How to Learn a Language/Vocabulary

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The best initial vocabulary will probably involve the target language’s semantic primitives- meanings that are represented in every language. They are the most basic communication structures for adult language learners. Note that semantic primitives are meaning-based not word-based, and your target language may express many of the meanings in a very different way and using different words and phrases from your own language.

There are many ways of learning vocabulary. Try them all and use what is most effective for you.

  • Think in whole phrases with emotions. Memorize not only words but a whole sample phrase with the emotion felt. E.g. (Spanish) To remember the word 'bread' -- 'pan,' memorize the sentence, 'I eat bread with butter.' -- 'Como pan con mantequilla.' (Imagine you are eating the bread.) Some call this Total Physical Response.
  • Imagine visually the word or action. Can you see the bread with butter in your mind's eye, even for a flash? This is a sign that your cerebral hemispheres have synched and the newly learned word will be available without conscious recall. Include other senses too. Smell the bread, feel the bread crumbs, taste the butter, etc. Make those sensations extreme. Try making the butter rotten, smell the bread burnt, have the toast painfully hot.
  • Repeat the whole phrase. Do so until you can say it without hesitation, like a reflex—just like a karate move. Language is a reflex. Repeating the same sentence is less use than making subtle changes to the patterns you are learning. So change the pronoun, the noun or some other aspect of the sentence. It is also best to make each sentence reflect your reality rather than some abstract one. That way you are more involved in the language you are producing.
  • Mix languages. Substitute from your new language into the language you speak normally, and vice-versa. This will, of course, cause fewer problems if you confine this to conversations with people you have notified of your strategy. You can also try to think in your new language. Use as many words as you can in the new language. If you don't know how to say something, you can look it up later. The key is usage. An example, with French is: To make a cheese sandwich, put fromage between deux pieces of pain. This is referred to as code switching, especially when done unintentionally by bilingual speakers.
  • Skim the dictionary. Make it a habit to skim the dictionary and write down a few words that are obviously part of common everyday speech.
  • Practice writing—a lot. If your language uses an alternative script, writing (along with reading) will help you adapt. Repetitive writing also helps with memorization.
  • Create flashcards. The target language will on one side, and the known language will be on the other. Carry a reasonable number in your pocket, purse, PDA, etc. and study them when you have unexpected free time. You can also create flashcards on a computer with a program like Mnemosyne or Anki.
  • Use mnemonics. For example, with German prepositions taking the accusative case DOG WUF (durch, ohne, gegen, wider, um, für), or for Latin irregular imperatives (dic! fac! fer! duc!) - a mnemonic must be memorable for you, so the better it sticks in your mind, the better it works. In other words, when developing a mnemonic, use the fact that humorous, vivid or shocking phrases will help you remember.
    • Make a story. It should be animated, fun, and based on the word. The word for bread in a number of languages is pan, which is spelled the same and sounds similar to the English word for cooking pan. Imagine batting a loaf of bread with a pan or hitting a bread monster with an oversized pan. Including all sensations to their extremes helps.
    • See these Indonesian examples and Thai examples for more ideas.

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