In order to learn a language, you have to learn a lot of vocabulary. Period. You just can’t speak a language if you don’t know a lot of words. At no time is this more obvious than at the beginning of a new language when you feel completely incapable of expressing yourself and are constantly looking up simple things in a dictionary. But even later when you feel comfortable expressing yourself, even paraphrasing to get your point across, you know that the subtlety you seek is behind a looming pile of words.
A lot of people think this means there is only one solution: brute force. It seems like you will just have to memorize list after list of random vocabulary and look up every new word you come across until the language makes sense. It’s a daunting task. And it’s bound to be quite boring. You probably won’t succeed.
Good news! There’s another way.
1. Greater than the sum of its parts
The next time you have a list of vocabulary and grammar that you want to learn, don’t just throw the single words on to flash cards. Combine them into sentences and learn those.
I know what you are thinking: “But that’s more work! A sentence is harder to remember than a word!” But not only is it easier than memorizing each and every word in the sentence, but it’s a trick you are doing already and probably didn’t realize you were doing!
When you combine the words together you are doing something called “chunking” – It’s a term for batching information so your brain only has to remember 1 thing instead of multiple. It’s the reason why the number 201 is just as easy to remember as 4 or 8, even though it has three times as many numbers. It’s also the reason we split phone numbers into groups (like 867-5309 for a U.S. style number or 02.49.39.20.45 for a French style number).
By grouping information together, you can remember the whole more easily than remembering each individual part.
2. No word is an island
Words gain a lot of their meaning from context. And a sentence gives you context for the word. With certain words it can be difficult to remember how the word is actually used. A prime example of this is prepositions. They are notoriously difficult in every language because even when we DO remember the proposition, we often don’t remember which one to use in which context.
An example from German is the word for “to,” which could be nach or zu (or several other words depending on context). So if you want to say I’m going to Berlin, is it Ich gehe nach Berlin or Ich gehe zu Berlin? ( it’s nach, by the way). Knowing translations for the English word doesn’t really help you here. But if you memorize a sentence, you know what word is used, instead of trying to remember the specific grammar rule!
The same happens in reverse. If you learn that the Mandarin word 讓 (ràng) means make, you don’t know if that is the word you’d use for make food or for make somebody do something (it’s the latter — make food is 做菜 – zuòcài). But with a sentence or two you’ll have that all cleared up.
3. The only constant is change
In a lot of languages, words change their sound and spelling based on their role in the sentence. We usually encounter this in the form of verb conjugation like eat and eats in English or tenir (to have), tengo, tienes, tiene, (etc…) in Spanish. This also comes up with nouns in the singular and plural (cat / cats), or declensions in the more extreme cases (Latin’s nautus, nauti, nauto, nautum, etc…). Sometimes it’s worth it to just buckle down and memorize a conjugation / declension chart. But sometimes, especially with irregular words, it can be helpful to learn whole sentences.
I’ve been dealing with this problem recently with Scottish Gaelic (Gàidhlig). Gaelic has a complex set of prepositions that will fuse with pronouns. Take, for example, do (roughly meaning “to/towards”, but which is used in a lot of idiomatic constructions):
do + mi = dhomh (to me)
do + thu = dhut (to you, singular or informal)
do + e = dha (to him)
do + i = dhi (to her)
do + sinn = dhuinn (to us)
do + sibh = dhuibh (to you, plural or formal)
do + iad = dhaibh (to them)
In many cases you can see the resemblance between the forms – there are a lot of shared letters – but it is by no means intuitive. And it turns out almost every preposition is this way. So how do I approach a challenging word like this? I make sentences for each form and learn those. Then I know exactly which form of the word to use in which context.
4. You Go with the flow
Learning a sentence gives you more fluidity with the language. When people learn words in isolation, they often end up getting stuck… between… every… word… trying to… uh… remember– you get the idea. Well, if you learn a sentence well, you also learn to say the sentence at a normal speed. Don’t believe me? Find some actors and ask them if they’d rather learn their lines word by word or whole lines at a time.
I still remember a sentence from my First Year Mandarin course in University (那張照片是你的嗎? – nà zhāng zhàopiàn shì nǐde ma? – Is that picture yours?) that our teacher had us repeat over and over again. What’s so special about that? Well not only do I know the word for picture (照片 – zhàopiàn), I don’t have to think about which measure word I have to use with it (張 – zhāng). The phrase just comes out naturally.
And if I want to ask about something else, like a table, or a sheet of paper, I can just swap out the word instead of having to build the whole sentence in pieces. If I DO get stuck on that word, I’ll only be stuck in one place.
5. Sentences can help you talk about your own life
When you start learning a language, it’s not going to be long before you learn things like “my name is…”, “I’m from …”, or “I have …. sisters and … brothers”. These are basic ways to describe the world around you, and naturally you are going to end up using a lot of them early on in meeting people. But learning disjointed fragments of sentences is awkward and hard to relate to.
If I can learn a phrase like “My name is …”, then you can learn “My name is Alexander”, or “I’m from The United States” instead of merely “I’m from…” And it’s better for you because then you can talk about real world details about your life more readily and comfortably. In other words, it’s (almost) just like real-world, conversation practice. What’s more, you’ll remember it better if it’s relevant to you.
How do you learn your vocabulary?
Do you use sentences to learn vocabulary? Do you find it helps you speak more fluidly? A lot of these tips are also why I advocate learning songs and reading poetry in your target language. What other tools and techniques do you use?
And what about your current language projects? How are they coming along? I’d love to hear about them. Let me know in the comments.