Thursday, December 4, 2008

Language Learning: It's All About the Vocab, Baby

A buddy of mine recently took the DLPT (that's the Defense Language Proficiency Test) hoping it might earn him some FLPP (that's Foreign Language Proficiency Pay), which used to be billet-specific (i.e. only for designated interpreters) but is now available to any servicemember.

The idea behind that, of course, is that by keeping a central database somewhere, the Pengaton can quickly identify which of its personnel are fluent in local languages when a crisis erupts in some remote corner of the world. For a few hundred dollars a month (scaled based on the language's criticality and the individual's proficiency level), that's a HUGE bargain when compared with paying tooth and nail for private contractors every time we face a sudden need. Plus, the bonus pay is a great incentive for people to stay current.

Anyway, my friend got a 1/1 on a 0-3 scale (first score is for reading, second is for listening) in Hindi, which did not qualify him for any bonus pay.

Here was his big observation after the test:

"In the end, it really comes down to vocab. You can study all the grammar there is, and really know the rules and structure of how the language 'works' but if there are a few words that trip you up in one of the reading passages -- or even one key word that you just don't know -- that can screw you out of several questions. Same goes for the listening portion."

As someone who teaches an ESL class once a week and is dreaming about racking up a few DLPT quals in the next few years, I fully *got* what he was saying and would even be so bold as to say that foreign language acquisition is roughly 90% vocabulary-driven.

Think about it -- let's say a non-native English speaker was trying to communicate something critical to you in an emergency situation (I'll let you imagine what it would be) -- he or she may not know any grammar at all, but if enough key words were coming out, and you could sense the urgency in his or her tone, I'm sure you could figure out what was going on. On the other hand, if someone who had spent years studying grammar rules but just didn't have the words was trying to tell you the same critical piece of information, you might totally miss what was being conveyed as both your and his frustration levels rose to a boil.

So how can you improve your vocabulary?

What I would suggest you NOT do is buy a book titled "How to Improve Your [insert language name] Vocabulary" that is just filled with word lists or flash cards of randomly amalgamated words you're supposed to memorize.

The problem behind that is the entire reason people dread language learning -- why they think they can't hack it in a formal setting, and why they're quick to give up when starting out on their own -- the instruction isn't rooted in an *authentic* context.

To explain what I mean by that term, any *authentic* language experience is what a native speaker would do every day and take for granted -- reading a newspaper, watching local TV news, listening to an album, etc. Guess what? That's how you learned English.

Any *other* (just hate to say *inauthentic* here) experience would be the way you probably learned language in school -- rote memorization of words devoid of context, pesky grammar rules, and strange-sounding words like "subjunctive" and "pluperfect."

Want to know how to start learning (or just getting really good) at any foreign language?

START by diving in with authentic experiences. Just get in the habit of reading one single newspaper article a day in your language (let's call it Spanish). Write down the words you don't know and look them up in a Spanish-English dictionary. Now it's okay to make flashcards, because when you study them you've got context. If you remember words like "fecha," and "ejercito" from an article you read about the U.S. plan to leave Iraq, it'll stick -- if they're just randomly pulled out of some list someone dreamed up for you, it won't. Keep the articles printed out and in a binder (or, if you prefer soft copy, in a folder on your computer). Refer back to them and see how much easier they get to comprehend.

You shouldn't have to spend more than 20 mins. a day doing this. As your vocab list grows, you are eventually going to want to/have to study from a grammar book which will help you understand why and how certain verbs change forms, how to recognize certain colloquial expressions, etc. Again, don't spend too much time each day on the grammar.

Guess what? You did that with English, too. You just didn't know it at the time (don't blame yourself, you were six). You STARTED authentic, then figured out what the heck was actually going on.

It is extremely frustrating to force yourself to read an article or listen to a TV news broadcast in a language you don't understand. I admit, that part sucks. At first. Eventually, things will come into focus. The entire thing is way more a test of your patience/diligence than it is of your intelligence.

And just remember, the only thing that would suck even worse would be trying to learn from a grammar book, sifting through flash cards until you wanted to puke, and then just giving up. If you're not having authentic experiences, you'll never really learn -- how else do you think people study eight years of a language in school, show up in the country, and don't *get* a single piece of what's going on?

And don't forget that in the end, it really is 90% vocab -- not some wacky rules you had to memorize in high school, and certainly not rocket science.

Let's say you decide to start watching a single Simpsons episode or TV news broadcast each day in Spanish (again, won't take you more than half an hour). At first, it will be a massive exercise in frustration. But remember, most of what's separating you from understanding is just the vocab. Once you can pick out just over half the words in each sentence, you'll know what's going on. Things like commercials and voice-overs will build your confidence because they're often slower and have words to accompany them.

Focus on building your vocab, but don't do it in a vacuum. Root it in authentic language experiences, use repetition until it hurts (like, watch the same episode or study the same article five days in a row), study up on your words, and you will do great things.

Start authentic.

Take one deep breath, collect your thoughts, and do a huge cannonball right into the deep end. It may not look pretty at first, but you'll swim.


Brian Barker said...

As far as learning a second language is concerned, can I put in a word for Esperanto?

Although it is a living language, it helps language learning as well. Four schools in Britain have introduced this neutral international language, in order to test its propaedeutic values.

The pilot project is being monitored by the University of Manchester, and the initial results are very encouraging. These can be seen at,%20S2L%20Phase%201.pdf

An interesting video can be seen at and a glimpse of Esperanto at

The New Englander said...


Thanks for the reply -- glad to see the New Englander has made its way to, well, Old England.

And thanks for the Esperanto study links -- it's definitely nice that people can use an international lingua franca that no one country or culture *claims* as its own.