Language Learning: More Vocabulary

Since my last post about vocabulary, I’ve been focusing mainly on German and trying to keep up the habit of reading some every day and looking up words in the dictionary. I use two: dict.cc and Wordreference. It’s incredibly easy compared to messing around with books and printed dictionaries. It’s a mystery how anyone got anything done before the Internet.

I’ve also done some German translations. It’s a nice way of getting one’s hands dirty and to get a feel for the language. Until now, I really haven’t thought of translation as a way of learning the language, but perhaps it’s time to give it a go. In Between the Ancients and the Moderns, historian Joseph Levine describes the methods of seventeenth-century pedagogy as written down by schoolmaster Richard Hoole:

A favorite device, for example, was “double translation,” which Hoole borrowed directly from Ascham and Brinsley. The student was asked to translate some of Cicero’s epistles into English and then back again into Latin, “to render many of them into good English, and after a while to turn the same again into Latine, and to try how near they can come to the Authour in the right choice, and orderly placing of words in every distinct Period.” . . . Evelyn was astonished when he visited Westminster School in 1661 to find the boys there capable of writing themes and verses with such “readinesse and witt” in the two classical languages.

One should also note that in Richard Busby’s Westminster only Latin should be spoken and boys who failed to do so were whipped and even expelled. Whipping aside, it’s an ancient technique for learning a language and it works.

One of the modern proponents of the method is the Italian polyglot Luca and, if I’ve understood him correctly, he does translations in more or less the same way — the proof is in the pudding. His latest post tackles vocabulary and gives great advice on study techniques for vocabulary acquisition. He suggests (in English, French and Italian) that we all put our genius for forgetting to good use, forget actively and revise accordingly.

What I’ve found studying languages is that once you get into it, at some point you will begin to recognize words whose meaning escapes you. Tons of them. This used to be incredibly frustrating — I looked up the word before and thus it feels silly to look it up again for the fifteenth time. Some time has passed and now it just seems like a natural thing to do. Besides, using electronic dictionaries means the whole operation takes literally two seconds. Why not up the volume? The human brain is not a data storage unit that can upload information and retain it immediately and indefinitely. It’s too squishy for that and needs repetition. We might as well deal with it.

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