How to begin learning vocab in a foreign language?

Xie   Fri Jul 24, 2009 7:13 pm GMT
>>Xie, where in Germany are you now? I'm in Frankfurt. If it happens that you are in Frankfurt, too, we maybe can meet. Would be nice to meet a fellow Antimooner.

Hallo Xie, wo in Deutschland bist Du gerade? Ich bin in Frankfurt. Wenn Du zufällig auch in Frankfurt bist, könnten wir uns mal treffen. Es wäre schön, mal einen anderen Antimooner persönlich kennenzulernen.<<

I'm almost done with exams. Well, I'm staying in a place some 100 km from Frankfurt. Personally, I'm still planning to travel to places like Berlin and Paris. But of coz, as you would understand, I need to know you well before having a lot of contact.

If I may post it here (admin, if you don't allow, just delete this part of the message): eh1888 at hkedcity dot net
Xie   Fri Jul 24, 2009 7:31 pm GMT
>>I'm trying to avoid learning a list of grammar rules to learn the language. (trying to learn similar to the way we learn our native language)

That is where I don't quite understand how the "input" theory (immersion) works. I can listen to and read as many Spanish words and sentences as I can handle, yet not learn anything because nothing has given me the English equivalent. It seems that merely listening or reading another language isn't enough. Eventually something somewhere is going to have to show you how it relates to your own language.

I guess what I'm really asking is - what are the steps to learning a language you have no idea about?

When I encounter a language that I know nothing about, what is the very first step? Dictionary? Textbook?<<

Let me put them together.

You just have to make sure what you are listening/reading can be understood. It's not archeology and it's not your responsibility to figure out the meaning of an unknown text without any help. No foreigners, who learn on their own without any face-to-face help of native speakers in any ways, can learn a foreign language without textbooks, for example. As a native speaker of one particular language, I didn't learn much either from my parents, and I had to go to school to become literate in Chinese (and English).

Kato Lomb's book may be inspiring for you:

>>Learning a foreign language as a baby learns a language doesn't work. Babies take years before they finally open their mouths and say "food" or "mummy". Do you raelly want to take years to figure out these basic words when you could just open a textbook and see them on the first page?<<

I know native speakers learn their native languages in some ways or others in different countries.

In Germany, I noticed, by looking at what books they use at school, that self-learning tends to be the norm, tho you can also find expensive classes elsewhere. They use a lot of self-learning books and software... and German kids do learn grammar, and a LOT. They do struggle with case, and my German teacher did tell me that, from some literature she read about, German kids struggle with ihn (accusative masculine singular pronoun) and ihm (dative masculine singular pronoun), since both sound similar. And they learn them slower than their Italian and Turkish counterparts.

In my country, it depends. In Hong Kong, I didn't learn grammar at all. We learned grammar automatically through writing compositions, reading, etc, tho not even much.

But I'd say how I self-learned German, before I came to Germany, was similar to how people are supposed to do in the self-learning center of the university I'm attending in Germany. You aren't a native speaker, but you just learn grammar as they did, or as I did in learning German. There might well be some limitations, but in general, grammar books per se are a valid kind of books that let you acquire grammar.
Xie   Fri Jul 24, 2009 7:56 pm GMT
From my perspective, as someone just in his 20s, sometimes self-learning sounds terribly boring since you're locking up yourself in your home and read and read and read indefinitely... but this is exactly how I build up my German for speaking it in Germany. Strange, but it is. You read and listen German far more than you would on the streets and even with German students. Now, the cultural thing is they always are in a lack of time, though their living pace isn't as (horribly) fast as in Hong Kong. No German students are in the position of correcting me, teaching grammar all over again, and explain a lot of things.... unless I employ them with my money. So, really, even highly-educated native speakers.... the common sense is that they aren't there (in Germany) just to teach you German. Only German teachers, regardless of which native language they speak, TEACH German. This is the same for many Chinese speakers, at least.


