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Learning and retaining vocabulary

 Language Learning Forum : Lessons in Polyglottery Post Reply
Joined 4502 days ago

42 posts - 58 votes 
Speaks: Spanish*, French, English, German, Italian
Studies: Greek, Basque, Swahili, Tagalog, Arabic (classical), Quechua, Vietnamese, Turkish, Korean, Serbo-Croatian, Hindi

 Message 1 of 3
24 March 2009 at 8:21pm | IP Logged 
Dear professor,

My name is José, and I am 27-year-old Spanish young man. First of all, I wanted to show my gratefulness to you for all your videos, posts and suggestions, especially the reviews of foreign language learning materials, which I think that will be very important for some of us in the long term.

I have always loved learning languages. I started learning English at the age of ten (when my sister started to teach me), and then when I was thirteen I started grasping the basics of French, Italian, Portuguese and German on my own, from an old Spanish encyclopedia my father had (it was an excellent Spanish thematic encyclopedia of the sixties, probably Labor, but I don’t have it with me right now, sorry) There was a short chapter for each one of those languages, with very clear grammar explanations and vocabulary sections and the texts were simple unrelated sentences at first, and then texts extracted from literary works... this is how I discovered the grammar-translation method.

But finding you here and on Youtube was... I would say, rewarding, and a relief. Because I had always had the impression that this kind of materials were very useful (I loved the books my father kept from his school years, in the fifties, not only the language-related ones –English, French and Latin- but also the ones on history, geography... They may not have many photographs, but they included such good, clear explanations, as if they expected the readers to be intelligent!). Compare it with the beautiful English books we were using at high school and at the Official Language School. Because they didn’t include a single explanation in Spanish, the teachers had to make double effort trying to explain the grammar to all of us. I don’t want to say that I didn’t enjoy those materials... but they are not enough.

I love one anecdote: my father, who is a retired school teacher, and had never learnt English before, was able to make a young boy pass an English exam, by teaching him private lessons with the help of a Spanish manual of the sixties. In those years, students had no oral exams, and my father did not have to teach him pronunciation. The point is that I think that the kind of materials and approach that are used today are not working properly, although incredibly everybody think the opposite. So I always thought that my impressions had to be wrong.

One of my favourite materials is Assimil, which I had discovered by chance, long before finding this forum. Then I enjoyed a lot seeing your video on Assimil, especially since I’d had a French language teacher who had undervalued the Assimils because Eugene Ionesco had made a parody of Assimil in La Cantatrice Chauve, imagine...

I have gathered my little collection of materials since, and I have a small but diverse collection myself about which I am very happy (I have to say that yours is really impressive, it would be worth a museum). But you “unveiled” some completely new materials to me, especially the Buske and L’Harmattan series, which have become two of my favourites. L’Harmattan is the collection that I would have loved to make in Spanish. I currently own materials of languages as exotic as Quechua, Inuit, Lingala, Basque, Seychelles Creole, Burmese, Chamorro or Armenian. And I think it is a beautiful -and affordable- way of discovering the world.

And I couldn’t agree more with you when you say that love for effort and self-improvement has decreased over time, sometimes it is even looked down on, as if it was a bad thing. But I do think it is feasible to learn many languages during one’s lifetime, and having time for all other kinds of activities as well... it is probably a question of arranging one’s time and taking advantage of “dead times”. Maybe I am too optimistic, but this is how I feel.

I am really not that organized when it comes to foreign language learning. The only serious project I undertook was to start a big dictionary in an Excel file which I named "Tesoro" (treasure in Spanish). I started it in December, 2005, and I work every day on it, a little bit. It helps me a lot by having the vocabulary arranged, and I have highlighted the words I consider to be more important for my purposes. From this Excel file, I also built vocabulary lists and a flashcard program (I explained how I made this in a former post: ID=13248&KW=flashcards, maybe a little complicated but, as you said, every learner has their own ways). This is the only tool by means of which I feel that I am making some progress, since I also write grammar information on my entries (for example, plural of nouns in Arabic, aspectual pairs in Russian or measure words in Chinese). I don’t like depending so much on the computer, but the Excel helps me get organized and I like it.

