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Learning vocabulary the scientific way?

Lockcard Team
Lockcard Team
February 12, 2022
Learning vocabulary the scientific way?
Illustrations by Yuxuan Wu

This might be you.

You get all excited about learning a new language.

The world is your oyster, and you feel like this time you're going all the way; there's no quitting halfway through. You're in for the long game and you see yourself becoming fluent as you keep practicing.

The reality is usually a lot more depressing. A few months into learning, you find it harder and harder to remember words and to make significant progress. That's probably because you're following rote learning. No matter how much you try making the process interesting, it's not as easy as it used to be. In fact, you start to getting frustrated. Maybe you feel disappointed in yourself since your early ambition and passion for that language turns out to be a lie. As a result, you trust your instincts less lately.

Six months in, you lose the original sense of achievement, and eventually you give up the language.

A year later, you try again. Still no real progress.

If that is you, you're not alone. In fact, humans are not good at keeping long-term commitments. Our brain prefers short-term to long-term rewards. Of course, small wins are easier but they don't get you anywhere serious.

So is there a scientific way to solve this human flaw, and help us learn languages more effectively? Here's what we found, along with research with a focus on the role of vocabulary in that learning process.

Studies on Learning Languages

We need to understand the different components of learning a language in order to tackle each with a distinct strategy.

Receptive vs Productive Competency

Second language learning, a journey

It has generally been accepted that when learning a second language, new words first become part of a person's set of passive knowledge (aka. receptive competence) before entering a person's set of active knowledge (aka. productive competence).

In 1982, Stephen Krashen, a renowned linguist, suggested that meaningful comprehension should be the focus when learning a language, as opposed to focussed production. Nonetheless, learners are often disappointed in their productive skills despite reasonably good comprehension skills.

From there emerge two major challenges:

  • Knowing enough vocabulary to be able to interpret
  • Leveraging passive knowledge to be able to produce

An argument for Receptive Competency — take in more

Schmidt (1986, 1990) has drawn attention to the role of consciousness in language learning, and in particular the role of noticing in learning. He suggested that we don’t truly learn unless we notice something about the input. Noticing features of a language can help incorporate new linguistic features into one's own language competence.

Further on, Schmidt (1990,139) distinguishes between input (what we hear) and intake (that part of the input we notice). Only intake can serve as the basis for language development. In his self-study of his learning of Portuguese, Schmidt (Schmidt and Frota 1986) found there was a close connection between his intake, and its later emergence in his own speech.

Schmidt lists the following factors as likely to contribute to the extent to which we notice input:

  • Frequency of encounter with items
  • Perceptual saliency of items
  • A specific methodology you apply to learning
  • Your own processing ability
  • Nature of the activity you are taking part in

In teaching listening and speaking skills for example, here are a few ways we can transform input to intake based on Schmidt's study:

  • Pause when encountering a new word. Ask around and search the word in a dictionary (we got the app you need for that)
  • Apply associative learning
  • When listening to materials with transcripts, identify differences between what you hear and the subtitles.
  • Complete sentences stems taken from a text

An argument for Productive Competency — close the gap

Swain (1985, 2000) suggested that when we make an effort to ensure our messages are communicated ('pushed output'), we are in a better position to notice the gap between our production and those of proficient speakers, helping us learn more effectively. Carefully structured and managed output is essential if learners are to acquire new language.

Managed output refers to tasks and activities that require the use of certain target-language forms — which consequently requires a 'restructuring' of that knowledge.

Swain and Lapkin (Saville-Troike 2006) suggest that meaningful production practice helps learners by:

  • Enhancing fluency by furthering development of automaticity through practice.
  • Noticing gaps in their own knowledge as they are forced to move from semantic processing to syntactic processing, which may lead them to give more attention to relevant information.
  • Testing hypotheses based on developing interlanguage, allowing for monitoring and revision.
  • Talking about language, including eliciting relevant input and (collaboratively) solving problems

Where You Can Start - use a smart dictionary

Based on our understanding of language learning, we find that the first challenge which consists in 'knowing enough vocabulary to be able to interpret' is an obstacle we can solve for you. Here is our refined problem statement:

How might we help language learners take in more vocabulary and remember forever?

Based on our secondary research and user interview, we designed and built @Lockcard, an Iphone app that helps you form a habit of using a dictionary whenever you encounter a new word. What's special is @Lockcard will flash those words to your lock screen to test your memory throughout the day. Truly, an effortless experience.

Use Lockcard for free today — Search once. Remember forever.

Charlotte Chen, Designer @Duolingo

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