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Guide to Learning Languages, part 4

 Language Learning Forum : Learning Techniques, Methods & Strategies (Topic Closed Topic Closed) Post Reply
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Iversen
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 Message 9 of 16
16 September 2009 at 5:36pm | IP Logged 
How to count words

Amended quote from my profile thread, 10 March 2009:

advice no. 1: don't be too worried about those numbers, they are good for measuring your progress, but there is more to speaking a language than knowing a lot of words passively - and word counts primarily show passive words

advice no. 2: use a midsized dictionary (30-50.000 words) from the beginning, and use the same dictionary for all your consecutive counts in a certain language. The number you get is very dependent on the size and organization of the dictionary, so it is basically meaningless to quote any number without saying how you got it.

advice no. 3: choose a dictionary where the lexemes really stand out from the background, - otherwise you can't avoid reading the translations, and then all your counts become dubious.

advice no 4: decide how you will deal with combinations of several words. Some dictionaries don't have a clear separation between 'words in several parts', idiomatic expressions and example phrases


Method: write down the number of pages in your dictionary. Take a sheet of paper and two pencils of different color. Now open the dictionary somewhere, look right or left as chosen before. Write down (in a long column) all the words on that page that you are certain that you know, leaving out those that you're unsure about and those that you can guess but didn't know beforehand. Exclude proper names, except in cases where the word is utterly different (such as Londres in French for London). If you see a word that you would like to remember for later then write it down in another color than the one used for counting known words. Now count the known words and write the result (you can transfer the rest to a wordlist).

Choose a number and go that number of pages back or forth and count the page you are directed to - don't be tempted to count any other page. Run through this process for at least half a dozen pages or so. Sum the results you have found, divide by the number of pages used and multiply with the total number of pages in the book - that's your estimate.

And then take this number, multiply by 100 and divide by the number of headwords in dictionary (if you can find it, - some dictionaries just give a number for headwords AND expressions). This gives you the percentage of the words you know in this dictionary, and that percentage can be just as relevant as an absolute number.

Personally I find it most rewarding to do these counts in the phase where you really struggle with your vocabulary, and even there they should be used sparingly. If you can see that your counts have grown from for instance 2.000 words to 5.000, then it is probably a sign that your knowledge also has grown proportionally in other, less easily quantified areas. And for some people - not all - it is beneficial to have some benchmarks, even if they don't tell the whole story.


Edited by Iversen on 28 May 2013 at 10:46am

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Iversen
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 Message 10 of 16
16 September 2009 at 6:10pm | IP Logged 
The sentence method


Quote from How to study?, 08 June 2007::

I have made some experiments with the 'sentence method', - mostly because I found myself in a situation with Russian where I had spent too much time on words and too little (and too late) on sentence construction and 'flow' of the language. Of course I have tried to remedy this by doing the ordinary intensive reading (where you look up words etc.) and - to some extent - extensive reading of simple texts, mostly from the internet.

I have found that the following method is more effective for me, - not surprisingly as it is derived from my preferred word list method.

I find a text somewhere and read a passage in it intensively, - that is, I check unknown words and mysterious constructions. Then I write a hyper-literal translation of one or two sentences on a separate sheet of page, and with this as a guide I try to remember the original text. When I can do it I write it down and continue to the next sentence. Of course some people with extraordinary memories can remember a sentence in a half-known language without any tricks, but we don't all have that ability (it is easier to remember sentences in a language you know well).

I think that making the hyper-literal translation and using that as an intermediary memory tool makes me focus more on the weird things in the Russian language. I have been working among other things with the G.L.O.S.S. texts (where audio is provided with a transcript and a translation), and it has struck me that the semantic components of the English version more often that not come in the exact opposite order of the same elements in the Russian version. Writing down my own hyper-literal seriously unidiomatic Danish translation does more for my understanding of the vagaries of the Russian language than reading a version in bland, but correct Danish.

And afterwards I use the words I have encountered as basis for word lists, - of course!

With languages that I know well I sometimes use a totally different 'sentence method': I collect "specimens" with interesting grammar or weird idioms just as a linguist would do and put them in order according to my own homegrown principles for grammatical analysis. But I don't use this approach with single words, unless they are part of idiomatic expressions or unexpected constructions.




