Language Doubts of a Retired English Teacher


Only his?

By Giuseppe  Carone

I am a retired native Italian EFL teacher. Before retiring, I spent more than three decades teaching English in the Italian high school ‘Scientific Lyceum’ in Altamura. I attended about training/refresher courses (once I listened to the linguist David Crystal in Bari), I spent long periods (one/two/three months each time) in different places in England, and the result of all this is that I have what I consider to be a very good command of the English language, but, I am reminded on a daily basis  of the obvious; firstly that I will never know every word in this language and secondly as I get older ,it seems that vocabulary retention is becoming harder. However, never to be beaten  I would like to share with  the readers how I exercise my lingusitic memory on a daily basis to stay sharp. Let me explain my system to you.

Example number one.

As most L2 English learners/speakers, when I read and listen to subjects in English, I usually take notes and look for new language elements that I do not know, both grammatical and lexis/use/usage elements. For example, while I was listening to (CNN-CBSN-BBC) and reading (online English papers) the news about the American missionary that was killed on the Indian Isle of Sentinel, I came across/run into/ bumped into the following expression: ‘undiluted hunter and gatherer society’. I googled it and this was a part of Wikipidia’s info/explanation:
    ‘A hunter-gatherer is a human living in a society in which most or all food is obtained by foraging (collecting wild plants and pursuing wild animals). Hunter-gatherer societies stand in contrast to agricultural societies, which rely mainly on domesticated species.’

The explanation was clear, but I wanted to get a clearer idea of the word ‘foraging’ in Italian, my L1, and I looked it up in my bilingual dictionary En-It, It-En. Once I had satisfied my learning curiosity, I underlined the newly found word in pencil as I usually do and marked it with number1(the number increases every time I look up the same word; after n.5, I hear a voice shouting: ‘shame on you, it’s the fifth time that we have met and you still don’t recognize me!’).   After the study on the new word, I look for other previously found and pencil-underlined words/entries on the same page. If there are any, and there usually are, I look at them, cover their explanations and their use/usage expressions and stimulate/challenge my memory to try to predict/remember the word and its meaning. In this case ‘forage’ which was on the left hand page of the dictionary, caused me to look again at the word ‘foot’ which had been previously underlined.

Clearly I remembered its main meaning, and some listed expressions, but there were a few more for me to learn such as, :

– foot-in-mouth disease
– to get one’s feet wet
– to put one’s feet up
– to put one’s feet down
 – to shoot oneself in the foot
– to get a foot in the door
– my foot!
I did not remember the infinitive verbs below it either:
– to foot (to foot the bill)
– to foot up
– to foot it.

Example number two.

I followed the same process/method/procedure while checking the newly found word ‘lacklustre’ (I was reading ‘The Partner’ by John Grisham, in Kindle edition). I analysed the word dividing it in its components ‘lack’ and ‘lustre’ and I gathered/inferred its meaning by myself: ‘opaque’, ‘muddy’ and so on. Then I looked it up in my bilingual dictionary and underlined it and its use expressions.
As usual, before closing the dictionary, on the same page or the next one I glanced at some words that I had come across, looked up and underlined in previous readings and listenings, such as:
– lackadaisical (a)
– lackadaisically (adv)
– lackadaisicality (n)
– lackadaisicalness,
 I covered the explanation provided by the dictionary for each entry, but the result was disappointing because I was not able to remember their meaning. I tried to analyse the word as I had done with ‘lacklustre’ but I could not conjure up anything, nothing came up/popped up into my mind. Of course, it might just be those two entries (‘foot’, ‘lackadaisical’) that I couldn’t remember but it was still disappointing.

My linguistic working day or/and my exercise to keep mentally fit.

So now, this is my way of helping my memory.

a. I look up a new word and underline it (to remember afterwards that I have already found it) in my monolingual dictionary;
b. I look the word up and underline it in my bilingual dictionary for the very same reason.
c. I write it into my list of New Vocabulary, which I keep and update in my computer (up to now I have entered 2320 unknown/new/slippery items);
d. I write the context sentence of origin;
e. I write some sentences of my own, containing the new word.
At the beginning of my linguistic working day, I repeat 50 of the words  from my personal glossary. I  try to remember their  meaning.  I can’t remember all of them, about 10/20 % elude my memory. Sometimes they are always the same words for which I go blank.


Why does that happen? I know that there are many words in my present list  and it is continuously growing, but I have been a teacher for many years, I have read/studied/taught grammar books, literature books, poems, novels. I wonder why I can’t remember words like ‘lackadaisical’. Yes, I am aware of the gap between active and passive vocabulary and I must say that I have a good mastery of the passive one, but that gap remains very wide: my active vocabulary, the vocabulary which I use when I speak and write, is less than half of the passive one. I wonder how some people can say: ‘I know 4-5 languages’ and, if that is true, at what level or depth (just survival/formulaic language?)

Sometimes after all these years both in writing and speaking, I am at a loss for words. In L1 it is words that conform to content and they express it in an intelligible way. In L2, it is content/thought that conforms to the words you possess and dispose and, consequently, if you do not have the right word at the right time, the meaning you are trying to get  across may become mutilated/limited/ reduced, not as convincing as it would have been in L1.


Is this just the problem of a retired (ageing) teacher or …  Is this a matter that deserves to be analysed at different cognitive/psycholinguistic levels?I would be very pleased to get different POVs (point of view) about how:
1. to widen/amplify/increase/reinforce and retain one’s own vocabulary;
2. to reduce the gap between passive and active vocabulary.

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