Need to change vocabulary learning

I get frustrated by many things, but enraged by very few. One of those few is vocabulary lists.

Vocabulary lists? Vocabulary lists.

In language learning, I see so many vocabulary lists – at the back of text books; separate “vocab books” to be written out by students; at the bottom of language learning “units”. They are a scourge!

Why? Because a word in one language almost never carries the precise same meaning in another. Note again: almost never. The idea that you can write a word in one language in one column and then a direct equivalent in another column just does not belong to the real world.

Let me give an example: the Spanish word ‘puerto’ is of the same (Latinate) derivation as the English ‘port’; but German requires the separate ‘Hafen’, which is cognate with English ‘haven’, which now conveys more the sense of ‘hideaway’; the Spanish word is also cognate with the feminine form ‘puerta’ which may mean ‘door’ in English or ‘Tuer’ in German; but Spanish uses the same word for ‘gate’, whereas German requires another cognate ‘Tor’ and English requires the completely separate ‘gate’ (which originally conveyed more of a ‘gateway’ or even ‘road’). Spanish and German can also use this word to mean ‘goal(post)’, but English requires ‘goal’ for that. On the other hand, German and English use the same word for ‘goal(post)’ as they do for ‘goal (scored)’, but Spanish requires the separate ‘gol’ (but also allows the verb ‘golear’ whereas German lacks ‘toren’ and English lacks ‘to goal’). English can also use the word ‘goal’ as in an objective, but here German requires a separate word ‘Ziel’; on the other hand, in German ‘Ziel’ can also mean ‘destination’ (as in, say, a holiday destination), whereas ‘destination’ is a Latinate word from which also the Spanish word ‘destino’ is also derived; ‘destino’ also usually conveys the meaning ‘destiny’, which requires a separate though cognate word in English, but the completely distinct ‘Zufall’ in German, although ‘Zufall’ also conveys the meaning ‘luck’, whose German cognate ‘Glueck’ conveys more the meaning of ‘happiness’ (Spanish ‘suerte’ and ‘felicidad’ fit in at various stages here too), but the word ‘chance’ borrowed into English and German (but not Spanish) from French and used to mean ‘luck’ in English (close to its original meaning) cannot in fact be so used in German, which despite the word’s origin applies a specifically English meaning of a specific ‘chance at goal’…

Not a single word in that list, in any of three languages, has the same range of meanings as it has in either of the other two. And these are, by global standards, very closely related languages! That’s just how language works, meanings have to be picked up from contexts. So throw your vocab book up into the attic (or down into the cellar…)!


5 thoughts on “Need to change vocabulary learning

  1. […] is more essential than ever to note that it is exceedingly rare for any single words or phrase to mean precisely the same thing in all contexts in any two given […]

  2. […] Forget vocabulary lists. I have covered this before – partly because you cannot learn a language by clinically learning off ever word and then learning off how to put them together like an IKEA set; but mainly because there is almost never a one-to-one correspondence between any two individual words. […]

  3. […] have written many times before of the need to throw away vocabulary lists when learning languages. Languages do not consist of […]

  4. […] and ‘to’. Such words do not directly translate from language to language (remember, no vocabulary does!!), but it is absolutely necessary at least to recognise many of them at the outset, and then begin […]

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