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Neil Kendall Languages

The language learning challenge

The 'look and observe' method of learning vocabulary - the blindingly obvious method most language learners overlook Augus

August 12, 2017

When learning vocabulary, I see a lot of language learners looking at lists of 'the top 100/200/500/1000 etc words in (whatever language they're learning)' as a source of inspiration for vocabulary they should focus on learning. Although this is a good method and certainly does have its merits, I would like to point out a much simpler, and blindingly obvious, method of figuring out what vocabulary is worth learning in order to reach fluency.

And what is that, I hear you ask? It's simple - just look all around you. Look and observe your life, and ask yourself:

1) which actions you perform on a daily basis (this will give you an idea of which verbs you need to learn)

2) what everyday objects/places etc do you use and/or encounter (both in and outside your house) on a daily basis (this will give you an idea of the nouns you need to learn to become fluent)

3) what are the most common emotions you feel during any given day, and what other ways do you describe nouns you use/encounter? (This will give you an idea of which adjectives you need to focus on learning in order to be able to express yourself properly).

As blindingly obvious as this is, it is a great starting point for deciding what vocabulary you need to learn in the language you're studying. See, a language is a communication system and to reach fluency in it, you need to be to able to navigate most everyday life situations within that language. Therefore by looking at and observing your life in the way I have just suggested, you will easily be able to notice the vocabulary you need to know in order to get to this level.

For example, when looking at which actions you perform each day, well the first thing we do is to wake up, then get up, then get dressed, then perhaps comb our hair, wash, brush our teeth, make some breakfast, wash the dishes. Then we might leave the house, lock the door, drive a car or take a form of public transport in order to go to work. We all eat and drink every day, and cook/prepare food. You might have to visit a supermarket and buy something, or go to the bank and deposit or withdraw money. You will definitely have to charge/recharge your mobile phone or computer during the day too. You will have to do things. You will go somewhere. You will come back. You will enter and exit buildings. No doubt you will telephone or text somebody. You will read and write something. You will speak, talk and say things to people. You will walk. You may run. You will visit someone. You probably use everyday items. No doubt you like to listen to music or watch tv, and plug and unplug things, as well as switch things on and off. You will stand up and sit down. And unless you're superhuman, you will need to sleep at the end of your day too.

The point being, is that all everyday actions, if consciously observed, are indicative of the verbs you should be learning in whatever language you're working on. The list above is simply SOME of the actions most people perform in a typical day, so I would suggest you get a piece of paper (or open a blank word document on your computer), and jot down the actions you do each day, and keep adding to it as you notice more. Make each of these into a verb in the 'to' form, such as 'to eat', 'to drink', then go to a quality dictionary such as wordreference.com and find the translations of each verb in whatever language you're learning, and write these down in your list. Then go about gradually memorisising each them.

Do the above not only with verbs, but look all around you at whatever everyday items you use and encounter, for example a knife, fork, plate, cup, cooker, door, window, car, bus, train, supermarket, bank, house etc. Then do the same with emotions such as happy, sad, content, frustrated, bored, excited, pleased, etc, and then common adjectives such as big, small, thick, thin, tall, short, fat, slim, high, low etc.

Before long you will have a good vocabulary that will allow you to communicate in pretty much any everyday situation. Whenever you notice a gap in your knowledge, something everyday that you just don't know how to say or describe, add that to your list of what you need to learn next.

Then once you've done this, you can go back to those lists of 'the 100/200/500/1000 etc' most common words/verbs etc in the language you're learning and consolidate what you've learned by learning these too. There will of course be a lot of overlap with what you already know, but that doesn't matter. 

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