With tax time around the corner, it’s time to think about how you’re “spending” your “vocabulary budget” (or budgeting for your students.)

A “keeper item” is something you are willing to spend $1 of your $100 language items budget on to “buy”. It is a phrase or word that will serve you in a variety of contexts, both in a country where the language is spoken and abroad, reading and speaking. These tend to be the highest-frequency items in the language, or they might be words or phrases that specifically relate to the individual’s life. For me, “I’m a translator” is a keeper, but obviously it would not be for someone who is a beekeeper.

A “looker” is an item you can recognize when you have a helpful thing with you, such as a word list, a cheat sheet, a pocket dictionary, an iPhone, etc. etc. Unless you are going to go on in the language, or live in-country for a long time, I can’t see any reason to learn these at first — and you will automatically master them if you ARE in the country for a long time (and pay attention while using your word list, cheat sheet or iPhone each time).

We need to get more people fluent in languages — at least to the point where they can speak freely and read adequately given a relatively small pool of vocabulary. If the schools insist in continuing to stuff so much vocabulary into students without allowing them to acquire the language, we won’t be able to improve the current rates of students going on to the intermediate or higher levels of proficiency. Right now, (I’m guessing, but I don’t think it’s far off) I’d be surprised if more than 4 or 5 of 100 beginning students of Mandarin ever got past the stumbling-fumbling stage in reality to where they can smoothly and automatically use the language in basic situations.

A little more “He’s walking” and a little less “steamed rice with lotus seeds wrapped in bamboo leaves” will go a long ways.