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Learning Vocabulary 1

 

Amorey Gethin and Erik V. Gunnemark

 

This web page is an edited extract from The Art and Science of Learning Languages, by Amorey Gethin and Erik V. Gunnemark, published by Intellect in 1996 (http://www.intellectbooks.com)

The Editor invites articles in response to this page and to Learning Vocabulary 2, itself a critical reply to
Learning Vocabulary 1
.

 

Contents

I
Basic
principles


1 Languages are translations of 'life', not of other languages

 

2 Every language is different and divides the world up differently

 

3 Prepositions don't fit from one language to another

 

4 Words in one language do not usually mean exactly the same as words in another language

 

5 Whole expressions, too, are different in different languages

 

6 Do not learn by translating into your own language

 

7 Translating is not the path to complete and certain understanding

 

8 Translating diverts your attention to the wrong thing

 

9 Translating acts as a barrier to understanding speech

 

10 Translating can make language-learning far more difficult, sometimes for whole countries...

 

11 Translating may also spoil the enjoyment

 

12 Good translators don't translate

 

13 So how should we understand foreign words?

 

II
First
steps

 

14 Translation is essential as a practical instrument for beginners; it is translation as a 'mentality' that is dangerous

 

15 What words do you want to know?

 

16 Active and passive vocabulary; transparent vocabulary

 

17 Transparency can be different to different people

 

18 How many words? Being selective is half the secret

 

19 One has to crawl before one can walk; the 'active' minimum

 

20 Concentrate on central words

 

21 Don't learn unnecessary synonyms

 

22 Don't bother about marginal 'interest' words at the beginning

 

23 Important central 'interest' words

 

24 Confidence comes from knowing common phrases well

 

25 The most important phrases first!

 

26 Don't waste energy and time on fancy phrases

 

27 A practical way of learning the basic vocabulary

 

28 Learn words with other words

 

29 Becoming independent of one's own language

III
How to learn many words

 

30 After the basic words, be greedy for new words

 

31 You need the vocabulary you need!

 

32 Dictionaries - too often the great enemies of word-learning

 

33 Teachers talking about words - another misguided activity

 

34 What words are, and what they are not

 

35 The great blessing of being a grown-up

 

36 See and hear as many words as you can...in newspapers, books, the radio

 

37 Learning the words of our own language

 

38 Learning meanings from context

 

39 Imagine blanks in the text

 

40 Two sorts of context

 

41 Favourite words

 

42 The disadvantages of being an adult

 

43 Memory aids

 

44 The dangers of the = sign

 

45 Prepositions again

 

46 More haste, less speed

 

47 This writer's personal failure and success at learning vocabulary

 

48 Notes and lists

 

49 Concentrate on one meaning at a time

 

IV
Dictionaries

 

 

50 How big?

 

51 Good and bad dictionaries

 

52 Dictionaries - which way round?

 

53 Dictionaries and translation

 

54 Monolingual or bilingual dictionaries?

 

55 There are very few true synonyms

 

56 How monolingual dictionaries mislead

 

57 The temptation to resist new words

 

58 The trap of thesauruses

 

59 The trouble with definitions

 

60 The false logic of monolingual dictionaries

 

61 How to use bilingual dictionaries

V
Final
advice

 

62 Summing up

 

Notes

 

 

 

I. Basic principles

 

1 Languages are translations of 'life', not of other languages

Learning a language is observing it; that is, simply noticing what words mean what, and how the words are used together to produce broader meanings. Children have two great advantages in this task. First, they are allowed to take many years to learn their language, a length of time that older children and adults cannot usually allow themselves for learning a foreign language. Secondly, they do not have one language already, so they cannot get muddled by it, and they appreciate, without thinking, something that is fundamental to the nature of all languages: they are not translations of other languages; they are direct 'translations' of reality, of things, feelings, ideas, actions, of human experience.

The result of this is that at one level all languages are in principle exactly the same, that is to say, they are sets of meanings, collections of words for directly representing the world. Note 1

 

2 Every language is different and divides the world up differently

But it also means that every language is in a sense completely independent of all other languages. Each language divides the world up in its own way, a different way from other languages. One can see this at the very simple level of single words. For instance, Italian has two words:

sapere and conoscere,

where English has only one:

know.

On the other hand, English has two:

do and make,

where Italian, like many other languages, has only one:

fare.

This does not mean that when you have two words it does not matter which you use. Each word has its separate meaning, as we can illustrate with

do the washing up

and

make a plate

But Italian-speakers use fare for both. In the same way, Italians use sapere when they are talking about knowing facts or truths - for I did not know she was here they would use sapere - and conoscere when they want to express the sense of being acquainted with somebody or something - for I know her well they would use conoscere. So we can see that know has at least two different meanings.

There are untold thousands of cases like this throughout the languages of the world. English can use the same word to describe a person who is annoyed because his neighbour has a nicer house, and a person who is upset because he thinks his wife is interested in another man: jealous. But Swedish, for example, calls one avundsjuk and the other svartsjuk. However, it is by no means always as simple as that. In Swedish, for instance, bra as an adjective has the sense of good, but bra as an adverb means well. On the other hand, of all the things English simply calls good, some would be called bra in Swedish but others - such as food - would be called god.

 

3 Prepositions don't fit from one language to another

Prepositions are famous for being used in their own special and 'different' way in each language, and cause great difficulties to students all over the world. If you look up the Spanish word por in a Spanish-English dictionary, you will almost certainly find that the first word given is by; and, vice-versa, if you look up by you will find por. Yet for a sentence such as

She's walking about IN the garden.

the Spanish would be

Está paseando POR el jardín.

In the same way, if you look up the Swedish in a dictionary, you will find on and vice-versa. Yet the English for

Jag har inte sett henne mycket länge.

is

I have not seen her FOR a very long time.

And although dictionaries will tell you that Italian da first and foremost means from or by and the other way round,

She must go TO the doctor.

is

Deve andare DAl dottore. (!)

And so on. Nearly everybody thinks it is the other people's language that is peculiar. But the true moral to be drawn is that you must recognize that every language works in its own special way, and if that's peculiar, then your own language is just as peculiar as any other.

 

4 Words in one language do not usually mean exactly the same as words in another language

It is also important to understand that there are not many words in a language that mean exactly the same as words in another language. (This naturally does not apply between languages that are very close to each other, such as the Scandinavian languages, or Russian, Ukrainian and Bulgarian. But there we are really talking about what are effectively the same words.)

If we imagine a word in one language (let's say English)

 

 

 

 

 

 


and a word in another language (let's say Russian),

 

 

 

 

 

 


it is very rare for their meanings to fit exactly like this:

 

 

 

 

 


It is much more likely that they will be related to each other something like this:

 

 

 

 

 


Now, there may be a second English word that covers part of the Russian word that is not covered by the first English word. But again, it won't cover the 'missing' part exactly. There will also very likely be a part of the meaning of some Russian words that cannot be covered by any English word – perhaps even not by any other word in any language in the world – and vice-versa. Notice that there are large parts of the English words which are not covered by the Russian word. Perhaps there is another Russian word that can do that, but maybe only partially.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Gentle is in fact an example of a word that possibly has no exact equivalent in any other language. It can of course be translated, but only in a very rough and approximate way. The first thing to notice is how gentle has to be translated in one context by a certain word and in a different context by another word. (In some contexts it might even have to be translated by a combination of words.) Its most likely appropriate Russian equivalent is given below for each of the following sentences:

 

1

He is a very gentle person.

myágkiy

2

He gave her a gentle smile.

lyubéznyy

3

She gave him a gentle push.

lyógkiy

4

He was rowing against a gentle current.

slábyy

5

Can't you give him a gentle hint?

tónkiy

6

She laid it gently on the table.

ostorózhno

7

The tap on the door was so gentle we
hardly heard it.


tíkhiy

 

Seven different Russian words are thus used for the same English word, and further uses of gentle in other contexts might require further different Russian translations. And there is almost certainly a part of the meaning in gentle that is missing in all translations, whatever word is used.

Gentle is perhaps a rather extreme case. But there are huge numbers of words in the world's languages that have this same unique character, even if not always so clearly.

 

5 Whole expressions, too, are different in different languages

Again, different languages express the same combination of ideas in different ways:

 

English

I have been here for two hours.

 

Italian

Sono qui da due ore.

= Am here since two hours.

Japanese

Koko-ni ni jikan imas.

= Here two hour-period am.

 

 

 

English

She is six years old.

 

Italian

Ha sei anni.

= Has six years.

Japanese

Kanojo-wa roku sai desu.

= She six age is.

 

 

 

On the
 telephone

 

 

English

This is Maria.

 

Italian

Sono Maria.

= Am Maria.

Japanese

Maria desu.

= Maria is.

 

We can see here not only that some languages sometimes leave out meanings that other languages have to put in, and vice-versa, but also that different languages 'think' about the same reality in different ways. We see here that Italian, for instance, "has...years", whereas English says "is...years old".

 

6 Do not learn by translating into your own language

That foreign languages work differently from your own is the first and most basic thing to observe and remember about them. Do not try to learn them by constantly translating them. We have just seen, in the previous sections, the immediate practical difficulties involved in translation and how the same word in one language may have to be translated into another language by different words in different contexts.

But the difficulty is also more basic. If you always try to turn the foreign language into your own you will never truly understand it, and you will certainly never master it and be able to use it naturally and fluently. This is because translation goes right against the basic nature of language that we explained above. Translation is never truly 'true'.

