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Kick-starting Your Language Learning:
Becoming a basic speaker through fun and games inside a secure nest

Ch 4.1. Some ideas for vocabulary to learn to understand

by Greg Thomson

1993 Greg Thomson. Used by permission.

Complete Table of Contents


This books describes a developmental approach to language learning for beginning language learners developed by Greg Thomson. It describes how a beginning learner can work with a speaker of the target language to learn to understand basic language structures and vocabulary to be ready to become a basic speaker of the language. This information can be helpful to anyone wanting to do self-directed language learning working with a speaker of the target language.

Chapter 4. Ideas for vocabulary and sentence patterns to learn to comprehend in order to become a basic speaker

4.1. Some ideas for vocabulary to learn to understand
4.1.1 Which vocabulary items should I learn first?
4.1.2 Some categories of vocabulary Words for referring to human beings Items used by human beings Places frequented by humans Common substances not yet covered Nature Time
4.1.3 Words used to further describe all of the objects covered so far
4.1.4 Things that happen to all of the objects covered so far
4.1.5 Actions of human beings
4.1.6 Additional sources for basic vocabulary

Back Matter


Chapter 4. Ideas for vocabulary and sentence patterns to learn to comprehend in order to become a basic speaker

When I described your typical daily activities during the early weeks of language learning, you may have been wondering how you would ever come up with enough ideas for vocabulary and sentence patterns to fill all those daily language sessions. Most of the rest of what I have to say is my way of filling in those details. These details may help to clarify much of what I've said about the daily sessions of your early weeks. It might be good to go back and reread those earlier sections after you have surveyed my suggestions.

As I give you this long list of suggestions for vocabulary and sentence patterns to learn, don't expect to remember it all after the first reading. It will be there for you to return to over and over while planning your daily language sessions.

First, let's see where we've been. I have attempted to give a picture of your first two months as a language learner in which your first major emphasis is on learning to understand the language, believing that your short term and long term progress will be increased if you approach the language in that way. Using TPR, pictures, and simple role-play, you can quickly acquire enough vocabulary items and sentence patterns to qualify as a basic speaker of the language. Gradually you put increasing emphasis on using the language to talk, using vocabulary and sentence patterns that you have already learned to understand. By the end of the second month, your sessions may last for two or three (or more) hours during which you may devote half of the time to comprehension activities and half of the time to two-way conversational activities.

Now, regarding the areas of vocabulary and sentence patterns I am about to survey, unfortunately, I cannot be totally concrete. I cannot truly suggest vocabulary items and sentence patterns, since the ones that exist will vary considerably from language to language. Rather I will attempt to cover a healthy range of general categories of vocabulary and sentence patterns. I'll have to give English words and phrases and sentences in order to be concrete, but realize that the actual details of how English works will not match up very often with the details of how another language works.

To take just one example, we have past tense forms in English which are different from present and future forms. In some languages there will be no such thing as tense. Nevertheless, you need to know how to describe events which happened in the past. In other languages there may be two or three different kinds of past tense, such as remote past and recent past. I cannot foresee every such distinction you might encounter, and I won't even try. What I will do is provide enough possibilities so that if you learn to deal with everything I suggest, any other absolutely essential matters will come to your notice in the process. Remember, you're just trying to become a basic speaker right now. There are tons of details which you will not master during your first two months. I am trying to steer you toward the most important ones that you can reasonably master in that time period if you concentrate heavily on learning to understand and accept more modest goals when it comes to learning to speak.

4.1. Some ideas for vocabulary to learn to understand

Remember, you are not simply collecting and compiling vocabulary for eventual memorization. You are learning to recognize the vocabulary items when you hear them in speech. You want to be prepared to learn to recognize around thirty new items per day. If these are the names of common objects, then you will want to use the actual objects in the language session, if possible. Your LRP will have you manipulate these objects as a means of learning their names or as a means of learning the words for the actions that can be performed on, or with, those objects. To learn other kinds of vocabulary, you may need to prepare drawings or diagrams. You can plan to learn a wide variety of words by means of acting them out in TPR activities. For example, if you are learning words for emotions, you may respond to commands such as "Act happy; act sad; act disappointed," and so forth.

