Teach Yourself to Learn a Language
I’ve mentioned previously P.J.T. Glendening’s book Teach Yourself to Learn a Language, and in particular mentioned his list of basic words. Here’s what he says about the essential vocabulary, from Chapter 11:
There is nothing which will better persuade you that you are actually going to learn the language than practical demonstration of this as you progress. This means that you must be able to make practical use of what you have learnt, even at an early state. This is the advantage of those systems based on the repetition of phrases. You may never get the feel of the language, and there is a limit beyond which you will not pass, using the method, but at least you are able to say “How do you do?” when you meet someone, to remark “What a pity!” when you see that this remark is appropriate, to enter a shop and say “I should like to have XYZ, please” and so on. In this context, allow me to remind you that in Chapter 2, I came out against the learning of word lists (on most occasions)—while I now suggest an exception to this, the exception which proves the rule. After learning the basic facts about the language it is useful to have a list of the most frequently recurring words in the language at your disposal before you go on to study the language in greater detail. With these words you will be able to make a large number of sentences of simple construction. Here is a serviceable first word list, which may be applied to a large number of languages.
First Word List
1. The words given in the sample survey of Catalan—the articles; the personal pronouns, the possessives, the demonstratives, the relatives; the main adverbs of time, place, manner and so on; the chief prepositions; the help verbs; the principle conjunctions.
2. Nouns. The days of the week, the months, the seasons.
The body—arm, leg, head, hair, eye, ear, nose, mouth, hand, finger, foot, shoulder, heart.
Nature—light, darkness, sun, moon, land, sea, sky, hill, mountain, river, field, tree, valley.
Animals—dog, cat, horse, fly, fish, insect, cow, sheep.
House—door, room, kitchen, chair, table, armchair, TV, radio, window, bed, cupboard, washbasin, tap, bathroom, front room.
Books, etc.—book, paper, pen, pencil, stamp, newspaper, letter, card, address.
Clothes—shoe, trousers, skirt, shirt, collar, tie, jacket, overcoat, raincoat, stocking, sock, jumper, jersey, blouse.
General—car, bus, railway, train, station, road, street, policeman, ship, boat, restaurant, bar, tea, coffee, sugar, food, drink, knife, fork, spoon, day, week, month, man, woman, boy, girl, child, son, daughter, mother, father, brother, sister, aunt, uncle, wife, husband, friend, garden, church, laugh, smile, cup, glass, plate, bread, cheese, meat, language.
3. Adjectives. Good, bad; cold, warm, hot; useful, useless; old, young; rich, poor; clean, dirty; sweet, sour, bitter; black, white, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, brown, grey; strong, weak; early, late; hard, soft; easy, difficult; nice, pleasant, unpleasant; clear; sensible, silly; large, small; tall, high, how; long, short; wide, narrow; deep; big; pretty; happy, sad, unhappy; wonderful; funny.
4. Verbs. Do, be, have; get; can, may, must; shall, will, should, would; put; cost; cut; shut, open; sleep, wake; wash, dry; walk, run, come, go, stop, ride, swim; pick; turn; see, look, say, listen, hear, speak, watch; keep, hold; count; remember, forget; tell; think; read, write; begin, start; learn, teach; eat, drink; feel; use; be used to; become; receive; give, take; enjoy, annoy, bore, amuse; cross; like, dislike, be fond of, love, hate; sit, stand; lie, lay; ask, answer; bet; beat, win lose find; wait, expect; hope; break, mend; fight; make; fly.
Remember also the numbers, both cardinal (1, 2, 3, etc.) and ordinal (1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc.)
It is possible to go a long way with these 400-odd basic words. Indeed, you may well slice the list down to about half its size and still include the majority of the words of most frequent usage. At this point I must mention the reason why it is best to have a text-by-text glossary rather than an end-of-the-book vocabulary (although willingly both), when you arrive at the stage of studying texts, after having made the preliminary survey of the language. The fact is that general dictionaries and vocabulary lists give you the various meanings and usages of words (and not always sensibly or even correctly, for that matter), whereas when you begin to study texts in the foreign language you want to know exactly what a specific word or expression means in its context, and this what the text glossary will tell you. For instance, the word “mechero” comes in one of the first reading passages in a certain Spanish instruction manual, and there is no glossary giving this word. The vocabulary at the end of the book omits the word, and recourse must therefore be had to the dictionary (unless the learner has been bright enough to identify what the word means from the context). Now the dictionary gives us the following information:
Mechero, m. sconce, candlestick socket; lamp-burner; gas-burner; blow-lamp.
And, indeed, the word may mean any of these things, according to the context. As you progress the better you will be able to choose for yourself which of a string of possibilities is the one required—but as a beginner you must have every assistance in getting things right, in avoiding discouraging delays and uncertainties and errors. No, the text in question should undoubtedly have given the translation “mechero—cigarette lighter”. It might, perhaps, add the word “here”, indicating that it may well mean other things in other places, although in this case there is little doubt that “lighter” is far more often used than “sconce”, and so forth.
From what has just been said, you will see that there can be no small danger in starting with a list of words in your own language and looking them up in a dictionary. There is less danger if you are aware that certain English words have several different meanings, and even less danger if you happen to know what these meanings are. Often each possibility has a different translation in the foreign language—and then again, the various foreign words are liable to behave in a similar way; that is, each one of them, or certain of them, may have a variety of meanings, just one of them coinciding with the meaning of the English word in question. In English the multiple-purpose word par excellence is “to get”. The following table will demonstrate the difficulties possibly met with in finding which word to use in Spanish, say, when “get” is used in English…