With a degree in Linguistics, years as a professor of foreign languages, countless time as a translator, and a thirst to always learn a different language, I can attest (in any language you chose) that the most important thing you can do to learn a language is to build your vocabulary! Studying grammar for years won’t do it. Trying to perfect your accent won’t do it. It really is all about vocabulary. Everything else will come with time. When my son was two he learned to speak English the same way every child in the world before him learned their first language . . .one word at a time! Unfortunately for me his first word was not “daddy.” It was “car.” Yes my son has always had a fascination with cars. One day he was watching television, pointed to the screen and triumphantly exclaimed, “kaaar!” A few months later her was able to say “moma,” “dada,” and his sisters’ names. More interesting though was when he said, “wawa” to mean any drink, or “cookie” to mean any type of sweet. He had also figured out that “shuz on” means we were going somewhere, and that by saying “die pah chaynge” we would rush him to the potty. Many of his phrases would make little sense to my colleagues at work if I were to use them, but to us they made complete sense. Believe it or not, the same holds true for you!
When you are just starting out to speak a new language and you say to a native speaker the equivalent of “wawa” chances are he or she is going to figure out that you are thirsty. Even if you do not know the word for something, if you can just describe it as, “that round thing over there” chances are the person to whom you are speaking will know that you mean the plate, the tire or whatever it is you are referring to. Context is huge in language.
Taking the “toddler” approach is critical to learning a foreign language. You may not be able to say, “I must find an ophthalmologist because I lost my contact lens.” But you should be able to say, “help eyes, where glasses doctor?” Knowing a few simple vocabulary words can take you to that level. The problem most people face is that they are worried that if they do not speak with proper grammar no one will pay attention to them. Or rather, they feel that they will be made fun of. Rarely do I find this, and usually I find that I am only ever corrected when speaking a foreign language by non-native speakers and it is usually in such a way as it seems they are only doing it to make themselves feel better about their own ability. Native speakers are usually just tickled that you are even trying to communicate with them. As such, whether or not you are using the proper gerund is not as important to them as understanding the underlying message you are trying to convey. It is perfectly legitimate to speak like a toddler when setting out to learn a new language.
So what vocabulary terms should you begin with? Start with what interests you. Why? You’re more likely to remember those terms. Being a lawyer, I’m quick to remember that in French the word for lawyer is “avocat.” In Arabic, it is “mohamee.” Knowing a few basic food terms will help from keeping you hungry, but studying what is most of interest to you is by far the best way to remember the words that you study.
Another helpful suggestion, and this is a must when you are in a foreign country or in any immersion setting, have a pen and a small pad of paper in your pocket at all times. Anytime you are chatting with someone in the foreign language and you discover a word that is new to you. Write it down. When I was in Tunisia, I oftentimes would hold my pad of paper out to my friends that were helping me to speak Arabic and I would ask them to write the word down. I did this because sometimes I had a hard time knowing the exact Arabic letter that was used in the word. I also wanted to get the proper spelling. My pad became so common place that towards the end of my trip I had a few friends that would just stick out their hand anytime I came across a new word, because they knew that I would soon be asking them to write it down for me. They didn’t mind doing it, because they didn’t mind helping me, and I wanted to learn.
When you return home at night, you should then write down in a separate pad of paper (a much larger pad) all the words that you learned that day. Keeping track of the words will help you to remember them. It will also give you your own personal dictionary of terms that you have run across throughout the day. Yes you will find that many words you just learned the previous day will have to be written down again, but that is just part of the process of learning a foreign language. Remember my son? To him all vehicles were “kaars” until he learned to differentiate and see that some of them were actually trucks or buses. He didn’t always remember the proper word for something the first time he was introduced to it, rather he repeated it on what seemed like a thousand different occasions, until he got it right. We all do that. It is unquestionably true that repetition is the father of all learning. It was true for my son the toddler and it is true for you. Why do you hear people say so often, “well I can’t learn a language, I’m too old.” Because they have too much of an ego to realize that in learning a language you really have to make mistakes. You really have to have the toddler drive and ambition to learn. So if that means asking how to say “car” ten thousands times until you get it right, ask it ten thousand times. Eventually you’ll catch on!
