Vocabulary represents one of most important skills necessary for teaching and learning a foreign language. It is the basis for the development of all the other skills: reading comprehension, listening comprehension, speaking, writing, spelling and pronunciation. Vocabulary is the main tool for the students in their attempt to use English effectively. When confronted with a native English speaker, when watching a movie without subtitle or when listening to a favorite English song, when reading a text or when writing a letter to a friend, students will always need to operate with words. In what follows, the focus of this introductory chapter will be on why vocabulary is important, on what makes words difficult, on the main reasons for which students often forget the words they learn and on some techniques which help them remember the vocabulary.
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Why is Vocabulary Important?
Talking about the importance of vocabulary, the linguist David Wilkins argued that: “without grammar little can be conveyed, without vocabulary nothing can be conveyed.” Indeed, people need to use words in order to express themselves in any language. Most learners, too, acknowledge the importance of vocabulary acquisition. In my experience as a teacher, I noticed the fact that students usually find it difficult to speak English fluently. They usually consider speaking and writing activities exhausting because they keep on using the same expressions and words and very soon their conversation is abruptly interrupted due to missing words. And the main reason for such communication problems is the lack of vocabulary. Other students are confronted with the problem of forgetting the words immediately after the teacher has elicited their meaning or after they have looked them in the dictionary, and this also a cause of the lack of vocabulary. The more words students learn, the easier they memorize them.
The teacher has an essential role in helping students to improve their vocabulary. Unfortunately, vocabulary teaching has not been enough responsive to such problems, and teachers have not recognized the tremendous importance of helping their students to develop an extensive vocabulary. If we look back in the past, we discover that for a long time, English used teaching approaches such as Direct Method and Audiolingualism which emphasized the primary importance of teaching grammatical structures. Since the accent was on grammar, few words were introduced in such courses and most often, they were limited and related to the grammar structures taught.
By the beginning of 1970s, there was a major change in teaching English. The focus turned from the Direct Method and Audiolingualism to the Communicative Approach which emphasized the importance of teaching vocabulary. Students were exposed to diverse vocabulary and speaking activities. Many words began being introduced during such courses and students were encouraged to express themselves as much as possible.
Nowadays, there is more freedom in choosing the methods to be used during English classes. The English syllabus is organized around both vocabulary and grammar structures. Since there is a certain number of classes allotted for each item in the syllabus, teachers usually have the necessary time to insist on teaching and practising vocabulary. Vocabulary is no longer treated as an add-on and teachers become more aware of the importance of vocabulary and attention is paid to the grammar of words, to collocations and to word frequency. Nevertheless, students still have difficulties in expressing themselves fluently and still consider speaking tasks exhausting.
What Makes English Vocabulary Difficult
In English, like in any other foreign language, some words are easier to learn than others. Easiest of all are the words more or less identical to the students’ native language, like, for instance, the word “vocabulary.” However, students might be trapped in their confidence with which they memorize such identical words, since English has a list of some problematic words, called “false friends”. These false friends are words identical in form to certain Romanian words, but completely different in meaning. An example of this would be “sensible.” While many students might confidently translate this word simply “sensibil,” they will be astonished to find out that, the Romanian equivalent for “sensible” is in fact “rational,” while the English equivalent for “sensibil” is “sensitive.” This demonstrates the crucial importance of allotting a special lesson for these false friends and of encouraging students to practise them as often as possible.
Another aspect that makes English vocabulary difficult is the pronunciation of certain words. Research shows that words that are difficult to pronounce are more difficult to learn. Many learners find that words with clusters of consonants such as “health” or “crisps” are problematic. Length or complexity of the words is another characteristic of the difficulty of English vocabulary. A long word will be more difficult to memorize than a short one. Also, variable stress of words such as “necessary” and “necessity” can add to their difficulty. The meaning of the words is another controversial feature of the English vocabulary. When two words overlap in meaning, students are likely to confuse them. An example in this case would be the difference between “make” and “do.” These words have the same meaning, but are used in different expressions. You “make a decision”, but you “do homework.” Students might find the use of these two words confusing.
Main Reasons Why Students Forget the Vocabulary Acquired
It is important that teachers insist on the practice of vocabulary because with all their best will, students forget the words they learn. Jeremy Harmer identifies two main reasons that cause forgetting: interference from subsequent learning and insufficient recycling. Most teachers are aware of the fact that introducing a new vocabulary may imply forgetting the old one. This happens most frequently when words are taught that are very similar to the ones recently acquired because, according to Harmer, the new words have the effect of “overwriting” the previously learnt material. This is the reason why teachers should avoid teaching lexical sets containing words that have similar meanings to the previously ones.
