Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Know words

No swords know words like words know swords.

What does it mean to really know a word in your target language? I was thinking about that today and here is what I've come up with.

My criteria for "knowing" words.
  • Listening – You hear the word and you instantly understand it.
  • Reading – You see the word and you instantly know its meaning.
  • Speaking – You can use the word correctly for communication.

At first glance, you look at my list and say to yourself, "all of that is obvious." But there are some things that I didn't list as criteria.

What's not necessary for "knowing" words.
  • Memory – You don't need to be able to remember the word when you want to use it.
  • History – You don't need to know the history of the word or where it came from.
  • Writing – You don't need to remember how to write the word.

I sometimes can't recall words in English, my native tongue. Does that mean I don't know the word anymore? No. I don't need to relearn the word. I just haven't used it or heard or seen it being used in a long time. It's the same with people's names. I sometimes can't remember the names of professors that gave lectures and homework to me every week. Just because I can't recall their names doesn't mean that I never really knew that teacher.

Spelling or writing, I've decided, isn't really all that important when it comes to whether or not you "know" the word. After all, spelling is arbitrary. The way you write a word has no fixed value to its meaning. Whether you write 'color' or 'colour' is unimportant. Both are correct and neither will change the meaning or usage of the word.

Even for kanji languages, where a lot of meaning can be determined just by looking at the characters, the way the characters have come to be written is arbitrary and not important to the meaning of the word. If not, then the kanji characters could never have been simplified! Also, the kanji characters used together to form a word do not have a divine meaning. They mean what they mean because they were created for the word. The word was not created from the kanji. For example, in Japanese 見所 means a highlight, promise or good qualities. But reverse the two characters and 所見 means view or opinion. Why is the meaning so different for the same two characters? I think it's just because somebody decided which combination should mean what. One character means see and the other one means place. If they had wanted to, they could have made the meaning of one of the words observatory. In fact there are two characters, that I can think of, that mean place; 所 and 場. So if I replace the one character for place with the other one, I can get 見場 which means appearance. And it looks like the other way around (場見) isn't a word.

Therfore, I think the way a word is written is a different subject matter. What's important is knowing the word when listening or speaking and being able to use the word correctly if you should decide to do so. You can always check the way the word is written. But as for the meaning and usage of words, it's not just a simple matter of checking the dictionary. Wouldn't you agree?


No comments:

Post a Comment

No profanity. Please be considerate of others. Thank you.