Edited by Iversen on 25 May 2010 at 12:23am

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Iversen
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 Message 11 of 16
21 September 2009 at 8:16am | IP Logged 
Learning idiomatic expressions (and 'chunks')

The notion of 'comprehensible input' is mostly seen from the perspective that it permits you to guess the meaning of unknown words or expressions without having to resort to a dictionary or grammar or whatever. And that may be correct in the sense that you often can guess the meaning of something more or less correctly and more or less precisely. But you can't know beforehand whether a certain combination of words is in common use by natives - it takes time to get a feeling for this, and comprehensible input may be your best source for these expressions, given the scarcity of good collections of those expressions.

'Chunks' are fixed expressions that you can use to construct your utterances so that you don't leave too many pauses and holes, - this technique is something that even native speakers use (often far too much), but for a newbie who wants to communicate it is extremely important to learn these prefabricated elements before you spend your precious time learning proverbs and quotes from famous plays. It is much more important that you can say "by the way" or "tell me" than that you can quote the whole of Hamlet by heart. Because they are so common you can learn them by reading conversations in literature or by listening to actual conversations, - dictionaries can contain them, but for once they would not be the best and most trustworthy source..

Linguamor (now Lingua) once wrote a splendid post about these chunks in the thread Lexis and lexical chunks, where she defined a lexical chunk as "any pair or group of words which is commonly found together, or in close proximity". She also defined a "collocation" as "a pair of lexical content words commonly found together. Following this definition, 'basic' + 'principles' is a collocation, but 'look' + 'at' is not because it combines a lexical content word and a grammar function word.". The definition is useful, but it would be probably more relevant to find a name for those chunks that consists of a 'content word' and a 'grammatical function word'. However I don't know any commonly used term for this.

Personally I use most of my time at the lower skill levels learning single words, and because all expressions are composed of single words it will be easier to learn them after you have learnt their constituent words. But to achieve something remotely ressembling native language you have to learn these expressions, and the question then is where to find them - apart from relying on picking them up one by one from comprehensible input.

Of course you can find many expressions in good dictionaries, but those cited there are mostly those that couldn't be guessed from the words alone. But many expressions are fairly easy to decode - the problem is which word combinations the natives actually use among all the possible combinations. The idiomatic expressions are simply those that are used, rather than some other ones that just didn't get as popular at some stage in the development of the target language. So idiomatic expressions land somewhere in the void between lexigraphy and syntax, where few authors venture because they can't write exciting books about something that is thoroughly banal for any native speaker of the language in question.

There are some areas where you do find books. For instance there are collections of proverbs for many languages, but these are complete sentences which mostly are quoted in their entirety, and therefore they really belong into the genre known as "bevingede ord" in Danish ('winged words', i.e. collections of quotes). Slang is also an area favoured by language book authors, probably because these expressions ofte are funny, rather drastic or downright dirty, and that makes such books entertaining even for the natives.

I own a few books that purports to list idiomatic expression. For instance I have got a French "Dictionnaire des expressions idiomatiques" (Livre de Poche). My problem with this book and its companions in French or other languages is that I doubt that the expressions are used often enough to warrant that you learn them by heart. How often will a French person say "se mettre dans le cornet" (=eat)? I suppose that a native Frenchman will know them, but they are 'rare et précieuses' if you look at how often they really are used. But still worth knowing!

Another book by A. Bryson Gerrard "Beyond the dictionary in Spanish" is closely to the thing I am looking for. It is in principle an ordinary Spanish-English dictionary, but with comparatively few words that are explained in depth. For example "avisar, aviso" gets this commentary: "Unreliable; they only mean 'to advise', and 'advice' in the sense of 'to inform', and even then imply warning. Avisar is the normal verb for 'to warn', and aviso is the word for an official notice which lays down the law; no question of giving advice. (etc etc....) 'To advise' in the sense of giving advice is aconsejar ('advice', consejo) ...." (15 lines). You certainly need ordinary dictionaries too, but they should be accompanied by such systematic in-depth guides to troublesome words and expressions.

But you can't expect to be spoonfed like this, and therefore you need to absorb the information from your casul reading and TV and from natives you meet.A notebok for jotting down expressions is a valuable tool, because just as with single words any normal person needs repeated exposure to remember things. But don't waste your time on writing the meaning (as you can gather it from the context), - mostly you remember it when you see the expression again, and if not then Google is your best friend. Even more important is being alert to the way natives formulate their phrases, - and that can only be at the expense of listening for content. You may come over as being absentminded if you do this in a real conversation, because native persons expect you to listen for content, so it is probably better done in other situations, but being on the outlook for useful expressions is a major factor in getting better.

