LTL REFLECTION: choose your words carefully

LTL REFLECTION: choose your words carefully

There are two realities when you are learning new vocabulary in another language:

  • One is the reality of learning vocabulary better when the context is rich and relevant
  • The other is the reality of not having enough time to learn all your new vocabulary in a contextually rich and relevant way

You choose!

On the other hand, we could find ways to add meaning and context to the new words we are learning – as we learn them. Adding layers of personal association, context and meaning is something that learners need to do for themselves; a teacher cannot decide what is personally meaningful for you. Of course, a teacher can tell you what words are the most often used, and what words are necessary for a particular reading or activity, but there are over three thousand common words in English. So, which ones are YOU going to learn FIRST?

Don’t let the dictionary or phrasebook decide for you.

Picking your words

I have written about choosing which words to learn first and how to learn them HERE, HERE and HERE

HERE, I want to talk about how I chose the words I wanted to learn in Arabic and things I do to try and attach meaning to the words as I am learning them. I home that reflection and feedback on my vocabulary learning attempts will help me to improve my vocabulary learning rate AND improve my efforts as a teacher helping others to learn vocabulary in English.

It’s Easy! Choose the easy words

It is actually REALLY easy. I now know at least a dozen (that’s twelve, to you) words in Arabic that I didn’t know a couple of days ago. And I know them really well; Komputer, sinema, massaj, New Zeelanda, Maleezia. I’m actually having a hard time finding lists of more English words commonly used in Arabic.

(Do you know of such a list? Anyone?)

I am finding a lot more of these cognates (words that sound the same in different languages like computer / komputer) between some of the Malay words I know and their Arabic relatives. Words like majlis (council) Juma’a (Friday,)baki (remaining balance) and daulat (nation).

As well as English and Malay, I’m finding cognates through general knowledge as well. An Arabic word for travel is safar – think safari, and now you’ve got an easy hook for remembering the sound and meaning of safar.

Other cognates for common words that I’ve been able to match through general knowledge are sebon (soap), qamiz (shirt), baet (house – from Beth-el ‘God’s house’ a Biblical place name) and madrasa (school)

(Anymore words like this?)

Learning a new word is easy when you already associate something very similar-sounding to the exact same meaning you already have in your own word association bank. The learning is easier, or the learning burden is eased, as they say. Whatever expression you use, you are certainly making your life easier as far as language learning goes.

Paul Nation taught me just about everything I know about learning burdens; here’s a PDF of an article he wrote about teaching vocabulary:

PDF of the article Paul Nation wrote about teaching vocabulary (

How can you develop your own meaningful associations with words that don’t sound like words you already know?

One way (Paul Nation, again), is to make a story for yourself connecting the sounds and syllables of the new word to associations you already have. Basically, any kind of word association trick you can do with new words is going to help you remember what they sound like and what they mean – at the same time.

Adding meaning to random words

Here’s what I’ve been doing and it came about through a misunderstanding. I know a guy who is nicknamed D’abul; I don’t know why, but I thought it meant ‘barrel’. The guy was a bit chubby, so it was a fair guess. I was talking to someone about how D’abul, or ‘Barrel’ was no longer a good nickname because the guy now had more of a lean and mean look about him. Anyway, it turns out that D’abul does not mean ‘barrel’, but is word that has a ‘chubby’ sound to it. The nickname still stands though even though D’abul is now fighting fit.

So I decided that if nicknames stick so easily, I’m going to privately nickname some people I know with Arabic nicknames.

So far I’ve learnt words like ‘non-stop’, ‘beard’, ‘river’, ‘clearly’, ‘ocean’, ‘clean’ and  ‘shadow’ / bedoon tawakof, lechiya, nahr, bewodooh, moheet, natheef and khaial.

I’m still adding to the list. Sometimes (but not often) a person and a common word nickname come together easily, but other times it is a bit of a struggle. I usually think of the person first and try and sum up a one word thing that I can easily associate to THAT person, but it doesn’t always come at once, and if you try to force it too hard it won’t be a real word association after all. Sometimes I think of a word, and then try and match a person E.g. ”Hmm ‘disaster’. That would be Denny” (sorry Den). That would be karithah, by the way.

Something else I’ve done is to take a catch phrase or favourite expression that someone uses all the time and used that as the nickname, like ‘clearly’. I’m listening out for more. Note to self: ask Arabic speakers about filler words like ‘umm’ and ‘okay’.

Use it, or else there’s no point in learning it

But like every other aspect of language learning, if you don’t actually use the language to actually speak to other actual people you aren’t going to get very far. My next mission is going to be logging my real life interactions to see how much progress I am making in choosing words that are going to be easy for me to use in everyday real life situations.


3 thoughts on “LTL REFLECTION: choose your words carefully

  1. Looks great! Thanks for sharing. I’m in the process of trying to make sense of the Pashto language now. This and the other posts you linked to might come in handy! Cheers


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