Unfortunately, I cannot distribute that file since I have copied a lot of example sentences from other materials, and it’s full of personal notations. But I have now started columns for more than seventy languages, some of them have only a few words, others have more than two thousand words already.

As for how I arrange my time, the only idea related to polyglottery that I had was trying to distribute the languages per days of the week, like:
1 Romance, Celtic languages and Basque on Mondays (my focus: Catalan, French, Portuguese, Italian and Basque).
2 Germanic, Ugrofinnic and languages from the Caucasus on Tuesdays, (My focus: English and German).
3 Slavic, Baltic, Hellenic, Albanian and Turkic on Wednesdays, (My focus: Russian, Croatian, Greek, Turkish).
4 Semitic and African languages on Thursdays, (My focus: Arabic, Hebrew, Swahili).
5 Indo-Arian, Dravidian, Tai-Kadai, Mon-Khmer languages on Fridays (My focus: Persian, Hindi, Thai, Vietnamese).
6 Malay-Polynesian, Sinitic, Japanese and Korean on Saturdays (My focus: Indonesian, Tagalog, Chinese, Japanese and Korean).
7 Indigenous languages from Oceania and the Americas, and artificial languages, on Sundays (my focus: classical Nahuatl, Quechua, Tahitian and Esperanto).

At present, I would only say that I can speak and understand six languages other than Spanish (Catalan, Portuguese, French, Italian, English and German). But I would dare to translate to and from many other languages, and I can build simple sentences now in many languages. The bad side is that I have always neglected the listening comprehension (recordings and so on; one of my hobbies was listening to short wave radio in other languages, though not understanding much of the time). This means that I find somewhat easy to make sentences in the languages I learn, but it is very hard to understand the language (except for English and the Romanic languages). I found your shadowing technique very curious, in this respect. So, dear Professor, I would need your advice on exercises for listening comprehension.

I studied English philology at university but, unlike you, I have not come to appreciate it a lot, as I did not enjoy many of the things they made us read, and my interests were more related to linguistics and a more practical learning of languages, and I did not really like teaching (so I made a bad choice...). However, I appreciate the way you always enhance philology as a discipline.

Finally, another thing I have always found annoying is when some scholars say that languages cannot be learnt beyond a certain age. Particularly, I think that this hobby is one of the most beautiful things one can do in life, and an excellent exercise for the mind! And why shouldn't adults learn better than little boys?, probably they would not get a perfect accent, but it is ridiculous.

My main concern (after this long introduction... sorry), and this is why I am writing this post, is about learning and retaining vocabulary. I have always felt that learning vocabulary is the most important task when learning a language (and indeed it can be dull). So, what strategies do you recommend for learning vocabulary? (I saw you did not create a specific technique for this, or at least not the basics you teach, like shadowing or scriptorium). Or do you think it is not necessary, and that it is best learnt from context?

Thank you again, and I wish you luck and success with your future projects!

Best regards,

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United States
Joined 5796 days ago

609 posts - 2100 votes 

 Message 2 of 3
25 March 2009 at 8:21pm | IP Logged 
Dear José,

Thank you for your letter. I am very happy to hear that there are those younger than myself who also appreciate the more rigorous caliber of didactic materials of decades gone by. I am also happy that I was able to make you aware of some other learning resources that you find to be of value in your studies. I am very curious as to what your ever expanding dictionary + grammatical information Excel file will look like in decades to come!

Your program for learning such a wide variety of languages as you have laid out is marvelously ambitious and reminds me of the range of the von der Gabelentz father and son or indeed of your compatriot Lorenzo Hervás y Panduro, S.J.   You are aware, of course, that with such a very wide range of languages and such a widely spaced (once a week) cycle of study, your knowledge is more likely to remain of the encyclopedic knowing-about languages variety. You are absolutely right that age in itself is no barrier to learning languages if one is consistently engaged in the pursuit, but there is this unfortunate fact of mortality and there is only so much one can accomplish given a limited life span...

