Posted in Korean Learning Log

The Beauty and Pain of Learning Vocabulary

I’ve always had a fairly strong love-hate relationship with learning vocabulary.  On the surface, it just appears to be the simple task of memorization.  Memorize ten thousand words or so, and you’re basically fluent (source).  Of course, that’s no easy task itself, but learning vocabulary is (unfortunately) so much more than rote memorization.

I actually like memorization.  In high school I had to memorize all of the countries and their capitals (about 200).  I enjoyed memorizing them, and I can still remember most of them to this day.  But there are several difficult/irritating aspects to memorization as well.

First, “one-way” memorization isn’t very useful.  By “one-way” memorization, I mean recognizing a word and knowing what it means when I read/hear it, but not being able to produce it in my own writing/speech.  The ability to both recognize and produce vocabulary is obviously important when trying to converse in another language, but I’ve found that I gain the ability to recognize much faster than I gain the ability to produce vocabulary.  In my experience, it’s easiest to gain that “production” capability by making a point to use new vocabulary words in practice sentences or when I’m talking to myself, but it still isn’t the easiest task.

Second, it’s difficult to get vocabulary words into your long-term memory.  After I learn a new word or phrase, it’s fairly easy to remember it five minutes later or even five hours later, but five days or five weeks later the word has most likely vanished from my memory.  This is where spaced repetition software (SRS) such as Anki or Memrise comes in handy, having you review vocabulary at spaced intervals so that new words don’t disappear from your short-term memory and instead become a part of your long-term memory.

My personal struggle with SRS systems is that inevitably I get off track from the review schedule, and once you fall behind, it can be rather cumbersome to get back on track.  Obviously consistency is the key to success, and consistency is one of my biggest learning weaknesses.

As I mentioned before, learning vocabulary is sadly not just rote memorization of words and their meanings.  There is so much more to be learned.  To name a few important things:

  • In which contexts is this word usually used?
  • With which verbs is this word usually used? (ex: “to take a test” = 시험을 보다 – to ‘see’ a test)
  • With which particles is this verb usually used? (I still sometimes struggle with the differences in nuances between 이/가 and 은/는. Mehh)
  • Are there synonyms for this word?  If so, in which contexts are the synonyms most often used?

Honestly, there’s no easy way to incorporate all of these questions into vocabulary acquisition.  I think the answer lies purely in exposure.  The more you expose yourself to the language in a variety of contexts (conversations, textbooks, music, dramas, novels, webtoons, etc), the more you will be able to naturally learn the answers to those questions.  There is still a lot of trial and error involved, and I truly wish there was an easier method, a way to magically be able to “memorize” all of the nuances and contexts that play into language.

On a more positive note, learning languages always causes me to be amazed at the capabilities of the human brain. Even the fact that I am capable to using ~20,000 words in my native language to navigate and enjoy life is fairly impressive to think about.  And I learned most of those words when I was just a kid.  Surely the adult version of me is capable of acquiring that many words in another language as well.  Right?  Please?

One last thought before I end this rather lengthy and rambling post — wouldn’t it be great if there were some way to measure exactly how many words you knew in another language? Or even in your native language?  I would love to see a statistical breakdown of my lexicon.

One thought on “The Beauty and Pain of Learning Vocabulary

  1. So true!
    As I can’t use Memrise often, I have a little vocabulary notebook which I pick up one word to learn per day. And I’m happy to recognise it later in songs for example and remember how to use it thanks to these songs!
    (I write them on my calendar every day, I can have an idea of I much words I learn. The most difficult part is to remember them 2 weeks later.)


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