Lay of the Land

Words are the building blocks of language. Composed of sound and meaning, syllables fly through the air and coil themselves tightly into my ears. My tongue tastes different spices–saffron, tarragon and cayenne–as the syllables escape my lips and take flight.

I have always loved words, so I suppose it’s a little ironic that what I tend to enjoy least in language class is learning vocabulary. Perhaps the format of long lists makes it tedious, or perhaps I have little context to aid my understanding. A stark list with the words on the left and the translation on the right is hardly language in every day use. But in order to use language, I must know these words.

I prefer learning words by accident. When I hear a word enough times, in context, I can understand the meaning and commit it to memory with less effort (but more time) than memorization. There is something more mysterious to me about oral language than the written form. With writing, we have frozen words to preserve them. They can be seen again, by different people in places far distant from their origin. With spoken language, the words rapidly fade away, never to be recovered except from the dark halls of memory. They are elusive, slippery.

Even so, memorization has its place. I can instantly amplify my vocabulary if I take the time to learn new words, and those same words can guide me to synonyms, antonyms, and idioms. Each language is an unknown country, and words become my map and compass. It takes time to understand a new language, but exploring the world God made is a lifelong pursuit. So we press on, keeping our eyes and ears open to get a lay of the land. After all, it’s a jungle out there.



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