People often talk about language learning in either a foreign or second language terms. We are learning a foreign language when we study a language that we will not use in daily life. We learn a second language when we study a language that we will use regularly. So, an American university student studying Chinese is learning a foreign language. A Chinese immigrant to Japan who is studying Japanese is learning a second language.
There are a variety of differences between second and foreign language learning, but one of the largest differences is related to vocabulary learning.
We can think of vocabulary learning in two different ways. The first way is intentional. In intentional vocabulary learning, we actively study words from a textbook, or are taught words and their definitions explicitly by a teacher. The second way is incidental. Incidental learning is the opposite of intentional learning, because in incidental learning a student learns words naturally from exposure to the language. That is to say, the learner is attempting to do something with the language, in the company of other speakers of that language, and in the process “picks up” new vocabulary. In a foreign language context where there is very little opportunity to use the language, intentional vocabulary acquisition is more common. Conversely, in a second language context where there are many opportunities to use the language, incidental vocabulary acquisition is more common.
The main point of this discussion so far is to establish that learning vocabulary in foreign and second language contexts is different. Generally speaking, a language learner in a second language context, with plenty of exposure to new words, will learn many more words incidentally than a foreign language learner can learn from their classes. This is one of the practical reasons for the commonly held belief that the best way to learn a language is to live in the country where the language is spoken. Yet, it is not necessarily the case that foreign language learners of English, for example, and second language learners of English cannot eventually achieve comparable levels of language ability. In fact, it is arguably the case that, at more advanced levels of proficiency, the process of learning a language is identical for both foreign and second language learners.
This is because of the way that second language vocabulary knowledge is organized in the brain.
As I mentioned in a previous blog, words come to be understood and “stored” in our brains largely through interconnected networks of associations. Nick Ellis, a leading cognitive psychologist and applied linguistic, has described the initial formation of these networks in the minds of second language learners as a series of connections between the first and second language. In other words, in the beginning, a second or foreign language learner forms connections between second language words with translations in the first language. Over time, however, the nature of these connections begins to shift and, as a learner’s knowledge improves, they begin to make connections between their existing knowledge of the second or foreign language in order to integrate and support new knowledge. In other words, the learner stops translating the second language in their heads, but instead begins to “think” in the second language. When this happens, the task of the language learner is no longer a simple matter of memorizing a list of vocabulary words and their translations, but instead learning new vocabulary in their second language.
So, while the process of learning new vocabulary is eventually the same for both foreign and second language learners, it should be obvious that foreign language learners are at a disadvantage in the beginning. Because a student studying English in Japan will not be exposed to English on a regular basis, it can be difficult to learn new words outside the classroom. Second language learners, on the other hand, have plenty of opportunities to encounter and integrate new words from their day to day interactions with the language. Therefore, the real challenge for foreign language learners who want to improve their vocabulary knowledge is, “How can I increase my exposure to the language on a regular basis, so that I can begin learning new words incidentally?”
One of the easiest ways to do this is simply to read more in the second language. Much research supports the basic idea that a high level of reading skill and high vocabulary knowledge are deeply related. In other words, if you know a lot of vocabulary words you will naturally be a more fluent reader in your second language. Conversely, if you regularly read books in your second language, you will naturally be exposed to a wide range of vocabulary which, over time, will help you build your network of associations and you will begin to acquire new vocabulary incidentally from your reading.
At the same time, there is no denying that knowledge of printed words does not necessarily entail knowledge of spoken words. Many language students can understand words when they’re written on paper, but cannot understand the word when it is spoken, and vice versa. Thus, students should take advantage of online resources that will allow them to listen to level appropriate passages in the second language. For English language learners, English Central is an excellent example of such materials