Teach English in DuAnqiaopu Zhen - Yongzhou Shi

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My impression is that when people have not spent any time studying a second language, they often have an assumption (made without much reflection) that learning a new language is mostly a matter of learning new vocabulary. They imagine it to be taking an English sentence, and simply plugging in replacement words into each slot of the English sentence. Of course, this is not the way it actually works. Languages do have different vocabularies, but the most challenging difference when learning a new language is the grammar and syntax, and the way the verbal system morphs to communicate things like tense and mood. So vocabulary is certainly not all that there is, and it is not the most difficult part, but certainly it is vital. Thankfully, new vocabulary is generally a matter of memorization, and there are some principles to follow when learning vocabulary that will make for more efficient acquisition. First, students should focus on memorizing the most frequently used vocabulary first. Words that are very common should take precedence over words that are rare or specialized. When I was studying Hebrew and Greek, that was the system that we used, and it made intuitive sense as well as proving efficient and effective. There are words like the definite article, basic verbs like “to be” or “to have” or “to eat,” or nouns like “food” or “house” or “water” that will be among the first to be learned. As the students’ vocabulary increases, they will be moving to more obscure words. When I was in high school and studying Spanish, I remember that in my third year, which focused heavily on vocabulary acquisition, one of the terms we learned was “pineapple upside down cake,” which seemed very odd to me as this was a term that would virtually never be used. It is worth noting that this principle is not about the vocabulary being simple, but about it being frequent and common. Those are the words that will have the most immediate payoff. Second, vocabulary should be learned, as much as possible, in context. That means instead of simply learning vocabulary in lists or on flashcards (useful in their place), vocabulary should be presented and learned within sentences where students may actually encounter it being used in the target language. Vocabulary does not usually actually occur in a vacuum, but in conversation and in texts. Learning it that way can also help students retain the words better, especially if the context is particularly memorable, for example, a story that they liked. Learning vocabulary in context is also an efficient way of learning because it reinforces other vocabulary from the surrounding text, so there is constant review. Third, the two principles above are important, but another helpful method of teaching vocabulary is that when words are simply being memorized—with flash cards for example—pictures may be more useful than the English equivalent. So when making a flashcard for the word “tree” in the target language, the word may be on one side of the card, and a picture of a tree on the other instead of the translated word itself. The reason for this is that it trains the mind to associate the word with the thing itself rather than with an English term. This can help students avoid the natural tendency to mentally translate, and instead to work towards actually thinking in the target language. Another reason why this may be important is that words don’t always translate precisely between languages. Words often have an overlapping semantic domain, but with their own nuances in each language that may not be present in the other. So associating words with pictures or mental concepts may help the student learn the language more accurately than associating each word with that word’s “meaning” in the native language. Finally, and in conclusion, learning vocabulary carries a lot of potential for fun in the classroom because it can easily be made into fun classroom games like Bingo or Hangman. Students may be wary of memorization, but a skilled teacher can make vocabulary acquisition one of the funnest and most lively aspects of class.