The second cause that triggers forgetting is insufficient recycling of the vocabulary acquired. Research shows that frequent review of learnt material can dramatically reduce the rate of forgetting. Nevertheless, it is not enough to simply repeat words and to reencounter them in their original context. What really helps is to recycle the words in different ways and at equal levels of depth. Research argues that if learners use or encounter the words in a different way from that in which they first met them, then better learning is likely to be achieved. Another important aspect when recycling certain words is for students to make sure that they really understand the meaning and the use of those words. Students might also try to apply the new words to their real life events or activities.
Techniques for Memorizing Vocabulary
In order to be able to have a rich vocabulary, not only do students need to learn as many words as possible, but they also need to remember them because, in fact, learning is remembering. Unlike grammar learning which is based on a system of rules, vocabulary knowledge implies accumulating individual items. It is a learning process that relies primarily on memory.
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Learners are different in terms of how easily they memorize vocabulary. According to Jeremy Harmer, researchers into the domain of memory distinguish three types of memory: short-term store, working memory, and long-term memory. The short-term store is “the brain’s capacity to hold a limited number of information items for periods of time up to a few seconds” (Harmer 23). Thus, it is the kind of memory that does not help students too much in their attempt to learn vocabulary items, because successful vocabulary learning involves something more than just holding words in your memory for some seconds. The working memory focuses on holding words long enough in your memory so that to be able to operate with them. It is the kind of memory that relies on reasoning and logic. Thus, if a student comes across a new word such as “to acknowledge” which means “a recunoaste meritul cuiva”, he will be able to easily memorize it by comparing it with another word from his long-term memory, for example, “knowledge” meaning “cunoastere.” Using such an association will certainly help students keeping words in their memory for longer periods of time. Finally, the long-term store is the most trustworthy kind of memory. Unlike the working memory which has a limited capacity of holding words in the brain, the long-term memory has a tremendous capacity and its contents are durable over time. However, the fact that students forget vocabulary from one lesson to another, demonstrates the fact that it is not enough to have a long-term memory. It implies students’ efforts and teachers’ witty techniques when learning and teaching vocabulary. The great challenge for language learners and teachers is to transform the material from quickly forgotten to the never forgotten.
It has been designed a number of techniques meant to help learners efficiently memorize words and to help teachers make the process of learning easier for their students. Repetition is an important technique in learning vocabulary. In order for the words to be kept as long as possible in the memory, it is necessary that they be repeated at frequent periods of time. However, repetition alone will not be effective. It must be accompanied by the understanding of the meaning of those particular words and by correlation with other similar already learnt words.
Another important technique is using the newly learn words. In this case, the teachers’ role is also valuable. In the classroom, teachers should insist on pracising the news vocabulary by encouraging students to speak as much as possible and by designing vocabulary-centered activities and games. At home, students need to be motivated to individually keep on using the new words until they are stored in the long-term memory.
Practising vocabulary is strongly connected to applying vocabulary to students’ real life events. Learners will acquire vocabulary easily if they practise it by associating words with events from their daily life. Considering that students are presented a new word list related to the topic entitled “travelling.” Learners will successfully memorize the word list by creating a real life event, for instance “going to Italy” and then performing a situation in which all the words can be included. This can be done in classroom as well as at home and will certainly entertain students and have positive results.
Another witty technique to be taken into consideration when both learning and teaching vocabulary is imaging. Students will easily learn new words if they are taught to associate them with their picture. If, for example, students associate “travel agency” with the image of the particular building where we go to ask information about travelling, they are likely to keep that word in their mind for longer time. Thus, it is extremely important for the students to visualize the words they must learn. This will help the learning process and will keep the words in the long-term memory.
In conclusion, vocabulary is the most required skill when learning a foreign language. It is on vocabulary that all the other skills, reading, writing, speaking, and listening are based and developed. This chapter has shown why it is important to learn new words and why English vocabulary is difficult to memorize. Moreover, it dealt with two main reasons for which most of the students permanently forget the words acquired. And finally, it has suggested methods and techniques that help to understand the new vocabulary by using the working memory and to transfer it in the long-term memory.
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