 

7 Translating is not the path to complete and certain understanding

Many language students insist that they cannot 'really' or 'completely' understand anything in a foreign language, from sentences to single words, unless and until they have translated it into their own language. Some do not go as far as this, but say they cannot be sure they have understood until they have translated. Naturally, if you are not sure you have understood something, and you have someone with you who knows the foreign language, you can suggest a translation and ask that person if you are right. But that is quite a different matter. What we are talking about here is your basic approach and the normal practical method you use to study the language. It really is a very bad idea always to turn the foreign language into your own. If you still desperately hanker after such translation, please consider two facts:

Young children have no other language to turn their mother tongue into as they learn it. Yet we all know that in the end they learn it far more effectively than most people who try to learn that language as a foreign language. The children can only turn their language into 'life'. So if ever you get a longing to turn another language into your own, remind yourself that children can't do that, and yet they get to know exactly what words mean.

Secondly, you can only translate a piece of one language into another if you have already understood it properly. (If you have not understood it properly you will translate it wrong.) But if you have understood it properly there is no need to translate it!

 

8 Translation diverts your attention to the wrong thing

There is a very basic practical psychological reason why you should not translate. If you constantly translate you will find it far more difficult to remember how the foreign language was expressed. Your attention should always be on the foreign language, not on your own.

As we have just pointed out, you can only translate if you have understood first. If you go on from there and turn the 'real life' in your mind into your own language, you take a fatal step. You break the crucial connection between the foreign language and 'real life'. You interfere with the proper use of the foreign language in both 'directions', that is, both comprehending and producing the language. When you hear or read the same words or phrases again, you will tend to experience them in terms of your own language, and so the true meaning will get distorted. Equally, when you want to speak or write you will tend to have forgotten the words and phrases that express what you want to say, as you will have 'left them behind' in your hurry to turn everything into your own language.

Alternatively, you may remember some expressions superficially, but because the exact meaning has been overlaid by your translation - a translation almost certainly only appropriate in certain contexts - you will forget the proper use of the expression. Indeed, it will probably never have been anchored in your mind in the first place, because of that haste to translate.

Apart from anything else, this will probably mean that you will tend to use many expressions in quite the wrong way, to convey meanings that the expression does not have, or at least not in that context.

 

9 Translating acts as a barrier to understanding speech

Furthermore, if you try to translate as you listen to the foreign language, you will find that you are putting an almost insurmountable obstacle in the way of understanding the speech you hear. In real everyday situations you simply do not have the time to both translate and understand.

 

10 Translating can make language-learning far more difficult, sometimes for whole countries

It is often an insistence on translating that makes learning a foreign language much more difficult for some individuals than for others. Sometimes, even, this misguided approach can affect whole countries. It is quite possible that it accounts for a lot of the difficulties in Japan, for instance.

The practical command of foreign languages in Japan is far below the average for a highly literate community, such as Japan is, and this is especially remarkable when one considers the attention paid to them in Japanese education. This is not due simply to the fact that the Japanese language is very different from English, the first foreign language for students in Japan. Speakers of equally different languages can speak English very well.

 

11 Translating may also spoil the enjoyment

The translation approach may also deprive the learner of that delight there can be in mastering a foreign language. My experience has been that 'translating' students tend to have a tense anxiety about what is for them a laborious learning process. That is perhaps partly because it is not an effective method. But it is probably also because they do not experience the thrill that one can get from controlling the direct link between life and a 'new' language in the same way as the native speaker.

It can perhaps in some ways be likened to learning to ride a bicycle. Learning to ride a bicycle by carefully analysing how the muscles must be used to apply the laws of gravity, energy and motion to the bicycle would not only be hopelessly unsuccessful; it would be horribly boring. But a child who learns how to ride a bicycle delights in the natural confident mastery gained through becoming one with the machine without any intervening process.

 

12 Good translators don't translate

It is also worth considering what good translators do. They could not even begin to translate properly if they simply transferred the words of one language directly into those of another. What they have to do first is turn words into the 'languageless' ideas, the 'real life' in their minds, and then, as a second stage, turn those ideas, that 'real life', into the other language.

 

Language 1                                      Language 2

à                                  Þ

Idea, thought, picture

of reality

 

There can be little doubt that no person who learns a foreign language solely through translation will ever be able to speak it completely idiomatically and fluently. To truly master a language you will have to get 'inside its skin', just as you have got inside the skin of your own language. You don't get inside a language's skin by translating it.

 

13 So how should we remember foreign words?

Connect foreign words to 'things', not to words in your own language Remembering the words of a foreign language depends on how you remember them, not on how good your memory is. The secret is to connect foreign words to things, people, events, feelings and ideas in real life, not to words in your own language. In other words, you should not try to remember words (or phrases or sentences) by translating them. Think instead directly of the thing the word represents.

For instance, if you are an English-speaker learning French, do not try to remember that lit = the word bed but that lit = that thing that people sleep in. The same goes for abstract words. Think of the idea of fear, not the word fear, when you are learning the French word peur.

If this seems a strange approach to suggest, consider the fact that when you were learning your own language you had no other language you could translate the words of your own language into. You had to 'translate' the words of your native language into things or ideas in your mind. That is the natural way to use words and to learn them.

Let us look at another example from English/French. What happens when an English-speaker learns, as part of her own language, the word soufflé? She does not say to herself: I must remember that the word soufflé = the words light frothy dish. She gets in her mind a picture of the thing that is light and frothy that one can eat. Yet in fact, of course, soufflé (with its acute accent and all!) is a French word. So the English-speaker is learning, quite naturally and without any worry, a French word in the same way psychologically that she is learning all English words, and in the same way that she should learn all French words if she is studying French.

The importance of connecting words directly to things and ideas can perhaps be seen rather well if we think of telephone numbers. Imagine you were asked to memorize just a single column of names and their numbers in a telephone directory. You would surely find it very difficult, particularly if you did not know personally any of the people named in the column. It would require a person with an outstanding memory to learn that whole column of numbers within a reasonable time.

Many people find they can learn words if they are given pictures they can associate with them. This is an excellent method as far as it goes, but the trouble is that it doesn't go very far. One can really only use pictures to illustrate words for concrete objects. One cannot make pictures of abstract ideas, nor of most actions. Attempts to do so are dangerous in two ways. Students can easily misunderstand what the picture is supposed to represent; and they will almost inevitably start searching for a word in their own language, which it is the whole point of pictures to stop them doing. It should always be immediately obvious what a picture is intended to represent.

There are indeed some purely practical though important differences between the ways people learn the words of their own language and those of foreign languages. We shall discuss the details of those differences later, particularly in Sections 35, 37 and 42.

 

 

II. First steps

 

14 Translation is essential as a practical instrument for beginners; it is translation as a 'mentality' that is dangerous

What we have emphasized above does not mean that you should never use a translation given you in a book or by a teacher - or that you should never use a dictionary. On the contrary, there is only one practical way to take the first steps in learning a language, and that is to learn meanings through translation. It is the only method that can give the beginner a reasonable amount of knowledge within a reasonable time. To recommend any other approach, such as the 'direct method', is to do a great disservice to would-be language-learners. You can only make that direct connection between words and 'things' etc. that we have recommended if you have first found out what 'things' the foreign words represent. Translation is the only quick way of finding out.

But there is a right way and a wrong way of using dictionaries, and translation generally, which we suggest in detail in Sections 32, 34, 44-47, and 50-61. What we want to warn against here is not translation as a practical instrument. Translation is an essential practical instrument for any beginner making a conscious study of a new language. What is terribly dangerous, though, is the translation 'mentality', the approach to foreign languages that cannot see them or learn them as anything but translations of the mother tongue.

It also does no harm to translate phrases and sentences literally in the way we have done in Section 5. On the contrary, this is probably the simplest and best way to explain to a beginner the way a language works. But neither this nor any other sort of translation should become a habit. It should only be used right at the beginning in order to 'get you into' the language. Once you have got a fair idea of the basics of a language you should think of translation as something to be avoided.

 

15 What words do you need to know?

Words, or perhaps we should say meanings, are the essence of any language. One does not learn to speak or write, or to read or understand a foreign language by swotting away at grammar or doing innumerable exercises, or even by writing countless compositions. Mistakes in grammar do not usually lead to confusion and misunderstandings to the same extent as flaws in one's pronunciation or the wrong choice of words. It is knowing words, rather than knowing the grammar, that is at the very heart of learning a foreign language.

But what words should you learn, and which should you learn first? The answer is that it depends, as usual, on what you want to use the foreign language for and how good you want to be at it. But everybody, whatever their special interest may be, needs to know roughly the same basic vocabulary. Everybody needs to know the pronouns, the main prepositions, conjunctions and adverbs, question words, basic verbs, basic nouns, and basic adjectives. Even if your only interest in the language is as, say, a biologist, or a cook, or a lawyer, it is essential for you to know those basic words first.

 

16 Active and passive vocabulary; transparent vocabulary

Active vocabulary is the words one can remember for using oneself for speaking and writing. For reading or listening one only needs a passive vocabulary, that is to say, the words one can understand when one reads or hears them, but some of which one would not think of for oneself if one was talking or writing. In their own language people usually understand many more words than they actually use themselves.

In some ways it is easier to learn to read a foreign language than to speak it. But one needs a far smaller vocabulary in order to speak well enough for practical everyday purposes than one needs for understanding everyday speech. That is because when one speaks one chooses the words one uses, and one obviously tries to make do with what one has, while one has little control over what the native speaker says. The native speaker is liable to use a great many more words than a beginner can understand. To understand something like a newspaper, where one has no control over  the words used at all, one needs an even bigger vocabulary.

