In the 7 months that I’ve been in my Applied Linguistics Master’s Program, I’ve learned a crazy amount of information about second language acquisition theory and practical learning and teaching applications of that knowledge. Some of this information was new to me, and some of it confirmed what I had already figured out via trial and error in my own language learning journey.
I finally feel ready to start compiling some of this information and presenting it here in the form of “pro tips”. I realize that it’s probably rather pretentious to flagrantly call myself a “pro” after less than a year of linguistics study, and I’m definitely not trying to claim that I’ve mastered the process of language learning. It just sounds catchy.
That said, here’s my first “pro tip”:
Pro Tip: Vocabulary Lists are Useless
*Yes, I realize that this is a very overgeneralized statement. Read on for clarification*
I’m writing this tip with beginning language learners in mind, but this information is relevant to any learner out there. I’ve been studying Korean for years, and the more Korean I learn, the more I realize just how many words are out there that I don’t know. One of my primary focuses for quite a while has been expanding my Korean vocabulary.
One trap that a lot of beginning learners fall into (including myself back in the day) is trying to acquire vocabulary through memorizing vocabulary lists. (Note: This includes flashcards!) You might have seen lists like “Top 2000 Most Common Words You Must Know” or “Top 500 Most Common Verbs”. I understand – these lists are appealing! “If I can just memorize this list,” you think, “I’ll be that much closer to a native-like vocabulary! Then I can move on to the Top 3000, 4000, or 10000 words! Fluency unlocked!!” You might have also attempted to memorize lists of colors, animals, or foods. These examples are all straight from my checkered vocabulary-learning past. The Korean words for deer and frog are forever engrained in my memory. Most of the other words — not so much.
I’d like to point out that there are some good points so some of these learning techniques. Learning the most common words in a language is an extremely good idea — I’ve read before that a mere 3,000 words make up 95% of English language usage, and that same idea holds true for other languages as well. I wholeheartedly recommend learning these high-frequecy words to help improve your fluency in both understanding and producing whatever language you’re trying to learn.
So What’s the Issue?
The issue lies in the methodology: memorizing lists. These long lists (or even short lists) isolate the words from their contexts and associate them with a definition. These definitions can be oversimplified, overly complex, confusingly multifaceted, or just plain misleading.
Even assuming you’re given the most beautifully accurate definition possible, the method of memorizing lists of words is still inherently flawed due to the lack of context. Language is primarily a usage-based system, which means that in order to fully understand what a word means, we have to know how it is used in real-life written and spoken contexts.
Because of the lack of useful context, memorizing lists of vocabulary words DOES NOT mean that you have learned those words. You have simply memorized the correlation between a word and a definition. You might have no idea how that word is usually used in a sentence. You probably have no idea what collocations exist for that word. (Collocations are relationships that show which words are usually used with a specific word — a collocation for “test” would be “take”: “take a test”.) You probably have no idea whether or not the word has a positive or negative or cute or creepy or cheesy connotation, or whether the word is usually used in academic, informal, spoken or written contexts.
I could keep going, but you probably get the point. Words are complicated — way too complicated to be represented by an isolated definition on a contextless vocabulary list.
Are Vocabulary Lists Always Bad?
There are a few, isolated cases where vocabulary lists are helpful, generally when the lists are made up of nouns. For example, lists of common animals and/or foods can be learned pretty decently with vocabulary lists, since those are basic words that typically can be used across all contexts and don’t have hidden connotations.
So How Should I Study Vocabulary??
This is a great question, and it would be great if there was a nice, easy answer. Unfortunately, there isn’t. The most simplified, general answer that I can give you is this: learn vocabulary through context.
What does that look like? There’s a variety of ways to go about this, but my biggest recommendation is to learn vocabulary through reading. If you’re a beginner, it can be tough to find reading that matches your reading level, but some internet searching can usually produce some online resources for beginners of almost any language.
Textbooks can also be a source of vocabulary in context, since they usually introduce vocabulary items and incorporate them into readings and activities. Especially at the beginner level, this can be a good way to learn some of the basic vocabulary in context if there aren’t that many good reading sources available elsewhere. Once you’re beyond the beginner stage of language learning, the world of reading becomes much more widely available, and it generally becomes easier to find reading materials that are suitable to your reading level.
No matter what stage of language learning you’re at, try to use a variety of different materials to read. Read song lyrics, follow celebrities who speak that language on Twitter, read books, read comics, read children’s books, read non-children’s books, read blogs, read Youtube comments, read the news — find reading materials that you think are interesting, and read the heck out of them.
Once you’ve experienced new vocabulary in context, then sure — make flashcards, make lists, do whatever you want to help you remember those words. But when you study those words, relate them back to the context you learned them in! This will create a correlation between the meaning and usage of that word that will be extremely beneficial for your target language learning.
Listening can also be a great way to learn about vocabulary usage in context. I personally find that it’s really difficult to learn vocabulary from listening alone (visually seeing the word is very helpful), but once I’ve been exposed to a word through reading, listening can be really helpful for hearing how that word is pronounced by native speakers and what kind of stress or accent they put on the word. Also, finding TV shows or podcasts that you like in your target language not only helps aid in vocabulary acquisition, it can also help you learn a lot about the culture of the country (or countries) where that language is spoken. Most importantly of all, it boosts your motivation, which is essential for success in language learning.
Well, this ended up being a much longer post that I had originally intended, but hopefully somebody out there will find it helpful or at least mildly interesting. If you have any questions, or want to share your own method of learning vocabulary, share your thoughts in the comments!