A Few Words about Vocabulary

salvēte iterum, amīcī et sodālēs! Today, as promised, we’ll deal with a logistical issue. For a language learner, it’s probably the issue – vocabulary. After all, how can you say you understand (or speak) a language if you don’t know any words? But what is the best way to learn vocabulary? And what vocabulary should our Latin learners be learning, anyway?  Today’s post will be a bit brief; we’ll continue on this subject tomorrow.

There’s been a lot of research about first-language vocabulary acquisition (for example, see this link from which you can download a lengthy pdf, or this link which summarizes Baker’s work), but not so much about vocabulary in a second language. In general, the researchers have noted that:

  • some children come to school with larger vocabularies than others
  • children with larger vocabularies usually also have better skills for learning the meanings of new words
  • vocabulary instruction can help all learners, especially the ones with smaller vocabularies
  • “semantic feature analysis” and “semantic mapping” (links) can help learners distinguish new words
  • the best way to increase vocabulary is to do more reading
  • reading comprehension, in turn, is strongly influenced by vocabulary
  • direct vocabulary instruction is helpful, but it’s even more important to teach the strategies for learning new words – and for figuring out the meanings of unfamiliar words when you encounter them
  • depending on your context, some words need to be known deeply, but other words don’t.

Even if you haven’t read the second-language vocabulary research, it seems intuitively obvious that some of the same factors would be involved, and that some of the same strategies would be helpful.  But is this actually true?  We’ll find out more tomorrow.  It’s also likely that some learners might need to be taught how to apply their first-language vocabulary strategies in the different context of another language.  But is this as easy as it sounds?  And what’s the relationship between first- and second-language reading skills, in any case?

Even without considering the technical issues, there’s a huge question: what words should a Latin learner learn?   If you live in the UK or in other nations with a national examination system, the answer is clear: learn the words on the prescribed list, at a minimum.  For example, in the UK there are published lists for GCSE, O-levels, and A-levels, and there are even free vocabulary practice sites online for these.

But for American Latin students, there seems to be no such list. Paul Diederich, of course, spent countless hours collating the “most common” vocabulary of commonly-read Latin authors, and he collated his list against a now-defunct College Entrance Examination Board vocabulary list which can be found here and here if you have JSTOR access, and which formed the basis of this list still available from the American Classical League. But Diederich’s work was done in the 1920’s and 1930’s, and the commonly-read Latin authors have changed quite a bit since then. Even the College Board today has no set list of core vocabulary for the Advanced Placement Examinations, though teachers have developed such lists for Vergil (the “old” or “current” syllabus) and it’s possible that such a list might be made part of the new syllabus.

In the absence of a set list, what factors should we consider as we develop the core vocabulary for Tres Columnae? I’d really like your thoughts about this! For the moment, I’ve been trying to collate

  • Diederich’s list, since it’s the closest thing to a common word list currently available,
  • the GCSE list,
  • the O-level list, and
  • the A-level list.

I’ll also be looking at Donald Brunel’s ACL list, though I don’t think I currently have a copy.  I’m starting to wonder how many people – especially test developers and University Classicists – have, or even know about, Brunel’s list!  Do any of you have it, dear readers?  If so, do you use it?  How about Diederich’s list?

I really don’t want to look at textbook-specific lists, since Tres Columnae isn’t textbook-specific. But I think I’m missing some important sources!  What would you suggest, dear readers?

Tune in tomorrow for more about vocabulary and other logistical issues. Later this week, we’ll meet some of the other important characters in Tres Columnae, including some strong Roman women and some very intelligent animals.

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Published in: on January 4, 2010 at 10:45 pm  Comments (3)  

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  1. Just a quick note to say that in teaching Biblical Greek, it was really nice to have AMAZING vocabulary tools to work with: the textbook I used (Croy’s Primer of Biblical Greek) presented the vocabulary based on frequency, which allowed for lots of sight-reading from the Bible starting with the very first chapter of the book (a big incentive for my students!), and there are also marvelous lexicons and analytical tools for the vocabulary of Biblical Greek since it is an easy-to-define corpus of words. It got me very spoiled; I don’t know of anything like it for Latin. For example, one of my favorite books is Trenchard’s The Complete Vocabulary Guide to the Greek New Testament (link) which has frequency lists, words grouped by root. Great stuff for students at any level. 🙂

    • It’s amazing, isn’t it, that no one has made frequency lists like the ones you mention … or that no one knows about it if the work has been done!

  2. […] make sure to keep that promise.  If you’re a longtime reader of the blog, you may remember this post and this one from January, the beginning of our previous series about […]


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