Wednesday, January 14, 2009

don't use new words!

When using the TV method on a new language, there are a lot of new words that you can eventually understand directly from the situation and what you see happening on the screen. I say "eventually" because even though it is quite obvious, you probably won't pick up on it the first time you see it. It may be on the second viewing or even later when you are ready to learn that new word. For the not-so-obvious, you may just be wondering what the words mean and you keep noticing them and then one day it becomes obvious to you. You'll learn it when you're ready. That's how the brain works.

In the beginning, you'll be oblivious to most words. (Why are "obvious" and "oblivious" so similar-looking when the meanings are almost opposites?) Eventually, of course, the words start making themselves known to you. They have a funny way of doing that. And through exposure, the new words will become old words.

The natural approach advocates that you don't speak at all in the beginning. Which makes sense because, really, what kind of conversation are you going to have when you only know 10 words? So you won't have any problem refraining from using new words in the early stages. But how about the later stages when you've acquired enough of the language to speak it? Should you try to use new words right away? If you've read the title of this post, my answer should be obvious.

When words are still new to you, you're not ready to use them. You need time to get to the point where you know how the word sounds. You may also need more time to redefine your understanding of the new words. And last but not least, words should come out of your mouth without you having to think about them. A new word is not ready to do that. With new words, you would have to stop and think, and remember.

Like old friends, old words are your friend. They're comfortable. You know what they mean. You can use them without even thinking. Give your new words time to grow and when they become old you'll be using them too without so much as a thought.

So it's not new words you want to acquire. It's old words! That's why study and memorization should have no place in language acquisition. 5,000 new words and only a few hundred old words won't do you much good. Spend your time getting exposure to the language instead of thinking about words. You take care of the language input and the words will take care of themselves.


  1. I think it depends on your personality. If you can handle being corrected constantly and learn well from it, use new words as soon as you think you have a handle on them. (Around your friends, of course.)

    If you don't handle that well, or just plain love being right, use words only after you have heard them so much that they are automatic.

    I tend to be the latter, but many people learn best from making mistakes. If they have people that will correct them, using words incorrectly is the best thing they can do.

    It's been a long, long time since I've used an English word incorrectly, but definitely remember how well the meaning was ingrained when I did so. (Well, at least, since I used a word incorrectly and was corrected!)

    I definitely agree that more exposure is always good, though.

  2. I was interested more in just remembering the word for future recognition, not necessarily using it. I agree completely that you shouldn't learn words just so you can use them. But you still answered my question, thanks.

    What I'm used to doing is when I see a new word used in context to where the context provides enough information, I put the sentence and the contextual information in an SRS (recognition, not production). By doing this, I have the context of where I saw it associated with the word for a long period of time. When I see it again, I still remember the context and everything from the first time I saw it. Then it's normally not that hard to figure it's meaning and I can remember what I figured out for as long as I want to (SRS).

    But with watching you can't do that so much (and it would be boring). However, because of your success, I think I'm going to be watching a lot more. =]

  3. That was a very nice advice. Taking care of input and letting the words do their job. I use SRS to memorize words, do you think if I just read like crazy I can forget SRSs and still learn more words?

  4. There are 2 things I don't like about SRS. The first one is the time and effort to input everything. The second is that it is going to make you think. If something is in your SRS and it is a new word then you've got to think about the meaning to check yourself. If you already know the language and all of the words you put into the SRS, then it can be good for reading practice of a language like Japanese. But still, it seems like a lot of work to me. And when you fall behind, does the SRS double the amount of work you need to do to catch up? If the SRS creates a burden on you then that is not a good influence on how you feel about the language. My advice is Do Not Memorize Words. An SRS does what? Helps you review words? It is better to let natural reading refresh those words. If the words aren't coming up enough in your reading for you to remember them, then are they really all that important to you now? Reading Japanese is much easier than something like writing Japanese. Why? Because the context and the おくりがな give you good hints as to what the word is. If it is an old word for you, you will be able to figure it out very quickly. Old words are created through lots of input.

  5. Dude, you just hit on a subject very close to my heart. Exposure to a language is how you learn it. I mean really learn it, not just memorize some words and phrases. Internalize it and make it a part of your mind. It's not a conscious process that you are aware of. Your brain subconsciously picks up things. I've noticed this before. I'll be watching something in Arabic and hear a word. I'll realize that I've heard that word many times before and now I'll have an idea of what its meaning is. When you hear something many times I guess your brain realizes that it's important.

    Also, I hate when you're taking a language class and the class is geared so much toward speaking from day 1. I really despise speaking practice. It doesn't help me. Give my brain some time to absorb the language and understand everything and I'll be able to speak. Speaking should be left until you feel ready and it should not be used as a learning tool. Speaking is the culmination of the language being internalized and should be the last thing that happens.

  6. I am now living in Holland. But prior to this, I have acquired a great many words "naturally", by watching US TV series with Dutch subtitles (there is a great lack of Dutch TV/movies, even in Holland).

    But now that I am here, I realise I am lacking in a great deal of vocab. For practical purposes, I need more vocab and I need it sooner!

    So I do use new words soon after spotting them and find them very useful.

    Nice blog btw, I will read it often.



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