IWTYAL 120: The mother tongue’s role in vocabulary learning

Rocco asks: “What role should your mother tongue play in learning vocabulary?”

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Andy says:
19 May 2014 15:21

Great article. It is often really refreshing to know that others have the same struggles as you especially when you get frustrated along different parts of the learning curve. I think for me it is finding the right atmosphere (or quality time) to focus. I often have the time or the resources, but I don’t have the right atmosphere to focus for a few hours studying in-depth language usage. But I also have a long way to go before I arrive at the level of these guys. Hopefully one day, I will be able to attend this conference as well.


Olly Richards says:
19 May 2014 16:01

Thanks Andy! Getting that combination of time and the right space is definitely a tough one. You’ll get there… I have no doubt! 🙂

Donovan Nagel says:
19 May 2014 18:24

Thanks Olly.

All issues we can relate to I’m sure but I’d have to say that time is definitely the toughest one. It’s important to put the most time and energy into the language/s that matter most and that’s something I struggle with since I like to focus on one at a time for long periods.

Olly Richards says:
19 May 2014 19:56

Hey dude. You and I both… time, time, time! 🙂 Not sure I follow though… you mean what you find tough is working on one thing for long time periods?

Christopher Huff says:
21 May 2014 07:37

Man, number four and number seven are me… 🙂

Olly Richards says:
23 May 2014 18:40

Hey Chris. For me, I’m pretty sure it’s all of them 🙂

Colette says:
23 May 2014 20:36

For me, (No.4) the fear of not being understood (and consequently feeling like more of an idiot than usual) is the biggest hurdle when trying to practise a language. The second comment also really set me thinking: I love the process of learning languages and of discovering connections between languages. I need to remind myself that I enjoy the learning… even when the results are slow in coming.

Olly Richards says:
23 May 2014 21:16

Hi Colette. Yes, the second one (constant forgetting) is interesting, isn’t it. I’ve seen a lot of people get really stressed out because they find it difficult to “measure their progress”, but I’ve found that an obsession over measuring your progress can be really harmful – it detracts from simply enjoying the process itself.

One of the nice things, for me, about learning Cantonese over this last year has been that I’ve not pressured myself at all. I’ve just tried to keep it up, a little bit everyday, and I’ve really enjoyed the process. And sure enough… results still come!


After all, what are we doing any of this for, if not to enjoy and feel fulfilled by it! 🙂

Kevin Richardson says:
22 Oct 2014 07:05

For me, Luca’s ‘remembering words’ resonated. It’s not so much of a bother that a less frequently used word evaporated from my mind. That seems to be an acceptable loss because when I remind myself later, I can almost feel the synapses growing a stronger connection. No, it’s the frustration of forgetting a word that I might have used regularly for sometime, but mid-conversation, I just draw a complete blank and tell the other person I can’t remember the word. Mind you, whilst that frustrates me a little, the positive I take from it is that I stretch other parts of the language when I’m paddling around describing the thing I want to talk about.

Actually, one frustration I’ve found whilst in Japan is listening to the messages on the train. It’s when they repeat the message in English afterwards and I can’t help myself from trying to translate the message back from English into Japanese. There are times when I hear the Japanese using ‘sureba’, so my Japanese interpretation is telling me it’s a conditional ‘if’, but then immediately afterwards I hear English that doesn’t have any conditionals. Tomorrow, I’m heading into Tokyo to meet a friend, so I told my language partner I’d record the message on my phone and play it to her next time we speak on Skype. I’ve got a feeling that what I’ll find is that, the Japanese passengers are being told a lot more information than the English message is saying.

Olly Richards says:
23 Oct 2014 12:46

That made me smile, because a lot of my initial Japanese was learnt through memorising train announcements! You’re right that the Japanese and English content is different, but it’s also worth remembering that the register of the Japanese used is very formal, and not something you’d want to adopt for yourself! 🙂

German learning Munich says:
26 Nov 2014 10:15

I guess these weakness are common to all the people learning a new language. Yet this is not hindering them to speak at worst 10 languages!!! Same weaknesses lead to very different results, this is amazing!
I speak 5 language and I hardly get motivation learning a new one. Motivation and time are my biggest weaknesses. And I’m the “speak & learn” person, so a partner to learn with is fundamental.
Greetings from Munich

Olly Richards says:
29 Nov 2014 19:59

I like to say that experienced language learners are successful in spite of what they don’t know, not because of what they do. 🙂

Investidor Inglês says:
23 Mar 2015 14:53

I agree with all of them! For me, laziness is a big problem too… So I made a blog to forget this problem! braziliansh.blogspot.com

Anthony Metivier says:
13 Apr 2015 09:53

They have an English version of the message in some Berlin subway/train stations and it is disruptive when you’re first learning German. That said, nothing gets in the way of “zurückbleiben, bitte!” Not even “mind the gap” only a millisecond after can override that!

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