You did not ask this, but I will venture to offer the suggestion that when and if you decide that you want to attain deeper actual commands of your focus languages, you will need to restrict their number somewhat. The most logical way to do this is to divide them by the number of hours you have at your disposal for study on an average day. You will then need to take those numbers and put them in a more frequently recurring cycle than once every seven days. In the learning stage proper, it is necessary to get to them at least every third day, preferably every other day, and ideally every single day.

You ask for advice on listening comprehension, so I will try, but I am not sure I have anything particularly insightful to tell you here. Listening to the radio is fine for languages in which you are already relatively advanced, but as you describe yourself as not understanding much of the time, I would recommend that you get or make recordings instead so that you can listen multiple times. In the more elementary stages, you should have access to transcripts as well. In general, I think it is preferable to use recordings of literature rather than more ephemeral broadcasts.

Now on to your main concern about learning and retaining vocabulary: if my memory serves me, this topic was discussed in some detail not long ago. Have you looked through some of the threads over the past year? I just scanned through the titles of the 5 pages in this room and it did not jump out at me so I am not able to direct you to that discussion, but perhaps someone else will remember just where it was.

Well, when working with subjectively exotic languages, I do find it helpful to have access to vocabulary lists organized by word roots, and, particularly if you wish to practice your script as well, it can also be quite helpful to systematically copy out the sample sentences in a dictionary. That said, however, while I completely concur that acquiring a large vocabulary is ultimately the main measure of learning a language well, I have never practiced any means of learning vocabulary as such as any kind of separate and distinct task. So yes, in short, I feel that words are learned better in the context of sentences as can be found and accessed first and foremost in Assimil-like manuals and then by means of reading progressively more difficult material with the help of bilingual and translated texts.

By the way, please do not assume that shadowing and scriptorium constitute the essence of my method of learning. There are many other techniques that I myself use or have used, and many, many more that I know about and can describe and recommend for other styles of learners. These just happen to be two techniques that I happened to have mentioned here in the past and so have made efforts to describe in more detail. I feel I have largely failed in this, and at the same time that I am all too often equated with them, so at times I rather regret having ever brought them out into the open in the first place, although of course I am pleased that there are those who have found them of value.

Best regards,

Alexander Argüelles
2 persons have voted this message useful

Joined 4502 days ago

42 posts - 58 votes 
Speaks: Spanish*, French, English, German, Italian
Studies: Greek, Basque, Swahili, Tagalog, Arabic (classical), Quechua, Vietnamese, Turkish, Korean, Serbo-Croatian, Hindi

 Message 3 of 3
25 March 2009 at 9:37pm | IP Logged 
Thank you, Professor, for your kind words. Certainly I will check the previous posts.

I agree that "once a week" makes a learning process very dilated, although as I wrote, I am a vocational linguist and this is why I enjoy just reading about many different languages and being able to build some sentences, but yes, you are right when you talk about encyclopedic knowledge on languages (versus studying/knowing many languages). If I had to choose a mininum of languages, I think I would go for these: (Spanish), French, Italian, Basque, English, German, Croatian, Greek, Turkish, Arabic, Swahili, Hindi, Vietnamese, Tagalog, Korean and Quechua (still 16 anyway...). And maybe it would be better to focus on one in a given period of time, while trying to review all every day or every other day as you suggested.

Learning in context is effective, I have no doubt, and it is a curious fact that I never forget the words (and sometimes the whole sentences) of the first Assimil lessons of each Assimil that I have worked with ("Che ch'a-ga ops-sümnida", "Meraa nam Nishaa hai", etc.) But I have always had faith (or I have wanted to have faith) in word lists and mnemonic techniques... I think that my problem is that I want to go too fast.

I am sorry, as I didn't intend to mean that your learning style was only or mostly based on scriptorium and shadowing, especially given your experience. And I am sure most of the forum users don't think it either.

And one last thing, thanks for mentioning Lorenzo Hervás, of whom I am a great admirer. He foresaw linguistic families such as the Malay family, and also cared about deaf people and their education. For those of you who are interested and know Spanish, his major work on the languages of the world is available to download in Google Books.

Best regards,

Edited by Ponape on 25 March 2009 at 9:46pm

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