Don’t study, learn!

By Gary Throup
In Translation
Nov 21st, 2016

Vocabulary in a foreign language


When I cast my mind back to my schooldays, I often recall the French classes in which, every week, my classmates and I would be given a long list of French words to learn over the weekend. Monday was test day, and needless to say, the majority of us were able to recite the list to our teacher without problem.

Some kids didn’t study them at all and couldn’t recite the list, but in the end it made no difference.  Sure enough, not long after, we all remembered approximately the same amount of words on the list– almost zero. Why? No context? No activation? No real world connection? There had been no transference of the vocabulary from my short-term to my long-term memory? I knew some French words, but not the words from the list! But why?  

Don't study, learn!

Years later, I was sitting outside a Ukrainian café with a fellow language enthusiast, discussing the trickiness and intrigue of the Russian language, and I almost fell off my chair when he showed me his “notes”. He had page upon page of single words in Russian, along with the translation in his native language. He could, he assured me, remember each word on the list after just a week of study. I told him that I didn’t doubt it at all but, all the same, he invited me to test his vast Russian knowledge.

Sure enough, (after a pause while his mind’s eye ran down the various pages of the list) he was able to translate the word back and forth. I told him that I hated lists, and never used them, and cited my failed efforts (and I did make an effort!) to learn French at school. At that moment, a girl emerged from the café and asked us if we would like to go inside, as a musician was about to start.  

“What instrument are they playing?” my companion started to ask, but stalled before he could even express the keywords of his question. And yet, as I later, and reluctantly, pointed out to him, all of the words that he needed appeared on his list. On the first page!

I had never studied those particular words, and yet I was able to formulate the question. Why, because I was better at Russian than him? No, we were both beginners. Then came my realization that, although I had never studied the words, I had learned them, and was able to apply them to a real-life situation.

My friend accused me of being an expert. This was simply not true, in fact I was having, and still do have today, great difficulties with the Russian language, which continues to be an enigma for me. But those words I knew and could use, because once, long ago before that moment, someone had asked me if I played any musical instruments.

It was that simple. No memorization, no mind tricks, and certainly no lists! I knew I was definitely not the first language learner to realize that vocabulary is effectively learned accidentally or incidentally.  But I stopped worrying about it, and started to enjoy the language.

I spoke to everyone that had the patience to deal with me, and I read. I read (basic texts, of course) extensively, not caring if I didn’t understand some word or other. No problem, that word would appear in a different context soon enough, when its meaning would be clearer. A well-known polyglot once said that in order to remember, you first have to forget.

I made no conscious effort to remember, I just absorbed the language from the real world and, sure enough, my vocabulary began to expand. Not only were there no dreaded lists, this was real life. And life is what language is. Interaction, literature, music, humanity.  And it all starts when you throw away the list.

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About "" Has 3 Posts

Gary is a writer. He writes songs, poetry and articles for TranslatorThoughts, of course! He has a passion for languages and has studied (at various times and to various levels) Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Russian and a few bits of other languages such as Hebrew and Persian. He lives in Spain and teaches English for a living.

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