Learning a Foreign Language: Why Should you Learn Words You Never Use in Your Mother Tongue?

Imagine a child sitting in front of a desk, his head in his hands, and mumbling various lists of words over and over. Does this child remind you of your own experience? If yes, I bet that "list of words" does not sound appealing to you. You are almost ready to swear that they do not work. Before you mortgage your part of paradise, it may be wise to make sure you are right.

You can open a dictionary and begin to learn it by heart (a dictionary is no more than a list of words). There are many illustrated dictionaries that offer you the same resources as plenty of websites do by displaying colorful pictures with captions. You know that these tools exist because you have already tried to enrich your vocabulary that way. The scope of the task curbed your enthusiam.

Though, it is not a bad way to learn vocabulary, it is even the best way for one person: the author of the list.


You are unique. Your memory is unique, not only because your memories are yours, and only yours, but also because the way you store them is yours and only yours. For a large part, memory is about association of ideas and the associations you make depend on your experience.

Let's study an example to make it clear. Ask anyone to give you a word in relation with the common word "horse". You will get mare, race, chivalry or Trojan, etc, depending on the person who answers.

He who answered "mare" might go on with stable, foal and even cow and other farm animals; he who said "race" would probably go on with racecourse and tote. Obviously, their experiences of life are quite different. "Chivalry" would lead to King Arthur, coat of mail and tournament while "Trojan" would meet Homer, odyssey, god and goddess.

If you are a linguist, it is very likely that you associate horse to horseback, horsehair, horseman and horseplay and think that your list is easy to remember. On the contrary, if you are not interested in the Middle-Age History, the "chivalry" list will slip your mind.

The more personal the links between the words, the easier the way to learn them. That is why a list works at its best for its author. The connections between the words pre-exist in the author's head.

So, pave your way, prepare your own list!

  • It will fit in with your way of thinking
  • It will meet with your center of interests
  • It will meet with your requirements
  • It will be half-learnt just by looking for the words you want to know
  • In the third issue, we will see how to take advantage of scientific studies about human memory. There are many ways to learn a foreign language. Why would you choose the hardest one?

    Gabrielle Guichard
    A French teacher who can be reached on GabrielleGuichard.com and listened to on FrenchPodcasting.com

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