Your passive vocabulary, then, will have to be bigger than your active vocabulary, but there are two factors that make this quite easy to manage. First of all, when you listen or read, the words are presented to you. You don't have to dig them out of your memory. Secondly, in many languages you will find words whose meaning is 'transparent' to you, because they are similar to the equivalent words in your own language.

 

17 Transparency can be different to different people

A very 'transparent' language is not necessarily one that has a very large proportion of transparent words. Its true 'transparency' will depend on how many transparent words you actually meet in your reading or listening. This means, in turn, that not everybody who speaks the same language will find a particular foreign language equally transparent, especially after they have got beyond the basic vocabulary stage.

For instance, a French-speaker whose contact with English consists exclusively of reading about history or economics, say, will find English far more transparent than a French-speaker whose only reading in English is novels; German-speakers learning English who only hear the language in connection with domestic matters will probably find it more transparent than if they read about politics.

 

18 How many words? Being selective is half the secret

For beginners, choosing the right words to learn is an essential part of the solution to the practical problems of learning a language. If they can find out which words are the most important, they can concentrate on those and learn them really properly first, without wasting time and effort on unnecessary words.

The fact that the general, or non-technical, vocabulary of a language consists of, say, 300,000 words is of purely theoretical interest to someone who is just starting to study a new language. We can usually only learn a small part of each foreign language that we take on. For that reason it is very important not to hurl yourself headlong into a new language without being clear from the very beginning about what you should learn. One of the fundamental principles for any beginner ought to be what we can call word economy.

The tables below have been worked out by Erik V. Gunnemark of Gothenburg (who translates from 45 languages). He emphasizes that they are only an extremely rough guide. But even if one allows for 50% error, their message is a clear and very striking one. No more than 400 different words cover about 90% of all the words in your everyday spoken vocabulary. In order to read you need to know more words than those, but only as passive vocabulary, and with a knowledge of 1,500 words you can read a considerable amount reasonably well and get quite a lot out of it.

 

The percentages of the total spoken and total written vocabulary of a language that is made up of a given number of words

 

Percentages of the spoken vocabulary

The most common

40

words

=

about

50%

of the spoken
vocabulary

"

200

"

=

"

80%

"

"

300

"

=

"

85%

"

"

400

"

=

"

90%

"

"

800-1,500

"

=

"

95%

"

 

 

Percentages of the written vocabulary

The most common

80

words

=

about

50%

of the written
vocabulary

"

200

"

=

"

60%

"

"

300

"

=

"

65%

"

"

400

"

=

"

70%

"

"

800

"

=

"

80%

"

"

1,500-2,000

"

=

"

90%

"

"

3,000-4,000

"

=

"

95%

"

"

8,000

"

=

"

99%

"

 

 

So at the beginner stage, learn the most important words properly first, instead of grabbing constantly at new ones. Erik Gunnemark has found it best to start off with vocabularies of 400-600 words and some 150 'phrases' or everyday expressions.

The basic vocabularies are very similar all over the world. Most of the words, or, more correctly, most things and concepts, that are important in one country are also important in another. Non-Indo-European languages too, such as Finnish and Hungarian, are today typically European as regards the make-up of the vocabulary, although the words and sentences in themselves appear very alien to speakers of the Indo-European languages. So there is no reason why one should not use one's mother tongue as the starting point when learning foreign languages.

 

19 One has to crawl before one can walk: the 'active minimum'

Gunnemark writes: "A basic principle for studying a language effectively is, first, to learn thoroughly an active minimum. This applies irrespective of which particular skill one wants to concentrate on, that is to say, not only speaking (understanding the spoken word and making oneself understood in it) but also reading and writing.

"By 'active' here I mean that beginners should learn the equivalents in the foreign language of words and phrases in their own language, and learn them as well as possible, preferably by heart. 'Minimum' means 'first things first', that is, as quickly as possible getting down to learning what is most important in the way of words, phrases and grammar, even when the learning is hard going.

"Children crawl before they walk, and it is the same with learning a language: first we crawl, and then we begin to walk…..

"This 'mini' material gives beginners an invaluable overall view: they know what they have to concentrate on 'in the first round'. This is particularly important when the language is difficult at the beginning. Moreover, their assurance and self-confidence is increased by the fact that the mini material is specially adapted so that they can study effectively on their own. They need not be afraid to 'crawl-speak' or 'mini-speak' when they are conscious that they know the most important words and phrases by heart.

"In order to 'crawl-speak', or 'survive-speak', however, one can get by with considerably fewer 'crawl-words' and 'crawl-phrases'. When I travelled around Hungary for the first time, I used, according to my notes, less than 200 words and phrases but could nevertheless make myself understood by those who only spoke Hungarian, and at the same time I understood everything of importance that others said. In other countries, such as Greece, I have 'survive-spoken' with about 300 words and phrases.

"More words are needed for 'crawl-reading', that is, about 800, but here we are talking about 'passive' words - and one can of course begin to read with an even smaller reading vocabulary. I began to read non-fiction in Irish, Lappish and Turkish when my passive vocabulary in those languages did not consist of more than 400-500 words.

"Note that the 'crawl-phrases' as well as the individual words must be so well learnt that you can use them without hesitation - as if you are pressing a button. In other words, you must know them completely by heart. (Your knowledge of the 'crawl-grammar' must be equally solid.)" Note 2

 

20 Concentrate on central words!

Anybody who wants to learn a new language ought first to concentrate on common words that may be needed instantaneously, those which can be called central words (or 'instant words'). You should learn these so that you know them 'automatically' and can use them without hesitating.

 

21 Don't learn unnecessary synonyms

As a beginner you should not spend time and energy on learning synonyms without immediate practical value. (In fact, as we shall see later, there are actually no such things as synonyms.)

In a 'survival list' there should be as few words as possible, preferably only one as an equivalent for each word in the 'home' language. At this stage it is important to maintain 'word economy'.

 

22 Don't bother about marginal 'interest' words at the beginning

Most 'interest' words - words belonging to particular 'fields of interest' or to subject areas of various kinds - are not central to vocabulary learning for a beginner; they are marginal. You should not learn these marginal interest words at the expense of central words. If you do, you are only acquiring seeming knowledge – relatively unimportant words instead of the ones you really ought to be learning. One seldom needs to remember without delay the words for animals, plants, parts of the body (you can point to them) and illnesses, any more than the names of pieces of furniture or household utensils. As a result of the spread of department stores and supermarkets, words that were previously common in speech are now used comparatively rarely in everyday life. This applies, among other things, to many of the names of items of food, clothes, writing materials and various odds and ends.

In the teaching of beginners in some countries a lot of time is wasted on marginal words. Many students are still deceived into thinking that it is important to know the equivalents of words like monkey, donkey, elephant, snail, parrot, plum, pear, cherry, raisin; horseshoe, bow (as in bow and arrow), padlock, church bell. There is nothing wrong in itself with knowing a lot of marginal 'interest words'. But there is usually plenty of time to look them up in a pocket dictionary, and in principle you should learn them at a later stage, after the central words.

I have seen even worse examples of misdirected energies, such as Italian coursebooks for use at the elementary stage of English in which the children are given lists to learn of the names of the creatures to be found at the seaside!

 

23 Important central 'interest' words

However, not all 'interest words' are 'out-of-the-way' words. Some are so common and important that it is proper to treat them as central words from the learning point of view. Particularly within the 'interest-areas' of Time and People there are plenty of central words. The following should be learned as soon as possible:

Time: day, night, morning, evening, hour, week, month, year, time (once, the first time), Monday etc., spring, summer, autumn, winter, holiday.

People: father, mother, child, son, daughter, brother, sister, husband, wife, man, woman (gentleman, lady), boy, girl, relative, friend.

Examples from other 'interest areas' of words we need to learn at an early stage are:

house, flat/apartment, window, hill, wood, river, clothes, dress, money, wallet, key, watch, bag, town, street, road, office, book, newspaper, letter, card, water, bread, meat, weather, rain

We should learn at the earliest stage what the words are for the following signs and notices:

 

Open

Closed

Toilet

Ladies

Gentlemen

Vacant

Engaged

Entrance

Exit

Arrivals

Departures

No Smoking

 

And wallet and  handbag are two very important words for travellers abroad.

It is important, too, to know the names of certain countries, nationalities and languages. In any language with which we are involved we must at least learn what our home country is called, together with our nationality and the word for our language.

 

24 Confidence comes from knowing common phrases well

In this article the term phrase is used to indicate everyday expressions and other common short sentences. 'Phrases' are just as important as separate single words. One cannot work out common expressions for oneself simply by combining various words with the help of some grammar - it doesn't work! A great many everyday ideas are expressed by each language in its own special way.

Nevertheless, this does not mean that most everyday expressions are not consistent with grammar, and it is a very good idea at the beginner's stage to study the grammar of common expressions in a practical phrase book. At this critical stage of your learning this will teach you a lot about both the common usage and the grammar of the language, and help you to get a genuine feel for it.

The mastery of a core of common phrases is invaluable for one's self-confidence. One can then at least 'say something' in everyday situations.

To be able to speak reasonably well one needs to know at least 100 phrases. But even at the 'crawl' stage an active knowledge of 25-50 phrases is necessary. You should know them so well that you 'hear them inside you' and use them automatically, without hesitating. Such phrases can be just as important as words.

