By Kenton Sutherland - Emeritus Professor, San Mateo (California) Community College District English Language Specialist, United States Department of State
A teacher in Beijing states that "in China, many English learners will learn words directly from a vocabulary book by remembering the form and one or two Chinese translations of that word" and then goes on to ask if there is a more effective way to learn vocabulary.
This method of learning word meanings does not seem to me to have much value in actual English practical usage. Chinese learners are known to have phenomenal skills at memorizing, but unless they can use the memorized words in meaningful situations, the words are stored like dictionary entries, waiting to be "looked up," many never to be used, drifting away and getting foggy in long-term memory.
When I was a schoolboy, I had to memorize the capital cities of all 48 American states -- this was in the 1940s, before Hawaii and Alaska joined the Union -- and I got an "A" on the test on capitals, but today I don't think I can remember half of them. It was all a meaningless exercise that caused me some anguish at the time, especially trying to remember whether Bismark was the capital of South Dakota or North Dakota. Sixty years later, I still can't get them straight, nor have I ever had the opportunity to use either Bismark or Pierre until now, even though these two names for the Dakota capital cities have somehow managed to stay in my long-term memory. Wait! Is one of them the capital of Nebraska? None of this memory "learning" was ever meaningful to me, and I suggest that similar memorization exercises in trying to learn English vocabulary are equally meaningless for Chinese learners and therefore pretty much useless, yet another blind alley.
So, what's the alternative to memorization? Mert Bland hit the nail on the head when he replied: "The more a student is exposed to a word in diverse contexts, the firmer grasp that student gets of the word." In effect, the students needs lots and lots of different kinds of activities in which to receive and use new words -- oral practices, games, songs, rhymes, jazz chants, readings of all kinds, radio English, television, DVDs and/or videotapes, film, karaoke, drama and theater games, readers' theater, conversation clubs, internet time, chat rooms, pen pals, e-mails in English computer-assisted instruction, talking with foreigners in English, travel outside China, lectures in English, etc. Sometimes it takes several inputs before a student grasps a word's meaning and even more inputs before a student actually understands in what situations the word can be used. That's why Mert stressed "diverse contexts" and "the more a student is exposed." In short, the key to effective vocabulary learning lies precisely in providing massive exposure to English in as many different situations and contexts as possible.