What do you need to know about a word?

Words are more than just their meaning, and there’s a lot that we need to know about a word in order for it to be helpful for us as language learners. This post looks at what it means to ‘know’ a word.

It’s hard to learn something if you don’t know what it is you’re aiming for. We often learn what we think we need, only to find out that actually, it hasn’t really helped us! This is often the case with language learning; we make flashcards with words in our own language on one side and the language we are learning on the other side. We look at the cards often and ‘learn’ the words. Then, when we go on holiday, we can’t actually use any of the words that we had on the cards. We don’t know how to say them properly or recognise them when spoken. This shows us that words are more than just their meaning; there’s a lot more that we need to know about a word in order for it to be effective and helpful for us as language learners. This post looks at what it means to ‘know’ a word.

There are various ways of dividing up word knowledge. There is often the distinction made between the words we know passively, and those we know actively. Passive words are understood when heard or seen, while active words can be written or spoken. Even in our own languages, the number of words we can understand when we encounter them is far bigger that the number of words that we produce ourselves. So our passive vocabulary is much larger than our active vocabulary. The trick is to build up your passive knowledge but also to bring words from your passive to your active vocabulary as you progress on your language learning journey.

You can also view vocabulary knowledge in terms of the aspect of the word that the knowledge relates to. So the way that the word is spelled and pronounced is the form. The different senses of the words is the meaning, and the way that the word is used, the situations it’s used in and the other words it’s found with is the use. It’s important not to focus only on one of these areas, and to get knowledge of all three aspects of a word. For example, it would be less helpful to only know what a words means, than to also know how to pronounce it and the type of situations it’s used in.

Another way of looking at vocabulary knowledge is in terms of depth and breadth; so if you know a large number of words, but not very much about them, you have good lexical breadth, but you may be less able to use those words that someone who has a deeper understanding of them. Conversely, you may be wasting your time to learn all the different senses of a word, all derived forms and all collocates, when this information isn’t very common. It might therefore be better to learn some other words instead and sacrifice some depth for additional breadth. It’s a fine balance!

Here at Flovoco we don’t want you just to focus on meaning. We realise the importance of form and use in giving you the lexical foundation you need. This is why the different levels in Flovoco focus on different aspects of what it means to know a word, from meaning, to sound and spelling, use and derived forms. This allows you to get the depth you need, without sacrificing the breadth that is important in order for you to understand a wide range of the words that you encounter in real life. We feel that this way, Flovoco gets the balance right and helps you know the things you need about the words that are important for you.

28th October 2014

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