An active knowledge of phrases is also necessary for one to be able to write easily and naturally. For reading, on the other hand, one only needs a passive knowledge that does not take much time or work to acquire; it is merely a matter of knowing what the phrases mean in one's own language.

 

25 The most important phrases first!

For beginners 'phrase economy' is just as important as 'word economy'. First learn all the most important phrases. Concentrate on a small number of phrases at a time. If you try to learn too many all at once, you may find it difficult to remember any of them. As with words, learn the phrases with your own language as the starting point. Limit yourself to just one equivalent in the foreign language to begin with, but make sure you know it by heart. Only when you know that phrase 'absolutely' should you start studying variations.

On the other hand, exercises in the contexts of things like shopping and ordering in restaurants are for the most part wasted time and effort. The expressions learned are mainly marginal 'interest' words. In practice one can manage perfectly well without them. Both at the beginner's stage and later there are a whole lot of other things which are much more important to practise and fix in the memory, such as "Could you write your address for me here?".

 

26 Don't waste energy and time on fancy phrases

Especially in the early stages, but even at a later stage, you should be careful not to waste your energies on what may seem to you entertaining or exotic words and idioms. For instance, many students of English as a foreign language seem to be fascinated by the expression cats and dogs in the context of the weather. Yet it is of no importance whatsoever if students do not know this phrase. (They are almost certain to understand it from the context if and when they do hear it.) It naturally does not matter if they acquire it effortlessly as an extra that they think is fun. But it is misguided for them to grasp at such an expression if they do not first know how to say "It's raining hard".

I remembers how many years ago I had a student who was entranced by the phrase salad days. For a time she tried to bring it into every composition she wrote for me, and would interrogate me at length about it each time I explained she was using it incorrectly. I seem to remember she only gave up when I assured her that it was an expression I had never used in my life, and that it was extremely unlikely that I would ever use it during the rest of it either.

 

27 A practical way of learning the basic vocabulary

At the very beginning, that is, when you start to learn the basic vocabulary, and at that stage only, the simplest method is probably the best. Learn by heart from a list with the words of your own language in alphabetical order in a column on the left and the words of the language you are learning on the right. (Unless, of course, your own language reads from right to left.)

To make sure you spend your energy equally on all parts of the list, start with a different letter of the alphabet each day: A on the first day, B on the second day, C on the third, and so on. All you need do is cover one column with a piece of paper which you move down as you check your memory of each word or phrase.

You may find it quite a good idea to start by learning the words and phrases of the foreign language passively. That is, cover the column of words of your own language to begin with. When you find you can understand all the foreign words and expressions without difficulty, move the paper over to the other side and see how your active memory manages.

If you are really serious about your language studies you should go through your list several times a day. When you think you have mastered all the words you should still check through the list once a day so that you don't start forgetting them.

 

28 Learn words with other words!

But at the same time it is essential to find examples of these basic words in context. Many of them you will find in your list of phrases. But you should also look for examples of them in your beginner's book. You should even try to find examples of them in newspapers and magazines, even if at first you understand very little of what you read there. Even at this stage you should try to get as much contact with the foreign language as you can.

You should always be looking out for the words that go together with the word you are learning. For instance, if you are studying English you should notice that in English one says that:

a person is married TO someone
one stays AT a hotel
they are worried ABOUT something
I am interested IN something
one GETS into a car
you spend time DOING something
it depends ON something
CHECK
the baggage
PUT
one's clothes on
a rise IN temperature


 

Where 'case languages' like German or Russian are concerned, you should also notice which cases the different prepositions govern. In German, for example, a preposition can govern one case if it is linked to one particular word and another case if it is linked to another particular word:

arbeiten an (+ dative) einem Buch = work on a book
denken an (+ accusative) ein Buch = think about a book

 

29 Becoming independent of one's own language

Becoming completely independent of one's own language is the most fundamental, the most important thing of all in learning a foreign language. In a sense, in fact, that is exactly what learning a foreign language means – becoming independent of one's native tongue. Starting out from one's own language, and learning how its meanings are expressed in the foreign language, is a thoroughly practical and effective way of working at the start. However, one should never forget that basic aim of one's studies. Once one knows a foreign word and how it is used in the context of its own language, there is no longer any need to be concerned with the word of one's own language.

Indeed, any lingering association with one's own language is a barrier to complete mastery. One should try as much as possible to disconnect the words of the 'new' language from those of one's own. Thus, for example, a Spanish-speaker learning English, once she knows that llorar is cry in English, should forget llorar and think only of cry. She should 'think in English', that is to say, connect cry directly in her mind to the reality of crying.

At the practical level this means that you should no longer look at the native language side of your word and phrase lists at all. Simply go through the 'foreign' language side of the lists and make yourself so familiar with the words and expressions that they are no longer part of a foreign language.

 

 

III. How to learn many words

 

30 After the basic words be greedy for new words

Once you have got beyond the first stage it is very important, if you want to become really good at the language, to be greedy for words. Never be content with the vocabulary you have. Try to expand it constantly. There are factors that tend to stop people learning new words which we discuss in Sections 32, 38 and 57. The words you know are seldom substitutes for the words you do not know.

After you have mastered the most basic words, children's books are one of the best kinds of reading material for getting a really solid foundation in both vocabulary and most other aspects of the language. So long, that is, as you do not consider such reading beneath you and too boring. Become really familiar with children's books, and you will become familiar with the foundations of the language on which, as adults, native speakers build the effortless and confident use of their mother tongue. At the same time you will very likely get an insight into their culture. School books on geography and history for ten to twelve-year-olds are equally excellent material, and less off-putting for many adults than children's fiction.

 

31 You need the vocabulary you need!

When it comes to increasing vocabulary beyond the basic words, different people clearly need different sorts of word and different numbers of words for different purposes. There has been too much worry about selecting the vocabulary that foreign-language learners need to learn. The principle is very simple. You need the vocabulary you need! If you want to read serious newspapers in the foreign language, you need the vocabulary found in those serious newspapers. If you want to exchange ideas on growing lemons, you will need far fewer words, but they will have to be agricultural ones, many of them words that most foreigners will never need. Thus the words you need to know will, as it were, choose themselves. Note 3

We advise specialists in any field not to waste their time and money on courses for 'special', or 'specific', purposes. Whatever your field, you can almost certainly learn the relevant technical vocabulary and usage in the foreign language far more quickly and efficiently than a non-expert native speaker; since you already know about the things the writers are discussing. If you are an engineer from Brazil, for instance, you will be able to master the English of engineering many times quicker than this native English-speaking writer could, as he would have to take courses in mathematics, physics and engineering before he could have anything more than the foggiest idea of what it was all about. What you must make sure you have mastered before you start reading the relevant specialist literature is what we might call 'the little words in between'. After that, all you need is a good technical or scientific dictionary, and you teach yourself the rest.

But the problem that is even more important than choosing the words to learn is:

How should you learn them?

 

32 Dictionaries - too often the great enemies of word-learning

Words are the essence of any language, far more than grammar is. Yet sadly, people often have terrible trouble with them, and many never learn even a quarter of the vocabulary they could if they went about learning it in the right way.

Dictionaries are wonderful and fascinating things, and most students of foreign languages would be lost without them. At the same time, unfortunately, dictionaries have done untold harm. It may seem strange to say so, but in practice it has probably been the dictionary more than anything else that has stopped people knowing the foreign words they would like to know.

Millions of language students are trapped in vicious circles. They complain that they cannot understand what they read in the foreign language because they do not know enough words. So they do not read and they do not increase their vocabulary, and so they continue not to be able to understand. Then perhaps someone tells them how important reading is and persuades them to try again. So they sit down with their dictionaries, and they look up every single word that is new to them, and very often many words that are not new, but that they "want to be quite sure about". At the end of three hours they have got through half a page in a book, or half a column in a newspaper. They do this for three or four days, and then give up in despair; oppressed by the tediousness of it all. They are convinced - quite correctly - that they do not know enough words to understand ordinary books and newspapers. As a result their vocabularies stay more or less the same size as they were, and they complain that they are making no progress. They either become permanently frustrated and depressed, or just give in and give up. And it all happens because they have spent more time with the dictionary than with the language itself.

I have personally known hundreds of students who have had this problem; many of them probably still have it. It is not possible to make exact measurements of something like this, but it is a fair bet that at least three quarters of all students of foreign languages suffer to some extent from this difficulty. Many believe that every time they come to a new word they must know "exactly what it means", and so they turn constantly to the dictionary to find out. This is doubly sad, because it not only slows them up so terribly that they cannot do a tenth of the reading they ought to do; it also in fact prevents them finding out "exactly what the word means". There is the added danger for some that they are not satisfied till they can think of the translation of the word in their own language. This makes them waste even more time with the dictionary.

 

33 Teachers talking about words – another misguided activity

Listening to teachers giving detailed explanations of the meanings of words is just as great a waste of time. We explain in Sections 54-56 and 59-60 how this is wrong in both principle and practice. But we should point out already here how, once teachers start explaining vocabulary, they may find they are spending hours on just very few words. Even if they do not do actual harm by encouraging a faulty approach to vocabulary, they will achieve nothing of value; there are far better ways in which they can spend their own and their students' time.

There is just one sort of word of which this is not true. There are some words that are often confused with other, often similar words. If the distinctions in meaning are clear cut, it is useful for students to have them pointed out to them. Examples of such pairs in English are the verbs come/go and bring/take, and the adjectives economic/economical.

