Learning new languages Print E-mail
Wednesday, 20 March 2013
By Dr. Boshra EL-Guindy
Special to GUIDON

A simple question from a young Marine in one of my Arabic classes has prompted me to write this article. The question had to do with ways to learn new vocabulary in a foreign language.  

Many people, like that young Marine, have wondered how we can learn and retain the vocabulary of a foreign language. Many people have difficulties in learning new words, especially in a foreign language, but there are ways to learn new words in a foreign language more efficiently.

We can learn new words, but remembering these new words after some time is difficult. Acquired vocabulary is practically useless unless the words learned can be recalled and used. People learning new languages have to learn to recall words, phrases and structure as well as assign meaning before they become competent at reproducing language like other users. To do this, people need to provide a label, function, association, similarity, difference or multiple meanings for vocabulary items.

Research in how people learn languages has repeatedly shown that people remember something better that they have discovered on their own and taken the time to learn it.

How can we make that happen? There are different techniques and approaches to increase our vocabulary retention.

As we see or hear or read a new word or phrase, we could think of it as a challenge, a problem waiting to be solved. So before running to the dictionary to check the exact meaning of the word or phrase in the mother tongue, which will probably only provide us with the “literal” meaning, we try to “guess” the meaning from context.  

Given the fact that words can have different meanings, context usually indicates the specific meaning of that particular word in that particular context. This seems to be the most effective way of learning and retaining new vocabulary items.

Another approach of learning the meaning of new vocabulary is to discover its meaning from the structure of the word, as the structure may contain familiar elements. Take the English word “transnational,” for example. If we find out the meaning of the parts: “national” and “trans,” they could give us some idea what the word means.

As languages tend to borrow from each other, knowing the meaning of a word in one language might lead you to the meaning of the new word in another language. This usually happens between languages that belong to the same language family. Words such as the verb “activate” in English, “activar” in Spanish, “ativar” in Portuguese, “attivare” in Italian, and “activer” in French are good examples of the so-called “cognates,” words that have similar spelling and pronunciation and mean the same in different languages.

When we come across a new word while reading, listening or work activities, we should not rush straight to the dictionary. If you look up a word from the dictionary and even understand it correctly, the information goes to the short-term memory area in your brain.  This area is what the name says, short term. If you try to recall that word after a few days, there is a high probability that you cannot remember it. The aim in learning vocabulary is to connect this new word or phrase to your long-term memory. This is best achieved through tiny hooks called associations

Take this example. Many people have problems remembering the difference between “borrow” and “lend.” If we make a simple “mental” link such as associating “lending” money to someone to mean the “end” of it, as you will never see it again, could help in retaining that word. Thus “lend” leads to “end.” If you have created a strong and unique association special for you, there is a very good chance that you will never forget this new word or phrase.

If you have a memory association for that particular word, the better are your chances for remembering it through that memory.

One of the best ways of learning new vocabulary is to watch a movie in the language you are learning (the target language) and listen to songs in that language. You can also read magazines and newspapers in that language. Even if people cannot understand everything, exposure to that language motivates and aids learning. Then we can try to create situations for us to practice the language by meeting people who speak that language and try to use our new language skills; a recipe that always works.

Last Updated ( Wednesday, 03 April 2013 )