This article is continued from Learning a Foregin Language Part 1: Understanding Lexical Categories

Learning grammatical or structural words


The only real form of learning a language naturally is in speaking form, because communication consists mostly of structures. As in the case of learning how to use a conjunction, which is a structural word, the best way to learn its syntax by reading and listening to a sample sentence in the new language. Then, have the student begin using the new word in similar other exercise sentences in a speaking form. After the student bears no doubt about its placement and syntactical use, then the student should write down some of these examples in order to review, remember and recall the use of the concept in real life when it is needed.


When students initially do this work by speaking, they will immediately move away from any comparisons with other languages, and will begin using the language “as it comes.” This is crucial in order to access the meaning instantly, and to be ready, therefore, to use it at a later stage. With further experience, the acquired language becomes psychologically indistinguishable from that of a native speaker.


The student should learn through models of speech which mirror the use of native speakers orally within a realistic context. This is always the case when learning either grammatical words or structures within a sentence. The student needs to build syntactical meaning through convincing himself that the new piece of knowledge is valid in real life, and he should think about its meaning while pronouncing the word.


Here is a short summary of the mental steps to follow when learning a syntactic or grammatical word:



Look at a chart summarizing all the different forms of a grammatical change. This also includes phenomena related to verbs.


Step 1:

Look at a sample sentence using the word.


Step 2:

Infer the meaning of the word, identify the parts of the sentence that it is adding meaning to, and its possible placements.


Step 3:

With the help of a teacher, form and say other examples using the word. Continue forming and saying sentences with the word, until you  have used the word in all possible ways, thus eliminating doubt.


Step 4:

Write some of these examples for later review, and write notes describing the different possibilities of usage.


This sequence may happen quicker or slower depending on many factors, but the most important point is that the initial practice needs to be in speaking form rather than written.


When learning grammatical categories, as opposed to just a syntactic word, it is helpful to visualize and memorize the different variations of a form before attempting to formulate any exercises, whether it is a new verb tense like the imperfect, an indirect article with its different forms according to the person, etc. This corresponds to the optional step in the list above.


Learning vocabulary words


At the beginning stages of learning a language, there is more emphasis on learning vocabulary related to immediate needs or frequent situations. It is best to learn vocabulary grouped into a self-contained theme. For example, learn vocabulary related to airport/travel, or learn vocabulary related to kitchen/cooking. This theme contains nouns and verbs, but not grammatical form. This study simply happens to be integrated when thinking about all the aspects of a certain situation or place.


A vocabulary word that the student memorizes in an isolated way is easily forgotten because it doesn’t have enough connections to the relevant linguistic or abstract-meaning areas in the brain.


For this reason, the use of flashcards, even though effective over the long run, is not the most effective or efficient way to learn vocabulary. The use of flashcards with sample sentences written on them is a slightly better way, but is still very time consuming. Language course books cover some vocabulary, which is useful in the integrated learning of grammatical points, but not enough to keep pace with the huge amount of vocabulary to be learned in a language, and that is required to speak fluently. At the beginning levels, or to be more specific, for levels A1 and A2, as defined in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), a reasonable amount of vocabulary to learn daily to learn 25 vocabulary word daily, or 175 words a week. This should be regarded as the minimum amount, and the student should frequently review the vocabulary from previous days.


This estimate is only valid if the new language is within the same language family, or closely related to another language that the student knows well. Languages within the Romance languages branch are within the same family: Spanish, Italian, French, Portuguese, Catalan. English is not a romance language, but because of the extensive French influence on its vocabulary, English is considered a closely related language to those of Romance origin.


In levels B1and B2, there is a greater amount of vocabulary needed to adequately express a more complex point of view, feelings, or processes. The nouns, as well as verbs, become more abstract, and so an increased pace of about 35 words a day or 245 words a week is needed.


In levels C1, and C2, since the student is already very communicative, the student should passively review about 60 recent words a day through reading, if the student wishes to retain the vocabulary in memory for active speaking. The amount of words that a person should plan to learn daily or weekly is based on the fact that there is an average forgetting-rate of about 10-15 words every day for those words that were not practiced orally at the beginning or that have not been reviewed in a period of about two months. For this reason, it is important to frequently review recently learned words and review older ones more sporadically.


The level of relatedness of the new language to a known language plays a role in making the appropriate mental associations to reinforce the memory, easing recall. For languages that are substantially different because they belong to different language families, vocabulary words are much harder to recall. For example: if a student’s mother tongue is French and he is learning Greek, the daily learning rate is higher, about 30 words in levels A1 and A2, and about 50 vocabulary words a day starting at level B1 and B2. The student can drop down again to 25 words a day for levels C1 and C2 if he is reviewing enough vocabulary passively through other activities such as listening to TV and reading.


This may be thought of as an “escape velocity” in learning new vocabulary, below which the person is really not adding additional vocabulary, because the vocabulary learned about 2 or 3 months ago is being lost if not reviewed. Many people talk about so-called “total immersion,” and go on to say that living in a country where the language is spoken around you is the best way to learn to speak a language, but this is a myth.


