A native German, kittyiseverywhere, commented on my May German vocabulary list, at Language Geek’s former location (languagegeek.wordpress.com). (Here is the complete vocabulary list for May.) Here’s her comment:
Hey there, some words you have on here are pretty uncommon in daily life if you still need sample sentences, I’m happy to help (I own three blogs here – you can write me under (her email address) in MSN ^^)
Her comment highlights an issue that all language learners must deal with: what words are used in everyday life, and what words are typically reserved for news articles or other registers?
Even though words might make sense in a sentence meaning-wise, they might seem peculiar, in that they don’t really fit into the context. For example, let’s look at some English adjectives that have similar meanings:
Now, all of those words, while not exact, mean similar things. Someone learning English might find it okay to use “exquisite” in a sentence, when the word they really should be using is probably “great” or “awesome.” A native speaker of English would probably recognize this issue right away, i.e., which of these sentences sounds like something you’d hear in an everyday conversation:
- Our trip to the amusement park was exquisite / marvelous.
- Our trip to the amusement park was great / awesome.
There’s nothing really wrong with the first sentence – a native speaker of English would understand the message being conveyed – but it still sounds pretty bizarre.
So how does one deal with this issue? How do you figure out what words a native German (or Russian or whatever) would use, and what words they’d find to be a bit odd in an everyday context? You deal with it through lots and lots of exposure to different types of language material. A language learner has to realize that the language style and vocabulary that the news site Deutsche Welle uses will be quite different from the language style and vocabulary that say, a personal German blog uses. The differences can be easily seen in your native language (English, in my case). Do I write on my blogs the same way journalists write on, say, CNN.com? BBC News? Do I use the same vocabulary? Of course not.
It’s easy to forget this, however, when learning a foreign language. A language learner can fall into the trap of seeing all foreign language material as basically “the same” – it’s in the same target language, so all of the vocabulary, styles, expressions, etc. can be used in any context. This is wrong, and you need to watch out for it. You don’t talk the same way at a rock concert as you do at a formal wedding dinner, do you? 🙂
So, when learning a foreign language, make sure you have lots of examples from various sources – both formal and informal. More formal or “reserved” examples are easily found on lots of news sites. On the other hand, with the explosion of blogs during the past few years, there are countless sources for informal language all over the internet. Reading personal blogs in particular is a good way to gain access to everyday speech in your target language. Casual podcasts in your target language are another source for everyday speech, for example, Schlaflos in München offers a huge amount of casual German speech for learners of German.
Finally, it should be noted that most decent dictionaries will tell you if a word is strictly used in informal situations or is typically offensive. In one of my German-English dictionaries, for example, many words are marked as “umgangssprachlich” (colloquial). Other words are marked as “formell” (formal), impersonal, offensive, etc. However, this is rather rare in most dictionaries, in that while these markers are applied to some words, most words have nothing of the sort. You are given the meanings of the word, and are not told whether the word is formal, informal, offensive, etc. It’s up to you to know how the word is used, and in what context. To be able to do that, you have to be exposure to various forms of the language you’re studying.