So, after all, what's the essence of self-learning? Dictionary per se actually replaces a language teacher, at large. Native speakers are always the best representatives who can teach oral language, but that's it. For reading, you still need the same efforts, and bite the bullet. In this sense, I don't personally care about oral language, since you can improve it very well anyway through self-learning. Don't even bother with "staying abroad". That's pointless. Staying abroad is best for practicing with a strong base, not starting from scratch or something. In fact, if you read terribly enough, you can easily beat German/Chinese speakers by reading a lot of German/Chinese, so that your language knowledge is comparable to that of a German/Chinese student.


I'll stop here for my exams. Next, I'll expand on how one of my friends uses a Latin dictionary to read Latin texts.

I'll also put reading in another sense - combined reading and listening, or just listning/reading. I must say that there exist a lot of unwritten words in my native Cantonese, but, even so, we Hong Kong people did invent new words for them, so that we can write them. So there must be a connection between the spoken form and the written form, and I think this is ALL that reading really matters. I'll end by giving you a comparison:

1) READING: many written texts, books, etc, are never spoken, or they don't exist in the form of audiobooks which you can find in the US/Germany, etc. For many obvious reasons, it also happens that a lot of specialized vocabulary is seldom, if ever, spoken. Or, at least, like for English, if you don't know what "heterodiegetic" means (, and especially how to pronounce it, you have to make the effort with a pronunciation dictionary, for example.

Let me add a new point. Especially as a university student, and of languages and of literature, etc, I've read a lot, though I'm not the kind of usual readers who read a lot of novels. I know a lot of words, from linguistics and literature, etc, but very often I learned them from silent reading (sometimes looking up IPA...since it's English), absolutely NOT from daily conversations. Ok, let me also say, I did learn some of the vocab in linguistics and literature in lectures where lecturers did speak...

Conclusion: At least for me, I know far more passive vocabulary by reading alone, not by listening to them in oral language.

2) LISTENING: But I'm very lazy and never quite interested in radio/TV in English, nor am I in an Anglophone country, and so on. So I have little exposure in the oral language. I can know far more words alone than an Anglophone kid, but without the kind of oral fluency he has.

But since I know I need to build up listening skills, and to, ultimately, be able to listen to everything English and understand (almost) everything, I need to have the listening part, the audio file, as well as its own written version. This written thing is important for learning how to read the text aloud. Obviously, this helps with both listening and speaking - and even better if it's actually a set of conversations. Dialogues are usually better than monologues/narratives for learning to SPEAK the language.

But generally, I won't be that hard on oral language. Most of us, many of us in the world, we don't have that many chances to stay in a foreign country anyway, unless if we move to it. But if you do move to, say, the US, why should you worry about not receiving exposure? In the US, you can even have the physical environment (everything in English, OK, let's say, unless you choose to be with Hispanics/Chinese, etc), but wherever you are, your need to become literate in English, and perhaps highly-educated in English, doesn't really need. You can do the same to be well-versed in your home country.
Xie   Fri Jul 24, 2009 8:04 pm GMT
>>your need to become literate in English, and perhaps highly-educated in English, doesn't really need.

Correction: your need to become literate in English, and perhaps highly-educated in English, doesn't really CHANGE.


Oh, I actually need to write about another point before I stop. It's about the sequence of learning English. In Hong Kong, many people complain about how well they know the written language, but just how badly they perform in the oral language. I'd say this is natural, because 1) even in Hong Kong, which claims itself to be international, I personally met only a dozen of Anglophones in my life. Without contact with native speakers, it's almost close to impossible to receive oral input continuously. This is a fact that almost ALL of us foreign learners should face. 2) Idioms, sayings, etc, are so difficult to learn, even more so than specialized language. The latter is at least very well-structured and you can from the right scholarly books. But idioms? No way.

So I don't really care too much about oral language. As long as you can make yourself understood in the oral language, you're in a good position to improve it, and you're qualified for surviving in an Anglophone country and making a living there as, like, a highly-educated person. The more important part still remains your own reading ability. The more you read, the more you know, the more you can understand. Except for pronunciation, especially for English, reading is almost perfect for learning everything of a foreign language.