In the guide to learning grammar I mention something parallel. You are only top motivated to read about something in a grammar when you have gotten frustrated by things you have met in genuine texts, such as when you get curious about the use of "i" in Albanian because they seem to use it all over the place, but sometimes it is absent in situations where you would have guessed that it would be there. It is a little thing that is put after nouns to connect them with adjective or (more cinsitently) non-adjectival compelementizers. OK, that's one thing that I would like to see explained in a systematic fashion by someone who knows the language - and grammarians belong to that cathegory.

So be on the lookout for expressions that might be relevant for yourself, such as how to ask for an icecream in Italian, and because alertness is a generalized attitude you will then also catch many other useful expressions which you really weren't looking for.

EDIT: partly rewritten and moved from guide no. 1

Edited by Iversen on 21 December 2011 at 1:17pm

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Iversen
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 Message 12 of 16
25 May 2010 at 12:23am | IP Logged 
Associations

One of the most contentious questions here has proved to be the one that words always should be learned in context. In this part of the guide I'll try to give my 2 cents on this problem (but please don't respond in the thread - I'll be happy to participate in discussions elsewhere).

Let's first consider the impact of the learner's level.

Many of the types of associations that I mention below are not easily available to a total newbie: etymology, similar words in the target language, quotes from publicity and TV series etc. As a general rule a newbie will have to base his/her 'memory hooks' primarily on things outside the target language, - but this phase will of course be shorter with an easier language (which typically is a language that closely ressembles one you already know).

First problem: how do you as a beginner discover the meaning of a word or word combination? Well, somebody can point to a fourlegged animal and say "cheval". That's what French parents do, and after 100 repetitions (with different kinds of horses) their child has constructed a mental image of what a "cheval" is. But if I'm learning French as an adult chances are that I will see the word in a textbook with a wordlist, and if not, then I'll look the word up in a dictionary and get the information that a "cheval" is a 'horse' (or in Danish: 'en hest'). When you already have learnt some very simple words you can use them to learn less obvious words, as "ici" in "cheval ici". This is however not just a longterm training of reflexes as postulated by the behaviourists, but rather an active construction process which you feed with chunks of language, almost like you feed a child with cheeseburgers and carrots and chocolate.

When speaking about associations, which you can use as 'memory hooks' the simple imagery method is the one that is closest to the way the word "cheval" was taught above. And one of the simple things you can do as a language learner is to imagine the things you learn. So while memorizing the word "cheval" then draw mental images of big horses, tiny horses and famous horses from paintings. With verbs like "fight" or "eat" you can imagine small videoclips showing mighty battles or heavy eating, etc. The only catch is that some persons seem to have problems making up those mental images.

Mental imaging is also possible if you make wordlists from dictionaries, and it might take out some of the potential dreariness of that method. When you use dictionaries a simple trick is to 'see' the spelled word at the same time you imagine (or actually say) how it sounds.

These uses of imagery resemble, but aren't quite the same thing as the use of puns to remember words and expressions. A pun is not an image of the thing itself, but a joke based on its written or spoken forme. Fanatic gives an example of this method here:

"Cochon is pig in English. How do we remember that? Cochon sounds like cushion. We join the sound alike, cushion, to the meaning, pig. I picture having small pigs on my lounge instead of cushions and I tell my visitors, pull up a pig and take a seat. That reminds me of the meaning of cochon. It tells me that cochon is French for pig."

As you see it is the outer shape of the word "cochon" that is used for the pun, which then incorporates or is combined with the meaning in a base language (here English). I do believe that many people can profit from this method, but personally I find it somewhat disruptive and cumbersome to have to invent those irrelevant puns while studying a list of words. For me simple imagery has the same effect, but it is worth trying both methods.

