Language learners often complain about learning “useless” words: Why should I learn how to say “scarecrow”? I’ll never use that word!
Why not learn more important words like “watermelon,” “study” and “bathroom”? People often think that some of the basic, tangible words that a 4-year old knows aren’t very important to learn.
I’m going to argue that every word counts: there is value in learning any word that comes up in a given conversation, language learning activity, or TV show. Rare or seemingly “useless” words don’t compete with more “important” words; instead, they only help the overall language learning process.
So why does every word count?
- Words are morphologically (word structure) and etymologically (word origins) built on each other. Every language builds on itself to some degree. If you know “home” in English, you’re halfway to “mobile home”. If you know “destroy”, you’re more likely to understand “destruction”. Some languages have highly complex ways of using certain words to form other related words. So any word you may think is useless may actually be the key to understanding another, “more important” word. Take our “scarecrow” example: the word for “scarecrow” in Arabic comes from a word meaning “to scare”. (Go figure!) If you know one, the other is a lot easier.
We speak in metaphor/analogy all the time. Many language learners have a clear task in mind when they think about using a host language: I’m here to work on my PhD, so all I need to know how to do is talk about my field of research. Or I just want to teach nutritional health, so I only need to talk about those kinds of things. But the problem is that we never just use a given set of words for one domain. We constantly talk in metaphor. We talk about “the tsunami of refugees” or “a birds’-eye view” or “weathering this storm.” And so on and so on. So any word could be used in any context, and we’d be wise to be as familiar as possible with as many words as possible, no matter what our goals.
You’re not wasting brain space. I’m no cognitive linguist, but all the evidence points to the fact that we only use a small amount of the brain power we have. We have an amazing capacity to memorize and retain information, so don’t worry that knowing “latch” is going to push out “key”.
You never know when that context will come up. You just might talk about scarecrows in an important conversation. You just might need to have a talk about fishhooks. You never know!
You build the trust and respect of others by learning as many words as possible. It’s immensely easier and more encouraging for native speakers to talk with a learner who can use, and especially understand, a wide range of words. It communicates solidarity and understanding. People appreciate it when you know their world at a deep and detailed level.
If every native speaker knows the word, why wouldn’t you want to as well?