4.1.1. Which vocabulary items should I learn first?

Learning a language means learning thousands of vocabulary items. During your kick-start phase of language learning, you might aim to learn your first thousand vocabulary items. Remember, you will start out as a poor speaker and gradually improve. So the first vocabulary you'll want to learn will be the vocabulary that even a poor speaker would know. Think of English for a moment. Some words would be important even for a poor speaker, while other words would be suitable only to a more advanced speaker. Consider the following words for facial expressions or facial movements: blink, grimace, smile. Which of those would be the most important for a poor speaker to learn first? Which would be least important? If you are like me, you feel that smile is more important than blink which in turn is more important than grimace. I can almost bet that you feel exactly the same as I do about this. In using English, people use smile more frequently than they use blink, while they do not use grimace very often at all. Native speakers of a language will probably have a good sense for which words are high frequency words, and which are less frequent, and, hence, less important. Hopefully, you'll be able to convey to your LRP your desire to learn high frequency words at first.

Even without the help of your LRP, you will have some sense of what words are important. If you are aware of some area of vocabulary that you will have the opportunity to use in the near future, that will be a good area of vocabulary to work on. Suppose that vegetable vendors come to your door every day. Then it would make sense to learn to recognize the words for all the vegetables they sell. Buy a few of every vegetable, and use them in your sessions until you easily recognize all of their names. You are then free to speak them to the vendors, even if it is just a matter of showing the vendors what you have learned. While you are doing your daily planning, it is good to ask yourself what specific areas of vocabulary you can work on that are relevant to daily activities.

However, you cannot limit yourself to vocabulary items that obviously fit into your daily activities, or you will never learn a lot of high frequency, important vocabulary. For example, unless you are doing medical work, you may not need to talk about body parts all the time. But what sort of a "speaker" would you be if you didn't know what a foot or hand is called? Follow your own instincts and those of your LRP in deciding what are the essential vocabulary for even a poor speaker like you. (Perhaps instead of calling you a poor speaker, I should call you an on-the-way-to-becoming-a-good-speaker, or maybe a temporarily challenged speaker.)

4.1.2. Some categories of vocabulary

I am going to suggest some categories of essential vocabulary for you as a basic speaker of the language. However, I encourage you to only refer to this list when you run short of ideas from other sources. Keep examining every aspect of your daily life in the situation where you will be using the language and identify the objects, places, and activities that will be important to you. Let those be your inspiration in choosing vocabulary to learn. If you are preparing for a session and you run short on ideas, scan the following suggestions. According to my most conservative tally, if the language you are learning is that of a group of people with a rudimentary material culture, these suggestions should yield five hundred vocabulary items. In most situations they should yield at least a thousand. It would be a good exercise for you, as homework, to flesh out these categories by listing a number of common English words that would fall under each one. Some "words" will actually be phrases. For example, old man could be treated as a vocabulary item, since it is such an essential category of human beings. By way of contrast, tall man would not be considered a vocabulary item, although both tall and man would be important items.

If you keep a log of the vocabulary you learn, the items in your log will suggest new possibilities for vocabulary. The word for water may be in your log. Then think of all the things you can say about water: it flows, drips, freezes, boils, soaks into things, soaks through things, leaks out of things, people pour it, splash it, spray it, etc. etc. Words for referring to human beings Items used by human beings Places frequented by humans Common substances not yet covered Nature Time

4.1.3. Words used to further describe all of the objects covered so far

4.1.4. Things that happen to all of the objects covered so far

4.1.5. Actions of human beings

4.1.6. Additional sources for basic vocabulary

With the right activities in your daily sessions with your LRP, assuming you spend adequate time planning and preparing for those activities, you should find it possible to learn thirty new vocabulary items per day until you have learned your first thousand items. Don't forget to keep a log of all the vocabulary you learn to recognize, and add to it during your daily record keeping period.

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