Part 1: The Lexical Categories of Language
Whenever you are learning a foreign language, it is important to be familiar with the lexical categories of a language. The words in a given language play different roles in the transmission of information, and they also have varying degrees of importance or relevance for the learner. We will identify and describe three very broad categories of words that exist in all languages in order to assess the student’s learning priorities, as well as to devise effective ways to approach those priorities in the best way possible. Here are these three broad categories:
Group 1: Grammatical or structural words: ~2% of all words in a language
These are words that are very important to the comprehension of a language. At any skill level, there are certain structural words that learners should become familiar with, except perhaps for the very advanced levels, where the emphasis is on communication, not grammatical perfection. Examples of these grammatical or structural words are question words, prepositions, personal pronouns, articles, and so on.
A speaker of a language cannot be deemed to know completely the language without knowing all of its grammatical words. Imagine an English speaker who doesn’t know what the word “How?” means, or the preposition “in”, the pronoun “we”, or the conjunction “however”. This is the category of words with the highest importance and priority. Of course, at the beginning level, a subset of more basic grammatical words will be the priority.
Grammatical words are also called structural words because they express some relationship within the different parts of the phrase or syntax. Grammatical words may appear as a group of related words, but a single word generally does not exhibit multiple forms or morphological changes. However, a single word’s position within the sentence is often very important.
Group 2: Vocabulary: ~90% of all words in a language
This category of words is important for understanding the meaning of concepts related to a particular topic.
The vocabulary category consists largely of nouns, simply because everything has a name. Nouns can have a small number of well-determined forms or permutations, usually expressed through their endings, in order to express things such as gender, and number.
The importance of knowing a certain vocabulary word depends on how necessary the word is for the learner to speak about a certain concept. Vocabulary words are interconnected within families of words that come from a particular root, and the interrelated nature of these word families, along with the existence of synonyms, makes it possible for the learner to infer the meaning of unknown vocabulary words from the context. Because of this, out of the three categories of words, the category of vocabulary words is the least essential to master.
Nonetheless, this category is very important, and its importance increases as the student moves into the upper-intermediate and advanced levels. At a beginning level, a subset of basic vocabulary, usually related to frequent life situations, takes a higher priority over a more advanced vocabulary.
Group 3: Verbs: ~8% of all words in a language
This category of words shares characteristics with both the categories listed above, grammatical words and vocabulary words. These words are highly structural, as they are considered the “bridge” between the subject and the object in the sentence. Because of this, their correct placement within the sentence is invariably crucial. However, the most important characteristics of a verb are the numerous permutations that it can have, and the information that those permutations convey, usually through a system of suffixes.
Verbs express a temporal relationship (tenses), an aspect (duration or state of completeness), mood (i.e. subjunctive, imperative), and person (verb forms that go with ‘I’, ‘you’, ‘he’, etc.). Since verbs have so many different avenues for meaning, students spend the majority of their time learning and practicing these various verb forms.
Like vocabulary words, verbs need to be learned within the context of an example and are studied in a particular way. Verbs express actions, and a verb can be the root from which a whole vocabulary family is derived. The beginning levels focus on verbs that represent actions that are tangible, visible, frequent, or useful, whereas in the late-intermediate to advanced levels, verbs tend to be more abstract, and related in general to complex human relationships, thoughts, and processes.
Sometimes, the formation of a certain ending of a verb depends on knowledge of another verb tense, and commonly, a language course is organized by following a pre-determined sequence of verb tenses to teach/learn. This way of organizing a language course has an analogy in how a child develops linguistic skills. For example, a 5-year-old child commonly can say state something in the present, and past, but not say a phrase like: “If you had taken your umbrella, you wouldn’t have gotten wet.” The tenses in the previous example, namely the past perfect and the conditional, are part of a later stage in the linguistic development of a child. A language course for adults tries to, but does not faithfully recreate this natural order of learning in a child, instead, it is ordered in a way that the formation of verb tenses (the endings of verbs), is more intuitive and cumulative, going from one concept to the next.
The necessity of verbs in sentences makes this category just as important as grammatical words, if not more.
Part 2: Approaching the Lexical Categories
Any functionally complete learning of a language should integrate a substantial amount of words from each lexical category. This should be the case whether the student is a self-learner or working with the guide of a teacher. We will examine some psychological aspects of learning a foreign language, and then we will look at techniques for an effective assimilation of material from each of the three lexical categories.
When a child is learning their mother tongue, she or he is in a stage of development of linguistic skills. The child interprets definitions of words, and gradually builds syntactical structures (different word orders within the sentence), general grammatical areas (i.e. tenses, ways of forming a plural, etc), and also memorizes well-known exceptions to those rules (i.e. irregular forms of verbs). Later in life when the person learns a second language, right at the moment of being presented with a grammatical structure that is different from the mother tongue, the student will build a mapping from the mother tongue version, and the new language version, in order to logically understand and learn how to use the second version.
As a learner of a second language, the student is not, for the most part, building new linguistic areas in the mind, but forming a mapping or road, at least for initial understanding, between the known and the new language. The formation of this mental mapping between languages that are distantly related, or entirely unrelated, is more challenging. Because this mapping relies on what the learner already knows, the effectiveness of learning a language via this process depends upon the learner’s conscious understanding of the linguistic areas present in the mind.
Take care not to confuse a linguistic area with a grammatical representation. The linguistic area or concept is an abstract understanding not related to words at all. It is manifested in language with particular grammatical representations, which may differ from language to language. A person may know perfectly the grammatical rules of a particular grammatical structure in the new language, but still be unsure of all its permutations in the mother tongue, however, this is no obstacle for learning the new language because both depend on a solid possession of the abstract mental linguistic area.
In any case, the student should move away from frequently comparing the new language with other languages that he or she knows. For instance, consider the case of the subjunctive, an area that often stymies native English speakers who are learning romance languages. The subjunctive exists in English as a mood, but since it is not explicitly marked in the verb, there are no explicit rules as to when its use is mandatory.
Compare these two English sentences:
a. I demand that he be crowned (subjunctive mood)
b. I ask for him to be crowned (passive voice)
In a number of romance languages, the mood of expressing a wish coupled with the relative pronoun “that” in example A above will call for the verb “to be” to show the subjunctive mood through its ending. As a consequence, a native English speaker who is newly acquiring this knowledge must construct a mental linguistic area, which consists of examining and identifying different verbs that express the “wishing” (or other moods expressed by the subjunctive), and then proceed to formulate practice sentences within this particular context. The student must also have studied beforehand the particular verb endings for the subjunctive.
Notice that this activity is separate from actually learning the verb endings for the subjunctive in the new language, which is actually the corresponding grammatical system of the language which will express the mental linguistic area. Maybe in a new language the subjunctive is not shown through a suffix, but an infix, a particle added in the middle of the verb! These grammatical representations are arbitrary, but should be mostly consistent within a particular language.
This example illustrates that building a new mental linguistic area is more involved and challenging than building a mental mapping between the grammatical structures of a known language and a new language.