Since English is my L2, after starting to read about Second Language Acquisition and the theories on how we learn new lexis, I have also started to pay more attention to how I acquire new English vocabulary and structures.

Of course this is not rigorous research, I am just going to write about things I have noticed I do and how I perceived some lexis going from short term to long term memory. Before I begin, I have to point out that I am a language teacher and a Linguistics enthusiast, so I am probably more inclined than, say, most of my students to pay attention to new language and how it is used.

Anyway, here are some examples from my learning experience.

Red Herring

I have recently come across the idiomatic expression a red herring while reading a news article. I could somehow infer the meaning from context, but I decided to look it up anyway to understand where it comes from and the exact connotation of the idiom. Now I feel I know what it means, so if I ever meet it again I will understand it, but I don’t think I would be confident using it yet. I would need some more exposure (seeing the expression used in context) in order to fully understand how it is used and thus be able to use it myself.
So for this particular piece of lexis I can say:

  1. I have been exposed for the first time;
  2. I have noticed it and learned it thorough conscious attention (looking it up on the dictionary, writing it down and so on);
  3. I have retained its meaning but do not have productive knowledge (I wouldn’t know how to use it).
Game

Of course I know the meaning of ‘game’ as something we play for fun, but until recently I had no idea the word also meant wild animals or birds that people hunt for sport or food (this is possibly due to my strong dislike for hunters and hunting sports… :D). I met this denotation of the word a few weeks or months ago, reading some fiction I don’t even remember, and it kind of stuck in my head as being curious: the English language as the same word for a poor hunted fox and Monopoly…
Then I forgot about it, until yesterday, when reading a brilliant book by Yuval Noah Harari suggested by David, I met the word again — and with help from the context I suddenly remembered the second, less common meaning. And now I feel I won’t forget it very easily, especially because of the strong context in which I have found it. I suppose it went from my short time to my long time memory.
To sum up:

  1. I read and noticed the word a first time, entered my short term memory;
  2. I forgot about it for a while;
  3. I read the word again, this time in a ‘stronger’ context, so I remembered the first occurrence;
  4. the word is now in my long term memory.
Fob somebody off

This is a very different case from the above. I learned this phrasal verb some time ago while preparing for Cambridge CPE. This is a case where I didn’t know the verb, I found it in an exam question so I willingly noted it down and tried to remember it. Therefore it might be the closest to what our students generally do in EFL classes. I have to say it took a lot of effort to get it from short time to long time memory, I had to go back and read the definition a few times, try to recall it repeatedly before I was actually able to remember what it means. Plus I now feel it is some kind of “floating object”, taken out of any context in my mind, thus I doubt I would be able to use it in a sentence.
In this case I have:

  1. met the new lexis in a structured lesson context;
  2. been “forced” (by the exam question) to notice it and note it down;
  3. made conscious efforts to recall the verb and its meaning;
  4. I now know what the verb means (receptive knowledge), but would be unable to use it.

I don’t have an example for words I learned from hearing them, but I presume the process requires many more repetitions (at least for me). In general, I have noticed that I need to hear a word many times before I can retain its meaning, and many more still if I want to be able to use it in context. So in my case I would have to agree with Stephen Krashen, vocabulary grows much more quickly when reading for pleasure.

When I hear a word I don’t immediately recognize in speaking, my brain glosses over it as long as it can understand the general meaning of the utterance. I suppose that is why it is more difficult to retain new words when they are spoken rather than when I read them. Another factor in favour of reading is the fact that I can stop to look things up on the dictionary (thanks a lot, Kindle!), which I seldom do while watching a film or listening to someone talk.

However, I do retain spoken lexis, especially when I happen to comment it with my husband (as is ‘oh wow, you can say this in English….!’) or when I hear the same tem many times in a short period of time, possibly in one or more significant contexts.

How do you notice and learn words in a foreign language? Do you think there is a pattern? Do you think encouraging students to read for pleasure can be a good strategy to help them retain vocabulary?