Think about this: So, I can learn English well simply by reading a lot..........yeah, I know, I should also know the pronunciation, but I'm going to do it in my LISTENING practice, not reading. In that sense, reading is terribly easy, far easier in practice than how I put it in theory. And I'll write about reading again next time.
Justin   Fri Jul 24, 2009 8:32 pm GMT

Thank you so much for your responses. That's amazing that you know so many languages. Your written English is wonderful! I actually thought you were a native English speaker before you mentioned being from Hong Kong.

Thanks also for the insight into how you and your friends learned.

Take care!


P.S. Anyone else have a technique they'd like to share?
Xie   Sun Jul 26, 2009 5:07 pm GMT
Let me go on with my friend, the last part of my posts I wanted to write:

How my friend learns Latin:
since Latin is no longer spoken, I'd say Latin can be a good example about how you may learn reading. What he does is that he reads a grammar book first, and starts reading. Whenever you meet a word you don't know, just look it up... in a Latin dictionary. You can be looking 3 words every 4 words in the single line, but this is how it can be done. Just one way of learning Latin. It sounds like grammar translation. Yes, it is. But my friend also has the normal kind of textbooks you would use for any other language, modern or ancient.

Both of us learn German, while I may speak better (in terms of fluency; you don't need a lot of words to speak fluently, really), I think he has read much more than I did. Even in Germany, I didn't read much because I was increasingly tempted to hang out with the others. So, you guys, you know I'm a frequent poster (tho not much since I've been in Germany), and I know a lot of theories and make up a lot too, but personally I didn't learn much more German either in my stay. The problem, though I don't see it as a problem, since I do enjoy it a lot in Germany, is that I didn't read much, or if at all.

I'll write a new post about reading GERMAN in general.
Xie   Sun Jul 26, 2009 6:25 pm GMT
<Reading German>

My post may well apply to any other language in general. At least, the German situation applies to most European languages; Chinese could be a very different case, but first, I don't have to learn it, and second, I have no experiences in learning an Asian language.

I've used multiple sources of learning materials for German:
1) traditional textbooks, grammar followed by annotated texts, with exercises and so on, in Chinese or English (such as Hugo)
2) Assimil
3) FSI
4) audio courses, like Pimsleur, Michel Thomas...for the basics.
These are also the very books in German I ever read before I came to Germany. In other words, all the German I had read before I came to Germany was all found in textbooks - no REAL texts involved.

In Germany, as I wrote, I didn't read much. I haven't been doing anything in German at the university, since my German is too limited. And I didn't do much pleasure reading either.

But if I'm to start, tho I can be very lazy at times, I'd still say, theoretically, the only thing you can/should do consistently is to read. At the first stages, like learning how to use modal verbs, there is much need to practice speaking (pronunciation). Every textbook with audios teach you how to speak even as a beginner. Yes, I know, speaking is important, but it's actually the main focus at the start only.

For more profound knowledge, such as doing maths in German, cooking in German, doing sports in German... speaking skills don't count much. Personally, I'm very confused by SPEAKING, because English alone has been a headache, since its orthography is chaotic and a lot of phonological stuff is complicated enough that you can write multiple term papers about it. But to be neutral, you DON'T really need that much practice in speaking after all. Even for English, if you want to speak like a native (of any kind), as long as you find the right book (accent guide), the pronunciation can be done in ONE book.

Reading, and to be more exact, reading for vocabulary, is pretty much UNLIKE pronunciation. To generalize, you can acquire a good English accent in one book. I don't even need this for German, since German is very phonetic. The rest of pronunciation, or to be more exact, acquiring a native-like accent, only requires a lot of listening and so on... all that is unrelated to reading.

