Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest (lit: most important) thing in life is to keep your mind young.
This quotation keeps popping up on my SRS (Spaced Repetition System) and it feels so true. Five or so years ago my life and my brain seemed to be in stasis. Then I made a decision to learn Japanese and stumbled upon approaches to learning that reignited my sense of the possible in so many areas beside Japanese.
As a teacher and a father of two young children, I have very little time. I come from the at times emergency room feel of the school to give my daughters baths, play, and read stories. But lately, I’ve found ways to continue to grow my vocabulary, in this case Japanese vocabulary. Just by grabbing little moments on the subway, before bed, waiting at appointments, I have a new coterie of words and sentences. If I can have a whole new stable of words, you definitely can, whether you are learning a foreign language or your own language.
Here are some hints for a more powerful vocabulary:
- If you want to increase your vocabulary find material that you want to read. Make words like you might want to make friends. Be in the places you want to be and stay aware. Right now, I’m reading self-help “junk” in Japanese. The “junk” part is what keeps me motivated.
- Look up words but not too many. These days, I usually have a two word limit per page. I use the Midori app to draw the kanji, look it up and make a flashcard. If I am loving the looking up the word process more than the reading activity, I look up more. If I am tired or just more interested in the reading, I may not look up any words.
- Use the context to figure out words that you don’t know. What are the neighbors around the word saying? It’ll will often help you figure out the meaning of a word.
- Ignore unknown words if you don’t have the stamina in the moment. Scan the word. If it’s a worthwhile word, it will come up in future reading. It’s the “Let Go and Let Vocabulary” strategy.
- Drill if you will. My Midori Japanese app has the ability to turn every new word into a flashcard. Sometimes I drill the words and sometimes I don’t. What’s cool is when a word that I’ve studied comes up in a song or program that I am watching and enjoying. It’s a nice biofeedback loop. I like what Khatzumoto said in his article about learning vocabulary and language: “Let go of perfectionism, but ….don’t let go of improvement.” He encourages you to be relaxed and lackadaisical about specific words, but persistent in continuing to study.
Though I’m using my Japanese vocabulary as an example, I think following these four steps will help you boost your vocabulary in your native language as well. What I think is most important is to grow your vocabulary naturally by reading about what you love and finding that line between pushing and relaxing your mind. Word up, Samurai!