Building Second Language Vocabulary Opens the Door to Meaningful Communication

Building Second Language Vocabulary Opens the Door to Meaningful Communication

When students build their second-language vocabulary knowledge, even if they can only use it in fragmented, unsophisticated ways, it absolutely opens the door to the possibility of meaningful communication.

I recall when I first truly realized that I could get my point across in a real life situation in another language. Years ago in Spain, in very broken Spanish, I inquired of someone something that went roughly like this, “excuse, hunger, restaurant, where?” Even though the response I got initially was lost on me (something like, “Hay un buen restaurante por allá en la esquina.”), I gave it another try (in Spanish) with the equivalent of, “I not to understand, please, slow, to repeat, thank you.” Soon, I was eating breakfast and feeling pretty confident about the verbal exchanges I had had that morning with some native speakers who, I might add, were apparently very patient people.

The important thing I learned on that day (and here’s the take away for working with students) was that I had a bank of vocabulary words in my head. Even though I was hard pressed to formulate grammatically correct sentences at the time, I was still successful at getting my needs met in, what was for me, a meaningful situation.

Of course, situational use of vocabulary lends itself to learning through trial and error. It didn’t take me too awfully long in Mexico one time, as I was bouncing along some Baja back-road, to figure out that when I had asked someone how to get to “el camino libre” it was not at all the same thing as getting directions to the freeway!

In ways that are similar to what our students find out about their own second-language learning, I’m sure, I discovered that the language acquisition process is often crude, choppy, and slow. On the other hand, with persistence, study, practice, and real life situations over time we eventually improve. These days I find it easier to negotiate meaning and to communicate my points, and not just in the kinds of social and interpersonal contexts mentioned above, but in academic contexts as well. However, the simple fact is, the vocabulary I learned early on facilitated my ability to even take a road, so to speak, “and that has made all the difference!”


Postscript humor: