Category Archives: Learning Other Languages

Topic vs. Frequency in Vocabulary Learning

Teachers and learners of languages, I am looking for your input in the topic vs. frequency debate. Almost all textbooks and coursebooks introduce vocabulary in chapter topics or themes such as food, clothing, transportation, etc.  These related words are often used to fill in the slots of functional phrases, which a lot of current books are based on thanks to the  popularity of the communicative approach. For example, one of the chapters in the French textbook that I use in my class combines the functions of offering, accepting and refusing with the topic of drinks. So students are expected to memorize the question Voulez-vous boire un/e ____ ? and the vocabulary list is full of nouns such as un verre de lait, une tasse de thé, un coca, un chocolat chaud, etc. (The conjugation of vouloir is not actually taught in this or any preceding chapters.)

The problems with presenting vocabulary like this, however, is that it goes against vocabulary acquisition research. Many researchers have argued that grouping vocabulary into topics (and therefore semantic sets) actually hinders acquisition and confuses the students more. The topics tend to represent concrete concepts as well and can easily be illustrated in the chapters with pictures or photographs – which consequently leaves out abstract ideas. Plus words grouped according to topic mean that the words are not grouped according to frequency, which is the most important criterion for selecting vocabulary to teach/learn first.  Of course, frequency is not the only criterion, but it should be the starting point for vocabulary selection.

Learn opposites together = forever confused

If frequency is supported by research and topic is not, then why do all textbooks teach vocabulary based on topic? Is it because it easier to write textbooks in this way? Is it easier for the instructor to teach in this way? Is it considered less boring and more engaging for students to learn in this manner even if it goes against vocabulary acquisition research?

I’ve heard arguments that students should learn vocabulary in topics so they can talk about them right away, but that doesn’t make sense if the students don’t even have the basic vocabulary needed to construct sentences. Even if you learn all the articles of clothing, what exactly can you say about them? How can you have conversations about clothes if all you know if a list of nouns? In my class’s textbook, students learn to say Je porte un/e ___ and then some adjectives to describe the clothes. I really don’t see how that is going to help them communicate in the real world.

It seems to me that it’s more of a classroom vs. real world debate. We want students to be able to use the language as soon as possible, even if that means teaching things that will only ever be used inside the classroom. But isn’t it our job as educators to prepare students as much as possible for the future when they will leave our classrooms? Or are we simply just trying to make sure they don’t fall asleep in class?

I’ m not saying that students should just learn the 2,000 most frequent words of a language in sequential order. That would be rather boring and frustrating. But there is a much better way of presenting vocabulary – the most frequent words among a few topics presented in story format, for example – that textbook authors keep resisting. And I want to know why! Is it because the textbook publishing industry does not want to change and try something new (for fear of losing money)? Is it because too many people think it’s more logical to learn vocabulary in semantic sets regardless of what research says? Personally I feel it is much more logical to learn the words that you are most likely to encounter, i.e. the most frequent words. Even if there are problems with frequency – such as, what texts were used in the corpus to generate the frequency data? – it is actually supported by research, and that is what is most important to me.

How many first year French students do you think really need to learn the words arc-boutant (flying buttress) or fluocompacte (energy-saving) but not tel (such), également (also), soit (either…or), mener (to lead), appartenir (to belong to), atteindre (to reach), entier (whole), moindre (least), or intérêt (interest)? These are all words that are not taught in the active vocabulary lists of ANY of the 12 first year textbooks that I am analyzing and they are all ranked among the top 500 most frequent words in French.

So what do you think?

Vocabulary Myths: Applying Second Language Research to Classroom Teaching

Vocabulary Myths: Applying Second Language Research to Classroom Teaching by Keith Folse (2004, University of Michigan Press) is a great introduction to the gap between practice and research in vocabulary learning and teaching.

I highly recommend the book, but if you’d like a shorter summary, Folse’s article “Myths about Teaching and Learning Second Language Vocabulary: What Recent Research Says” [TESL Reporter 37,2 (2004), pp. 1-13] is also available if you have access to online journals.

The eight myths are:

  1. Vocabulary is not as important in learning a foreign language as grammar or other areas.
  2. It is not good to use lists of words when learning vocabulary.
  3. Vocabulary should be presented in semantic sets.
  4. The use of translations is a poor way to learn new vocabulary.
  5. Guessing words from context is as productive for foreign language learners as it is for first language learners.
  6. The best vocabulary learners make use of only one or two effective specific vocabulary learning strategies.
  7. Foreign language learners should use a monolingual dictionary.
  8. Vocabulary is sufficiently covered in our curricula and courses.

