How did I, an EL teacher, acquire such an extensive lexical stock? How is it that I can not only explain, but also produce whole dictionary entries for a great number of words in their multitude of meanings? In effect, I can try to answer two of my favourite questions about language learning and teaching.
1) How many years does one have to study a language to know it really well?
2) Why do you still use dictionaries, don’t you know English already?
It all started with a book, namely “The Moving Finger” by Agatha Christie. My EL teacher gave it to me as summer reading, and I bravely embarked on this amazing journey, at the mature age of 11. Yes, page 1, I wrote out all the words but the articles, and wrote down their translations and pronunciations too. In the evening, I showed my mother the amount of work I had done; at her suggestion, I read aloud that first page to her, straight from English into Russian. No, my mother did not know any foreign language; I was happy to acquaint her with a different world, in my clumsy childish translation. And so it went. When I came back to school in September, our teacher asked us who had read a book in English in summer. I was the only one to have done so. She asked me lots of questions, as I now realize, using the new vocabulary to help me activate it in speech. And then she gave me another book, which we also read with my mother. This kind of work, first reading and understanding, and then translating, ensured that I remembered many new words without having to learn them by heart or doing any tests. I quickly realized that my word stock became much bigger than that of my peers. I was extremely fortunate to have a wonderful teacher who encouraged me to read, who found the time to discuss various books in English with me or asked me to make short reports for the class. She also included me into various level competitions, progressing from school events to city and regional ones. When foreigners came to visit our English-speaking school, I was invariably put forward to greet them, and to take them on a school tour.
No, I was not the only one. My friend, who later became a chemist, was fascinated by my enthusiastic stories of the books I read in English; her family supported her interests, stressing the importance of the English language for scientists. Quite often through the long Siberian winter, we would sit at either her or my home, reading aloud to each other, consulting our dictionaries, and together we would try to puzzle out some really hard phrases. My mother was the one to matter-of-factly explain several concepts which were practically taboo, like love, sex. As a university librarian, she knew which reference books to use when we became older to learn about the realia of a different country.
Reading is probably the best way to enrich your vocabulary. It is important to continue reading and working if you wish to keep up your own level, and to grow professionally. Today it happens sometimes that I read the whole book and come across only one new word or notion. I always check out its meaning. If I recognize all the words but am not sure of a few words’ pronunciation, I also check it out. It is so easy today as compared to our youth; everything you need is just a click away!
When I hear this common modern complaint, “Young people do not read!” I wonder. On a bus, I see commuters with various devices, obviously immersed in reading. Those are not traditional paper books, true. But isn’t what they are doing reading? To understand the information they find on the web, students need to be able to read, too. Maybe this is a different type of the traditional activity. My students read an article, a news item or a sonnet by Shakespeare on the screen; when they do not understand a word or phrase, they select or underline it, copy, then open up a new window, paste in the word and get an explanation or translation immediately.
We can ensure that language gets recycled by the usual means: retelling, rendering, writing essays and tests, and of course speaking. Some students need a lot of help; we can compile lists of questions with the new words, so that they reply to them using the new lexis. Others would use the vocabulary they had just acquired confidently. A few would still produce only “interesting” and “beautiful”, or only “good, bad, nice” even if they had read and heard lots of synonyms! Sometimes a vivid story or image may help them memorize a word or phrase. For example, my students of any age and level are always fascinated by the differences in colour adjectives usage. In Russian, “green” does mean both the colour and the young age. However, when used figuratively, it is melancholy and boredom, ennui that are green. I tell them about green envy and jealousy, in English, and quote Shakespeare. And then my physicist student produces “the green-eyed monster” when explaining something to a native speaker. The immortal image stuck in his memory.
The more we EL teachers read, write, hear and speak, the more we can give to our students. It is a never-ending process, a great story of acquiring, preserving and developing Knowledge.
NB: If you can read this, thank your English teacher!
Nina MK, Ph.D.