Here is where listening and reading become distinctively different and separate learning activities. At the start, when you were still learning how to say how are you in German, you must have been tempted to learn how to pronounce everything in German, as a beginner, accurately. But as you learn more, there is far more German, now written, that you can't listen to normally, unless you take the trouble to ask a native to read the text and record it for your listening practice. Compared to the tricks of pronunciation, written German, or anything written in any language, is unlimited.

1) You won't suddenly be able to hear it in daily conversations.
2) Daily conversations are hard to come by either, since most of us don't live in Germany. Most language learners can't possibly stay in a foreign country for long either, unless we all move to it.
3) While you can find a lot of oral input in, say, movies, since the advice of native speakers is also very hard to come by in general, I'd prefer putting German subtitles for a German movie. If I have the motivation, I'll analyze every sentence in the whole plot to get all the German in this movie, like a physicist. The main thing is that, by doing so, you're essentially reading the movie, apart from watching it.


Sometimes I wondered: why should I read that much, even for understanding German conversations around me in German? The ironic thing is, even though I didn't listen to spoken German at all before my arrival (my teacher spoke very slowly, which is NOT what Germans really say in their life in Germany!), I actually built some comprehension skills based on what I READ. Perhaps since I'm Chinese, I'm a very huge visual learner and I always need the written form. Of course, I'm speaking of languages that are in general. Most languages you would want to learn are also written. There are some unknown languages in the Amazons that are NOT written, but it's the job of linguists to learn them, not me. In fact, the reading thing is especially true for Chinese which is probably the only remaining language that has no alphabet. Our alphabet is for pronouncing it, not writing it. For most words (and so meanings), I couldn't even have a good impression of them if I never saw the written form. Whenever Chinese people don't know how to write a particular word, since you can only speak sounds, not the characters, those who do know the word will "spell" the words. This is how we learn new words.

German is less reading-demanding, since it does have an alphabet and is also very phonetic, but my ears have been so bad that I can't even remember ankotzen (to make someone puke) when they say it in a pub. Anyway, maybe it's just me, but I do want the written form almost all the time. Otherwise, it just won't stick. But even if I'm an aural learner, I still need the written form anyway, especially if it's a word you'd use far more/only in the written language.

My experiences do show that READING is the single most important activity you should do if you want to become very proficient in the language. But I, too, thought about this idea, and I was afraid. So, I'm supposed to read a lot, but it's unlimited! How can I on earth do it? This must be going to be very boring, especially since I'm not a very keen reader. While reading is almost all that really matters, I think most people in general must be interested in reading something or some other things.


How to read? I remember how I read Chinese as a kid. I did a lot of boring passages as a native speaker, I was forced to learn since we had compulsory education, I struggled a lot... and that's how I learned Chinese. So, at least for my own native Chinese, I really had to learn Chinese like drudgery. Right at the end of high school, I even had to write practical writing which... not even Chinese people in general can manage without a lot of errors. It's so difficult that even native speakers make a lot of mistakes as university students. Ironically, foreign learners don't usually have this problem of boredom, since they can CHOOSE what to read.

I learned far more Chinese at the elementary school for obvious reasons. Most of the Chinese I learned in high school is hardly frequently used vocab among the Chinese. What did I do? I said, I was forced to read a lot of boring passages with contexts that no school kids would be interested in. But this is ironically how compulsory education works for raising literacy. My Chinese teachers just explained new vocab in Chinese (of coz), do a lot of boring written exercises, have them graded... and have them tested in exams, etc. I think many "intermediate" learners would be surprised by just how few words they know when they start reading an elementary-level math/general knowledge/German book for German school kids.

And fortunately, apart from that you can choose what to read, you also know most "things" that you used/saw/etc in your life, at least in your native language, even before you learn the German terms. You know "life" far better than kids. You don't have ask what a fork is. Just look it up in your German dictionary, or ask a German how to name it, and you're done. And as a foreign learner, yes, while you can't have a lot of contact with native speakers easily (since you'd spend most of your time in your own country, unless you emigrate), since you don't have to learn everything again like a kid, a dictionary can save a lot of efforts for explaining words.