If the student dedicates enough time learning the recommended amount of vocabulary, and works with a teacher to more efficiently practice grammar, meanings, and writing--and then outside of class looks for opportunities to practice the language with other speakers, this should be the very definition of being “immersed” no matter where the student is located. It is indeed superior to just listening to the language in the country, but not having an organized plan of action.


Here is a good method to learn vocabulary. For learners of any language and at any level, the most efficient and effective way to acquire a large amount of vocabulary is through listening to a TV program in the language, and writing down vocabulary words that they hear used in context. Students then write down the word on a notebook page designated only for vocabulary words, along with the definition in a known language.


The student should write the vocabulary word just as heard initially, but not necessarily within a whole sentence. This triggers a stronger memory cue that associates to the initial situation where the student heard the word. For example, if the student hears in French, la voiture est garée (The car is parked) and the new word is garée (parked), the student may write the whole sentence, or maybe just est garée (is parked). In addition, the student could write down the related verb in the infinitive, se garer (to park) as a reference. Since the student is listening to either a conversation, or a person speaking about a particular, real-life topic, the words on the page will inevitably have relationships among them. The student may find useful to label the top of that page with an appropriate descriptive title for the group of words; a generic title is fine. This is by far the most efficient way of learning because a large number of vocabulary words (between 25 and 60) appear in front of the student at a glance when reviewing, and this is most effective because the student is able to instantly see the relationships among them--something that is a lot less apparent on flash cards.


An alternate way of working is to read an article and look up all unknown words in the dictionary. Google Translate can be very useful to save time, but remember that definitions may not be accurate with electronic translators, so look up the word in a dictionary to cross check, or ask your teacher. Set yourself a goal to read through the entire article with complete understanding once you have looked up and written down the unknown words. Choose the length of the article wisely, so that you can complete it.


In summary, the steps to take to learn vocabulary are:


Step 1:

Watch TV or video in the language without worrying about not understanding all the words. The goal is to learn some new vocabulary. Films with subtitles of the original dialogue are more useful.


Step 2:

Alternatively, read an article, using the same process.


Step 3:

Look up the word on Google Translate or in a trusted dictionary. Write down the word along with a translation on a page, designated only for vocabulary words. Continue until having the recommended number of words for your level on the page. If you have more space on the page, leave it blank in order to write further clarifications or related vocabulary at a later time.


Step 4:

Review the vocabulary page from the three previous days for about 15 minutes. For this reason, always write the date. Review the vocabulary page from two weeks ago for about 10 minutes.


Learning Verbs


As stated earlier, verbs share characteristics with learning vocabulary and grammatical words. They are structural, and at the same time carry a lot of meaning. They may be initially memorized or “caught” like a vocabulary word, but in order to assimilate their meaning in a permanent way, the student should use it a number of times in spoken and written form.


Normally, the student would write either independent sentences using these newly discovered verbs, or employ them in a themed mini-composition or paragraph. The teacher then checks the usage of these verbs in the paragraph, and reassures that the student is using them correctly. Then the focus of the student should be in starting to employ these new verbs in conversations. This approach is somewhat contrary to the order of learning a structural word that is not a verb, because in that case the advice is to use the word immediately in speech rather than in writing. The student should make use of some visual aids in order to memorize different verb endings, take note of phenomena like forms of irregular verbs, learn alternate conjugation forms and the contrast between active and passive forms of a verb, etc. The variety of knowledge and details that the student must approach related to the learning of verbs is very extensive, and is where a teacher is most helpful.


If, however, the student decides to be a self-learner, the student needs to be keenly aware of the linguistic areas that a certain concept is trying to address, and to follow more carefully the advice for practice within a method with a complete grammatical sequence. The student should ideally read and do the exercises in the order that they appear on the book. The steps required to assimilate a new verb are really those for learning vocabulary, followed by the steps for learning a grammatical word.


Here again is the list for your reference along with some adjustments:


Step 1:

Watch TV or video in the language, or alternatively, read an article.


Step 2:

Look up the new word on Google Translate or in a trusted dictionary


Step 3:

Write down the word along with the translation on a page designated for new content related to the current unit or chapter in the book. This page will have a theme of its own, but perhaps also one or more grammatical concepts dealing with in the chapter or unit.

If you have more space on the page, leave it blank in order to write further clarifications or related vocabulary at a later time.


Step 4:

Look at a chart, if appropriate, summarizing all the different forms of the verb tense, or other phenomena being presented, and study it carefully. This is usually in the book. Look at a sample sentence using the word. This is usually in the book.


Step 5:

Infer the meaning of the word, identify the parts of the sentence that it relates to and examine the placement within the sentence.


Step 6:

Form and say other examples using the word, with the help of a teacher. Continue forming and saying sentences with the word until the student has used the verb in all possible ways, thus eliminating doubt.


Step 7:

Write some of these examples for later review, and write notes describing the different possibilities of usage.


I hope this document has helped you to have a better understanding on the process of learning a foreign language, and that by implementing its methodology, you will  have a more positive experience not only learning but also speaking and using your newly acquired language.


Hero Image (Polski) by Halicki (CC BY-SA 3.0 PL)