(There is an excellent book by R.J.Hill, A dictionary of false friends, published by Macmillan in 1982. It consists of 178 pages of English words, showing to which of 14 other languages – including Swiss German – they are false friends, or faux amis.)

 

34 What words are and what they are not

Before we discuss these problems and how you ought to learn words, it is important to think about what words are and how they work. As we have already pointed out, languages are not translations of other languages. English does not exist in order to translate Russian, Chinese was not invented for the purpose of translating English, and Spanish was not called into being for the sake of people wanting to translate Chinese. The child of German-speaking parents does not have to wait to understand a new German word till she has translated it into Romanian. The very idea is clearly absurd.

Yet millions of would-be learners of foreign languages approach foreign words as though that is how they work, and this causes them a lot of trouble. We showed in Section 4 how one word in one language does not correspond exactly to one word in another language, and how the same word may have to be translated in different ways on different occasions, depending on the context. When children learn their own language they have no other language to translate their words into. Instead they have to 'translate' them into 'reality', into experience; for them all words mean actual things or part of a situation, or ideas, never other words. All words are in a context of life, and that is why children learn them so thoroughly and so accurately. If you want to learn foreign words anything like as thoroughly and accurately you will need to learn them in the same way, that is, as meaning reality and experience, and in contexts, not as meaning words in your own language.

 

35 The great blessing of being a grown-up

If one suggests to people that they should learn foreign vocabulary in the same way as they learned their own as children, many will protest that that took so very long, and that they simply haven't got time to do it that way.

It is quite true, of course, that children take many years to develop their vocabulary. But adults can acquire a far larger vocabulary in a foreign language, and far more quickly, than a child learning her own language, for the reason that adults 'know' the world already, while children do not. Before a child can grasp a new meaning she has to learn about the reality that the new word refers to. She thus has to do two things for each new meaning. Adults have to do only one. They already know the reality the word refers to. All they have to do is recognise it. If a child of six is presented with a newspaper article on politics, say, she will neither understand it nor learn its vocabulary, however good a reader she is otherwise, simply because she has no experience, either direct or indirect, of the things the words are about. She will have to wait some years before she can master such meanings.

Adults have an enormous advantage. They can get down straight away to mastering the meanings of a foreign language, many of them far more sophisticated than a native child could grasp. To sum up: a child has to learn about the world and a language; an adult only has to learn about a language.

(Learning about a language does, of course, a lot of the time involve far more than learning words and how to put them together. Learning a foreign language inevitably mean, to a greater or lesser extent, learning about a foreign culture, and that may often mean learning new experiences just as children do.)

 

36 See and hear as many words as you can; learn true meanings in 'living' contexts: newspapers, magazines, books, the radio

As an adult, then, you have a task that can take you far less time than it does a child. On the other hand, the child learns meanings very efficiently, and we should consider how she does it. She does it by hearing, and later perhaps by reading, hundreds of thousands of words. In a normal day she hears hundreds, if not thousands of them. There are many words that she hears over and over again. If they have meanings she is ready for; she masters them very quickly. As far as you can, you should do what the child does. Listen to and read hundreds of thousands of words. If you do not read or listen to lots and lots of words, you cannot expect to learn lots of words.

Today, for most people who are learning a foreign language the more practical way to experience all those words is probably to read them rather than to listen to them, at any rate at the beginning. When you listen there will probably often be words you cannot catch, and there is the further disadvantage that you have a very limited time to think about possible meanings. In practice it has probably been the dictionary more than anything else that has stopped people doing that reading.

If you have nothing that you particularly want to read about, newspapers and magazines are probably best. Detective stories are also excellent, if you like them. Translations of stories by writers like Agatha Christie or Georges Simenon contain very useful vocabulary.

Once you have developed a bigger vocabulary, though, it is a good idea to try to develop it even further by listening to the radio as well as reading. You should listen to the radio in any case. You need to listen for the purposes of both pronunciation and training yourself to understand.

As with pronunciation, tapes are not nearly so useful as the radio. Commercial tapes are a completely unnecessarily expensive way of learning only a limited vocabulary. The radio is the biggest single contribution to foreign-language learning since the invention of writing. Or rather; it is potentially the biggest single contribution, because sadly it is not used for learning languages anything like as much as it can be. (We are naturally not talking about any language courses one may be able to hear on the radio, but about the never-ending stream of language of varying kinds that pours out of it.)

As we have emphasized before, it is only by observing a word in many 'living' contexts, as we have done in our own language, that we can master its meaning. Most of the equivalents given in dictionaries are at best approximations or pointers, and 'dead' approximations at that. We should constantly remind ourselves that languages do not mean each other; they refer directly to reality.

 

37 Learning the words of our own language

By this time many readers are probably saying: "This is all very well, but what's the good of doing all this reading and listening if I don't know the words, and can't understand? How am I actually going to learn meanings?"

We need to think again about how children - and for that matter adults - learn meanings. Let us imagine that you are forty years old and can understand about 50,000 words in your own language. (That's a fairly typical number for an 'educated' person. We are talking about 'passive' vocabulary, not the number of words a person uses actively in speech and writing.) How many of those 50,000 have you looked up in a dictionary? How many have you had explained to you by your parents or anybody else?

Let us suppose that somebody explained four words a day to you from the time you were two until you were ten, and that since then you have looked up one word in the dictionary every single day of your life. Probably almost everybody knows that those are ridiculously unrealistic figures. But even on that basis, and even assuming that the explanations and the dictionary work were a hundred per cent effective, you would still know less than 23,000 words, leaving over 27,000 to account for. In practice most of us almost certainly get the meanings of far less than a thousand words from dictionaries or explanations.

How did we learn the rest? And how is it we not only know exactly what most of them mean (even if we occasionally get the wrong end of the stick) but also know exactly how to use practically all the words of our active vocabulary?

 

38 Learning meanings from context

The answer is that we 'worked out' the meanings from the context, the 'real life' context, of what we were hearing or reading. (The 'extra' part of the vocabulary of better 'educated' people is almost certainly acquired mainly through reading.) This is exactly what you should do with a foreign language. Remember that for a given number of words you read as an adult in a foreign language you will learn more new words more quickly than you did when you read the same number of words in your own language as a child.

As children we probably worked out new meanings largely without thinking about them consciously. This is what you should try to do as an adult. The secret is to forget that you are studying a foreign language and concentrate instead on the content - be curious about the story, the argument, the description and nothing else. This is an added reason why you should read or listen to language about things that interest you. If you do, you will find it much easier to approach the problem of vocabulary in the right way.

A great many people become mentally paralyzed when they are faced with pieces of language containing a number of words they don't know. Worrying about the language instead of about the 'story', their attitude is: "How can I understand the sentence if I don't understand all the words?" If you approach the problem like that you will indeed often not understand anything at all. If children thought like that they would never learn any words.

Don't use words to find out the meaning of sentences. Use sentences to find out the meaning of words.

Naturally there are limits to this approach. Clearly if there are too many unfamiliar words, you will be left in the dark. This is why children take a long time to master their language. But if you find it difficult to accept the way we are recommending you to learn words, we must ask you to consider again how it is that children learn words so efficiently, even though they do not have the advantage that adults have. (But see below, Section 42.)

 

39 Imagine blanks in the text

If or when you find you cannot grasp the meaning of unfamiliar words with little or no conscious thought, you can use a method which is probably in fact what both children and adults, without thinking about it, use in their own language when they arrive at meanings. Pretend that the word you cannot understand is a blank. Imagine what meaning it would make sense to fill the blank with. This is often very easy to do. Many people will have had the experience of having to try to read bad handwriting in a letter in their own language. The mental process of working out the meaning of an obscure word in a foreign language is the same as the mental process of working out an indecipherable word in your own language - if you can relax enough to see it that way. Once again it is a matter of not getting into a panic of helplessness just because you don't 'know' the word.

 

40 Two sorts of context

Learning words through context is not only the best way to learn a 'passive' vocabulary but also the best way to learn an 'active' one. We have already emphasized how words in different languages are very seldom exact equivalents of each other. Each word is used in its own special way in each language. For that reason, in order to truly master the use of a word, you must observe it in context. This must be at least a phrase, more often a complete sentence, and sometimes more than a sentence.

Many words, actually, have two contexts. Each word has a context of a 'real life' situation, but very often also a context of other words (known in linguistic jargon as "collocations"). We have given some examples in Section 28. Here are a few more. First, two pairs of contrasting situations, expressed in English:

 

Could you bring those plates here?

Could you take these sandwiches into the other room?

 

Could you tell me where the nearest telephone box is? This telephone box is out of order. How far is it to the next one?

 

And four examples of words that go with other words, in English, Italian and Swedish:

 

1.  They've scored a goal.

2.  We had great fun. (NB both have and great with fun.)

3.  She's married to a doctor.

4.  She finally achieved her ambition.

 

1.  (Italian) Hanno segnato una rete. ('marked a net')

2.  (Swedish) Vi hade väldigt roligt. ('had hugely funny')

3.  (Italian) E sposata con un medico. ('married with')

4.  (Swedish) Äntligen uppfyllde hon sin ambition. ('fulfilled her ambition')

 

There are even more narrowly restricted combinations of words, so restricted that we might call them clichés, such as fully aware, but totally unaware, etc.

 

41 Favourite words

There is something else that you can only do if you increase your vocabulary mainly through reading and listening. You will find, if you observe keenly, that each language has its 'favourite' words.

Most, or at least a great many, languages have rough equivalents of most meanings in other languages. For instance, other languages than English have equivalents of the words based on any and equivalents of any itself, and they have equivalents of the English -ever words - whenever, wherever, etc. Yet, in practice, other languages do not use their equivalents of those words nearly so often as English-speakers use any and -ever words. English-speakers use them constantly.

