Why I Love Vocabulary

by Tamara Kula

If you meet someone who has just spent the last year studying in China, what will you most likely want to say to him?
A: “Cool! How do you say 'ice cream' in Mandarin?”
or B: “Wow! How do they form their plurals?”

Chances are, you're going to want some real Chinese words to try out for yourself, to roll them around in your mouth and imagine communicating that way. Maybe you'll learn some fun phrases to use to impress people with at parties. Or maybe you'll be able to use a fun greeting to make a connection with someone you find yourself sitting next to on an airplane. For these reasons, I would bet most people would choose A.

For me, words and phrases are the most real part of the language; they are handholds to grasp onto when learning. The words themselves represent something concrete. When my children were first thrown into the Russian-language school system in Kyrgyzstan, the first words they learned were full of meaning and practicality: “nelsia” (not allowed), “odevai kurtku” (put your coat on), and “tiho!” (quiet). To these they added so many more so quickly that I was fascinated watching their progress.

Many language-teaching methods focus on teaching grammar directly, while the vocabulary is taught indirectly. I prefer the opposite, that is, teaching (and learning) vocabulary directly, but grammar indirectly. Focusing on vocabulary allows for the teacher to use lots of examples with the new words and phrases, and these phrases help solidify the new word for the student. It is an exciting process, because it's rooted in understanding. When you understand a sentence because you understand the words inside it, it feels fantastic. As you learn vocabulary, you can understand more and more, building on what you already know.

Have you ever noticed that every time you learn a new word, you start to see it everywhere? This happens in your first language just the same as in a second language. If you just recently learned what “curious” means, that word will no doubt begin to pop up everywhere – on TV commercials, in movies, in conversations, in the newspaper, and in books. The word was always around you, of course, but you simply didn't notice it before. Now that you've honed in on that word, you will recognize it again and again – and each time you do, you're picking up exactly how to use that word correctly.

The great thing about learning vocabulary is that the grammar comes along with it, naturally, slowly but surely. When you learn a specific phrase like “I want” or “two bananas,” you are already learning the grammar that puts that phrase together. You remember a phrase because it is a definite example of something you can understand right away, and maybe even use yourself. When children learn language, they don't memorize grammar rules. They are learning to communicate, first and foremost. If a child says, "I catched the ball," it is perfectly clear what that child is communicating. The vocabulary word "catch" holds the meaning for communication, even though the grammar is wrong ("caught" is the correct past tense). After hearing correct English for long enough, children will correct their own mistakes.

It's important to note that there is a big difference between active and passive vocabulary. Active vocabulary is all the words and phrases that you can USE. Passive vocabulary is all the words and phrases that you can UNDERSTAND. Passive vocabulary is always larger than active. When you read a book in your first language, you will find many words and expressions that you understand, even though you have never used them. Think of children - they understand far more than they can say. It's the same in a foreign language. When you learn a language, the first step is understanding. When you have a large passive vocabulary, you will be in a great position to understand what you need. Then you can express yourself in simpler terms, and people will understand you just fine. Understanding is the most important part. As you build your passive vocabulary, eventually you will start to feel comfortable with using the phrases. But don't forget: the benefits of understanding a word are immediate. And that is a big accomplishment!

Benefits of learning from a vocabulary-based method:

* Words and phrases are connected to meaning, and therefore they are very useful. It's easy to learn something that you need and want to know. You can learn much more quickly when you focus on understanding and communicating with words and phrases.

* It's easier to stay in the foreign language. Often times, teachers will revert to a student's first language to teach grammar. But for teaching vocabulary, the teacher has to use the second language to provide many examples, stories, and interactive questions to make sure the students understand the new words.

* You can turn anything into a chance to learn. If you're having a conversation with someone and they use a word you don't know, ask them what it means. They will describe the word, using examples or synonyms, giving you a chance to gain valuable listening practice at the same time as learning a new word.

* Reading becomes an exciting process as you keep seeing words that you know, or words that you almost know and just need to be reminded about.

* You will learn English more quickly and more naturally with a better "feel" for grammar rules. In fact, there are studies saying that grammar is learned better indirectly, as a child learns his own native language.

* Typical “lessons” in school become fun. The beauty of teaching English is the freedom to choose any topic that students like, using new words and phrases while engaging everyone in that topic. If students like video games, you can talk about that. If students like talking about pranks, you can talk about that. Everything is a lesson.

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