Teaching French vocabulary

Several minutes ago, I finished aiding a ninth-grade French student with some vocabulary that he needed to master for an upcoming test.  This resulted in a brief episode of nostalgia – I’ve utilized French, albeit badly, for approximately five years, so I very rarely need to return to its basics.  Attempting to help him memorize new words in an intuitive manner resulted in my stumbling again upon a pleasant little tidbit I’d first noticed some years ago:

Témoin means “witness”.  Take the Latin testimonium (as a witness, you do need to give a testimony), remove s, t, i, u, m, and arrive at “temoni”.  Shuffle, affix acute (haha) accent.  Arrive at témoin

I like emphasizing things such as these – items that others would think to be mere coincidences – to prove that etymology really is a wonderful vocabulary-enhancing tool.  However, etymology can be dry to a student who isn’t immediately inclined to find it interesting.  It is for this reason that I try to avoid forcing students to simply memorize extensive lists of roots.  I seek to make the roots, well, make sense; I will resort to even slightly paraphrasing the meaning of a given stem in order to tailor it to the situation at hand.  I cringe when I occasionally make a connection that I would consider a bit of a stretch – my being a stickler leads me to despise misleading people where words are concerned, even if doing so is for their own good.  I’ve succumbed to the reasoning, though, that if the goal of the instruction is to allow this person to communicate well rather than to precisely understand word roots, then it isn’t harmful to draw slightly interpretive meanings.

For example, when I see the word coupable, I might tell this person to think in the following lateral way:

Couper is “to cut” –> coup- is found in coupable –> coupable appears to mean “able to be cut” –> a common form of punishment would be cutting one’s head off –> one who is guilty can be punished in this way.

That unfortunate connection made, here are some slightly unconventional tips for aiding students in building their foreign-language vocabulary:

1.  Utilize shock effect.  The coupable tidbit may be retained simply because it involves a drastic subject, like beheading someone.  Shock effect is termed shock effect for a reason.

2.  Appeal to memes and “cheap” humor.  I, too, am surprised to hear me say that.  These things have irritated me to no end ever since I first discovered that they exist; that’s partially by dint of the fact that I never could retrieve them in time to appreciate their relevance alongside everyone else.  However, cracking a bad joke can aid you in conveying useful information to your students.  For example, suggesting that a student try to be “gangsta” in his pronunciation of “false money” to generate fausse monnaie has my eye in perpetual spasms, but I recall his laughing heartily and never failing to forget the meaning of the phrase.

3.  Emphasize pronunciation similarities.  Students will more readily note that empreinte is reminiscent of “imprint” if they pronounce both terms.

4.  State the obvious, assume no knowledge, ask if it makes sense.  To you, it may seem obvious that indice resembles “indication”, but you are not your student.  An ability to make linguistic connections stems from knowing several relatively similar languages, and studying them enthusiastically.  You should assume that your student does not have this ability – if he or she does, then it will become evident very rapidly, as you will soon have connections pointed out to you.  Don’t be afraid, too, to ask if something is obvious.  As a tutor or teacher, you wish to continually learn more about your student’s understanding – you can’t do this if you are afraid to ask whether or not a concept is clear.  Your student will not be upset if you seek to clarify what makes sense; he or she will be upset if you avoid a subject until it becomes a problem.

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