There are also English words which have alternatives, such as particularly instead of especially, and odd instead of strange. What is very noticeable to anyone who listens a lot to non-native speakers of English is how they almost never use particularly or odd, while native speakers of English possibly use these words considerably more often than especially and strange, particularly in speech. Many students of English, including those at an advanced level, claim they have never even heard of the word odd. If you want to speak a foreign language really naturally, you should keep your eyes and ears open, and perhaps, if you are a 'list person', even make a list of 'favourite' words as you notice them.

 

42 The disadvantage of being an adult

Adults, then, have the great advantage, where new words are concerned, of knowing the world already. But they have the great disadvantage that they cannot be in at the beginning, so to speak, of a foreign language. That is to say, they cannot learn the very first words, the basic words, of a language in the same way that children do. Small children live a life that is concerned with basic concrete objects, basic sensations, basic emotions, basic physical activities. These are what their parents talk to them about, and the meanings of the words the parents use are demonstrated directly to the children over and over again.

For adults it is very difficult - for most of them impossible - to reproduce this situation. For that reason it is virtually impossible for them to learn the meanings of the most basic words of a foreign language by 'working them out' from the context. They haven't got the context. So right at the beginning of learning a new language you have to learn words through translations into your own language, whether with the help of a dictionary or in some other way.

 

43 Memory aids

Various mental devices and tricks Note 4 have been suggested for helping language learners to remember the meanings of words. They are not really to be recommended. In practice they only tend to put an extra burden on the memory. They may very well work sometimes, in the sense that with their help you do in fact remember particular words. But the time you use up in working out and applying such aids to the memory could have been used to remind yourself of many more words in a natural way, that is, in a context. On the whole, resorting to memory aids probably greatly slows down the process of learning vocabulary rather than speeding it up.

It is a good principle in language learning generally that one should avoid any technique that involves learning or remembering something extra. Go directly to the language as soon as possible. Don't spend time and energy on 'middle men'. They tend to be barriers, not short cuts. The true shortest cut is to follow the real way of language, which, as we have seen, is to associate the word directly with the reality it represents.

 

44 The dangers of the = sign

Another serious drawback of using these remembering devices is that they tend to encourage the "this word = that word" approach to learning a language. For many individual words in themselves this does not matter. It is probably pretty safe in most languages to put the equals sign between the words for bread, brother or buy, for instance.

But it may be surprising how quickly one comes up against difficulties. Even what appear to be the most basic words can cause trouble. Take for example what one needs in order to express bad in Italian. English-speakers take it for granted that this is a kind of all-purpose idea expressed by the most basic of words, the uncomplicated opposite of good. Yet in Italian its idea is expressed by an indefinite number of different words, according to context. (Bad in bad weather, bad bus service and bad food would be expressed by at least three different words or phrases in Italian, to take a mere three examples.)

 

45 Prepositions again

The single-word equivalent system of learning vocabulary is particularly harmful in the way it usually stops students learning prepositions properly. We gave some examples in Section 3 of how prepositions in different languages do not correspond with each other. But nearly all learners of a foreign language meet the basic prepositions right at the beginning of their studies. They usually learn just one main meaning for each preposition, and so it becomes embedded in the mind as having that meaning in their own language. The damage is done, the habit cannot be broken, however much they may later warn themselves about it, and prepositions confuse them permanently.

 

46 More haste, less speed

The key is to have the strength of mind to be patient. Most children learning their own language, if they can choose what they read, and get sensible advice, are not aware of having to be patient. Adults learning a foreign language expect to learn much faster than children. The irony is that they can, for the reason already explained, but so often don't because they go about it the wrong way. If you are an adult, at the very beginning you must expect to read a great deal that you do not understand. The essential thing is not to give in to the temptation to turn to the dictionary. Don't worry if you don't understand everything, don't worry even if you understand less than half of what you read. The important thing is to keep on reading as many words as you can. Read what interests you, and concentrate on the content, not the language.

If you persevere, read the foreign language for three hours a day, on average look up no more than two or three words a day (fewer if possible), and don't worry about the bits you don't understand, you will find that in a few weeks you have increased your vocabulary enormously. At the beginning of those few weeks you will sometimes feel that you understand almost nothing, and despair of ever understanding any more. At the end you may be puzzled how you have done it, and feel you have learned a large number of words without really noticing it - which is exactly what we did as children, except that we took far longer. We must repeat the simple principle: if people do not read or listen to lots of words, they will not learn lots of words.

 

47 This writer's personal failure and success at learning vocabulary

I learned the wrong way and the right way to do it when I first went to Sweden. I still have the book, a volume of historical essays, where the first thirty pages or so are full of the English translations I found in the dictionary and pencilled in against every Swedish word I did not know. After a few months I realized I was getting nowhere. I abandoned the book and the dictionary and started reading a fat Swedish daily newspaper. Every day I read practically the whole paper apart from the advertisements - and sometimes some of them too. Within about six months I was able to understand without effort practically everything written in Swedish that was not fiction or technical. A complete mastery of the vocabulary of fiction took me somewhat longer.

Almost forty years later I started to live periodically in Italy. I spent a total of nearly four years there; I can now understand almost everything in an Italian newspaper or magazine except the most elaborate writing. In those four years I have looked up less than ten words in the Italian-English dictionary, except for official vocabulary and the names of animals and plants. I looked up official words when it was important to understand them immediately for bureaucratic or legal purposes. Words for animals and plants one often has to look up because the context more often than not cannot help one to understand them. This applies to the vocabulary of some fiction, but to a far lesser extent.

I must, however; put my experience with Italian in perspective. When I started to learn it I could already read non-fiction in both French and Spanish without much difficulty, and to French- and Spanish-speakers a great many Italian words are transparent. A large number of Italian words are transparent to English-speakers as well.

On the other hand I was very busy doing other things while I was in Italy and did not do nearly as much reading of the local language as I had done all those years earlier in Sweden. Instead of a whole newspaper a day I read part of just one newspaper and most of a magazine each week. Undoubtedly the many years of being involved with foreign-language learning in one way or another had given me experience that enabled me to learn vocabulary quicker than before.

I ought also to record the fact that I have never in all my life written a single note about the vocabulary of any language nor ever made a list, however short, of equivalent words for any language. I regard it as a waste of time, and have always wanted to get on instead with the real job of observing the living foreign language as it is actually used. It seems to me pointless to start writing one's own dictionary, when dictionaries as good as anything one is likely to produce oneself already exist.

 

48 Notes and lists

However; many learners have a quite different approach and feel their minds can't work properly if they don't write things down. If you believe you cannot learn words without writing them down in some way, do at least try to avoid making simple lists of one-word equivalents.

Always note down complete sentences, or; in longer sentences, at the very least complete phrases. You then have records of real pieces of language, examples of howwords are actually used. It is also much better normally not to write a translation in your own language. You should avoid the translation approach whenever you can.

On the other hand, it does no harm if sometimes your example sentences for a word you are interested in make general statements about the word itself. Here, as an example, are the sort of sentences you should try to get hold of and could usefully note down about the word borrow if you are somebody studying English as a foreign language. You will notice that there are several sentences that do not contain the word borrow itself. That is because it is just as important to know the words and expressions used around borrow as well.

 

One borrows things from people.

One lends things to people.

People borrow books from libraries.

They have borrower's cards.

The borrowers have to return (give back) the books after a certain period.

This book is due back on the 20th.

May I borrow your pen?

Could I possibly borrow your car for the day?

Do you think I could possibly borrow this for a few days?

I'll return it (give it back) next week.

 

If you make notes in this way you will always be learning something really useful. When it comes to using words in practice it is of limited value just to know the meaning of a word in isolation. You need to know how to express the other ideas that that word will inevitably be connected to.

If, as with making polite requests in the case of borrow above, it involves including expressions that often occur in the context of other words, that is all to the good. What is common should become familiar.

Notes like these are, incidentally, a good illustration of how important it is to use looseleaf notebooks. If you make your notes in bound notebooks you cannot possibly organize them properly, and so they will remain effectively useless.

Finally, even if you are a confirmed note writer; try just once not making any notes for a few months, and instead read all that much more of the foreign language itself in the time you would have spent on notes.

 

49 Concentrate on one meaning at a time

On the other hand we strongly advise you not to try to learn all the different meanings of a word at the same time. Words don't work in the mind like that. Each different meaning of a word belongs in its own special context, and it is in each special context that it is natural to remember it. If you look up a word such as the French porter even in a small dictionary you may well find over ten different meanings. If you try to remember them all at once, even in a context, you will probably only become confused. In our own language we do not remember the different uses of a word in that way. There are often uses that native speakers do not know, and yet that does not in any way affect their mastery of the others. With a foreign language, as with your own, you should be patient and just wait for each different meaning of a word to present itself in its own natural context.

 

 

IV. Dictionaries

 

50 How big?

One of the first considerations for many people when they are choosing a dictionary may be price. A beginner will not normally need a really large dictionary (over 50,000 words). Pocket dictionaries with about 8,000 to 10,000 words should serve well enough at the start. These are also as a rule perfectly adequate for travelling.

 

51 Good and bad dictionaries

But size is certainly not the most important criterion in the choice of a dictionary. A good small dictionary is far better than a huge bad one. One needs a dictionary that tells one what one needs to know; that will vary from person to person. What is essential is to know what you personally do need. (One snag of pocket dictionaries is that very often they do not have all the necessary words for food, or for dishes in restaurants.)

