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Words Trump Grammar When It Comes To Truly Learning A Language

The importance of a large vocabulary in your target language can't be overstated. Some are convinced we can converse quite comfortably with just a few hundred words. There are lots of articles on the topic. I don't agree.
USA, New Jersey, Jersey City, Young woman reading dictionary
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USA, New Jersey, Jersey City, Young woman reading dictionary

The importance of a large vocabulary in your target language can't be overstated. Some are convinced we can converse quite comfortably with just a few hundred words. There are lots of articles on the topic. I don't agree. You can communicate with a few words, but you can't say much and you understand even less, and that means a very limited form of communication.

My views have been formed through my own experience of learning 15 languages. I constantly find my lack of words to be the greatest obstacle to enjoying the language more. Why? Because the words I am missing prevent me from understanding things that I hear, read and want to understand. With enough vocabulary and comprehension comes confidence; the confidence that I can defend myself in the language. With this confidence to sustain me, the speaking part develops naturally as I have more and more opportunity to speak.

I realized this with the first language I decided to learn to fluency, French. As with most English speaking school children in Montreal in the 1950s, I had studied French at school since grade one but couldn't hold a conversation. At school we had boring and bored anglophone French teachers and dull text books, and we spent most of our time on grammar exercises, writing meaningless essays, and, with some difficulty, reading mostly uninteresting stories.

No doubt the instruction of French in Canada's anglophone schools has improved since then, with more francophone rather than anglophone teachers. The results, however, remain the same: dismal. This is a constant source of hand wringing by politicians, leading to reforms of the instructional system, but not to improved learning outcomes.

In my first year of university in Montreal, I had a French professor from France. He managed to excite my interest in French civilization. This changed my attitude completely and I started reading a lot, thumbing through the dictionary in those days before the Internet. I watched movies in French, attended plays, read the newspaper, listened to the radio, and within six months my French blossomed. My interest in the language drove me, but it was the exposure to it that enabled me to learn. At first I had to look up many new words and gradually the unknown became fewer and fewer. Yet they were always there, especially when reading novels. There were always unknown words that prevented me from enjoying the book I was reading. This was also true for films or when I was hanging out with francophone friends. I was always missing key words.

This article by Ernest Blum explains why. In a nutshell, while a few high frequency words account for most of the words used in any given context, the remaining 30-40% of any text consists of low frequency words, sometimes only appearing once or twice in the text.

Since you need 95 per cent or even 98 per cent coverage to enjoy reading a text, according to vocabulary researcher Paul Nation, the sad fact is that you need to know a lot of low frequency words in order to enjoy reading books. Why is this important? Because reading is one of the most effective ways of acquiring fluency in a language, especially when combined with listening.

As Blum points out, research has shown that wherever languages are taught, the students don't acquire enough vocabulary to read interesting texts. For the French daily newspaper Le Monde, 22,000 words only gives you 94 per cent coverage. Even a popular magazine like Time requires 14,000 words to achieve 96.9 per cent coverage. Most school children, Blum points out based on research in a number of countries, know at most 3,000 to 5,000 words. Few of these students can read longer more meaningful texts, and this hinders their language development.

Teaching languages with an emphasis on grammar, rather than on reading and listening, is ineffective and goes against an earlier more effective tradition, that of focusing on reading texts. The result of a lot of grammar instruction is boredom for the learners. This is true today and was true over 300 years ago as this quote in Blum's article from English philosopher John Locke illustrates:

"How is it possible that a child should be chained to the oar, seven, eight or 10 of the best years of his life, to get a language or two, which I think might be had at a great deal cheaper rate of pains and time and be learned almost in playing?"

Businessman James Hamilton, also quoted widely by Blum in his article, was an early 19th century proponent of reading, and especially of reading with interlinear texts (where the translation is on the page with the target language), to learn languages.

According to Hamilton:

"Reading is the only real, the only effectual source of instruction. It is the pure spring of nine-tenths of our intellectual enjoyments. . . . Neither should it be sacrificed to grammar or composition, nor to getting by heart any thing whatever, because these are utterly unattainable before we have read a great deal."

Reading with interlinear texts is a great help, especially to beginners. As the learner progresses, however, the importance of interlinear texts declines. The learner is able to understand more and more of the words, and is better off staying in the target language.

The availability of vast quantities of interesting language content, both audio and text, enables the learner to seek out meaningful subject matter of interest to him or her. Perhaps most importantly, online dictionaries make it possible to read and understand interesting material with a much higher level of unknown words. Thus we can acquire new vocabulary more quickly. If the learner had to rely on content with 98% known words, the vocabulary growth would be painstakingly slow.

Surprisingly, I have found it better not to focus my attention on learning vocabulary from lists or flash cards. Instead I learn best when I am able to expose myself to as much content as possible through reading and listening.

The result is a surprisingly rapid and enjoyable increase in my vocabulary and my enjoyment of the language. This is quite different from the deliberate and ineffective learning process fifty years ago at school.

Read and listen and you will learn.

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