17 February 2007

You're a nice word...I'd like to get to know you!

Last night a student, CEO of a Hong Kong company, asked me how many words did he need to know to get a Band 7 on the IELTS test. This is an interesting question and seems to be a special focus of Chinese students to ask "How many words" for this or that. At another electronics company the training department has decided they would like the students to learn a certain list of 3000 words.

How do we learn words? How do we know words?

Some people seem to think words are something that we know or not know. It is like a switch, on or off. No or yes.

I don't think it is like a switch, off or on. I think it is more like a dial that controls the volume, louder or softer or quiet. It is not off and on but more like a scale of 1-9. Our understanding of the words grows. We can also say that when we are first introduced to a word the word has been planted, just like a seed. With proper attention the word will grow.


Counting words that a student knows is the oldest form of vocabulary research. The question is: How are the words counted? Are we counting words or word families? (If a student knows Write, Writing, Written, Writer, does he know one or four words?) Is being able to select the correct word in a multiple choice question the same kind of knowledge as being able to give the dictionary definition of the word or being able to use the word in a sentence?

Learning new words is like meeting new people. Someone may introduce you to someone but you don't really know that person, only his name and a few facts. Would you be ready to marry this person? No, not at all, you don't even know if you want to go to dinner with them. Why?

You don't really know them or maybe you only know them at #1 on the 1-9 scale.

In English learning this would be like looking up a word in a dictionary. You know the definition of the word but you really don't know how to use it, if you want to use it or if you can use it. You may know it at only #1 on the 1-9 scale.

Let's go back to meeting people. Let's say you go to a party and there is that person you met before. You say hello and learn a little more about them. You find out you both like Japanese movies and there is a new one showing in town. You decide to go see it together. Now you know them at #2 on the 1-9 scale. It was fun spending time with this other person and you learn there is going to be another party next week so you decide to go together and you talk a lot about many things. Now you might know them at #3 on the 1-9 scale.

As you spend more and more time together you get to know them better and better. Perhaps you will become best friends, decide to go into business together or even get married. And you will continue to get to know them better.

It is the same with the words we learn. What does it mean to know a word? Know it how well?

This student I was talking to, a general manager of a small company, spoke English quite well. But at the same time he sometimes called the other student, a female, "he". Why did he make that mistake? Didn't he learn that males are "he" and females are "she". On the scale of 1-9 how well does this student know the word "she"? Perhaps #6 or #7 ? And all the words that he knows are actually on a scale of 1-9. So if learning words is not an off or on thing, if it is not yes or no, then how do we learn new words?

We need to "meet" the words over and over in different situations and get to know them better and better, see how they are used and learn to use them in different situations.

This is true for even simple words like "he" and "she" and special complicated technical words. We need to read lots of materials. We need to hear lots of materials. We need to speak with these words. And our understanding of the words will grow.

So keep yourself in English. Get to know your words better and better.

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