In the title of the post, I deliberately ask a question I’m actually not going to answer. The reason why I’m not going to do so is that it’s not easy. However, by answering a slightly different question (and by throwing in more questions), I think I will partially satisfy the somewhat disappointed reader (presumably an ELT teacher) who was originally expecting to get some valuable insights into vocabulary teaching.
Now that I think about it, I’m not even going to speak from the perspective of a teacher most of the time but rather from the experience of an autonomous language learner. Let me stress first that I believe that creating autonomous learners is one of the most important goals (if not the most important one) of any educator because once you achieve this, your job is actually done.
Ironically, we English teachers can’t take the full credit for the fact that our students become autonomous learners. These days, most of our students are exposed to English outside the classroom all the time, and thus they, totally unaware of any research into SLA, learn it exactly the way which is most desirable – they focus on meaning and communication and thus they unwittingly create opportunities for incidental learning.
I think I can hazard a guess that fully autonomous L2 learners know what they need. Before I go on, I’d like to draw attention to the dichotomy of what one wants and what one needs. When I was younger, one of my ultimate goals was to reach a native-like proficiency in English – not because I thought it was something everybody should strive for but because I believed that the more one knew as a teacher, the better. However, I’ve recently become more realistic and practical in terms of my expectations; I’ve come to a conclusion that achieving a native-like proficiency is actually not what I need. I simply don’t need to know every English word to be able to teach English effectively. By the same token, I don’t need to know everything about the language to enjoy my life as a blogger.
What I’m trying to say is that over time, I’ve become very selective as far as vocabulary learning is concerned. In the past, while still on the hunt for a native-like proficiency, I would jot down every unknown word I’d come across (which inevitably made me feel depressed in the end), but now I only concentrate on the bits of language I think I’m going to need in my own context, i. e. in my writing and/or in the classroom. So when I come across a word I’ve never seen before, I don’t panic anymore – I quickly look it up and then go on. Only if I happen to see the same expression used again in a context I’m interested in, I keep my eyes open. In other words, over time, I’ve learned to ignore the enormous amount of what I don’t know and instead I started to focus on the relevant and achievable. This discovery has some significant implications for my teaching.
Also, I no longer have to rack my brains in order to solve the question of sequencing in the learning of vocabulary because my needs analysis was done a long time ago. By myself. I simply learn stuff as it emerges. In other words, I learn what I need to know as (or if) I encounter it. Needless to say, this observation also has some implications for my teaching.
Having said that, one important question still remains open: What happens before one becomes an autonomous (or proficient-enough) user of the L2? I’m driving at my experience with teaching adult beginners, who tend to feel very insecure when language is NOT treated as object, as well as with very young learners who, on the other hand, don’t look at an L2 as something outside of them and thus treating the language strictly as a means of communication seems to perfectly suit their stage of development. In any case, is there any core vocabulary to be learned/taught? How can you navigate through the vast land of the English language (or any L2) when you know next to nothing of it? What teaching approach is suitable then? Might treating the language as object be legitimate at a particular stage?