Building up a vocabulary is a major part of mastering a language — quite possibly the major part in terms of time and effort expended. So it’s worth trying to find the best and most efficient way to teach (and learn) new words, ideally so they’ll be remembered weeks, months or years later.
Let’s try an experiment. I’m going to pick a couple of relatively uncommon Esperanto words you might not know and ask you to keep them in mind: boaco (“reindeer”) and luko (“skylight, porthole”). If you already happen to know those words, pick a couple of others at random.
Sometimes a word is so similar to its English equivalent that learning is no effort (provided it really does mean the same thing as its equivalent and isn’t a “false friend”). Other times there’s a mnemonic trick you can use. Montagu Butler suggests a number of them in his classic Step by Step in Esperanto (“A bee! Lo!” for abelo, for example.) But for the most part we have to rely on plain old memory.
Okay: without looking back, how do you say “reindeer” and “skylight” in Esperanto? Odds are you were already at least starting to forget. (If you have, go ahead and refresh your memory.)
When we first hear a new word, we start to forget it very quickly. In the 1960s an American authority on language teaching named Paul Pimsleur published research on the subject. According to Pimsleur, we forget a new word in as little as 5 seconds. But if we’re prompted to think of the word just as we’re starting to forget it, our memory will hang onto it a little longer, for about 25 seconds. Another reminder at that point, and we’ll remember for two minutes. Yet another reminder, and it will stick in our minds for 10 minutes. The intervals before forgetting then grow rapidly longer: an hour, a day, five days, 25 days, four months, and two years.
(By the way, do you remember how to say “porthole” and “reindeer”?)
It’s important to try to remember the word as opposed to just hearing or seeing it again. In fact, a paper published in the February 15 issue of Science describes results of a foreign language vocabulary experiment that found, “Repeated studying after learning had no effect on delayed recall, but repeated testing produced a large positive effect.”
Perfect adherence to Pimsleur’s intervals might be practical only in a recorded or computer-based course. But even in an informal class or a club meeting you can use the basic idea. Ask a lot of questions (which helps get everyone thinking and talking anyway) and try to make the answers involve new words just introduced, words that came up a few minutes before, and words from previous days. (Not necessarily all in the same answer, but kudos if you can manage that!)
Of course, too much of this is exhausting, so don’t overdo it. After a few minutes of questions and answers you can resort to something less mentally taxing — perhaps listening to a story or short talk in easy Esperanto, watching a skit, discussing in English some feature of Esperanto grammar, or singing a song. If that lasts about 10 minutes, it’s just about time again to ask a few vocabulary-related questions.
There’s no reason to keep secret what you’re doing, because students can use the same approach on their own. When they run across a new word they should try to remember it after a few seconds, then again after half a minute, and so on.
There are ways to work this into a daily schedule even for people not taking a class. For example, read some Esperanto over breakfast (with a dictionary handy) and talk to yourself about it in the shower and again while getting dressed, trying to recall any new vocabulary you ran across. Find some time later in the day when you can repeat the process, preferably without provoking too many worried looks from co-workers. Think about what you read yesterday, a week ago, and a few months ago. This doesn’t just help vocabulary, it helps memory in general.
(And do you remember how to say “porthole” and “reindeer” in Esperanto?)
Butler, Montagu C., Step by Step in Esperanto.
Karpicke, J.D. and Roediger III, H.L. (2008) “The Critical Importance of Retrieval for Learning”, Science, 319, 966-968.
Pimsleur, P. (1967). “A memory schedule”. Modern Language Journal, 51, 73-75.