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So what does all this mean?
It means that without a basic vocabulary there is very very little we can do. We can't understand our environment, and are constantly in need of support from both visual and gestural means in order to have some control over the message.
It also means that one will not be able to do much until one has a basic vocabulary. As one famous person once said "with a limited grammar little, can be said, without words, nothing can be said".
It also means that to reach native-like ability it takes a huge investment of time and of attention to vocabulary.
It appears that early on learners tend to take a word-centred approach to vocabulary acquisition and only later do they move to a more collocational approach (i.e. seeing words with their partners).
Vocabulary is NOT learned once it has been one or two times. We can see that we need to learn the word's multiple uses, the words it goes with and much more. Research also suggests that it takes between 8-20 meetings of a word before we can say that we have 'learned' it. That means we can understand it when we meet in in our reading and listening but not necessarily use it in our speaking and writing. To use the word productively a lot more knowledge of the word is needed.
There is a difference, a BIG difference, between learning a word only at the meaning-spelling level (or meaning-sound level) and being able to use it. Thus we need to work extra hard to make the word available productively.
Initially the learners only need a basic picture of the word, such as a rough meaning or a translation will be enough. Later they should work out how the English word is similar and dissimilar from the equivalent word/concept in their own language.
There are certain things we should not be teaching too early. For example, there is little point in teaching affixes until the learner already has mastered the basic root forms.
How have we deal with this situation in the past?
Traditionally many coursebook writers and linguists have stressed the importance of teaching structure. The argument goes like this. In order for learners to be able to say or write anything they need a framework to put words into. The framework is grammar. The belief is that learners should first master the grammar patterns and then later add the words. This led to a domination in language teaching of structure with a corresponding de-emphasis on vocabulary. Some coursebooks were marketed on their lack of vocabulary, the intention being that the fewer the words the learners had to deal with, the easier it would be to learn the grammar. More words were to be added later.
In recent years we have become more and more aware of the fallacy of this approach. We learned that without vocabulary to put on top of the grammar system the learners could actually say and write very little despite being able to manipulate complex grammatical structures in exercise drills. We also learned that there is no such thing as a broad distinction between grammar and vocabulary. In fact, languages are made up of word patterns (we say weak tea but mild cheese - not weak cheese; we say beautiful day, but not usually handsome day) and chunks of language (by the way, the day after tomorrow, and by and large). We also have hundreds of sentence head (I want to ...., Would you please be so kind as to ..., If I ...., I'll ......, and Have you ever .... ?). Some of the language is made up of set phrases that never change such as Happy Birthday!; others are semi-fixed where parts can be exchanged such as What .... like? as it can be rendered as what is he like? , what was the movie like?, what was the weather like? Research has shown us that a lot of language is formulaic and not really based on the pedagogical grammars that coursebooks teach foreign language learners. Why, for example, do coursebooks teach the present simple tense before the past simple tense when the past simple tense is much more common?
We now also know that our old ideas about words as single items of meaning has been problematic. We used to think that a word was well, just a string of letters with spaces either side and that really was all we needed to worry about. Thus the emphasis in much of teaching has been to teach many meanings. Teachers who say "I taught 10 words today" mean they taught 10 meanings. Certainly there is a meaning-spelling or meaning-pronunciation relationship but there is also a whole lot more than simple knowledge of meanings. While we have know of other aspects of word knowledge (such as when to use it, its collocations, its frequency of use, etc) we have tended to de-emphasize them in favour of seeing words a simple "teachable" single word items. But with recent research we have discovered the importance of seeing words beyond this level. But meanings exist in multiple word units. For example, Christmas day, How are you?, summer holiday, wet weather, traffic jam, apple pie, sweet and sour pork, and so on.
Thus we are now understand better that there are two basic stages in word knowledge. The first is the form-meaning relationship (meaning and spelling or sound) and a second "deeper" level of word knowledge that involves knowing how this word the differs from other words; by knowing what contexts it can be used in; whether it is a polite or slang term; by knowing how its meaning changes when used with different word e.g. how a handsome woman (rather large) is different from a handsome man (good looking); and so on. Both of these things need to be worked on, but we cannot deal with the deeper aspects of word knowledge until we have met the word and know its meaning first.
We now have a better understanding that in order for learners to learn a foreign language they need ......