Think about your language classes and how many of these myths were prevalent in the textbook or even encouraged by your teacher.  These myths make teaching languages as well as designing textbooks much easier for the teacher or author, but they go against second language acquisition research on how learners should go about learning a language and tend to make learning even harder.

Mind the Word extension for Chrome: Learn languages as you browse the web

If you use Google Chrome as your web browser, Mind the Word is a useful extension to help you learn vocabulary in another language while you browse the web.

From the description: “In every webpage visited, it randomly translates a few words into the language that you would like to learn. By exposing you to only a few new words at a time and keeping them within context, it makes it easy for you to infer and memorize their meaning. If you need, you can hover the mouse over the translated word and the original word will be shown to you.”

Here’s my last blog post with the extension set to translate to Dutch and with the cursor hovering over meer:

Obviously it doesn’t do idioms well since it simply offers translation of single words, and you can’t really choose which words it will translate or not, but it is an easy way to make sure you integrate some language learning into your everyday internet routine.

Thanks to for bringing this to my attention.

International Women’s Day and Encouraging Women to Learn Languages

International Women’s Day is a global day celebrating the economic, political and social achievements of women past, present and future.

Improving the lives of women is very important to me, especially since women continue to be oppressed all over the world – including in my own country. I truly believe education is the key to empowerment and equality for all human beings, but more specifically, the knowledge of foreign languages is essential.

So how can we encourage more women to not only learn foreign languages, but also to show their skills to the rest of the world in order to encourage even more women to learn? Here is a conversation among three female polyglots, Susanna, Jana and Fasulye on this topic. I wasn’t able to participate, but I did send some research on the issue of gender in language learning which Susanna mentions, though sadly there is very little to no research on gender in language learning in independent settings, i.e. self-study instead of classes.

Native Speaker Teachers and Use of the First Language in the Classroom

Around the world, there is a conventional thought that foreign languages should only be taught by native speakers and that the students’ native language should be banned from the classroom. This is especially commonplace among English as a Second or Foreign Language schools which tend to exclusively employ native speakers of English, even if they have absolutely no experience or training in language teaching. However, this is mostly done for reasons related to money, prestige and prejudice and it is not, in fact, supported by linguistic research. Imagine any other business where you could teach someone else to do something in which you have absolutely no knowledge or success. How can you teach someone to speak a second or additional language when you do not speak a second or additional language yourself?

Or knowledge, or expertise, or degrees…

Only hiring native speakers and denying use of the native/first language (L1) only serves to undermine (and insult) multilingual local teachers and contradicts numerous studies showing the benefits of using the native language to learn a second or subsequent language. I certainly feel insulted when people say they will not learn languages from non-native speaking teachers because I am a non-native teacher of French. I am fluent in the language and have years of teaching experience, as well as several degrees and publications, and yet because my native language is not French that somehow makes me inferior to native speakers with no experience or education in teaching. In many ways, I actually prefer non-native speakers as teachers because then I know they have gone through the same experience as me in learning the language and they know the mistakes that I am likely to make and how to avoid them. Many people do not want to learn from non-native speakers because of their accent or the fear that the teacher will make mistakes, most of the input in the foreign language needs to come from authentic sources of language use rather than from the teacher anyway.

This problem is more rampant among English classes since English is taught much more often across the globe, but the prejudice remains for all languages. And it leads into the second issue of banning the L1, because if the teacher is monolingual then he or she cannot resort to another language in the classroom. Yet second language acquisition research provides no reason to ban the L1 completely from the classroom, and there certainly exists research to support that using the L1 is more effective for certain aspects of language learning – such as explaining grammar or tasks, disciplining students, translations for ambiguous words, etc. Of course, there are limits to how much the L1 should be used as the amount of input in the second language (L2) is extremely important. But the L1 does indeed help in learning the L2 and creating connections between the two languages. As there is some overlap among languages in the brain, it can be impossible to “turn off” the L1 when using the L2. Code-switching and constantly moving between languages and cultures is entirely normal – it is not something to be banned or looked down upon.