Another related technique is the use of limited contexts. I simply can't see the advantage of using long sentences to remember single words or expressions, but remembering a short phrase is quite another thing - though I personally prefer cutting it down to the bare basics that show the morphology without 'random' references, cfr. ex. 1,2 versus 3 below:

выдеться совцем новым - se helt ny ud (look totally new)
выступаться защитником в суде - optræde som forsvarer i retten (function as defender in court)
делаться кем/чём - gøres til nogen/noget (make into somebody/something)

These examples are taken from H.C:Sørensen's "Russisk Grammatik" (in Danish), and I actually recently used the long lists in this book to memorize which verbs are associated with which cases. This is of course a grammatical motivation, but such lists in grammars can also be used to learn single words or expressions. As I said, the shorter the better, and I simply can't see any reason to use long quotes. Long quotes - or rather the texts they come from - should be used to extensive reading, where you are expected to know enough elements to grasp the meaning while you read or listen.

The associations can be taken from a base language, and the preeminent example of this are the of course translations in a dictionary.. To grasp the meaning of 'complicated' words the beginner should not try to learn all meanings or uses, but concentrate on one or two central meanings. Adding new meanings and uses to a word you already know is much easier than learning a whole cloud of partly related meanings.

In some memory systems you try to establish associations that follow a prelearned pattern, and this can be used for fast memorization of long rows of data, - for instance packs of cards or numbers. But it is hard to see any sensible use for this technique in ordinary language learning.

For the advanced language learner those memory tags that are based on target-language information becomes more important, but also easier to use. I have pointed to the fact that wordlists function better for a learner that already is at least intermediate and maybe more. One reason is of course that the words you choose aren't really unknown - you may have seen them many times, but didn't remember them. Another reason is that a given word or expression may remind you of other target language words and expression - for instance through shared prefixes, etymology or similar meaning.

This is not very different from remembering a word through its translation(s) in a dictionary. Higher skill level means that you can avoid references to other languages, but sometimes it pays to keep referring to other languages, - for instance when you have to memorize the gender of French (an example used in a thread about "myths in Language learning"). Which just goes to show that any kind of memory hook is allowed if it works.

There is one way of using other languages which may be somewhat unexpected: through my practical work with wordlists I have recently found that one of the fastests and easiest ways of memorizing words without any relation to known words is to put them instead of their translation in a sentence or phrase in your own native language. The result may sound silly, but even this can be a help to your memory. But this method has of course been used by others before me - see for instance this thread, where Slucido describes it under the name "diglot weave".

Finally there is a whole world of situational associations: you can remember a word because you didn't know what to say in a certain situation, or you may remember it because some special person used it. But there are people who are much more dependent on human interaction during their language lerning - and therefore probably also better to utilise it to provide memory hooks. I do know that I remember words better when I use them, but that's about as close as I get to use situational hooks.



Edited by Iversen on 03 February 2012 at 9:22am

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 Message 13 of 16
03 February 2012 at 9:21am | IP Logged 
Pictoral dictionaries

Quote from Super-fast vocabulary learning techniques, Jan 9, 2012.

What about pictoral dictionaries? I own one old pictoral dictionary and have seen several others, and the idea has been used sporadically in several of my 'normal' dictionaries - mostly the monolingual ones which have secret, but unrealistic ambitions about becoming true encyclopedias.

So why use pictures in dictionaries? The use in monolingual dictionaries is logical because the alternative would be a verbose explanation in the same language. There re two cases: pictures with one motive and pictures that illustrate a 'semantic field'. For me there is no doubt that the latter can be useful. For example you can show an old ship with sails, and you can point to each sail and give its name. Even though you didn't know that those sails even had names you now learn both that they have names and what thoe names are. Such a picture has the same value for a learner as a tematical wordlist, and at least for those learners who remember pictures reasonably well they may be more effective than a list with twenty words with explanations -
and they are certainly more effective than a list of twenty words without explanations. But in the example you still don't know whether the terminology is general or restricted to ships of a given type or from a certain period.

Now move this idea to a bilingual dictionary and assume that you give the name for each sail in both languages (with a comment if the naming conventions in the two languages aren't parallel or if there are restrictions on period and type of setting). In this way you fuse just about every kind of memory hooks into one complex spurce, and that's just about everything a learner with a taste for images can wish for.

What about pictures of just one thing? This is a completely different story. If you don't know the thing on the picture it doesn't help you much. A multiword picture wouldn't help you either if you much if you didn't already know the general setting, but if you could see for instance five different kinds of Greek vases with a name for each one you would be able to distinguish them later. With just one vase you can see that it is some kind of pottery, oh yeah, but you don't have a clue whether the word attached to the picture is a general word for pottery or a specific word for for instance a big vase from Attica with two handles. In the bilingual case yoou can at least be lucky to know the name in your own language, and then you may be so extremely lucky that the foreign word covers the same set of uses - but you are just as likely to misinterpret the picture unless there also is an explanation. For abstract notions an explanation in words will normally be more effective (or maybe a film AND an explanation).