A great problem one is up against, when choosing a dictionary, is that it is very difficult to judge reliably how good a dictionary is by looking at it for ten minutes in a bookshop. It is often only after one has used a dictionary for a while that one begins to discover its defects. If you can, get advice from people who know about dictionaries of the language concerned; but make sure that they are themselves guided by the right principles.

One important principle can be seen from the following three examples taken from the English-Italian section of a medium-sized 'two-way' dictionary of those languages. They illustrate what a dictionary should not be like. It includes usage that students will not need until a very advanced stage, if ever, and omits expressions that most students will need at quite early stages.

Under (a), the dictionary gives the Italian for (b), but not for (c).

 

(a)

(b) included

(c) missing

bed

you have made your bed,
now you must lie in it

get out of bed

deliver

deliver a blow

deliver the post

spend

the night is far spent

spend time (an hour etc.)
doing something

 

Also, a dictionary must show what words are used together with the head word. For instance, if you are an Italian-speaker looking up the English for scusare or perdonare, and you find among others the word forgive, the dictionary should give you forgive (sb. for sth.; sb. for doing). (sb. would stand for somebody, sth. for something, and doing for a verb in the -ing form.)

If it is a dictionary for students of French, it should tell you for each verb whether it is followed by a or de before an infinitive: that, for instance, cesser (stop or cease) is followed by de (cesser de pleurer - to stop crying'). (And of course, if you are studying English, your dictionary must tell you how to use stop.) If you are learning Swedish and want to know how to say "I like eating", your dictionary should not only tell you that like can be translated with tycka om, but also that it is followed in such a case by att: "Jag tycker om att äta". And so on.

Another general principle is that the more good examples a dictionary has of how the words are used, the better it is. A dictionary without examples may be good enough for someone who only wants it for holiday travelling; but anyone with any ambitions in the language should find a dictionary with examples. As a rule, dictionary publishers should not sacrifice the space needed for examples in favour of a larger number of entries.

However; you should beware of monolingual dictionaries that claim to be the latest in scientific lexicography because they are based on a huge 'corpus' of millions of words scanned by computer. (A well-known example is the Cobuild English dictionary.) These computer collections are almost entirely of sentences and phrases found in written texts. The result is that not only are many of the examples quoted in the dictionary completely untypical of the real everyday use of the words, which is mainly found in speech; they have also been taken out of their broader context in newspaper articles, novels etc., which makes it even harder for the dictionary user to understand how the words are used.

 

 

52 Dictionaries - which way round?

When I first became interested in foreign languages I often heard people say that it is perfectly all right for English-speakers to use French-English dictionaries as much as they like, but that they should be very wary of using English-French dictionaries. In other words, it was all right to use dictionaries from the foreign language into one's own, but not dictionaries the other way round. I entirely accepted this principle. The grounds for it were that when one uses an 'own-to-foreign' dictionary, the chances are that one will not know how to use the foreign words one finds.

That danger certainly exists. However; I now think the opposite of what I used to. It has already been explained why you should use the 'foreign-to-own' dictionary as little as possible. But when you want to put something into the foreign language, you cannot 'work out' what the words must be. You either know them or you do not. The dictionary is the only solution if you have ideas to express that you do not know how to express.'

But you must certainly be on your guard. Try to avoid using a word that you do not recognize, or at least, if you do use it, be aware that you are very likely making a mistake. It is a good idea, in fact, if you are in any doubt, to 'check back' in the opposite direction by looking up the foreign word you have chosen in a foreign-to-own dictionary.

On the other hand you may recognize a great many words, when you find them in the own-to-foreign dictionary, that you could not have thought of by yourself. As we have already pointed out, passive vocabulary is nearly always far bigger than active. You may learn a great deal, particularly when you plan what to say with the help of an own-to-foreign language dictionary.

 

53 Dictionaries and translation

The only times I use a 'foreign-to-own' dictionary a lot are when I am doing translation work. I do not use the dictionary to find out what the foreign words mean. I do not consider people have any business to be translating if they have to use a dictionary more than very occasionally in order to understand. I use the dictionary to remind myself of the possible words in my own language. For a competent translator (into his own language) it is always and only his own language that presents the real problems. He understands the sense of the original perfectly - but how should he express it in the language he is translating into?

 

54 Monolingual or bilingual dictionaries?

It has been the orthodox view for a very long time now that more advanced students of foreign languages should only use monolingual dictionaries in the language concerned (i.e. if you study English you should use an English-English dictionary, if Russian, a Russian-Russian dictionary, and so on). Indeed, it is customary in language teaching circles to go even further and insist that one should begin to use monolingual dictionaries as soon as possible; from then on they are preferable to bilingual dictionaries. Thus, for example, according to this view, a dictionary which contains only French is better than a one- or two-volume dictionary with French-English and English-French.

It seems to be a principle that many, perhaps most, language teachers take for granted, something that is beyond question, so much so that there is virtually no debate on the issue. On the rare occasions when anybody bothers to explain why monolingual dictionaries are so superior; the argument seems to be that they make students think in the foreign language instead of immediately turning the foreign words into equivalents in their own language.

 

55 There are very few true synonyms

It has already been explained why it is a bad idea to think in terms of equivalents in your own language. But what is an even worse idea is to translate a word into another word in the same language. The whole 'point' of a word is that it does not mean anything but itself. Practically every word is unique.

Words may often overlap with each other in their objective, practical effect, as in:

 

He started/began to read.

I've made/done the beds.

You'll have to change/alter your figures.

There are no cats apart from/except mine.

 

But their meanings remain different, and for that reason the objective and practical effect is very often different too, when the context changes, as for instance in:

 

He started/began(?) the car.

I've made/done the kitchen floor.

You'll have to change/alter your dress.

There are twenty-six cats apart from/except mine. [except makes no sense in the last sentence.]Note 5

 

So never try to find out how words are the same. Find out how they are different! Never try to learn alternative words. For example, if we imagine you are learning English, do not think about what the words face, confront and oppose might have in common, never attempt to connect them to each other in your mind. Connect each one, instead, to the ideas to which it naturally belongs; one builds up understanding of how words are used from being alert to the contexts they fit into.

 

He must face-his-problems-alone.

 

Simply confront-the-boss-with-the-evidence.

 

She will oppose-the-motion.

 

Then, when you feel you really need an alternative, you will be able to judge which word is the right one from your knowledge of how the words are truly used, and where they fit naturally. If you learn like that, you are unlikely to think of replacing the three words above with each other.

 

56 How monolingual dictionaries mislead

Monolingual dictionaries give the impression that the opposite of all this is true. They give definitions (see below, Section 59), and describe words in terms of each other; tell us that this word means the same as that word. Over the years I has noted down examples of mistakes and misunderstandings that have resulted from using one of the most well-known monolingual English dictionaries produced for foreign students. Here are just a few of them. The words in brackets are what the writers really meant. I was able to establish exactly what was happening because in each case the writers were reporting on something they had read in English.

 

She died after a long disease (illness).

If people criticize our handling of our children, we bubble over (seethe).

My wife said nothing, in spite of my incompetence, until lastly (finally) I dropped the spare wheel on her foot.

They considered (thought of) a genuinely British solution to the problem.

18th century furniture is rather breakable (fragile).

 

Luckily things could be worse. The monolingual dictionary often turned up in rows on the desks in front of a new group of my students, but I noticed, even if I hadn't had the heart to tell them they had wasted their money, that at the end of the term most of these thick tomes still had their pristine, unfingered shine.

 

57 The temptation to resist new words

Unfortunately, though, it is what one might call the 'monolingual' philosophy that does so much harm, even when monolingual dictionaries are not actually used. It not only encourages a completely false idea of the nature of language, and misleads students about the meaning of thousands of words; it also encourages the great reluctance of so many students to adopt new words.

Naturally if one accuses them of such an attitude, most will deny it. Of course they want to learn new words, they assure us with complete sincerity. But their actions belie their protestations. Led to believe - and only too willing to believe - that the new word means the same as a good old safe familiar word, students will stick to the familiar one, and won't bother with the new one. It will often be as if they had never read or heard it, and they will persevere with the old one in all sorts of contexts where it won't do at all.

 

58 The trap of thesauruses

The only thing worse than a monolingual dictionary is a thesaurus. The native speaker sifts the 'synonyms' she finds in a thesaurus, and discards most - or even all - of them. She is able to do this precisely because she already knows exactly what they mean and can accept or reject accordingly. If she is not sure of the meaning and use of a word, she does not dream of using it. A foreign student cannot possibly discriminate in this way.

 

59 The trouble with definitions

To try to learn foreign words by learning definitions (in the foreign language) is as big a mistake as to try to learn them by learning 'synonyms'. We do not in effect learn the words of our own or any other language through explanations and definitions. We understand a word and master its use when we can make a direct association with the 'reality' it refers to, whether that reality is a thing or action or quality or an abstract idea or anything else. In a sense the word is the association; there is no interpreting link between the word and what it means.

When we hear a word in our own language we do not stop and ask ourselves what the definition of that word is, in order to understand it. Nor; when we want to use a word, do we find the right one by deciding on a definition and then remembering the word attached to that definition.

It is worth considering here that when we judge that a definition of a word, in a dictionary or elsewhere, is a good one, we can only do so because we already know the meaning in a quite different, precise way that has nothing to do with definition. We do not tell ourselves that a definition is a good one because it is similar to a definition we have heard before. Equally, one can only produce one's own definition of a word if one first knows it in some other way.

