Learning Vocabulary: Master the Most Useful First

When you set out to master a new language, you know you will have to learn words. You may rely on a teacher or a textbook to tell you which words are important, and which words to remember, but you must take charge of your own vocabulary learning strategies. If you build your vocabulary, even with a remedial understanding of grammar, you will be able to communicate more effectively and have more fun. Consider these points as you continue on your path to fluency.

How many words do you know in English? If you are a college educated native speaker of the language, then you probably know about 17,000. You probably knew about 12,000 when you began college. Now, how much of that enormous reservoir of words do you use on any given day? The first 2,000 most frequently used words in English make up 85% of our daily language use. That means that most of the words that you use everyday are recycled over and over gain. The other words are there on reserve, but not used as often. There is even a distinction we can make between words we can use actively and those which we only know passively. For example a word that you hear sometimes on the news but have difficulty remembering for yourself when you want to use it is a some passive vocabulary.

What are the most frequently used words? There are linguists who take samples of language from sources, compile the data and calculate the words and their frequency. The most commonly used word in English is the. In fact of the first 227 words so far in this essay, you will find the eleven times. Number 2001, according to the most frequently used words according to Paul Nation’s General Service List (GSL) is apple. Think about it. Did you say apple today? Did you read the word? You may have, but even if you have indeed eaten on today, you may not have heard anyone say the word, said it yourself, read it, and even less likely, written it. 

The same can be said for any other language in existence. There are some words that are used frequently, and there are words that are not. As a language learner, you should focus on building a solid base of vocabulary with these words in your new language. There is little reason to learn other words unless they are of professional or personal use to you. If there is no such list available for your language, you could start by translating the GSL into your language. (This will probably give you a pretty good start, but it isn’t perfect. Not all words will translate directly. For example English has a word for leg and foot. They are distinctly different. In Japanese for example, they get lumped together as ashi.)

Armed with that knowledge now you can move on to remembering the words you need, but you need to be aware that words can be remembered in different ways. Probably the most useful way to have remembered a word is being able to understand someone when they say it. If you are going to use the language for spoken communication, then you need to be able to understand the other person say the word. Then of course, you may want to be able to say it yourself. This means that you will have to listen to the word and repeat it enough times to get the pronunciation close enough so that when you use the word, your partner can understand. You may want to be able to read the word, too. If you are interested in reading menus, train schedules, or historical information about a particular area, then being able to read the word is essential. Writing the word would be handy if you are going to be corresponding with people, business partners for example, in your target language. Then you need to know how to spell the words correctly, too.

These skills are mutually exclusive and do not overlap. Which means that just because you can read a word does not mean that you will automatically be able to say it or understand it when it is said to you. You probably have words like that in your native language, words that you can say, understand and read, but cannot spell. You may not need to be able to spell the new words, either, and that is alright, too. If that is the case, then do not spend time learning how to do that.

An implication of this knowledge is that written lists of vocabulary, like the GSL, will be helpful, but the words will be written on a page. You will need to listen and understand them. Current language textbooks often contain CDs or even DVDs with spoken language recorded on them. If you use one of these for your language, be aware that some of the words in the text will not be from the first 2000 words that we mentioned. Be selective about how you spend your time and energy, but practice the words you hear by saying, reading and writing them for yourself, based on your needs.

Finally there is one truth that you should know. The words in any vocabulary list are going to be what are called root words for word families. One word family may have a root word, like a spoon, which is a thing we eat with, but may also be a verb that means “to scoop out” or “to engage in loving behavior, like kissing.” These members of the family are not counted as separate words. They are counted as one in the list of 2,000. There will be words like that in your language, too, and you should make decisions about which of the members of the family are essential to learn and which are not. For example with our word spoon, the amorous behavior meaning is not used that often, so is not really necessary at the being of our learning. Another example is the word for tree in Japanese is ki. It also carries the meaning of wood. Both words are common enough that you would want to learn them both. You may want to make a chart with the different uses of the word, the noun, verb, adjective, and adverb forms of the word. You can add to it later as time goes on.

Learning new vocabulary can be fun and rewarding as you pile up your list of mastered words. It will certainly be rewarding when you can understand and use the words in you new language, and the most frequently used words will be the easiest and most gratifying to remember because they occur so often. Stick to the basics and build a solid base of vocabulary with the most fundamental word families. Listen to and say the words at least, and be able to read and write them when you want to be able to. Then when you branch out into other fields of your language learning, it will be more fun and rewarding.


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