Monthly Archives: September 2015

Boosting Fluency by Understanding Higher Order Semantic Content (A guest article by Maksim Sokolov )


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You’ve been learning a foreign language for many years and are now in possession of good vocabulary and near-perfect knowledge of grammar rules, but you’re still faltering when you’ve got to deal with quite basic situations. Does this sound familiar? The problem could be that you’ve been recognising only words as semantic units hoping to learn and then glue them with grammar. The solution could lie in devoting a bit of attention to higher order semantic building blocks of speech.

In this article I would like to share my perception of the semantic speech structure and the different roles of semantic building blocks. Before I continue, I would like to stress that neither do I claim absolute novelty of the approach, nor the standard of strictness found in books by such pundits as Halliday et al.  Moreover, the semantic perspective of speech I’m going to be talking about is one-sided as it ignores grammar, so it would probably suit only rather advanced learners who’ve got used to taking everything with a pinch of salt. Nevertheless, the approach helped me immensely in my foreign language studies and I feel it might be of help to others as well, and I shall proceed.

So what are those semantic building blocks I was referring to? I recognise the following semantic levels of speech.

0. Basic set lexical units: words.

  1. Set word combinations: collocations. Typically, they are more or less fixed combinations, for example ‘to throw a sickie’. However, in the context of the structure proposed I would also interpret quite loose word combinations such as ‘good advice’, ‘highly recommend’ as collocations, as it is done by some linguists*.
  2. Set expressions. These are “Lovely!”, “How dare you …?”, “That’s gross…”, “I’m afraid I can’t.” The main difference between the levels 0 or 1 and the level 2 is that there is now a communication function superimposed on the words/collocations to express your feelings, your situation, your status and so on.Note another aspect to the difference introduced at the level 2: although set expressions can consist of only one word, as in the above example with “Lovely!”, there is context as something that adds to the basic meaning or even changes it altogether. Specifically, when asked to confirm the details of your taxi order, you reply “Yes, that’s correct,” and they reply back “Lovely. Your cab is going to arrive in about five minutes.” In this context ‘lovely’ has the connotation ‘understood; OK; it suits us’, which you won’t find if you consult, say, the Oxford English Dictionary entry for ‘lovely‘.
  3. Set roles: yet another meaning can be superimposed on the speech, and it is the one of modality, or your attitude to what’s going on and it can be aptly inserted by the skillful use of 0, 1, 2. To illustrate, if you are a ‘disgruntled customer’, like Mrs Richards in Fawlty Towers, you would claim %you’ve never met such insolence in your life%; if you are, on the contrary, the one who has to deal with such customers, and you don’t want to ‘get off on the wrong foot’ with a valuable client you would probably try to explain that %it was not your intention to create such an awkward and embarrassing situation%. This client-staff relationship example within the level 3 shows that in the same context – the feature of the level 2 – different roles suggest different language. Other examples of set roles include a bickering couple, a boss and subordinates, friends having a square talk.

To summarise, the mathematics of the speech semantics goes as follows:

  • 0s as provided by the LANGUAGE;
  • 0s + 0s = 1s as provided and governed by the LANGUAGE;
  • 0s or 1s + function/context of SPEECH = 2;
  • 2s + other bits as dictated by the SOCIAL role/archetype = 3.

Now, what I suggest is that instead of struggling with 0s to say something appropriate in terms of 3, we try it the other way round. Namely, you first choose your character or your role (3) depending on what you want or have to do in a particular situation, and all the rest unfolds automatically as a given situation tells you what expressions (2) consisting of what collocations (1) and finally words (0) you should use. Actually, at its heart this viewpoint of placing acting in the centre is not at all new: just recall the passage from William Shakespeare starting “All the world’s a stage…” and the quote from Victor Hugo: “Life is a theatre set in which there are but few practicable entrances.”

It seems also pertinent to draw an analogy between a speaker of a (foreign) language and a music composer, since not only does the latter learn the notes, but also the scales, the harmony, and so on. Moreover, in many cases the restrictions and set combinations of the musical form appear to be by no means an impediment to the composer’s creativity.

Finally, a few more words to the reader: I hope you enjoyed reading my first article on LinkedIn. If it actually does happen that my approach arouses interest, I would be happy to write a continuation of this article that would address not the understanding but the acquisition of higher order semantic content in a foreign language, so please do comment.

Footnotes and References

*In fact, the most extreme case would be if any word combination is regarded as a completely original collocation, i.e. both ‘he drives a car’ and ‘he was driving a car’ would be thought of as different units, so there would be no need for grammar as everything becomes lexical.

The background picture is by Peter Worsley.

By Maksim Sokolov, rebroadcast here with his permission.

Clearing up some points about GLM.


A Facebook friend whom I shall call Miriamm (not her real name) asked me:

Hello, Hallo, Hola, Shalom, Ave, Chaire, Zdravo, Sei mir gegrüßt, sei mir geküßt, etc, etc…

I have a question about the Goldlist Method.

