When I was younger, I used to think that learning a language was all about memorizing vocabulary words. I thought that if I could just master a sufficient number of words, I would be able to communicate easily with people from other countries.
Many language learning methods are based on this premise, encouraging us to learn the most frequently used words, offering us sets of flashcards, or presenting lists of words grouped by themes to memorize.
Perhaps the best way to learn is to memorize the entire dictionary by heart? I remember trying to do this several times, but I lacked the patience to even memorize the words on the first page. When I failed, I felt that maybe I didn’t have the talent for learning foreign languages. A true genius would succeed in this task. Anyone who learns all the words in the dictionary will achieve fluency in a foreign language, right?
Memorizing words is not the solution
As I became familiar with the methods of the greatest polyglots, my attitude toward rote memorization of vocabulary words began to change. I began to see the inefficacy of this method, which is commonly used by most people. However, I lacked convincing arguments to persuade people that memorizing lists of words actually leads nowhere. A few days ago, I heard a story that should open everyone’s eyes.
It’s July 20, 2015. We are in the Belgian town of Louvain, where the francophone final of the Scrabble championship is taking place. The participants are true masters of the French language, capable of arranging letter tiles into the most imaginative words that most French people have never heard of.
After a three-hour match, the winner is a bearded man wearing large glasses, clad in a green shirt. The audience is surprised because the tournament is won not by a native Frenchman but by Nigel Richards from New Zealand. The shock is even greater when it turns out that the winner has to ask for a translator’s help to say a few words when receiving the prize.
How is that possible?
A person who knows all the words in the French language cannot even utter a few simple sentences?
Nigel Richards is the best proof that memorizing vocabulary words doesn’t allow one to master a language.
In order to participate in the Scrabble championships, the bearded New Zealander did what many people dream of – he learned sixty thousand words and three hundred thousand verb forms by heart in just nine weeks, mainly focusing on their spelling.
Unfortunately, mastering even such a large number of words is not sufficient to engage in even the simplest conversation in the language.
There are two main reasons for this:
1) Richards concentrated solely on the spelling of words, as this is the basis of Scrabble. He couldn’t correctly pronounce the words he had learned, and in the French language, pronunciation and spelling are completely different.
2) The Scrabble champion didn’t learn how the language functions, how words are connected, and how different grammatical forms influence the meaning of expressions.
If we were to compare language learning to cooking a dish, learning vocabulary resembles gathering ingredients. Even if we have hundreds of fruits, vegetables, and spices on the table, it won’t be enough to cook something truly delicious and unique. Cooking involves the skill of combining individual ingredients into known or entirely new dishes.
So, the next time you feel like memorizing vocabulary words, remember the story of the friendly New Zealander. Is it worth wasting time learning word lists if it doesn’t yield the expected results?
PS: If you want to learn more about the best way to learn vocabulary, you can sign up for our free email course on how to learn vocabulary more effectively.
Article originally published at sekretypoliglotow.pl in Polish. You can find it here.