The success of immersion programs has been used as the rationale to support banning the L1, and even though teaching non-language courses in a foreign language can improve language learning, many immersion programs do not ban the L1 completely. In fact, much of the research on immersion programs show the importance of adding an L2 to an L1 instead of replacing the L1 by an L2. Unfortunately it happens all too often that the opposite of research reported in the popular press immediately becomes wrong. We are too quick to assume that evidence for an idea also means evidence against the competing idea. Yet nothing is ever that black and white. The success of a few immersion programs should in no way imply that non-immersion programs are a failure, especially when there is no evidence for it. And thanks to research on code-switching, the cognitive benefits of L1 use, and L2 language exposure (input alone does not suffice – it must become intake), many scholars have softened their position to agree that the L1 should not be banned completely.

Bilingual kidsCode-switching makes me smile

Language students should always be thought of as developing bilinguals or multilinguals, rather than two or more monolinguals. The monolingual native speaker model that is portrayed in essentially all pedagogical materials (as well as by hiring monolingual teachers) presents an unattainable and impossible goal for language learners. When you learn a second language, you are no longer monolingual and by definition, you will never be a native speaker of another language. So why is that the model that we teach to students?  I completely agree with Carl Blyth when he notes the irony of “using monolingual speakers as role models for learners striving to overcome their own monolingualism.” We need non-native and multilingual models and teachers of the language because that is exactly what the students are and what they will become: non-native and multilingual.

Students should never be denied the opportunity to use their L1 in any type of learning, especially young students who haven’t even completely acquired their native language yet. Allowing the native language in school has many benefits, yet there still exists “English Only” attitudes that only help to deteriorate students’ cognitive abilities. Recent reports of students being punished for speaking their native language – such as Menominee in the US or French in northern Belgium – are worrying because they bring back horrible reminders of Native American boarding schools and the Stolen Generation. Students should certainly never be made to feel as though their language is bad or wrong, because if their language is undesirable, then what about the culture linked to the language or the people themselves who speak the language? Are they undesirable as human beings as well?

English Only ZoneJust say NO to lack of empirical evidence!

Fortunately researchers have started calling for a more bilingual or lingua franca approach to teaching English which focuses on context and learner needs, which really should be applied to all languages. Ideally the teachers are multilingual and multicultural, who know the language of their students and have some knowledge of the particularities of the varieties of the language used throughout the world. When talking about world languages, we tend to think of English, Spanish, French, Arabic, etc. but every language consists of varieties depending on where and how it is used. For more information on lingua franca teaching, World Englishes: Implications for International Communication and English Language Teaching by Andy Kirkpatrick is a great introduction.


Other books I like to re-read on this topic include:

Australia’s Language Potential by Michael Clyne

Second Language Learning and Language Teaching by Vivian Cook

First Language Use in Second and Foreign Language Learning edited by Miles Turnbull and Jennifer Dailey-O’Cain (especially chapter 9 by Carl Blyth)

Linguistic Semantics: Language Reflects Ways of Living and Thinking

Anna Wierzbicka is a Polish-Australian linguist who has extensively researched intercultural linguistics, semantics and pragmatics. I have been reading many of her books and articles for my PhD research because she is interested in how language reflects ways of living and thinking, and more specifically, how the lexicon or words of a language can provide valuable clues to understanding culture.

Linguistic relativity, better known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, has been debated for quite a while by certain researchers who argue that human thought and language are completely separate and independent. Steven Pinker, author of The Language Instinct, is probably the most popular denier. However, Pinker was attempting to describe human thought and cognition on the basis of English alone.  Wierzbicka, among others, has rightly criticized Pinker for his views on the link between language and thought. Here are a few quotes from the introduction to her book, Understanding Cultures through their Key Words:

“To people with an intimate knowledge of two (or more) different languages and cultures, it is usually self-evident that language and patterns of thought are interlinked… Monolingual popular opinion, as well as the opinion of some cognitive scientists with little interest in languages and cultures, can be quite emphatic in their denial of the existence of such links and differences.”

“The grip of people’s native language on their thinking habits is so strong that they are no more aware of the conventions to which they are party than they are of the air they breathe; and when others try to draw attention to these conventions they may even go on with a seemingly unshakable self-assurance to deny their existence.”

“The conviction that one can understand human cognition, and human psychology in general, on the basis of English alone seems shortsighted, if not downright ethnocentric.”

The strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis – that language constrains thought and prevents users of a language from thinking about certain concepts – is indeed wrong. The weak version of the hypothesis, which Guy Deutscher attempted to explain in his popular article Does Your Language Shape How You Think? and his book, Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages, is generally accepted by most linguists. Deutscher, however, insists on stating that language creates thought when in fact it may be more accurate to say that culture influences thought, which is then expressed through language. Personally, I believe that language reflects and describes ways of living and thinking, but it does not necessarily shape or determine how you live or think.

This is precisely John McWhorter’s criticism of Deutscher’s book, though I do have to disagree with his assertion that color perception as evidence of linguistic relativity is “dull.” If someone does not think cultural elaboration through the lexicon, such as the famous words for snow example, is interesting or relevant, then why does that person bother researching languages and cultures in the first place? Besides, as Wierzbicka explains, “once the principle of cultural elaboration has been established as valid on the basis of ‘boring’ examples, it can then be applied to areas whose patterning is less obvious to the naked eye.”

Here’s an interesting experiment you can try with color perception. It will be very easy to choose which square is a different color in the image below.


Linguistic Semantics: Language Reflects Ways of Living and Thinking


However, it will probably be a tiny bit harder to find which square is different in the second image. (If you’ve seen these circles before, beware that I did change the location of the different square!)


Linguistic Semantics: Language Reflects Ways of Living and Thinking


Yet the Himba of northern Namibia have the exact opposite problem. They are able to detect the different square quite easily in the second image, but took longer for the first image, because their culture, and therefore language, has a different way of categorizing shades of colors. Not every human being thinks in terms of  ROYGBIV. Because English speakers do not normally classify colors based on slightly different shades (or at least what we perceive as slightly different shades) of green in the second image, it is harder for English speakers to see it at first glance, but the absence of that word does not mean that English speakers cannot see it at all or do not have the ability to form the concept in their minds.

My native language does not have a word for Schadenfreude but I certainly know what it is and can understand the concept. The fact that German has one word for this concept and English does not simply means that the concept is perhaps more salient for users of German, but it does not mean that users of other languages cannot conceive of what it is. There are countless “untranslatable” words such as saudade, hyggelig, or litost that express the values and thoughts of the people who use these words. They provide insights into the life of the society and culture to which the language belongs. We cannot even begin to understand a different culture if we do not know the words because it is through language that culture and ways of living and thinking are expressed.


Linguistic Semantics: Language Reflects Ways of Living and Thinking


Another book by Wierzbicka I recommend, Translating Lives: Living with Two Languages and Cultures, includes the experiences of twelve Australians who speak more than one language. Their stories and their lives show how language, culture and identity cannot be separated and what it is like to live with, and between, multiple languages and cultures. For anyone who is a speaker of another language, the idea that you are a different person and that you interact with other human beings in a different way when using different languages seems a bit obvious. But most monolinguals are not aware that their worldview is shaped by their native, and only, culture and language. They tend to assume that the every human being thinks in the same way but simply uses different words for concepts, objects, ideas, etc. Even if they know a few words in another language, they believe that translations found in dictionaries are sufficient. Dictionaries may list freedom as the translation for French liberté, but are they really the same thing? How about truth and Russian pravda? Anger and Italian rabbia?

To quote Sapir: “The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached.”

When I speak French, I am fully aware that I am not the same person as when I speak English. I do not interact with other French speakers in the same manner as I do with English speakers while I’m speaking English. There are certain concepts that I find easier to express in French, and yet others that do not have a strong enough emphasis or connotation for me if I use French rather than English. When I hear the word milk in English, I have a different concept of what it is compared to when I hear lait in French. I’ve explored some of these cultural differences before (Cultural Differences in Photos & Culturally Relevant Photos), but they are not limited to separate languages. There are, of course, differences among dialects of the same language. Whenever Australians say the word thongs, I picture a very different article of clothing than they do!

That is not to say that all words in a language are culture-specific. If they were, cultural differences couldn’t really be explored. Linguistic relativity is actually combined with linguistic universality. Wierzbicka is also the lead researcher on Natural Semantic Metalanguage, an approach to cultural analysis that is based on the idea that there are, in fact, a few universal meanings expressed by words (semantic primes) shared by all human languages and that using these primes can help eliminate cross-cultural miscommunication. Listen to/read her interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation for more information.

I’d love to hear your opinions on this! Do you believe that how we speak shapes how we think OR that how we think shapes how we speak? Or are language and thought so interlinked that we cannot separate them?

