Organizing new vocab

Part of the reason I’ve never liked formal language classes (or even textbooks, for that matter) is because I like learning new grammar and vocabulary in the context of original (native) reading material.  I can’t deal with “themed” chapters (e.g. “Chapter 2: Weather”) that force me to memorize relevant words from a word list.

But my problem with reading original stuff is that I jump around between several different novels, webtoons, and news articles at a time.  A lot.  On top of that, because I make it a habit of jotting down words I don’t know, one page of my notebook can be a jumbled mess of words and definitions from five different sources.  This really really bothers me because I tend to learn words in clusters (e.g. learning the words ‘detective,’ ‘prosecutor,’ ‘murder’, ‘death penalty’ together because they’re often used in combination with each other).  So it throws me off when I’m looking over a page that’s half-filled with detective vocabulary that then switches to words about painting and geometry.  Then I don’t remember either sets of words effectively.

I puzzled over how to solve this problem of organizing my vocabulary for a long while.  It didn’t seem cost- (or space-)effective to start a new notebook for every Korean novel I owned.  I switched for some time to using a binder and writing on printer paper.  Then I could organize the pages of vocabulary notes according to different novels, articles, etc.  But the paper buildup started getting annoying and I didn’t want to fill up my shelves with binders upon binders of Korean vocabulary.  So  then, I came up with this solution.  For online articles, I simply copy and paste the text into a Word document and voila.


I use the “Comments” feature to highlight all the words I don’t know and type up the definitions.  This is an article about 나인: 아홉번의 시간여행 which appeared in Ceci a few months ago (side note: some of these words I’ve already committed to my long-term memory!)  This is really helpful when I’m practicing translation too; I can just type up the English portion below the Korean text and use the comments as a reference.  Also, it’s great for visualizing how much my vocabulary has improved over the past several years/months.  Provided that I read the same genre over time, the number of words I highlight in every article will be bound to decrease as my vocabulary builds up.  (Again, this depends on the type of thing I read.  If I suddenly started reading economic news instead of celebrity interviews, without a doubt I would have crazy highlights all over the article.)

Okay but what about hard copy stuff?  For now, this is what works for me.

2013-11-27 00.07.07This is a page from 바람의 화원 and, as you can see, I’ve used Post-It notes.  Personally, I hate marking up my books (unless it’s for an English Lit class) so this is a good alternative.  Plus the notes are stuck roughly in the same area as where the unfamiliar words are located in the text.  The only issue this poses is that it makes going back and reading kind of inconvenient because you have to move the notes aside – and then they lose their stickiness and falling out.  Urgh.  But thus far it’s working for me!

So much of how well you learn or retain something depends on knowing how you yourself learn best, which is why I decided to write this post.  I still suck at retaining new vocabulary but I’m definitely getting better now that I have these note-taking strategies in place.  There’s really no right or wrong way to learn or study.  Trying different things and figuring out what works for you is the hard part!



Cécile Corbel & songs in foreign languages

Good music makes me so, so happy.

I’ve been listening to a lot of “experimental” electronic, indie rock, and singer/songwriter type music these days.  When I listen to music in a language I can understand (English, Korean, and some Japanese), lyrics are often the most noticeable element of song for me and vocals tend to stand out against the backdrop of instrumentals.  But in other languages, vocals become mere morphemes without meaning, indistinguishable from the other layers of sound in a song.  A friend and I were discussing how sometimes we prefer to listen to songs in languages we don’t understand – for me, at least, it’s because it lets me interpret and feel the song in my own way without being hindered by semantics.

Recently, this friend introduced me to a singer who, as she described it, has “the voice of a siren.”

Cécile Corbel is a Breton singer and harpist who, in addition to having the most enchanting voice I’ve ever heard, also composed the score for the Studio Ghibli film 借りぐらしのアリエッティ (The Borrower Arrietty).  That’s her singing a song from the film in the video above and, yes, she is singing in Japanese!  Corbel’s native language is Breton – a Celtic language that originated in the British Isles and is spoken predominantly in Bretagne, France – but she also sings in French, English, Italian, German, and Irish.  And true to her roots, many of her songs have a gorgeous Celtic feel to them.

Here’s one of my favorites by her – “La Fille Damnée” in French.

It’s been ages and ages since I heard anything in French and, as per my usual weakness with French, I understood very little about what this song was about until I looked at the lyrics in French (so I guess my four years of French in high school wasn’t all for naught?  Heh.)  But that wasn’t necessarily the point because I wasn’t really trying to understand this song.  Corbel has a voice that I just want to listen to and feel without thinking.

But then I noticed something interesting.  I remember when SNSD’s “I Got a Boy” came out and English-speakers “misheard” the chorus (“I got a boy 멋진, I got a boy 착한”) as “I got a boy munchin’, I got a boy chicken.”  It’s as though your brain takes the sounds of a language you don’t know (e.g. Korean) and forcefully tries to apply meaning to it using a language that you do know (e.g. English).  Now, I’ve listened to Korean music for years so I never “misheard” those lyrics in English.  Even when I come across Korean speech or lyrics that I don’t understand, my brain still recognizes it as Korean.

Now the weird thing with me is when I listened to one of Corbel’s songs in Spanish among others, I kept hearing what sounded weirdly like Korean or Japanese or even Hindi words.  Never once did my brain try to “Englishify” what I was listening to, despite the fact that 99% of the time I open my mouth to speak, I use English.  I wonder if this is a result of the fact that the vast majority of songs that I listen to are not in English, even though I use English in my daily communication.  But something similar happens when I watch movies in foreign languages to which I have little to no exposure – let’s say German or Thai.  I’ve found this to be really disorienting because my brain keeps trying to hear Korean or Japanese in the dialogue, not English, even though the vast majority of movies I watch are in English.  It’s almost as if my brain understands I’m hearing something in a foreign language, makes a switch from English, and tries to interpret it in my next-most-proficient foreign language.  Does this happen to anyone else?  And I’m not sure but is there a technical linguistics/cognitive science terminology for this phenomenon?

It’s crazy.  I’ve been thinking more and more about neurobiology these days and how fascinating it must be to study the brain in the context of language acquisition.  I wonder if there’s a way to visualize a phenomenon like the one I described happening using fMRI – do different parts of the brain light up?  Is the neural connectivity changing?  Does synaptic plasticity affect whether or not you experience something like this?  Gah, so many delicious questions.  I should dig into the literature sometime.