Language Learning is Messy III: Learn What You Need

For adults learning a language, there’s really no escaping the fact that we have to memorize vocabulary. There are various ways to make the process more efficient or enjoyable (like flashcards, or labeling your house), but in the end, it’s still memorizing. So, given our limited time and memory, it would be nice if we could see into the future and just spend our time learning only the words we’ll need first and then move on to the next words, etc. But it doesn’t work like that. We have to prioritize ourselves and ask:

“What words should I learn now?”

The Proactive Approach

One way to figure out what you should learn is to try to predict what situations you’ll be in and what vocabulary you’ll want to use. For example, Ben Ross described to me his way of learning Chinese in China:

“Say I needed to go to the bank to transfer money…I ask a Chinese friend all the words and phrases which might come up, learn them, possibly practice it out, and then go to the bank.”

That’s an excellent way to get useful vocabulary into your brain. I find this approach much more useful than following a book or teacher’s idea of what you should learn next. But it requires imagination. Even in the earliest days of learning Chinese, I was thinking thoughts like, “Ok, I’ll be in China and see Chinese people and I’ll want to be able to greet them or thank them when our paths cross.”

The problem with the proactive approach is, for me at least, that I often have no guarantee I’ll actually ever use what I’m learning. I have a tendency to get lost in the dictionary and start learning things that will yield very small (if any) linguistic returns in real life (like the word for “elbow”). This is bad because I run out of time and energy and sometimes movitvation.

The Reactive Approach

Another way to increase your Chinese vocabulary is to learn the words you just needed but didn’t have. For example, if you go out shopping and realize you wanted to say, “Can I have another bag?” but didn’t know how, you can write down the English phrase in your field notes and rush to your informant and find out how to say it in Chinese: qǐng zài gěi wǒ yí gè dàizi 请再给我一个袋子.

Or, on the listening comprehension side, if you have Chinese-speaking friends who are patient enough to stop every time you don’t understand what they say, you can write down those new words and come home and learn them. That’s exacty how I wrote the list of the measure words Chinese people really use. I didn’t memorize the list in the back of Chubby and then go looking for them being used in real life. I simply didn’t understand a measure word when I heard it, then learned it.

For me, the reactive approach is the best in terms of motivation. In other words, there’s no question of why I’m learning certain words. The downside is that uncomfortable time where I don’t understand what someone said or don’t know how to say something. But I’ll shake the hand of the language learner who can avoid those times completely.

On Feelings

Of course a combination of proactive and reactive learning is best. But how to balance the two and where to commit your time and energy has to be up to you. This is one of those messy bits of learning a language where there’s really no right answer. It’s easy to feel like you’re not being proactive enough, or simply not being active enough. The “should” phrases tend to crop up. For example you might tell yourself, “I should have known that” or “I should be better by now.” But as long as you’re learning, moving forward, and doing what you feel like doing, shouldn’t that be enough?

See also the other posts in this series:

3 Replies to “Language Learning is Messy III: Learn What You Need”

  1. I’ve done both the pro-active (I remember fondly learning the word for bicycle pump, going out and asking our security guard where to buy one, then wheeling my flat tired bike to the shop and asking for it) and reactive (wow this cold noodle dish is great, can you write it down for me?) approaches, and they’ve both worked well for me. The problem I’ve found with the reactive is sometimes I don’t get into the situation where I need it again for a while, and by then….it’s gone.

    I’ve been doing a sneaky proactive way recently….I teach a couple classes of 6-9 year olds once a week, with the aid of a T.A. who translates into Chinese for the kids when they don’t understand. I’ve been looking up how to say our new vocabulary words for the kids in Chinese before I go to class, and then sneakily listening in to the translation and going over it in my own head. So the kids learn the new word in English, and I sneakily learn it in Chinese. All while getting paid for it!

  2. Another excellent post!

    The two approaches can be used to learn any language. Learning the situational conversations is a good way to get prepared and start a dialogue; Experiencing the lack of vocabulary and the urge to find the right words in the real world is for sure the most effective way to memorize the words.

  3. I want to congratulate you. Most times I do feel that your advice is really helpful. And I do believe I learn something new many times I open your e-mail. It’s true that there are many systems out there that work. (10 right ways to do it). The nasty trick is sticking to it. And the truth is maybe each trick has a lifespan.., some short some long.

    One thing that I have found to be important is to read / study variedly. That is sticking to one book actually narrows your focus to words used in a narrow context.., I cannot tell you how many “aha” moments I get when I start a new book or start cross referencing.., very exciting.., (I actually started this based on advice from two different chinese friends.., yes I’m hard headed)..,

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