But a foreign student cannot possibly be led by a definition to a proper apprehension of a word she does not know. A definition, far from being a quick path to mastery of a word, is a barrier between the word and the reality it belongs to. It is an extra and misleading burden on the memory, and goes right against the psychology of the way we experience words in practice. Mastery of a word is a matter of apprehending it - directly, in a flash.

 

60 The false logic of monolingual dictionaries

What exactly is this 'thinking' we are supposed to do in the foreign language when we use a monolingual dictionary? It is very unclear. At best it can only be thinking about the words of the definition, which is not what we need to be thinking about at all. The definition is in a foreign language, too, which can only increase the student's confusion, conscious or unconscious. Nor is there anything to stop an English-speaker, say, 'thinking in English' about a French definition in a French monolingual dictionary.

Whatever the thinking is, it is certainly not the sole kind of 'thinking in the foreign language' that is either possible or relevant: that linking of a word directly to a reality. And what sort of definitions are we talking about? Here are three examples taken from the same dictionary that I mentioned above that bring out the failure of the monolingual approach particularly clearly:

 

blast - strong, sudden rush of wind

gust - sudden, violent rush of wind

 

dangle - hang or swing loosely

floppy - hanging down loosely

 

sarcasm - bitter remarks intended to wound the feelings

taunt - remark intended to hurt sb's feelings

 

Let us also look at a monolingual dictionary compiled in accordance with the recommendations on vocabulary of the Council of Europe, namely the New basic dictionary, published by Macmillan-Lensing. There we find among other definitions:

 

packet = a small container [a bottle?]

language = a way in which we communicate [a telephone conversation  perhaps?]

tax = money paid to the government [what for?]

 

In an English-French dictionary, on the other hand, we get a direct and far more exact answer:

 

packet   paquet

language   langage

tax    impot

 

 

61 How to use bilingual dictionaries

If you are studying a foreign language, you need a way of arriving in your mind at the reality the foreign words refer to as directly, quickly and accurately as possible. If you have to use a dictionary, you should always therefore use a bilingual dictionary. The word in your own language will immediately summon up the idea of a particular reality; there will be no barriers in the way.

But there are two things you must always do, two fundamental principles for using a bilingual dictionary. (Let us assume you are reading, not listening, although the principles remain the same.)

In the dictionary you will nearly always find several meanings in your own language for the one word you are looking up. You should go straight back to the foreign text and first see which meaning fits into the reality the text describes. Note 6

Then you should forget the word in your own language. Instead you should concentrate solely on the context of the foreign language. You have now discovered the reality which that language is talking about; observe - consciously or unconsciously - how it expresses it. In this way you will learn the exact meaning of the foreign words, just as the native speakers have done.

Perhaps to understand the principle better, imagine you come to a little river, a stream. The bank you are standing on is a sentence in the foreign language. You want to cross to the opposite bank, which is the meaning of the sentence. The stream is too wide to step across - an unknown word. But in the middle of the stream there is a stepping stone, the dictionary translation of the troublesome word. With the help of the stepping stone you step over to the other side. Now you are where you wanted to be - you understand the whole sentence, including the use of the new word. That is all you need. At this point you do not lean back to pick the stepping stone out of the stream and carry its weight around with you for the rest of your life. It has served its purpose and you can ignore it.

You should never forget that basic truth, that languages are not translations of each other. This means quite often that although the dictionary suggests many words in your own language as an equivalent of the foreign word you have looked up, none of them would be suitable as a translation for the context you have before you. But unless you are making a formal translation for someone, that does not matter at all. What is important is that you should understand the reality which the foreign language is referring to. The dictionary will usually give enough indications for you to be able to do that.

But finally, never forget that the dictionary should always be a last resort. Don't let it dominate you and steal from you the precious time you should be spending with the language itself.

 

 

V. Final advice

 

62 Summing up

(a) Never spend money and time listening to teachers talking about words. Instead, spend that time reading and listening and finding out directly what words mean and how they are used.

 

(b) Never waste money on books about vocabulary. Instead, again, read and listen and find out directly what words mean and how they are used.

 

(c) Never make lists of one-word equivalents. (If you need such a list for the most basic words, try to find one that has been made by a linguist who has studied the problem carefully.)

 

(d) Never translate into your own language "to be sure you really understand". If you don't already understand you cannot translate.

 

(e)Never think that a word means the same as another word.

 

(f)Never believe that a definition tells you what a word really means.

 

(g)Never use a dictionary more than you absolutely have to – and "absolutely having to" is much less often than you think.

 

 

 

Notes

1 It is important to be clear about what is really happening inside people who are described as 'thinking in the foreign language'. Strictly speaking nobody thinks in any language (see Gethin, Amorey, 1999. Language and thought: A rational enquiry into their nature and relationship, Intellect, pp.32-51). What an English-speaker (for instance) is really claiming - though he may not be aware of it - when he claims to think in French is that when he hears or reads French he turns the language directly into ideas in his head without going via English words; and when he speaks or writes French he turns his ideas directly into French, again without going through English words. There are several simple proofs that we do not think in language, but perhaps the simplest is to consider what we mean when we say we understand a piece of language, in the first place a piece, any piece, of our own language. We do not just repeat inside our heads the language we hear. We turn it inside our heads into something else that is not language at all. Let us call that something ideas, or pictures of reality - nobody has yet pinned down exactly what the something is, and we shall know a great deal more about ourselves if anybody ever does. But whatever it is, it is clear that if ever and whenever we cannot turn language into that something else, we do not understand. Not being able to make that conversion in our minds is what we mean whenever we say "I don't understand", whether our own or a foreign language is involved. Quite simply, we hear words but they don't mean anything to us – or at least, not the complete meaning that is intended.

 

 

2 Erik Gunnemark points out that the 'mini' idea is by no means new. Among its pioneers was the Swedish explorer Sven Hedin, who from 1890 onwards systematically learnt about 500 words in each of several different languages during his travels in Asia. He said himself that he at first used them "all hopelessly wrong" but, as time went by, better and better; the main thing for him was that he could understand and make himself understood thanks to having concentrated on the 500 most important words.

In recent times mini lists have been compiled to promote the learning of new national (official) languages, such as Catalan in Catalonia and Tagalog (Filipino) in the Philippines.

Now even theoretical linguists are beginning to take an interest in mini ideas – but they seem to believe that they were invented in the U.S.A. In reality the first systematic report on the mini approach is to be found in E.V.Gunnemark's book of 1977 (Konsten att
lära sig språk ['The art of learning languages'], Geolingua, Gothenburg). He had put the first mini lists together in the 1960's, partly in the course of journeys in Europe and partly while teaching immigrants in Sweden.

 

 

3 Various attempts have been made to discover how often each word of a language occurs within the community that uses the language. The results of these word-frequency counts naturally depend on the basis on which they are made. The results can be grotesque, particularly when only the words in literary texts are counted. According to one count of English words, ere is a far more common word than meaningless. To make a truly 'scientific' count of the frequency of words in a language one would have to count samples of four categories of word: not only words spoken and written, but also those heard and read. One would then have to calculate the proportion of each in the life of actual communities. But even if one could make such a count, it would be useless as the basis for choosing a vocabulary for most individuals, each in their particular personal situation.

 

 

4 An English-speaking student of Spanish, for example, might decide to remember that vaca means cow by reminding himself that cows have a vacant look. A student of Turkish could adopt an even more tortuous procedure for remembering the meaning of bos: bos reminds him that the Latin for an ox is bos (genitive bovis); oxen have vacant looks, so bos means empty.

It is a different matter for a student of English, say, to remember that lie and rise, as opposed to lay and raise, are the intransitive pair, because they have i in their pronunciation. Here one is reducing information to a simple pattern.

 

 

5 The objective and practical 'effect' is not the whole of the meaning of a word or phrase. An essential part of any piece of language is what people associate with it and the angle that it makes them look at things from. A very clear-cut example of this is seen in: "I saw a kangaroo" / "I have seen a kangaroo". These two statements may well refer to exactly the same 'objective and practical' event. Yet their meanings are quite different, and it would be clearly 'wrong' to use the one if you meant the other. See Gethin, Antilinguistics, pp.5-6, 157-169, for a longer discussion of this theme.

Differences of meaning are by no means always so obvious, though. This often leads many native speakers of a language to deny that there are differences between words, even though they will almost invariably show that they unconsciously appreciate those differences by the way they use the words.

A lot of and lots of might be thought to mean exactly the same. Yet I doubt whether any native English-speaker would comp1ain by saying: "You were making lots of noise last night!" Part of a meaning is people's feelings about it.

Not even nobody and no-one mean the same. The expression is "He's just a nobody", not "He's just a no-one".

Again, gramophone and record-player may refer to the same physical object. But, because of their varying associations, they do not mean exactly the same.

It is not possible, either, to establish a clear line between meaning and style. Style is merely at one end of the range which covers both the objective and practical on one hand, and, on the other, association. Style is concerned little with the fact, and much with feeling about the fact; but it is still meaning.

 

6 Many thousands of common words in most languages have more than one sense. If you are not used to learning a foreign language and using a dictionary, be very careful to choose the right one, the sense that fits the context. Usually this is obvious - even if you are paying only moderate attention to what you are doing. But it is frightening what even paid translators can do if they are careless or incompetent. A nice example is what a professional translator working on an engineering report did when he came to the phrase hydraulic ram. He translated it into words that meant water goat.

 

 

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