So in the monolingual case a picture with several concrete items can be useful, but it is a hit or miss operation to show pictures with just one item. In the bilingual case both are useful because you have a lifeline back to your base language in the form of a translation, but the multi-item picture is by definition more useful because it allows for comparisons, subdivision of semantical fields and for filling out lacunes in otherwise known semantical fields - even when these don't correspond exactly with the organisation of the semantical field in your base language.

With pictures that don't show concrete things the usefulness is more than questionable. The old adage - the one that claims that one picture say as much as 1000 words - may be caused by cases where the picture left you totally perplex, and even 1000 words of babble couldn't hide that. Which is one reason why systems like Rosetta Stoned fail - if you don't know exactly which element or interpretation you should look for in a picture then it has utterly and completely failed its task. And the more abstract the notion you want to illustrate is, the less likely it is that any picture can help you.

We have sometimes discused learner types, and one of the types that has been discussed is the 'visual' learner. In the few tests I have seen described the researchers believed that this could be tested by showing a learner a picture of something and saying a word (as an alternative to saying a word and giving an verbal explanation or a translation). But then we are back in the case with one word and one kind of Graecian Urn from above, which I characterized as less useful. It would be much better to test the effectiveness of visual clues by showing five Greek vases and the corresponding words, as opposed to five vases and five definitions in words. If you operate with one word one picture then it is in a totally different situation, namely the one where a learner uses an image as a memory hook. But then the learner should supply the image him/herself to make it work - and the funny thing then is that the image doesn't even have to be a picture of the thing you want to remember, which no researcher to my best knowledge has noticed. For instance you could remember the word "royaume" (Kingdom) in French by using a picture of Siegfried and Roy with their tigers as your trigger, just to give one example. The verbally oriented learner would prefer a reference to the English word "royal", maybe with an element that pointed to the element "-aume" ('royal rhum'?)      

PS: I wonder whether a pictorial Latin dictionary would use pictures full of Roman soldiers in full armour or Medieval monks.




Edited by Iversen on 08 August 2012 at 8:15pm

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Iversen
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 Message 14 of 16
08 August 2012 at 8:58pm | IP Logged 
Simple grammar and simple vocabulary

As mentioned earlier the most common words in a language make up a surprisingly large part of all ordinary texts and speeches in that language, and many or most of these words are 'function words' rather than 'meaning words'. Besides they are often irregular, and the result is that you more or less automatically will work with these words when you study grammar. Among the function words you will meet things like pronouns, conjunctions and prepositions, and it is obvious that you can't use the language actively without learning these words.

The large majority of words beyond the most common ones will be regular, which means that they follow some regular paradigm. You just have to know which one, which in itself can be a major task - just think gender of German or French nouns!

And then there are an Oort's cloud of very rare or very specialized words, including leftovers from past stages of the history of the language or dialect or slang words which only were used during a short period or in some remote region.

So basically we can divide the words we have to learn into three groups:

1) The very common words, which may irregular and often are entangled in the basic workings of the language. You can use wordlists to memorize relevant lists (for instance of prepositions that govern the dative in German, though you can also learn such lists by chanting them - "aus, bei, mit , nach, von, zu" still hangs in my ears forty years after I learned that list in school), but then do it in conjunction with intensive studies of their morphology and syntax, not in a void and not just by reading or listening - you nead to listen and read a lot to sort out even fairly simple paradigms, and that's silly when you just could get the solution from a book.

One irritating (or maybe fascinating) feature of certain short and very common words is that they are used in a number of ways, often to the extent that you have to count them as homonyms rather than just words with a wide and fuzzy range of related meanings. OK, then treat them as homonyms - but you would probably also see those different roles illustrated in your grammar.

The way to study the use of short and unremarkable words with very varied uses is to find or make up with simple, standardized patterns which illustrate the different roles, and to explore them through their role in syntax and the morphological tables that sum up their pecularities. The use of standardized dummy words like the indefinite pronouns makes it easier to remember such patterns (at least that's my experience), but you can't fit ten different constructions into a wordlist. So you stick to the one you found in a concrete text or maybe mention one more from your dictionary if you find it interesting enough, but that's OK - memorizing just one pattern here and now will make it much easier to learn other variations later.

