Learning words in a foreign language

Many people believe that the most important thing you must do in order to learn a second or foreign language (FL)  is to learn a heap of new words.  As Steve Martin famously remarked “Boy, those French! They have a different word for everything!” This post will present a simple method that may help you learn — and remember — words in a foreign language more easily.

But first, a brief introduction. Developing a large vocabulary of words that you can recognize and say in a FL is indeed valuable. In early stages of FL learning, knowing several words in a sentence you’ve just heard may enable you to glean the overall meaning with the help of context. This enables you, in turn, to begin making some educated guesses about the other words you don’t know yet.

But of course there’s a whole lot more to language than just the lexicon (mental dictionary of words). To take a banal example: “Man bites dog” and “Dog bites man” mean very different things because the three words are arranged in a different order. Word order is part of the domain of language called “syntax”. But you can’t have syntax without words, and so words do matter. Linguists simply haven’t been able to agree on how much.

Words, words, words! Learn  more at www.lingholic.com

Words, words, words! Learn more at www.lingholic.com

The task of learning thousands of new words of words in a FL seems like a daunting task, especially for older people who have begun forgetting where they left their car keys. Does this mean that older people can’t learn a FL? Not at all. My NIH-sponsored research didn’t focus specifically on lexical acquisition, but I’ve had the personal experience of learning languages.  I’m pretty sure that I acquired new French words more rapidly when I lived in Geneva in my early twenties than when I began acquiring Italian words after moving to Rome at the ripe old age of 56. But my Italian vocabulary has grown slowly over time, and is now fairly large.

I’d like to illustrate my experience with FL lexical learning by describing in some detail my personal experience with three Italian words. What I’ll say here won’t necessarily generalize to other other words or to other people. But I think this brief discussion will serve to introduce you to some important concepts.

A lexical item, or word, unites a pronunciation with a meaning. People often pronounce FL words incorrectly as a result of having learned to pronounce vowels and  consonants in their mother tongue differently. I suspect, however, that foreign accent may be stronger in certain FL words than others. If you pronounce a new FL word incorrectly the first time you say it, it will probably take a long time for you to adjust its pronunciation to the phonetic norms of your FL. But what if you pronounce the FL word correctly from the start? My hunch is that under certain circumstances this might be possible. For me, the Italian word schizzare may be such an example.

A doctor's office in a small Italian town

A doctor’s office in a small Italian town

One day I found myself on a table in the back room of a doctor’s office in the town of Tuscania where I now live. Two days earlier he had taken a look at a sore in my mouth that had been festering for months. “I don’t think it’s cancer”, he observed after glancing at it. I can take care of it for you if you want.” So I returned dutifully, and here I was.

The doctor gave me a local anesthetetic and began his microsurgery, the nurse standing attentively at his side. Moments later he exclaimed “schizza!” with a decidedly worried tone and asked the nurse for a kind of soldering iron with which to cauterize the spot in my mouth were blood was gushing. I could smell my flesh burning, something quite new and alarming for me!

I had never before heard the Italian word the doctor just uttered, but I instantly knew its meaning (schizzare = “to squirt out” in this context). I registered the doctor’s pronunciation of schizza in exquisite detail  - I can “hear” it even now, years later. This especially detailed registration in long-term auditory memory was due, I think, to the fact that all of my senses were in that instant finely tuned to what was happening. I was, to use a psychological expression, in a state of strong “sensory arousal”.

But what about recognizing words when you hear them in ordinary daily life, and being able to call up a word from your mental lexicon when you want to use it a sentence?

My father used to occasionally substitute the words “aunt” and “uncle”. This always surprised me because generally the substitution of one word by another depends on similarity of both meaning and sound. As an example, for a number of years my Italian wife replaced “he” with “she” when speaking English. She made this error repeatedly even though she obviously knows what is the meaning difference these two personal pronouns. What tripped her up, I think, was the fact that these words shared both meaning (pronouns indicating a person) and also shared one of their two sounds, the vowel “ee”.

an "antipasto"

an “antipasto”

The words in your mental lexicon are not organized in a simple alphabetic list like the words in a dictionary. However, words in the mental lexicon do need to be “looked up” using very rapid search techniques based on features associated with each word stored in long-term memory. Psycholinguists who study this phenomenon believe that words sharing a number of features will “compete” with one another for your attention. Importantly, it is just the first word from a set of competitors that rises above a certain threshold that will enter consciousness. The other competing words are blocked, staying down below in the dark recesses of your mind.

an "aperitivo"

an “aperitivo”

For several years I had difficulty accessing a very common word that was part of my Italian lexicon: antipasto (hors d’oeuvres). For example, if we were getting ready to order a meal here in Italy and I wanted to ask my wife in Italian “Should we order an antipasto?” I couldn’t retrieve the word I wanted because another word, apertivo, was winning the horse race. The two Italian words in question share a number of features: both begin with “a” and end with “o”, both have stress on the second last syllable, and both refer to things that are consumed before a meal. “But they’re so different”, you might say, “how could you have possibly confused them”? Well, everyone’s mental lexicon is organized a bit differently, and I’m talking about mine right now. I hypothesize that in my mental lexicon antipasto and aperitivo had enough in common to make them competitors. And the word I wanted to access, antipasto, was losing!

This happened dozens of times until I finally decided one day to use a memory trick. I made up a little story for myself about antipasto. “An antipasto”, I mentally instructed myself, “is something  you eat before a pasto (the Italian word for “meal”). Realizing this was probably too banal to be memorable, I changed this my story to “An antipasto is what you eat before your pasta“.  And I imagined myself eating fettucine cacio e pepe, one of my favorites pastas. It worked like a charm. Now antipasto pops onto sentences whenever it is needed.

Now to the third and final word. At this time of the year a lot of Italians vacation in the mountains, and accidents do happen. One night I heard on TV that someone had been killed in a slavina. “What’s that?” I asked my wife, and from her explanation realized that the meaning of this unknown word was s”snowslide”.

watch out for the "slavina"

watch out for the “slavina”

I don’t have much need for “snowslide” in Italian because we don’t live in the mountains, but I decided to add slavina to my Italian lexicon anyway. Once again I created a little story. “One day a pretty little Polish girl went walking up in the Carpathian Mountains. The wind began blowing and she was covered by a slavina, but fortunately she was easily able to dig her way out”.  The trick here is that slavina can mean a “small female Slav” in Italian as well as “snowslide”. And so I imagined the Polish girl with blonde hair and rosy cheeks, the mountains at her back.


Like this one!

Silly? Yes, but it worked like a charm. Several nights later when another person died in a slavina I instantly knew what the TV announcer was saying. I could see the blond Polish girl getting covered with soft white snow.

To sum up: when you want to acquire a word, make up a story and attach some vivid sensory information to it. The story doesn’t have to make sense. Indeed, if it’s a little odd it will be easier to remember!

This is my technique. What’s yours?

To pursue this and related topics in greater depth, visit the Lingholic site. Of special interest are the two posts dealing with the topic of how many words in a FL you actually need to know in order to be able to speak and understand it reasonable well.














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About Jim Flege

Jim Flege carried out research on phonetic aspects of second-language acquisition and bilingualism at an American university. He moved to Italy after retiring and lives with his Italian wife and their Jack Russell terrier in a small town in central Italy. Jim currently serves as the European Director of the Travel Learning Network, an organization provides educational and cultural immersion programs in Europe. You can reach Jim directly by writing to: director (at) www.travlearning (dot) net
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