Notes from Symposium on Language Education in the Asia-Pacific Region

I attended a symposium last week at my university on language education in the Asia-Pacific region. It was very interesting and fascinating and left me wanting to learn every Asian language and visit every Asian country. I also attended the new postgraduate student induction and have been finishing up the final revisions on my research proposal. Next week I’m off to Canberra for a conference (and a little sightseeing!) so I probably won’t post again until I return.

Some notes I took at the symposium:

  • English is the official working language of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) which includes Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam – all of which have English as an integral part of their primary curriculum. Quite a difference from the European Union with 27 member states and 23 official languages!
  • A common myth about second language learning is that a student’s native/home language will hinder acquisition of the second language and that starting to learn a language as early as possible is always better. In fact, using the child’s home language to teach core concepts such as math and science and introducing the second language (such as English) later yields better results. In North American contexts, students take about 5-7 years to learn English well enough in order to learn other subjects through English. In non-Anglophone contexts (such as Asia or Africa), it takes longer – usually 8 years. English Only movements such as those that restrict usage of Spanish in the US or Aboriginal languages in Australia are not supported by linguistic research. Using one’s native language helps in the acquisition of a second language, especially at a young age.
  • The closing of the second day of the symposium brought up questions that perhaps we don’t have the answers to (at least, not yet). For example, is motivation the real issue? Low levels of language study in Australia (and the US) have been a problem for a while, but is it really a lack of motivation by the students or is it more related to educational structures? The foreign language budget is often cut and classes cancelled to make room for more “important” subjects, while at the same time governments continue to stress how vital knowledge of languages is for students’ futures. It should also be noted that the motivation for teaching languages is very different (usually economic or political) from the motivation for learning languages (usually humanistic). Even if there is a lot of teaching of a language in schools (such as English in Asia), is there learning? Are schools the best places to be educated?

If you’re interested in the Asia-Pacific region, the Asia Education Foundation website provides information about Asia literacy in Australian schools.

In December, I’ll start posting about my actual PhD research and the wonderful world of vocabulary acquisition and lexical variation!

New language tutorial on Danish / dansk

Thanks to Anders, we now have the 20th language tutorial on Danish / dansk

Tutorials I to III are available, though some grammatical explanations and sample sentences still need to be added, especially in the last part. Anders plans to record mp3s to go along with the tutorials and I will be adding the vocabulary to the Germanic Comparative Lists alongside the Swedish vocabulary that is already available. Any Norwegian speakers out there who can help add to the Norwegian tutorial or comparative lists?

Danish Tutorial Index

Danish I Tutorial

Danish II Tutorial

Danish III Tutorial

Copenhagen, Denmark

Say it in French Phrasebook and Swedish Listening Resources Now Available

My Say it in French phrasebook (Dover Publications) is now available through for $5.95!

I have recently updated the Listening Resources podcast to include Swedish mp3s. Transcripts, English translations, and an RSS feed are also available. Check out the Swedish Listening Resources page for the first eight mp3s. (The mp3 player is not Flash-based so you can listen to them on iPhones/iPods/iPads too.)

I plan on adding more languages and dialects so let me know if you’d like to contribute!

Most Studied Languages in Europe, Australia and the US

Yesterday was the 10th anniversary of the European Day of Languages and Eurostat has provided statistics about the most studied languages in the 27 member states of the European Union plus Iceland, Norway, Croatia, Macedonia and Turkey (though stats for Portugal are missing).

“In the EU27 in 2009, 82% of pupils at primary and lower secondary level and 95% of those in upper secondary level general programmes were studying English as a foreign language. The second most commonly studied foreign language at primary and lower secondary level was French (16% of pupils), followed by German (9%) and Spanish (6%), while at upper secondary level it was German (27%), followed by French (26%) and Spanish (19%).”

Take a look at the table in the PDF file. I was a bit surprised to see Spanish as the 2nd most studied language in Norway and Sweden, as well as Danish in Iceland, but the rest weren’t all that surprising (Russian in the Baltics and Bulgaria, German in Eastern Europe, French in Romania, etc.)

I’ve already posted about enrollment data for Australia, where Japanese and Italian take the lead (though Indonesian and French practically tie for third place). The ACTFL has a recent report for American public schools where Spanish, French and German are still the main three languages. The MLA has the same information available for universities and colleges, where Spanish, French and German are still the top three as well even with the large increase in Arabic and Chinese enrollments. American Sign Language and Italian are nearly tied for 4th place.