One of the biggest challenges for many language learners is studying new vocabulary. No matter how much a second language learner studies, there always seems to be more strange or unfamiliar words. Vocabulary is an extremely difficult area of language to study because the process of actually “knowing” a word is complex. On EnglishCentral, we try and help learners not just learn words but “acquire” words and learn how to use them in context. Students click on words in the context of the video lesson or also can study our vocabulary courses. However, vocabulary learning is a complex business.
At a basic level, a student can “know” a word by knowing its definition. For many language learners, and especially for beginners, this level of knowing often involves translations from a bilingual dictionary. Yet, to know the definition of a word (either in the first or second language) reflects a relatively superficial level of word knowledge.
We can think about vocabulary knowledge in terms of two levels. Researchers call these two levels vocabulary breadth and depth. In general, breadth refers to the number of words a learner knows in the most basic sense; that is, the number of words and their definitions that a learner has memorized. Depth, on the other hand, refers to the many nuances associated with a given word. These nuances allow a language speaker to use their vocabulary effectively in a culture and community of native speakers.
Here’s a recent example: I gave a challenging speaking assignment to my students at the beginning of the semester. My expectation was that we would work on different parts of this assignment all semester. Around the middle of the semester, one of my students came up to me and said, “I’m weary with this.”
Obviously, this student had used his dictionary and discovered that “weary” can be a synonym for “tired of” or “sick of” something. While this definition is correct, and he was able to communicate his meaning to me, he clearly did not understand the many nuances associated with the word “weary”; for example, that it’s an older word, not commonly used in modern English anymore, or that it may be associated with certain literary genres. Therefore, while using the word “weary” demonstrated the student’s breadth of vocabulary knowledge, it also demonstrated the student’s lack of vocabulary depth.
So, how can students improve their vocabulary breadth and depth?
One important point is that simply memorizing long lists of words and their definitions is not really enough. Words are part of larger networks of associations in language. In fact, individual words tend to occur next to the same words again and again. Students should focus on studying how vocabulary words work as part of larger phrases, instead of simply studying the meanings of individual words. In fact, there is a growing body of evidence from corpus linguistics and discourse analysis studies that suggest that languages are actually learned in pieces, instead of word by word.
For example, a beginning English as a second language student will learn the adjective “bad” fairly early in their English study. Later, they will also learn about the adverb “badly,” and will be taught about how adverbs can comes before or after a verb, or at the beginning or end of a sentence. However, the student might continue to say things like, “He was bad hurt.”
On one level, the issue is that the student is using an adjective where an adverb should go. But, on another level, the student does not understand the common words and phrases associated with the adjective “bad” and the adverb “badly.”
Consider if, instead of studying words in terms of definitions or parts of speech, that second language learners study words as part of larger phrases or structures. For example, the adjective “bad” most commonly comes after a copular verb “is” or “feel.” If it comes after “is,” than the “is” is usually followed by “at.” In other words, rather than learning the individual word “bad,” and then the rule for the copular verb “is,” and then the rule for the preposition “at,” the student simply learns the phrase “Subject + is bad at + Object.” In the same way, rather than learning the rules for adverbs, in addition to a variety of other parts of speech, a student could simply start with the basic structure “want+ Object + so badly.”
This way, the student can build a network of correct associations between different parts of speech, instead of simply learning the definition for one part of speech, and then trying to apply variations using a set of grammar rules. It may not be necessary for students to learn a whole set of rules for individual words. Instead, it is potentially more useful for students, especially beginners, to begin learning phrases and structures, and to then try and generalize their own set of grammar rules.