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Why Should One Follow This Advice About Learning New Languages: “Don’t Look up Every Single Word You Don’t Know”?

Posted on the 30 October 2014 by Calvinthedog

This advice by Anne Zahra, Berkeley Linguistics PhD, strikes me as excellent. If you agree or disagree or just wish to comment, feel free to respond in the comments.

Research in language acquisition sets a very high bar on word recognition with respect to good comprehension in a foreign language – 95%+ (I have read some research that sets it as high as 98%). You can exercise your eyes all you want, and you can indeed learn a language using text containing lots of unknown words…but you aren’t going to understand the text in question well unless you comprehend nearly every word in it.

So what are you going to do?

Look, word study works. Flashcards, quizlet.com, it’s all great. You must use these tools to speed up the learning process. You need 5,000+ words to speak socially, maybe 7000+ to read typical English texts. Academic study requires more. But you can’t get it all from just reading if you want to know academic language.

But word study is not enough. You need the reading too. Word study and reading create a synergy that drives up proficiency. This is proven.

Vocabulary learning is not about memorizing a definition. It’s about understanding a word the way a mechanic understands a part. It’s about depth of word knowledge. You must know how words are used – their various meanings, the expressions they belong to, and the grammar associated with them – or you have some data about the language in your memory but no functional abilities in the language.

When I was 19 I took a credit exam in French so I could skip to advanced courses. I asked for advice on how to prepare, and I got lots of opinions, but in the end I did what works for me – intensive study of one text. And I chose a hard one. On purpose. I wanted to absorb a lot of vocabulary and see complex sentences.  And this book delivered:

Why Should One Follow This Advice about Learning New Languages: “Don’t Look up Every Single Word You Don’t Know”?

I studied this book word for word, sentence for sentence, for months.  With a dictionary and a Bescherelle (a kind of verb dictionary).  Why? Because context. A text involves redundancy. It has a structure. It’s purposeful and intended to deliver a message. The more time you invest in the text, the more you gain – vocabulary, grammar, style, and culture.

I assumed that if I could read even a few pages in this difficult book and take Céline’s sentences apart with even minimal success, I could well understand anything on a standardized exam.

This proved to be true.

I went through the reading passages on that test and circled words I recognized for having studied them through the novel. There were lots of them, and they included verbs like bouleverser and éteindre – not the sort of words you’d find in an exam prep guide or workbook.

There is nothing wrong with looking up words when you read. People say it interrupts the flow of your reading. Really? What flow is going on if you don’t understand anything? Sailing over unknown word after unknown word does not make you fluent. Schoolkids the world over do that and aren’t more educated for it, so why would it be the way to master another language?

Picking an easier text may be more practical, but if it’s something you want to read, get out a dictionary and just do it. Look up as many words as you want.

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