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January 20, 2002 - Lida Baker: Acquiring Vocabulary - 2002-01-30

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble and this week on WORDMASTER -- advice for learning English. We've gotten a lot of questions on this topic recently -- especially about how to acquire new vocabulary words.

RS: For some answers, we turn once again to Lida [LEE-da] Baker who teaches in the American Language Center at the University of California at Los Angeles. She's written textbooks for students of English as a foreign or second language.

AA: Here's a typical question we've gotten. It came via e-mail from a Chinese listener named Frank. He has this to say: "I'm a self-studying man. I want to know what the best way is not to forget the words I memorized from the dictionary."


"I have a little trouble with the word 'memorized,' because 'memorized' makes me think that what Frank is doing is that he is writing the English words on the left side of the page and he's putting the Chinese translation on the right side of the page. That might work for the types of standardized tests that are given to students in a lot of countries. But if you really want to learn English vocabulary for the purpose of communicating, then that is not a good way to study vocabulary."

RS: A better way to remember new words, Lida Baker says, is to get yourself some index cards -- one for each new word you're trying to learn. Index cards are small pieces of heavy paper.

AA: This is what she tells her students: Write the word in English on one side of the card. On the other side, write enough information -- again, in English -- about that word until you've learned how to use it in a sentence.


"So you would want to write not just a one-word translation from your own language, but write the English definition too. Write some synonyms in English. Write the dictionary definition of the word, but also write how you would use the word, so you want to write whether it's a noun or a verb. Do you use it with 'a' or 'the,' or do you use it without any kind of article? How do you pronounce it? A dictionary is going to tell you how to pronounce a word, right? So put all that information on the back of the card."

SKIRBLE: "So what you're saying is, to put this word into context, so you can remember it."

BAKER: "Right. You could also write on the back of the card, you could write the sentence that you originally heard the word in or that you saw the word in. And then you should try to write an original sentence using the word in a new way."

RS: And, while you're at it, any time you see that word used somewhere in a sentence, add that sentence to the back of the card too!

AA: But, as you're doing all this, be careful. Don't try to learn too many new words too quickly. Lida Baker says it's important to set a reasonable goal.


"It doesn't work to try to learn fifty or one-hundred words at one sitting. It's much more realistic to choose a word a day or two words a day or ten words a week or fifteen words a week. So you have to start with a realistic goal. Beyond that, that's where discipline comes in. And the fact that you've written the words on index cards makes them portable. So while you're sitting on the bus you can be going through those cards and reviewing those words several times a day even. And at the end of a week, if you have picked a manageable goal and you've been reviewing those cards every day, those words are going to be yours."

RS: Now, you might be wondering, once that week is over, what to do with the cards?


"It's a good idea to have a box that you can put the cards in, and every so often go back and look at your old cards. Now, another technique that you can use is to divide those cards into two piles. The ones that you remember and that you can use, you put those in one pile, but the words that you've forgotten you put those in a second pile. And, you then go through and review the words that you put in that second pile, and as you remember the word and are able to use it, you move it from the pile of words that you don't know into the pile of words that you know."

AA: Lida Baker teaches in the American Language Center at the University of California at Los Angeles.

RS: If you have a question, mail it to us at VOA Wordmaster, Washington DC 20237 USA. You can also reach Avi and me by e-mail. That address is With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.

MUSIC: "Words, Words, Words"/Pete Seeger