The nature of words

There’s a big misconception that seems to be common among language teachers and learners alike: the nature of words. In this post I try to clear up the confusion that 99% of language learners and language methods seem to have.

What words are not

Current language education assumes that words are these independent units of knowledge that can be learned by themselves. The only necessary thing to learn a word, it seems, is to learn its spelling, its translation into a language you understand, and making sure you don’t forget it. Well, that’s not what a word is at all!

What words are

A word is a much more complex system connecting different parts of your brain together, and includes all of these components:

  • Pronunciation. A word has brain connections to the different sounds that form it. That includes the phonemes themselves but also the intonation (tones or stress, depending on the language), and possible sound changes when saying it with certain other words (like the French liaison).
  • Spelling.
  • Range of meanings. Meaning is much more complex than a simple translation. Every word in every language has a different range of meanings that it can express, and meanings that it can’t. That means that a translation of a word will almost never work in all possible situations. For example, the Japanese word for duck (カモ, kamo) actually just refers to wild ducks. They use a different word for the domestic duck (アヒル, ahiru). And it’s not just the words. The two concepts are completely separated in Japanese people’s heads. They don’t think of domestic ducks as ducks at all! Learning the things a word does NOT refer to is often a hard thing for learners.
  • Figurative meanings and overtones. Many words in every language can be used with a second meaning. That’s something that also needs to be learned. In Thai you can call somebody “rat”, and it’s a cute thing to say, not an insult.
  • Grammaticality. To use a word correctly in conversation you need to know intuitively in what positions of a sentence it can go, how to conjugate it, etc.
  • Usage in a sentence. This goes beyond grammar and includes things like what prepositions can be used with a certain word, collocations, common expressions, etc. Even though in Spanish I would say “Tengo 20 años”, you can’t say the equivalent English sentence “I have 20 years”, even though grammatically there’s no mistake at all.
  • Appropriateness. Words can be formal or informal, offensive or not, masculine or feminine-sounding, or more appropriate for people of a certain age or social group to say. All this also needs to be learned.

This means that by learning a word as a translation, you’re actually just learning less than 10% of the actual word. And because of all these differences, virtually every translation of a word into another language is going to be mistaken in one way or another. Learning a translation can bring more mistaken assumptions than useful learning.

How words form in our brain

In light of all this, studying lists of words starts not to seem such a good idea. Besides being boring, the only thing you get in return is a flimsy brain connection to the word in your native language, that you will forget soon if you don’t keep reviewing the word. And, if you manage to make it stick, you’re carrying with it many mistaken assumptions from your native language.

As an alternative, just listening to the target language can solve all those problems. If you’re listening to things you understand, you’re forming connections in your brain not only to the meaning of the word, but to all the different components of a word that I mentioned before. Our brain is a machine built with the specific purpose of figuring out patterns, and it can pick up everything from the context in which words are used. In the post You’re not stupid I explain more about how mental images are formed.

Summing it up

This time I wrote a quite short post about a very specific topic, but it’s a really common mistake that misguides foreign language learning everywhere. Hopefully I’ve shed some light on the sheer size of the task of learning a foreign language, and how ridiculous it is to pretend to learn it by learning only one small part of each word and ignoring the rest.

As always, please comment and let me know about your point of view. I’m sure that words have even more parts than what I could come up with!

One thought on “The nature of words

  1. Pablo wrote: “They don’t think of domestic ducks as ducks at all! ”
    This also could easily have been “They don’t think of wild ducks as ducks at all! ”
    This further illustrates the counter-intuitive point your making about context having varying levels of salience which native-speakers effortlessly navigate at the unconscious level. However, when talking about meanings (and therefore consciously) at this abstract level, it is difficult to grasp and produces some discomfort. So, reducing this tension is paramount…how can we help do this constructively ? Perhaps having a lexicographer (sp) weigh in would help.
    Also, in the same way English has only one word for (カモ, kamo)and (アヒル, ahiru), Thai has just one for “mouse” and “rat”. So how wide the semantic field is determines the saliency of the context.
    If the first translation had been”mouse”, the figurative use would not be so amusing.
    In English, speakers are quite unaware how much meaning the context carries for “hold” in the phrase “hold the baby”. Warmth and affection are carried by the context whereas in Thai it’s carried by the word (อุ้ม, oom).
    As an aside, this illustrates the futility of transliteration. There is no way to represent the short Thai vowel in English.


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