I have already asked this in the Polyglot group, but I didn’t get an answer, and somehow I can’t tag you, so that you get notified.

So, my question is:
Where do you take your first 25 words for the Headlist? Are they just random words or do you read an article, take notes during a lecture, watch a movie, whatever?

I have used Anki for quite long, until I got frustrated by the huge number of words it forced me to repeat before going on. I’m testing Memrise now and it often gives wrong pronunciations (it writes poder, but it says “el poder” for the verb “to be able to” in Spanish…)

It is annoying, because it gets hardwired in my brain like that.

Plus, it just takes random words without any context or grammar built around them.

I want to try the Goldlist method. I wonder how it works to skip the short-term memory, though. If I read an article beforehand and take the unknown words from there for my Headlist, they are already in my short-term memory by the time I write my list, aren’t they?

I read somewhere a while ago that you have to hear or read a word in five different contexts to be able to use it actively.

So, ok, I write my headlist and DO NOTHING (???) for two weeks?

If I hear or see a word from the headlist again in the meantime, it already tickles my memory before I should write my second list, right?

So how can I try the Goldlist method according to the rules?

Do you have a detailed video about it without the charming Russian accent? 🙂

Should you start a new Goldlist method experiment or challenge set to a certain starting date, please include me. Maybe I should try it with a language that I don’t know yet, maybe Swedish.

Anyway, I don’t know why, but my brain can’t learn a new language in my mother tongue, which is Rhaet-Romansch. It slows me down extremely. I always learn the grammar of a new language in German and English in parallel, so my Goldlist would also have three columns.

Miriamm, you start a new Goldlist using various kinds of material depending on where you are with the language. At an early stage (assuming you have done some audio only work like a Pimsleur or Michel Thomas course first, so that you have some basics and a knowledge of how the language sounds) you’ll pick maybe a Teach Yourself series book or a Colloquial series book, Living Language, Assimil, you name it.

What goes in the Headlist is the vocab, the grammar notes, example sentences, everything you need in order not to need the book with you when you distil it. You do these 25 at a time because that’s what fits on the top left of a double-page in a writing book 40 lines deep, while leaving enough space for the future distillations.

When you’ve done one of these, taking maybe 20 minutes if you have the material prepared at hand, then you take the page after a ten minute break in which you did something else, like walk a kilometre, make a coffee, peel some vegetables, go to the toilet, etc etc, and you do turn to the next double page in the writing book to do another 25. This is the complicated bit as it involves taking the right hand sheet of the double page in between your fingers and moving it to the left, ensuring you only take one sheet and not 2 at a time. It is known as “turning the page”and does not generally take two weeks to do. The point about the two weeks is  that you do not review the earlier material, instead you carry on deep into the book even though you have not necessarily memorised the earlier material, because you need the book in the Headlist and you’ll memorise the whole thing on later distillations.

This is a bit counter-intuitive for those who are used to really covering and memorising one chapter before they go on to the next and so on until they finish the book, at which point they put the book away and don’t need it again. It is a completely different, but far more effective, way to work through the book, and commit it to memory.

The thing to do once all the material in a book has been covered is either to get a more advanced book to work from or to work through a small dictionary, or start literature work.

In this way you can go from beginner to post-graduate levels all in a single memory system, tracking your vocab numerically and measuring the degree of memorisation of the material all the way.

By the way, don’t miss Christopher Huff’s Academy Award-Winning four minute movie about the Goldlist Method:

Now let me come to the additional point which you mentioned about the fact that your short-term memory is switched on while noting words down from reading an article.

My tendency would be to use the Goldlist as the direct place you note down the words and then their German and/or English equivalents once you have checked them in your dictionary or from a translation of the article (which is why I like to use literature, there is usually an audio-book to listen to, and then you can read the foreign language text to grab any bits you didn’t really understand form the audio, and then finally read the translation in your own language for what you didn’t quite understand in the foreign language original. Right now I am in this process for Hermann Brochs “Die Schlafwanderer” as far as German is concerned.

I would not say that this process switches on a short-term memory learning process. You are focused on understanding a passage and not on committing it by dint of force to a memory to be tested on next Tuesday. Therefore some of it will of course be remembered short term but the long-term memory is free to make its usual samples in a relaxed way and the more you like the story the better that should work. With the Goldlist Method, you carry on confidently with further material and if you happen to come up with the same word again and write it again, this is really no big deal. It happens to everyone now and again. When you know that word as you will after 1-3 distillations most likely, you’ll be able to kick it out even more rapidly so what you lose on the swings, as we say, you gain on the roundabouts. The point is not to repeat material intentionally, partly because it wastes time, you don’t need it for this way of learning, and partly because two frequent repetition builds the kind of synapses which are intended to disintegrate after two weeks, for reasons deep in our history and connected to the lunar hunting cycle.

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