Monday, November 13, 2006

Speaking of Words: On Learning New Words

The last post was about unique or “untranslatable” words, some of which I believe ought to be borrowed into other languages, including English. But thinking about words reminds me of one of the biggest challenges for people learning new languages: building their vocabulary.

To become proficient in a language, you can’t just memorize the grammar rules and work on your accent; you also have to learn words. Lots of words. The language teacher’s rule of thumb is that for every 100 new words a learner sees, only 10 will stick in some way, especially if the words are not actively used more or less immediately. That means you have to be exposed to many words, and you have to try to use those words, too.

So how can you find new words to learn each day? Well, obviously you can read books or newspapers in English and pick a word or two each day to look up in the dictionary and attempt to understand. That’s the best way to learn new words in context. I’ve found that you may not remember a dictionary definition, but once you’ve seen a word in use, the next time you see it, you have a sense of what it means. After a few times, you really understand the word.

If you want, you can also get free e-newsletters that teach you a new word each day. Here are some of my favorites for English, and one for Swedish:

A Word A Day is one of the largest such e-newsletters, and it has a theme each week.

Oxford University Press publishes many dictionaries and other books, and they have various e-newsletters with words each day. Note that not all the words they introduce readers to are ones you’d want or need to use on a regular basis, but that doesn’t make them any less interesting. OUP offers: American Slang Word of the Day, New Oxford American Dictionary, Erin’s Weird & Wonderful Word of the Day, and Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day (this does not teach new words exactly, but it does give advice on using English, which sometimes includes distinguishing between two similar or frequently confused words).

Merriam-Webster, another dictionary publishing company, also has an e-newsletter.

Ett Ord om Dagen is a way to learn about Swedish words.

Let me know if you are familiar with other such sources for learning words!

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