Breaking out of your vocabulary box

This isn’t an easy blog post to write.

The truth is: we all know you’re faking it.

You can speak fluently enough, but we can all tell it’s just the same hundred words over and over.

We all know that you can get by with people who know you, but that things drop off pretty quickly outside the office. It’s no secret that a lot of what people say goes right over your head.

Okay, sorry to aggravate your impostor syndrome. That post is written to everyone, because it’s something that everyone struggles with. We’ve all got limited vocabularies. We try to work around the, but we’re stuck speaking foreigner-speak. As someone put it to me a few years ago, “We don’t really speak Dari, we speak Glassman”—referring to the grammar book and vocabulary list that for years defined IAM’s Dari curriculum.

What can we do about it?

You’ve got to break things up. You’ve got to find new words: try to understand things you haven’t understood before, try to learn things you haven’t learned before.

But wait, you say: I don’t have a problem finding new words. It’s mostly just a mass of unknown words!

Exactly right. And what will happen if you try to get new words in a conversation with your language teacher? In one ear and out the other. Next week, you’re right back to where you started.

To solve this, you’ve got to work from new texts—something that you can record and listen to, or re-read later. Maybe you’ve already got a text that would be useful, or maybe you’ve got to create a new one; any text will do, or anything else as long as it doesn’t go away. If you study the words with flashcards as well, so much the better; otherwise, you can study by listening to or reading your text.

If you have a text relevant to your life or work, that’s ideal: perhaps curriculum from your project, or a translated policy. That’s the raw material for your language lesson. Look up those words in the dictionary, talk about it with a teacher, in short: massage the text. It’ll be immediately relevant.

If there’s no obvious text for you to work with, then you’ve got to find something new. This can be written text, a TV show, a recording from the radio, a story that you record from your teacher or a friend (or a stranger!). Next post will suggest a way to get new vocabulary from that fount of all knowledge: Wikipedia!