I said recently that you can do more with a 100% comprehension of half the vocabulary, than you’ll ever do with 50% comprehension of all of it. Today, I want to give some real life examples of how you can be creative, and make yourself understood with a solid understanding of essential vocabulary.
First, what is essential
What is essential vocabulary? It's the words you need to understand in order to ask about other words, and to understand the answers you get. That's it. Seriously, that's all you need to know in order to communicate in a new language! Okay, so if people have to guide you by the hand, you won't be much of a conversationalist, but you can be sure that you'll be able to survive.
- For starters, you should know all of the question words in a language. The number of these is different in every language, from only 6 or 7 important question words in English to several dozen in Russian, the important thing is knowing then and understanding how to use them to ask questions.
- You should know conditional words like if, then, since, because.
- You should know all of the numbers.
- You should know directions. At minimum, know left, right, up, down, in, out, forward, and backward. You can then use these, if necessary, to figure out other directions, like north, south, east, west.
- You should know indicator words like here, there, this, that.
- You should know basic body parts like head, arm, leg, back, finger.
- You should know relative terms like near, far, over, under, good, bad, etc.
- You should know basic action verbs, such as walk, run, drive, fly, come, go, bring, take, get, put.
- You should know sensing verbs like watch, look, see, listen, hear, smell, taste, feel.
- You should know the words of obligation, including can, should, need, want.
- And of course, survival words like please, thank you, excuse me, hello, goodbye.
Believe it or not, you don't need to know much more than that in order to communicate effectively! Yes, of course, more is better. But as I said yesterday, it's better to have a complete understanding of limited, but essential, vocabulary, than to have an incomplete understanding of a lot of vocabulary.
Putting it to work, creatively
Now, just start saying what you need to say. Just talk! At first, trying to describe what you want to say might be like playing Super Password, but it gets easier. As crazy as this might sound, I can tell you that I have done it. It works.
Using just the words I've described above, I can say quite a bit. You can describe things for which you don't know the names, like:
bed : a place where i can sleep
foot : the thing at the end of my leg
north : on a map, it's up
light : that thing that helps me to see at night
It can work for verbs you don't know, too.
translate : say it in (my/your) language
feed : give food to
work-out : make my body strong
See? It's not so difficult! Sure, it doesn't sound educated, but it is communication. And trust me, when you describe things in a funny way, people will tell you the word you're looking for... so you will learn, too.
But it can get even better. Let's assume, for instance, that you need to go to the pharmacy, but you don't know where it is. And worse, you don't even know how to say pharmacy. Should you just give up in frustration? No!
Ouch! Oy! I feel bad. It's my head. I need to take something. Can you help me? Where do I need to go to get it?
Look at how much you can say! Without knowing the words headache, pain, medicine, pharmacy, etc., you can not only find out how to get there, but you will also probably learn some of these words in the process.
That's just one example of how much a person can say with a good understanding of just some vocabulary. And it underscores the importance of learning well, rather than racing to quantity. I would rather be able to easily, fluently describe my situation than to be standing somewhere with the deer-in-the-headlights look of someone who is beating himself up trying to remember the exact word he learned.
Want to see my favorite language resources and courses?
I listed them here.