I'll end my post again with the idea of boredom of self-learning alone. Most foreign learners, as I wrote, can't have a lot of contact with native speakers, thus limiting their, especially, reception of oral input. Most foreign learners are also adults, having to make a living AND to socialize. On the surface, by our own notions of self-learning, in Antimoon, we're supposed to learn like a hermit. But yes, why not? Reading itself, without the language learning thing, is also something you can only do alone. The ironic thing is, even though countless people, Chinese I know, Germans I met, everyone, they all say you should socialize more with the Germans to improve your German, there are loopholes to this piece of "common sense".

First, obviously, you won't probably be learning written German in daily conversations. You won't pick up a German girl to learn written German. In fact, as long as she understands you, you don't even need German to pick her up. An English speaker can do everything. Well, unfortunately, a Chinese speaker cannot, since most non-Chinese in the world don't know any Chinese at all. We Chinese guys must know enough English, or any local language, to do the same. Same for many others.

Second, unless you reach a very high level of proficiency, while you can try German on the Germans anytime, very probably you have to fall back on English if your German is too limited. Like many others, I don't like asking for words very frequently. This is painfully slow, slower than how I do it alone on my own in my home. Having that said, I do value oral input. This is also the very point of stay in Germany, I think. I can read German anytime I want, in my home in Hong Kong as well, but receiving oral input isn't easy at all if you don't go to Germany.
Xie   Sun Jul 26, 2009 7:11 pm GMT
Let me boil my writings down to a few generalizations:

1) Reading can be done anytime and anywhere, so you don't need to be in a target country to read the language. This is also another fact that debunks the myth that you must go abroad to improve your language. I'll leave receiving oral input to going abroad instead.
2) Far more language you have to learn anyway is written, not spoken. While you may also want to practice speaking a lot, in the long run, just separate it from reading. Read more. While the content of speaking is limited, reading covers pretty much almost everything of any language. Even slangy language may be written in most cases.


Some other interesting points:
1) So, everybody should know by now that I'm a Chinese native or, to be precise, a Cantonese native. But you know what? I don't understand the lyrics of most songs, old or new, either, unless I read the lyrics. You may say songs are more difficult since the music often intervenes. But when I watch something in Cantonese, on TV, let's say, I also can't help relying on subtitles (though this is in standard Chinese, somewhat removed from Cantonese). As a Chinese native, I also need the written form to comprehend songs and TV stuff. As a native, I do miss something spoken too.
2) Although language is largely social, learning it is counter-intuitive since it's actually better to do it alone. I can prove that, at least in a small town in Germany, you can't actually expect a lot of English from German students who don't study English. Even with my current level of German, I find it much better to use English instead... for more demanding situations, and for more social situations. I'll normally leave German to more casual conversations where I don't have to speak quickly, or for fun, or just to show my German.

I really regret having abused German to ask a German girl out. The thing is that she could understand my German quickly, but I always forgot to fall back on English at the right time when I had to express something more complicated. And so, I made the grave mistake of not knowing that she's not actually single! To generalize, the Germans fall back on English easily, and more easily if you show more and better German to them.

And to generalize, the Chinese insist on English far more than the Germans do, since we don't even normally expect someone to speak Chinese at all. Chinese girls can be even more difficult than German girls, since they will almost always insist on English, for practical and some sly reasons, but with their limited English, they also don't make things clearly (that easily). Unless if I were trash looking for easy Chinese girls, I wouldn't ... in fact consider them, because of the huge ambiguity they make about socializing in general. Unfortunately, guys are so often so shy that they wouldn't even try to open their mouth speaking English to somebody foreign-looking. A Chinese guy, being linguistically AND CULTURALLY proficient in multiple languages would be a huge plus, since, I think, by doing so, he'd become far more sociable, even in cross-cultural situations, and he'd get to know the very essences of, say, the western cultures, and become very competitive even in his own country. Thanks to Germany for such inspirations.