[HEUNGBO'S GOURD]The stuff of learning a language

Home > Opinion > Columns

print dictionary print

[HEUNGBO'S GOURD]The stuff of learning a language

The daughter of a close friend of mine just dropped by my office on her way home from an English-conversation class she started attending about a week ago. She is memorizing complicated dialogues and studying movie scripts. As she plunked her armload of study materials down on a chair, she looked at me forlornly and asked, "What's the best way to learn English?"

She's only the 3,487th person who has asked me that since I have lived in Korea. Why in the world do Koreans think a native speaker would know the answer to that question? Unless you did your doctoral thesis on children's acquisition of language skills, you probably have no idea how you managed to learn your native language. And anyway, adults obviously cannot learn a second language the same way a child acquires his native tongue. Besides, even though we all know intellectually that this is not so, deep down in our hearts we think that our own language is the easiest, most natural way to speak.

Based on my own experience of studying Korean and my observations of the kinds of English lessons Korean students are generally given and the way they attack their study of English, one bit of advice seems worth mentioning: Do not concentrate on vocabulary so intensely. This certainly does not qualify as the big secret of learning English, but I believe it is one of the secrets.

I have met quite a few Koreans over the years who claim to have memorized all the words in one of those "concise" English-Korean dictionaries. But what good has it done them? They know words like "hypothermia," but they cannot say, "Would you shut the window? It's getting chilly in here."

One of the dangers of this kind of memorization is that the learner's vocabulary tends to become heavily imbalanced in favor of nouns, especially abstract nouns, because nouns take up a portion of the dictionary that is disproportionately large compared with the frequency of their use in text or conversation.

The same goes for verbs of Latin or Greek derivation, which greatly outnumber the Anglo-Saxon ones when simply listed, as in the dictionary, while in everyday English Anglo-Saxon verbs are much more commonly used.

At the early stages of learning a language you do not need all those words. It is far more useful in the long run to start with a few of the most frequently used words and learn how to put them together with the proper rhythms and intonation and other basics like tenses and prepositions.

In English, for example, you can learn to manipulate the entire noun system along with its accompanying articles by mastering the use of just two nouns: "stuff" and "thing." That's right. Every noun in English works either like "stuff" or "thing." In fact, English speakers regard everything in the universe as actually being either stuff or things.

Husband (taking the lid off the Crockpot): "What's in this thing?"

Wife: "Just some stuff I made."

Husband (tasting it): "Wow, this stuff is great. What'd you make it with?"

Wife: "Oh, a bunch of things."

A little attentive study of "stuff" and "things" shows that "stuff" is never used in the plural and never takes the indefinite article "a." "Things" is almost always plural when you are speaking in general terms, but when it is singular, it requires "a" (or "an" before a vowel) unless something else is there to take its place, such as "the," "my," or "what kind of." Once you've mastered this, it's a snap to fill out your vocabulary with new nouns as needed by attentive reading or by querying native speakers:

"What are these things?" you ask, pointing at a bowl of sugar-coated yellow, red and green lumps.

"Oh, this stuff?" your informant says. "It's candy."

From that brief statement, you know that even though it looks like a bunch of things, English speakers regard it as stuff. Even if your informant had not said "stuff," he would have given it away by using the singular without the article "a" before it.

This sort of concentration on a minimal but highly useful vocabulary is a key to getting off on the right foot with language learning. And this holds true for all languages, English, Korean, or whatever.

by Gary Rector

* The writer is a columnist of the JoongAng Daily.
Log in to Twitter or Facebook account to connect
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
help-image Social comment?
lock icon

To write comments, please log in to one of the accounts.

Standards Board Policy (0/250자)