3) very rare words may have weird restrictions on their use (sometimes even morphological restrictions), and maybe you don't even know the thing they denote in your own language. So the best way to add such words to your vocabulary is to read specialized literature, and if you then meet them you can note them down and check them in a dictionary. If you think it is worth the effort, that is... It will often be enough to learn one single expression if that's the only context where you can risk finding them. And the logical assumption will be that it will be the pattern you found the construction in a genuine text.

2) And in between we have the thousands of words which you actually may meet in practice, which have one central core meaning (OK, maybe two or three) and whose morphology follows some fairly common pattern. So basically you just have to memorize which paradigm that is, then you are on safe ground. For instance you could choose to memorize nouns with some element (article and/or an adjective) which discloses the gender. In wordlists I often add simple graphical signs or single letters because they take little space and it becomes really tedious to repeat "der,die,das" again and again. But when I memorize I do hear "der,der,da"s in my mind. And to mark strong verbs in the Germanic languages it is mostly enough just to write the vowel in the past tense, which by definition is different from the one in the present forms.

The same thing could be said about the range of prepositions that follow English or Russian verbs, and which in the latter to boot call for different cases (which also happens with verbs without prepositions). The optimal solution would be always to mark at least the most common constructions in some concise notation, but this is one advice which I haven't even put into practice in my own wordlists. An alternative technique would be to make simple 'dummy' examples with pronouns - not long contrived sentences, and certainly not long and contrived sentences by some famous author. You can do this in wordlists, but then you have to use extremely wide columns or spend several rows on each word. The simple, brutal and mostly sufficient solution is just to learn the most common or most characteristic or most memorable variant and then leave the rest for future study. After all the purpose of wordlists isn't to learn you everything about each and every word in the language, but just to reserve places for as many of them as possible in your memory. Then you can add more information later.

(The following is a quote from the thread "Misuse of Prepositions", 09 August 2012

I would put misuse of prepositions and wrong gender or case in the same group of errors: they occur because you learn a word without its morphology/wordrelated syntax, and you can run into this problem whether or not you use structured vocabulary methods or simply rely on lots of input.

Ahem. Shouldn't lots of input teach you how to learn a word correctly? Yes, in the long run you will develop some sixth sense for what you can say and what you can't. But prepositions (especially with phrasal verbs) and articles and case endings are fairly anonymous so you can read and listen for hours on end and get the general meaning from the content words alone without even noticing all those small pesky words and word fragments. So some kind of systematic approach is definitely useful.

The problem is that you also can commit the error of making wordlists and Anki cards just with interesting 'content' words, and then you don't learn anything about the morphology or word-bound syntax of those words. The solution is of course to indicate the most important things in a concise way and learn them with the main words. Trying to add them later isn't nearly as efficient.

In the case of gender or paradigm where one a simple rule can give you sufficient information the rule is: learn that simple rule as soon as possible, for instance by making a short example list for it, which both will teach you the rule and some new words.

If there isn't a simple rule you have to make annotations in your wordlists or on your anki cards, but this task can be simplified: if one category is much more numerous than the other(s) then just make annotations at the words from the rarest category (or the rarest categories if there are more than one). For instance most words in German are masculine so just mark the feminines and the neutra (and don't ever mark "-chen" -words because they are always neutrum). I use simple gender graphical signs, but during the memorization I read these as der, die ,das.

Another example is the aorist of Greek verbs. When you have seen enough aorists you just need a hint to guess the correct form, and therefore I just note down one single consonant in my wordlists. Actually I also ought to indicate the past passive form and the last vowel in the ending for verbs with the accent on the final omega of the 1 person singular active form, which is the one used in dictionaries. But that would be too much even on a good day, so I normally just write the aorist consonant, and only if it is another than the one I expected at my current level of knowledge).

And finally: I always write the accent in my Russian wordlists precisely because it isn't written in normal texts. Maybe I could develop a sixth sense for stress in Russian words by listening to enough spoken Russian, but it would take a long time and I don't hear nearly enough Russian to make the miracle happen within my lifetime.

So the rule is: make the absolute minimum of annotations in your wordlists or on your anki cards - and leave matters there.

