How to turn vocabulary into language

Alec Templeton

This is followed by “apple, mouse, peach, remote control, mobile phone, lipstick, comb, tooth­brush, suntan lotion, flower, razor, magnifying glass ...”. The designations or “names” of the different objects are evoked through gestures and posture. Practiced in this way, the words are imprinted more easily and better in the mind. They remain associated with a movement.

Learning to develop an inner sense of the words

The expression “vocabulary” evokes lists of individual words with their corresponding terms in the native language – so-called term-equations – which need to be “crammed” and which are “tested”. The world “vocabulum” indicates something small that is “called” or “named”. If we call out individual words as described above, the word “vocabulary” is the appropriate one! Calling or saying the words leads to intensive listening to the language.

Inner listening forms the basis for speaking; and listening is based on being able to reproduce the sounds which are heard precisely. Only longer words or groups of words have that certain inner movement, the intonation, rhythm and patterns of emphasis which are closely connected with the nature and way of working of our memory.

Pupils have to learn to listen to the language deep inside them. I appeal for exercises and lessons to be developed which lead to the pupils not just experiencing the words externally and representationally but which also allowed them to sense, grasp and think them inwardly.

How can I achieve that? If I ask the children, for example, after I have told them a story: “Who can still remember a word from the story?” Then I write the words they say on the blackboard – or better still, let them do it in so far as they are able. Through this aural memory we exercise an analytical activity and then combine the individual words back into groups of meaning and clauses: I point to one of the words on the blackboard and ask: “Does anyone know a word that came after or before this word?” We discover how individual words are entwined in certain ways and describe events, scenes and processes for us, reflect what people have said, communicate messages in general.

Then we can ask: “Can you remember the context in which you first heard this word? Was it a story? A play? A tongue twister? Something a friend said?”

We can develop things further by asking native speakers in the class to say “bird”, for example, in their language: “vogel, oiseau, ptitsa, pajaro, uccello ...” Then we ask: “Are these birds all the same? Do they all do the same thing? Are they all the same size?” We become aware that in some languages it tends to be a flying, sitting or singing bird which is concealed in the word. With »bird« the English speaker might tend to think of poultry on our plate.

It is a great help for the memory if the pupils can really savour the words in their sound and pictorial quality. My mother’s English teacher reported that during one of Rudolf Steiner’s visits to the then Friedwart School in Dornach, he saw a vocabulary booklet and commented: if you are going to have such lists, then with term equations from five or six languages! My mother still has such a vocabulary booklet.

In terms of teaching methodology, it is important to encourage the children and young people as much as possible when they are learning the foreign language. A test which gives the pupils the feeling that the teacher just wants to catch them out with what they do not know is discouraging instead of encouraging. If a pupil has the feeling, “the teacher has confidence in me that I can do this task, he takes me seriously,” then he or she feels encouraged. Having “understood” something – as indeed a sense of achievement in general – leads to young people being prepared to take on responsibility themselves for their learning processes.

The work on and with words which has been suggested here is predicated on language being experienced as something that develops in a creative process and that it must not be “memorised” as something fixed and arbitrary. If small children experience words not as “vocabulary” but as something which belongs to an exciting world of language, then as pupils they will at a later time savour the particular truth and beauty of language and will want to be active both in their native tongue and a foreign language.