The German phrase “Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof” means “I understand only train station.” To a native English speaker, this might sound like nonsense. To someone who knows German, it means that the speaker doesn’t comprehend something; it’s the equivalent of saying the English idiom “It’s all Greek to me!” Even English speakers, though, might not know the words garrulous (chatty), inchoate (rudimentary) or cognizance (knowledge).
So how do scholars who study language figure out which words you really need to know?
This is exactly the question that Jamie Rankin asked when he began his career in second language learning and vocabulary. It also served as the thesis for his lecture “How can I learn all these words? Research-based strategies for L2 teaching and curriculum development.”
“I set out to answer some questions,” said Rankin, who visited Binghamton for his lecture on Sept. 27. “How many words do people know? How do those words relate to textual coverage? How many words do people know and how many of those words cover a given amount of text? What’s the most effective way to help students learn these words?”
A university lecturer at Princeton University, Rankin also serves as the co-director of the language program in the German department. Since 2015, he has also held the role of inaugural director for the Princeton Center for Language Study, which provides instructors and students — of all languages — access to resources that aid in the growth of their linguistic skills, as well as their professional development.
Rankin completed his doctorate in German literature at Harvard University, and later worked at Binghamton University before moving on to the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa. There, he specialized in the teaching and education of a second language, and specifically, in the processes that help students more effectively gain fluency. He is a co-author of the Handbuch zur deutschen Grammatik, and has published a number of articles on a variety of topics — including the subtleties of classroom feedback, mentoring teaching assistants, and the strengths and pitfalls of various classroom materials for new learners.
A lot has changed in the last 50 years of teaching language, he explained. Early on, there was a focus on grammar, mainly in the hope of translating antique materials back into English. Then, in the 1960s, some classrooms focused on habit formation by having students mimic their teacher’s phrases, a practice that became known as “audiolingualism.”
More recently, professors have focused on preparing students for cultural immersion.
“If you’re doing grammar translation, if you’re doing audiolingualism, all you’re doing is learning rules. You’re not really learning how to speak,” Rankin said. “Then you have communicative language teaching, which sort of grew out of that, where the whole point was to use the language for spontaneous communication among people. And I would say that for most colleges and universities, this is the way languages are taught. The point is to be able to communicate competently in the language.”
This method of teaching focused on ensuring linguistic proficiency in more than one arena — the ability to not only say something grammatically correct, but socially correct, in a way that flows cohesively. It even aims to improve your aptitude to navigate conversations in which you may not have the language needed to answer as you normally would.
But there’s a problem Rankin continued to run into, even with this technique: the sheer number of words that can be taught and the process of prioritizing some over others. To focus on these cultural aspects of learning, many textbooks neglect vocabulary — and this is true for every language.
“Now that doesn’t mean that the authors just wanted you to learn [random] words and they were trying to be cruel,” Rankin said. “They were choosing vocabulary with the intention of making it useful for a cultural topic, not because it was what’s actually going to be found in a text.”