If you really want to improve your fluency, sit on it!
SIT ON IT!
Your dictionary, that is.
This advice comes to you courtesy of my New Testament Greek professor, the late Dr. Robert Lyons, who would often urge us to sit on our lexicons and other study aids in order to “break the dictionary habit.”
Of course, Bob did not expect us to literally sit on our lexicons and other study aids. His point was that they are tools you use to help you learn a language, NOT permanent crutches that you need in order to use the language. And becoming too dependent on them makes it impossible to develop the feel for the ebb and flow of the language you need in order to become fluent in it. Therefore, instead of looking up every word we didn’t know, Bob urged us to determine the meaning of unfamiliar words from their context.
The importance of Bob’s advice was driven home to me by what happened to a young American doctoral candidate in New Testament Greek studies while I was studying theology at Oxford University in the mid-1980’s.
The young man went to his viva – the final, oral exam that determines whether or not one gets their degree – full of confidence. He had produced a good dissertation. And he knew it.
During the viva, one of his examiners handed him a copy of the Nestle-Aland version of the Greek New Testament and said, “You translated passage X this way …. Could you tell us why you did so?”
The hapless candidate slowly took the book from the examiner’s had.
Looked down at it for several moments.
Looked up at the examiners for a moment or two.
Looked back down at the New Testament.
Looked up at the examiners again.
Paused for several moments.
Then said, “I have studied New Testament Greek.”
Needless-to-say, he did not get his doctorate from Oxford that day, or any other for that matter. For at the very least, a major university like Oxford expects someone at the doctoral level to be able to sight-read the language they are trying to obtain their degree in.
His downfall came about because he had relied on his lexicons and other aids while “learning” New Testament Greek. Consequently, even after years of “study,” he still had to rely on tools whose primary purpose is to help one learn, not be a permanent crutch.
Don’t be like the hapless young American.
Instead of becoming dependent on learning tools like he did, whenever you encounter an unfamiliar word, leave your dictionary on the shelf and try to determine the meaning from the context. You’ll be rewarded with major advances in your fluency if you do.
Granted, in the early stages of your language studies you will still need tools like dictionaries from time to time. And there is nothing wrong with using them when you must; which is when you simply cannot determine what a word means any other way.
So, if you find that you simply cannot resist the urge to constantly consult your dictionary, either put it where it is so hard to reach – for example, in your mother-in-law’s attic – that it’s easier to figure out the word’s meaning without getting up to get the dictionary, or take Bob’s advice:
Take it down from the shelf and with all the respect it deserves, place it on your chair and …
SIT ON IT!
If you really need one, and promise you’ll sit on it before becoming too dependent on it, you can purchase it and other ESL books from one of our fluencyAMAZON online stores: