Let’s pretend, for a moment, that words are people.
I know, that’s an odd beginning, but bear with me. If words are people, then the whole world can be divided into four groups:
So, who are these people:
Family – These are the words that you are so familiar with, you don’t even translate them any more. You don’t even feel the slightest inclination to do so. They roll off the tip of your tongue, just as easy as thinking. Not every word comes as naturally; some words in the sentence are likely to be..
Friends – Words that you know well enough to speak or to write, but that you sometimes think about in a way more similar to your mother tongue than to your target language. Whether consciously or unconsciously, you’ll probably translate these words most of the time. But still, you know them better than your…
Acquaintances – Unfortunately, you are not able to produce these words yourself. Nevertheless, these are words that you recognise when you hear them or see them. Not all the time, obviously. Most of the time. OK, about 75%. In any case, you know what they mean. Roughly. You know roughly what they mean. About 75% of the time.
Strangers – Brand new words. You’ve never seen or heard them before. Do they mean you well, or do they wish you harm? You will have to rub shoulders with them if you want to find out.
Finally, what does this mean for you, the learner?
Firstly, it means that the words you consider your ‚family‘, you are unlikely to forget. These words and phrases will probably be with you for life. Hurrah! The ‚friends‘, however, will eventually emigrate from your brain if you do not constantly use them. Like a good friend, you can lose contact with them, only to have them suddenly pop back into your life as if they never left. And like a good friend, with enough contact, they become members of your family.
The ‚acquaintances‘, on the other hand, will require lots of practice if you want them to become friends. But do you want to? Is it really worth turning every ’stranger‘ you encounter into an acquaintance, and then into a friend? Wouldn’t that be a massive undertaking? Yes, it would, and I don’t recommend it.
Here is another opportunity for us to learn clever. Let’s say you’re reading a text, which has seven strangers and fifteen acquaintances among the friends and family. You’ve looked up the strangers in a dictionary, or otherwise inferred the meaning – what next? Some students will say: „Now is the time to sit down, make a vocabulary list, and put all of these words into my vocabulary!“
„Best of luck!“ I reply. „Are nervous breakdowns covered by your insurance?“
Ladies and gentlemen, I believe I have a better idea. If you’re reading this, you already have the basics of English covered. Great! Now take those strangers from the text. Make a note of them and leave it somewhere you can see it. Every day, you’ll want to take a little look at it (just a little one). Now, those acquaintances, write down – on a different piece of paper – the ones you think there’s a chance you’re going to need. After 2-3 days, those strangers will have become acquaintances, and you will have decided automatically which of them you want to make your friends. Add them to the list of acquaintances. Now add this complete list to your scheduled vocabulary training (you do have scheduled vocabulary training, don’t you?)
Learning this way gives you permission to recognise certain words passively, which takes the pressure off of you, allowing you to focus only on the high-priority words you have identified during your studies. You clever little sausage! Look at all your new friends!
acquaintance – Bekannte
bear with sb – mit jmdm Geduld haben
emigrate – auswandern
nervous breakdown – Nervenzusammenbruch
nevertheless – trotzdem
rub shoulders – mit jmdm auf ‚du‘ stehen
(un)consciously – (un)bewusst
undertaking – Unternehmung