Pflaumenkuchen: How to Own Vocab Without Studying

One time last fall, J the French teacher brought a plum cake to the office.  We all had a piece; it was delicious of course.  The taste of plum cake made from local plums is an amazing taste of fall.   Everyone had to run off to teach, so I was left alone in the office with the plum cake.

After a few minutes, K the German teacher, came into the office, looked at the plum cake on the table and exclaimed “Pflaumenkuchen!”

“Ja,” I said, “Pflaumenkuchen.”  I pronounced it slowly, and K helped me get it exactly right.  Then I said something in my broken German, something like “mmm den Pflaumenkuchen ist sehr gut!  Lecker… ja!”  We each might have said Pflaumenkuchen at least five more times before K left the room to make copies.

I stayed in the office and finished the worksheet I was working on, and then went downstairs to the make copies of my own.  While my copies were running in the machine, I found L, the other German teacher, in her office, and I asked her, “Frau, habst du Pflaumenkuchen gegessen? ”  We had a whole conversation in my broken German about how I had eaten Pflaumenkuchen, how delicious it was, how there was more upstairs, how J gemacht it for us.  I said the word “Plaumenkuchen” at least 7 more times.

Then the bell rang and I went to teach my class.  We were reading a short story or working on some worksheet or something, and my students were asking me for words absolutely joylessly.  I’d make them repeat the word, and they’d repeat it resentfully, refuse to do the gesture, and just in general be completely mentally flaccid.  And then two seconds later someone would ask for the same. damn. word.  because they weren’t listening.

I stopped the class.  I told them to put their pens down.  Do you know that I don’t study vocabulary, I asked them?  I don’t study vocabulary.  I don’t make flash cards, I don’t quiz myself with lists, I don’t do any of that crap.  I just learn the damn word.

And I proceeded to tell them the Pflaumenkuchen story.  This, I said, is the difference between me and you.  When I come across a new word, I repeat it gratuitously.  I check to make sure I’m pronouncing it correctly.  I use it in different sentences, immediately, imaginatively.  I find someone else to talk to, and then tell them about it.  I google it.  I look at pictures of it.  I write it down.

I delight in learning a new word.  I say it and use it and recycle it, and pretty soon, I own it.  And then I never have to study it.

By the end of this lecture, all my students knew the word for plum cake in German.

Then we continued with the lesson, and I encouraged them to delight in the new words, to have fun with them, and to use them in a simple sentence properly.  Before they knew it, they were owning all kinds of words.

Ten minutes later, I asked them for the word for plum cake in German.  Some of them fumbled with the word, but a few of them remembered:  Pflaumenkuchen.  Had they study it?  No; they just owned it.

Why on earth would you study vocab, when you can just own it?  What exactly is the point of not owning a word?

For a day or two after the Pflaumenkuchen story, the students can sustain owning the new words, but then tend to forget the whole lesson, and go back to mindlessly and flaccidly asking for words they won’t own because they were too tired that day, or because something was bumming them out.

I guess I’ve had days like that too.  The secret, though, is to keep the bad days to a minimum.

10 thoughts on “Pflaumenkuchen: How to Own Vocab Without Studying

  1. Great advice JP. I do this as well, and I couldn’t agree more. Words that I use immediately and repeatedly after I use them stick with me forever. Words that I “study” and never use have a shelf life that usually expires 15 minutes after my study session ends. Which is why I never both with “studying” vocabulary anymore.

    I love these stories, they help keep me motivated.


  2. Wonderful advice. I went to Spanish Class today and the discussion was our families and I came away with “nieto”. I used it in several sentences.

    Mi hijo’s esposa Kara dió a luz a mi nieto Van Kenton Anderson ayer por la tarde. ¡¡¡Yo soy encantado!!!!


  3. In my experience it doesn’t matter much what I do with a word in the first 24 hours after I’ve encountered it first. What matters is whether I see, hear, or think of the word again the next day, the next week, the next month, the next season, the next year, etc. And, yes, there are fun and effortless ways to think of words again and there are boring and mindless ways of making yourself think of words again.

    By the way, one of the best ways to “own” words is by making mistakes. Once I was asked whether I am “casado” and I confused the word with “cansado” and answered “un poco”. 🙂 I will never forget the difference between the two words.


    • Martinillo,
      You’re so right, making mistakes (and learning from them) is so important. My friend E and I called it “idiot learning” and said that that certain words were “idiot learned.” The reason why was because we had made idiots of ourselves learning them.

      Once I was describing what Christmas was like in the USA to my Hangzhou roommate; after my long description, he asked me if we ate a lot of bananas.

      That’s all nice, he said, but don’t you eat bananas?

      Bananas? I looked at him like he was a freak show and thought, wow, he must be very confused… but then soon we realized that I had been constantly (and mistakenly) referring to Christmas as 香蕉节 xiāngjiāo jié, which does not mean Christmas at all.

      Christmas in Chinese is 圣诞节 Shèngdànjié (literally, Feast of the Nativity).

      But what I kept saying was 香蕉节 xiāngjiāo jié (festival of bananas).

      What an idiot, right? Worth it: I now own the word 圣诞节 Shèngdànjié.


      • Nice story! Did you ever have lots of bananas for Christmas afterwards? 🙂

        I wonder why it is that we remember those idiot-learned words so well. I would think it’s not because of the embarrassment of the moment itself but because this embarrassment makes use think of the event from time to time and thereby makes use think of the word a couple of times, which then makes use learn the word by repetition. In any case, that strategy just works. 🙂


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