Having a note pad at the ready is one way to help your vocabulary, but there are many nuts and bolts to learning vocabulary that can help. Among the various resources previously mentioned, many companies produce vocabulary tapes. Americans waste so much time driving every day while listening to garbage radio. Why not fill in the wasted time with a lesson in vocabulary. If you don’t like boring vocabulary lists, try one of the many companies that offer vocabulary “a la Mozart.” You can easily find vocabulary cassette tapes with not just words but Mozart accompanying the background. Whether it is true or not that music stimulates the brain into better recollection is one thing, but even if it does not, you will still be doing something more productive then by listening to music you didn’t want to hear anyway.
Flashcards are another way to help improve your vocabulary. It has been estimated that an average human spends approximately three years of their life waiting in line. If you have to wait anyway, why not have a packet of flash cards in your pocket. Or use your Iphone and connect it to a nice site like www.quizlet.com. I had a good friend that went through the Defense Language Institute in Monterey California. They had a huge list of words that they had to learn every day. To keep up with the list, he would put every word on a vocabulary flash card. As he went through the cards, he would put them in three piles. One pile was for words he didn’t know at all. Another was for words he recognized, and the last was for words he recalled quite well. After going through all the cards he would put the cards back together starting with the words he had the most difficult time with. Once he felt totally comfortable with a word, he would put it in a separate pile that was to be discarded. As he went through the stack of flashcards a number of times, the “I don’t know” pile became smaller, and the discard pile grew and grew and grew. No matter how you stack the cards, the one thing that is true is that the more you do it, the more you will learn.
When it comes to vocabulary, the more you learn the more likely you will find it easier to learn more. It is a product of human nature. I remember a preacher once being asked how he had such an incredible memory. He seemed to have memorized the entire Bible and he could recall just about anything that had to do with anyone he met. His response? He said that he memorized a verse a day from the Bible. He said that he started slow but the more he learned, the easier it was to memorize. He swore that if you memorized a verse a day, in a year you would have a photographic memory. I believe he is right. I also believe that it doesn’t have to be the Bible or anything special to make it happen. The more you exercise your brain, the more it will be able to retain. This is especially true with regard to learning a foreign language. If you set out to learn even one new vocabulary word a day, by the end of a year, you’ll find that you have learned much more than you thought was even imaginable. From that point on, once you have a base vocabulary, learning even more terms is even that much simpler.
If you ever have a difficult time trying to recall certain terms, be creative. I recommend using mnemonics. A mnemonic is something that you use to associate a concept with something else that you can more easily remember. For example, when I learned the word for ‘elephant’ in Arabic, ‘feel’ I thought about the one time I felt an elephant and how rough the hairs on an elephant can be. The thought of how an elephant feels, helped me remember the term for elephant. In French, I had a difficult time remember the word for bailiff, ‘greffier’ so I thought about a really gruff looking bailiff that I met in court once. For some reason just thinking about him helped me to remember, ‘greffier.’ Yes it is a stretch, but it worked for me. The point is, if it works for you and it helps you to remember the word you are learning use it!
If you check out www.excusemywhat.com, you can find several excellent books for learning French and Arabic that are filled with creative mnemonic terms. The books are inexpensive and will help you learn hundreds of new words in a day. Check them out – what have you got to lose?
Whatever you do to remember your terminology, the more you learn, the more facility you will have with learning more. Whenever you speak with a linguist who speaks multiple languages you will find a common trend. People either are bilingual and speak two languages or they are polyglottal (multi-lingual) and speak more than three. Rarely do you meet someone who only speaks three languages. This really isn’t a phenomena. The reason is simple. After learning to speak your second language, learning a third is much easier. Once you reach three languages, the fourth is almost a given. Your mind just simply adapts to learning a language, you almost develop what one could call a linguistic photographic memory. Your brain is used to picking up new vocabulary. For some strange reason, learning Arabic was easy for me because of the fact that I speak French. Part of it was because many Arabic words were borrowed from the Spanish and the French during the time of the Crusades and the Napoleanic conquest of Egypt, but the other reason is that my brain has just been fined tuned to receiving foreign language data.
The most wonderful thing about all this, is that our brains are wired for language acquisition. We naturally acquired our first language. Developing our second, third, or fourth, really is not a new concept for our brain. It just takes practice, exercise, and perseverance. Learning vocabulary is just one tool you can use to give your mind a mental jump-start. Continual acquisition of new terminology, will keep your mental engine nicely tuned so that when you need to learn the finer points of the language (grammar, precise spelling etc.) you will be ready to tackle that too.