What is Basic?

Image by Markus Spiske

Over the past few weeks, several of my students have shared their frustration with me: “I’ve been studying Russian for so long and I still can’t use basic vocabulary! When I asked what kind of vocabulary they were referring to, they mentioned specific cooking verbs (e.g., verbs for cutting ingredients in different ways), words describing fine dining, or a visit to the vet.

I think most language learners have experienced this frustration in the language learning process. As a language learner myself, I know this feeling very well. I passed several international language exams with flying colors, but when I immigrated to Canada, I didn’t know how to make basic small talk in an elevator – what could be more frustrating?

My students made significant progress. I myself had proof of language proficiency, all these certificates that even satisfied my immigration officers. But why does this keep happening? Why do language learners have trouble discussing basic topics? To answer this question, let’s define what “basic” means.

Basic Subjects Vs. Basic Vocabulary

When you think about basic topics and basic vocabulary in your native language, you probably think about things and actions that you consider simple. What you do every day, what you see when you drive to work, what you laugh at when you watch a movie – all things that do not require a lot of intellectual effort. What you probably think is beyond the basics are things that require a lot of effort to understand, such as quantum physics, epistemology, machine learning models, or neurosurgery. For native speakers, basic and advanced vocabulary are almost the same as simple and complex topics.

For adult learners of a second language, the easiest vocabulary to acquire is the vocabulary that is part of their professional expertise. Firstly, this is what they usually need and like to talk about – their professional life; and secondly, specific terminology tends to be part of what we call “international words”, the words that are the same or almost the same in many languages. Paradoxically, it is easier for second language learners to talk about neuroscience and quantum physics than about what to buy or cook for dinner.

Natural Acquisition vs Classroom Environment

When you were a baby you heard adults say things like “I’m turning on the water for your bath — whoosh! This water is nice and warm. Now let’s pick out a toy. How about this yellow duck? Quack, quack!” You have heard this a thousand times. This is how you learned the phrasal verbs “to turn on” and “to pick out,” the onomatopoeic words “whoosh” and “quack,” the progressive tense for an immediate, ongoing action, the definite article “the” before “water” and the indefinite article “a” before “toy” because it could be any toy, and the subject-verb-object word order. All of these things are the subject of rational explanations for second language learners, and not all of them are even mentioned in a basic course.

When you decide to learn a second language, you come to classes and buy textbooks where you read about grammar rules, study ready-made word lists on specific topics. The authors of textbooks and language courses try to be as useful and practical as possible, so they offer such topics as “Introducing yourself: who am I and what do I do” – focusing on your professional skills and achievements; “My daily routine” – to describe your day in a rather boring and uninteresting way; “Discussing books and movies” – because it is fun to do so, and so on.If you started learning Russian because you like classical Russian literature, how will you learn baby talk? Neither Tolstoy nor Dostoyevsky wrote about it!

Language teachers try to think about which words you will need most in the most likely situations you will encounter, so they choose those topics. They can’t imagine you bathing your baby while speaking your second language, or sharing your favorite recipe with a speaker of your second language. This is why everyday, simple vocabulary rarely makes it into second language textbooks.

This is why language immersion has a magical effect on many language learners: suddenly you find yourself surrounded by language, and you have to find words not only for what you were preparing to talk about, but for literally everything. Every little thing has to be labeled, every message has to be put into words, and there is so much anxiety and overthinking going on in your head.

How to Fill Gaps in Basic Vocabulary

If you cannot move to the country where your second language is spoken, then try to recreate the language environment as closely as possible.

Environmental customization

Small actions may have a surprisingly significant effect on your language learning:

  • Switch the interface of your phone into the language you study
  • Switch your system language on your computer as well 
  • If you have a GPS system in your car that talks to you, let it talk in the language you study! (but please don’t get lost!)
  •  Whenever you are offered to choose a language, choose your target language. At least, give it a try. Theoretically, you can always reverse your choice, right? 

Having Fun is Mandatory

Every culture has books and movies that represent the best that has been produced in that language. However, this is not necessarily the best source of language for learners. TV shows and popular songs are often more useful if you want to master basic vocabulary. Classical literature is extraordinary, while your goal is to master all the ordinary things that language has to offer. I can’t say how often my students pick and memorize hundreds of words from songs they listen to for fun, while struggling with the vocabulary of a praised writer. It doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy and appreciate a sophisticated book. It’s just that it is probably not the best source for your language studies. Not yet. 

Build Your Own Vocabulary

Flashcards and vocabulary lists are very popular, but I highly recommend avoiding all those pre-made flashcard decks and vocabulary lists. Spend some time making your own vocabulary lists according to your interests and needs. Better yet, make these lists as you learn the language: if you watch a movie and find an interesting word, write it down and add it to your deck. If you listen to a song and find a new word, write it down and review it. This is not immersion, but it is very effective.

Come Up with Your Big Project

So far, my tips were about how to increase your exposure to the language, and how to train your passive language skills, i.e. listening and reading. Active skills, such as writing and speaking, are more difficult to develop, but without them, you won’t acquire your target language. 

Come up with an idea for your big project where your target language would be a mere means of communication. Start a blog in your target language, and pick the topics that you’d like to share with native speakers of your target language.

Join a community of native speakers in an area of interest and importance to you. For example, if you are learning Spanish and planning a vacation to a Spanish-speaking country, check out online community groups for rental property owners, restaurant critics, hospitality communities, and more. You’ll get information you wouldn’t otherwise have access to, you’ll be able to plan your perfect vacation, and your Spanish will improve quickly!

If you are studying Russian and there are many Russian-speaking students at your university, think about how you can help them. Write a quick guide for newcomers: how to rent a room, how to use public transportation in your city, how to save money on groceries, how to get medical care, how to ask for help if the curriculum is too difficult, etc. Students will be grateful to you, you will make new friends, and your Russian will improve in ways it would not have improved if you had not practiced it outside the classroom.

What are your strategies for learning languages? Feel free to share them in the comments!