Then what about example phrases? Personally I have a memory that doesn't support long winding phrases, but it can just about deal with short phrases with a dummy word: "go for something" - "go somewhere" - "go down/up" - "go to Hell" (OK, the last one is an exception, but it can be used because I see and hear it fairly often). So if I want to remember the prepositions of phrasals verbs I may indicate one or two prepositions in my wordlists, but never more than that. Rome wasn't built in one day, and neither was my English (or Latin) vocabulary.

Contexts are good, but you can't always get the necessary unequivocal information from them. So seeing a word in a genuine text helps me to remember it, but I may still have to use a dictionary see how it is inflected. Besides you basically need to understand all the elements of a long expression to remember it, unless you are endowed with something I haven't got. If I wanted to learn the word "sling" in a context I would start out with "slings and arrows" and postpone "Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep; No more; " as a certain venerated bard wrote in Hamlet. Some people like to learn things by heart, and god bless them, but don't expect me to follow in their footsteps.


Edited by Iversen on 13 August 2012 at 11:27am

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 Message 15 of 16
13 August 2012 at 11:27am | IP Logged 
More about idiomatic expressions

It is obvious that conversational skills depends on a reservoir of common idiomatic expressions as much as on sheer vocabulary size, and among those who have written about this theme and even made Youtube videos about it I think Splog deserves a honourable mention. For I time I thought that the word "chunks" referred to the kind of small, but indispensable expressions which he describes, but then I was told that it has a slightly more fuzzy meaning. However inside my head I still think "chunk" = "some simple expression or construction I definitely should learn here and now". And that's how I'll use the word below.

But there are also expressions which may add colour to your speech, and which you definitely should learn at least passively - but you can survive without them, and if they are slightly outdated it may not even be a good idea to use them.

The first category can to some extent be found in language guides, but else you should simply take the expression you use in your native speech to keep a conversation flowing and find some parallel to them - maybe using a dictionary, but if you read literature with a lot of informal speech you may also make a collection from the things you see there.

The second category can for some languages be found on certain homepages or in books like the 'big red book of Spanish idioms' which I sometimes read for fun. However I have tried a couple of times to check the frequency of such expressions through Google, and it turns out that the spread is immense - some expressions are hardly ever used, and others are fairly frequent. And even though such books often mark certain expressions as antiquated you cannot assume that expressions without annotations are common in practice.

The first category does in a sense continue the fundamental parts of syntax, where you find pronouns and conjunctions and things like that. And the chapters on adverbials and exclamations definitely point in the direction of 'chunk' idiomatics. The difference is that the systematics of these expressions should be more along the lines of logic and conversational flow than structure. So you will meet things like the Romanian "iar" which is somewhere between "and" and "but", you will need expressions for different degrees of scepticism, and you should know how to express things like 'because', which in French would mean that you should know the difference beqteen "parce que" and "puisque" (and "car", to boot). All these things can in my opinion best be studied by staying alert while reading and lstening AND doing the things you would do while studying grammar, i.e. making a systematic collection, thinking about general principles and writing down your concluisions in some concise form - maybe even on the same green paper which I have recommended for morphological tables.

On the other hand the 'pittoresque' idiomatic expressions should in principle be learned like the bulk of your words - but that can't be done. Even if you make wordlists with very wide columns it wouldn't be the same thing as learning single or compund words. I have tried different techniques, some of which deal with with the memorization process. The one thing I find absolutely necessary is that you always should be aware of the literal meaning of the words in an expression. It is not only easier to remember a series of words if you know their individual meanings, but you also learn something about the way of thinking of the native speakers. For instance "être dans les choux" in French is translated by reverso.net as "be in a mess, be screwed-up" - but in the French version there is neither screw nor mess. "Chou" is simply cabbage, and seeing somebody sitting in a pond of rotting cabbage is both memorable and indicative of the hopeless situation of that person. So always go for the literal meaning in addition the general sense which you might try to convey through some supposedly parallel expression in your own langage.

One problem with expressions is to remember a good parallel to find a suitable expression for something you know how to say in your native or another. Dictionaries can sometimes help you, and the kind of expression collections in bookform or on the internet I referred to for Spanish can too. But personally I still crave some kind of systematic way to memorize such things systematically (as a supplement to picking them up haphazardly while reading or listening to genuine sources). I have come to the conclusion that the wordlist method needs one simple element more to be relevant for the memorization of idioms, and that is the notion of 'keyword'.

