunderstandings, missed opportunities, and outright farces. All I can say is, beware of relying on cognates; “mammal” does NOT have the same meaning in French. Well, it sort of does… in the technical sense…
Only an efficient and sustainable method of study will deliver mastery of the thousands of words you need for fluency.
Memorization is not efficient.
Any college student will confirm this. Flashcards may work for short-term memory, to pass that exam. But as far as long term retention goes, they are rubbish.
Memorization is not sustainable.
Beating oneself over the head with a stack of ten thousand flash cards is no one’s idea of fun. Labels, lists and flashcards do not promote communication, and really seem more like training for a career as a librarian.
Memorization does not equal learning.
So much classroom based language learning focuses a lot of time on memorization, albeit of phrases and sentences instead of single words. But as many linguists point out, when you drive, you aren’t actively remembering how to drive; you’re just automatically doing it. And when you ask your friend to pass the ketchup, you aren’t actively remembering how to say “ketchup” or how to make a polite request. In both of these cases, our brains are doing something quite different than accessing memorized lists.
Experience and associations lead to robust learning.
Your brain organizes learned skills (like driving, or comprehending and communicating in a language) in a highly cross-indexed matrix of neural connections. When you drive, hundreds, probably thousands of neural connections light up — what the sounds of the engine means, the amount of pressure needed on the foot pedals to shift gears or accelerate and stop – all connected by a web of experience and association. When you try to memorize a word from a list, what kind of experience and association are you offering your brain? A piece of paper, the words before and after, maybe the picture in the textbook. This is hardly an input-rich environment. So the neural connections are few and weak, and when our brain does its regular pruning (while we sleep!), these insubstantial links are discarded.
Meaningful context and experiences cement new words in our vocabulary.
At the beginning of language learning, we have little or no understanding of what is being spoken to us. So meaningful context and experience is going to be highly dependent on our senses – what we can see, touch, taste, smell and hear. For example…
Your language helper says, “C’est une pomme,” and hands you an apple. During your lesson, you can touch the “pomme,” experience its “pomme-ness,” experiment with its relationship to other things you know (Quelles que animeaux aime monger des pommes?).
Your helper leads you through a lesson that includes common fruits from the market and a child’s picture book about growing apples or going to the market.
These connections between sound (the spoken word), sensory input, and association with prior knowledge start to build a new neural web that allows your brain to quickly assign meaning to the new word.
Starting a kit for meaningful, experiential learning.
In the beginning phase of your language journey, physical objects that you can move and manipulate will be extremely important for acquiring new vocabulary quickly. If you start collecting in advance of your language sessions you’ll have one less thing to stress about. Garage sale finds and handmade objects, as well as things around your house and office work just fine. In terms of making strong associations, the real item is best, then in descending order: toy versions, photos of the object, and finally drawings. Some things are used so often and extensively that they may be worth buying. Here are some suggestions:
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