Checking & Savings at the Word Bank: Der Wortschatz

When we first begin to learn a language we first know very little about the meaning of the words and syntax, much less how to complete a whole sentence intelligibly. We are first normally given short sentences between 1-5 words to learn, possibly single word greetings and salutations for starters. To gain any breadth to our vocabulary we then have to accrue knowledge of certain groups of words and make mental associations with and between word groups to start building up our arsenal of words. A conventional designation for these word groupings, or a name for one construct through which we can learn them, is what is called a “word bank”.

As I began learning German, which I have formally been studying under a tutor and native speaker for 8 months now, I frequently encountered one word as a heading above all the terms in each chapter: Wortschatz. I learned that this was a compound word consisting of Wort (word) + Schatz (treasure) which when combined makes a word with the sense of “word treasury”. I immediately found the analogy to finance interesting, which I had actually never paid much attention to in the English designation “word bank“. Bank? Treasure/Treasury?

So… it would seem from this metaphorical designation that the words we learn are a means of building up our personal “language wealth”, and they can be seen as treasure which we can store as if in a bank. Is this a useful way to look at it? Well, to further this analogy I wonder if we could additionally state that the proficiency that we gain with a language over time can be seen as the “interest received” on our investment and savings (so to speak). The longer you go at it and the more you add to it the more you get in return. If you don’t put much in, you won’t get much back. Simple banking concepts.

Here is a portion of one such Wortschatz that my German book uses:

der Brief – the letter
das Papier – paper; Papiere means documents, papers
der Lehnstuhl – easy chair, recliner
der Schreibtisch – desk
die Landkarte – map
das Bücherregal – bookcase

This word bank is associating different words with items that you may see in an office, or das Büro. These are indeed convenient tools to build our language wealth, especially if we can make mental associations of groups of words by category (like the items in an office).

As I went along with German I found myself needing a significant reference resource to provide me with lots of word banks like this and in logical groupings. There really should be resources which provide such study materials  for every language, and I hope there are. Luckily for those English speakers who are wanting to learn German there is one book in particular which I consider excellent for this task:

Mastering German Vocabulary Book Cover

Mastering German Vocabulary: A Thematic Approach

The subtitle (or subdescription?) to this book is “Words and phrases translated and divided into 41 thematic categories”. The entire book is nothing other than a giant word bank! A note for those of you who may be studying other languages: the back of this book advertises the same style book from “Barron’s Thematic Approach” series for French, Spanish, and Italian as well (and there may be more). If you are reading this and you know of any other vocabulary reference materials (regardless of language), or anything similar that takes a thematic or word bank approach to learning words, please feel free to post links to them or book names in the comments. Feedback from others on different resources available would be fantastic and beneficial for everyone I imagine.

Overall though I have no super deep insights for this post other than to state the following:  A) vocabulary learning is, of course, first and foremost essential, B) attempt to mentally draw upon the analogy of looking at vocabulary learning as you would banking (you get what you put into it, and some return on the investment), and C) study words in logical groupings and try to learn them as a unit to draw some mental associations around each unit.

So while you must do something essential anyway why don’t you start looking at it as an investment and something that is valuable rather than just as a daunting litany of things to memorize? Also it will significantly help you if, instead of learning words randomly or solely as they occur in specific example sentences, you begin learning words in logical groupings such as by synonyms, themed topics (like office items, hygiene products, clothing, food, etc.), and derived or compound words. I know this is really basic stuff but if anyone is reading this who is just starting to learn a language this can save you a lot of frustration, and perhaps help you avoid the demoralizing effects of “giving up” on learning a language because it seems too difficult.

Now I know that vocabulary is of course only one cog in a very large machine structure that is “language” and doesn’t necessarily address inflected languages (conjugation & declension), article gender and case rules, syntax, and the semantics of figures of speech & idioms. However it is one very important cog in that machine (or perhaps each word is an individual cog in the machine, however you choose to visualize it). At any rate, I hope that this might aid someone in their study of a language and provide a technique or tool for approaching the language to help you get bootstraped toward your way to proficiency (which is an interest return on your investment)!

Happy learning (and word-banking)!

-Josh

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