If I want to express something in for instance Spanish and I know a good English expression, then I can in principle grab my 'big red book' and look an English keyword up, and then I see a number of English expressions and some (more or less close) renderings in Spanish. Inversely, if I want to memorize a nice expression in Spanish - which I may have found in a magazine or by listening to TVE - then I should jot it down and if necessary look it up. But on top of that I should choose one keyword in the 'translation' (or rendering) which can function as my memory hook later. It is also good to remember the foreign expression through one of its main words, but while working in the foreign language it is easy to forget that you may need something in your own language to nudge you in the right direction when you are standing somewhere on a street corner frantically trying to remember a certain expression. For instance the Spaniards can say "No se ganó Zamora en una hora" where Anglophones say "Rome wasn't built in one day". OK, by all means do remember the Spanish expression by the town name "Zamora", but you should also stick the Anglophone label "Rome" to the box where you store the Spanish expression. Because chances are that you will remember "Rome was not.." long before "no se ganó Zamora.." pops up in your memory, and then it would be nice if "Rome" could be used to trigger "Zamora".



Edited by Iversen on 28 May 2013 at 10:27am

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 Message 16 of 16
28 May 2013 at 10:30am | IP Logged 
How many times should you repeat your word lists?

(from my log file, May 28 2013

Question from Sterogyl: How many times do you repeat your word lists? Twice and then hop, à la poubelle? Or do you store them and repeat them from time to time?

Answer: I make one repetition round, normally one day after thee first three columns have been written. But there are exceptions. I have recently made a run through the Greek alphabet during my holiday in Cuba in January (finished a few weeks after), and then I have done a similar marathon through the Russian alphabet during my trip this month between Venice and Budapest, and I finished it just before Budaest (where I hardly used my limited active Russian). With such general perousals the goal is to get a brushup on the whole vocabulary of a language, and the extent will be around 4-5000 words. It would break my neck to do repetition rounds here, but every Russian or Greek wordlist I make from now on will be a repetition of some part of the general one.

The normal procedure with wordlists based on dictionaries is to reserve 2x2 columns on the same sheet for repetitions, and those should - as I said - be done one day after the first round. If they are done the same day you haven't forgotten the words well enough (notice the irony, but I mean it), and if it takes too long you could just as well find some other words to study.

With wordlists based on manual textcopies I can do the same thing, but I have come to favour anther method: I go back to the original textcopy with its annotations in the right margen. Now I should be able to read the text and understand everything, and I can check with the annotations whether I have learned the words that gave me trouble in the first place. I can't say whether this is as efficient as a 'normal' repetition, but it helps my reading skills which the column based method doesn't.

I don't throw the finished wordlists away right away. I put them into a heap, and then I throw them away later, but in the meantime I may have a peek at some old wordlists to get my memory refreshed. However this isn't a regular part of my routine - after the first couple of days I like to look at some other words, and then my regular extensive reading will be responsible for keeping my passive vocabulary in shape.   

The wordlist method in itself has some inbuilt repetitions: one from the original source to column 1 (in the foreign language), and then two within a few minutes. And then there is the repetition round one day later as described above. There may be a third and even fourth round , but they are not obligatory and mostly rather cursory.

In contrast the SRS methods have potentially an unlimited number of repetitions of each word, spaced over maybe several months. However each repetition is done as a control question without previous exposure. Whether this is more efficient than control shortly after an exposure is a moot point, but it is certainly more difficult. I can see a point in combining the two methods. The wordlist method is like a short intensive course, but hasn't got a longterm component. The SRS methods haven't got a short time component, but they make sure that your words don't disappear below the event horizon into a black hole before you have learnt them (although the words may still be forgotten once you have 'proved' that you know them because then the inquisitive questions stop). The problem is to transfer words from a handwriten wordlist to an electronical system - maybe they can be transferred as graphics, but not to Anki.

For my own part I accept that words learnt through wordlists have to live as they best can after the two, maybe three rounds. If I see them often enough in my general reading (or hear them in my more limited oral exposure) then they will survive, and any casual exposure will serve as a reminder. If I never see them again then the harm done probably is limited.


THIS IS END OF THE FOURTH PART OF THIS GUIDE .

part 1 (about learning languages in general)
part 2 (about translations)
part 3 (about grammar studies)
part 5 (about understanding speech and strange languages)

************************************************************



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