don’t just learn a giant list

Here’s a comment I recently made in a forum on The thread was about whether or not it would be beneficial to try and memorize the 4000 most frequently used words in a language as a strategy for learning it.

I think what Parasitius was saying is that if you hope to learn a language through pure flashcards of important vocabulary, you will bore yourself to death, but if you combine it with reading enjoyable native materials, then it can be extremely helpful.

This has been my experience for sure. At different times I vary the percentages, but I like Parasitius’ estimates of 20% SRS and 80% reading. Also, Iverson has given some good advice on this too, saying that his wordlists are for giving him just a general sense of a word’s meaning, but it’s really reading that gives him all the multiple meanings and real usages of the words. Flashcards or wordlists will never teach you all the subtleties of usage.

Also, I recommend avoiding the idea that you can “scientifically” learn vocabulary “in order”, focusing on “completeness”. Although those things appeal to me, having a background in math and computers, I feel that this mindset is a bit of a dead end for language learning. Instead, I tell myself that I will need to experience each word multiple times in its “natural environment” before I’ll really understand it, and my flashcard work is merely “prep time” that will get me ready for the real thing.

In my mind there are several stages of “knowing” a word. At first, I might see a word a few times in books and I sort of recognize it in the sense of “hey, I’ve seen that before somewhere”. Next, I might look it up once, and get a general sense of the meaning, but I tend to forget it again soon unless I add it to Anki (my SRS of choice). As I keep reading my novels and seeing these new words several times, the word evolves from “huh?” to “oh ya, I recognize that”, to “I know the translation for that” to “I know the meaning without translating” and then to “I can use it with ease in speech”.

I’ve found that the key to moving along this path is just repeated exposure. If you’re really worried at the start that you need to collect 4000 common words and become an expert at all of them, I think you’re going in the wrong direction. Just consistently investigate words as you encounter them, and your vocabulary will grow over time. Curiousity and diligence, that’s all.

When reading, you don’t need to highlight EVERY word on the page that you don’t know. Just pick the two that are most interesting. You’ll see the other ones again eventually; you won’t “lose” them or anything, they’ll still be around later in another book or magazine or movie. As long as you’re somehow improving every day, then that’s enough.

4 Responses to don’t just learn a giant list

  1. just a visitor says:

    Referring to the article I couldn’t more agree.

    Your blog is some fairly lovely source to improve my English, ty.

  2. WC says:

    I think it’s kind of a ‘diminishing returns’ thing. The first hour you put into a pure-study of a language is 100% useful. The 100th hour is much less useful. The 1000th even less useful. The more you use pure study techniques like SRS, the less helpful they are per hour in learning the language.

    Native input is different. If you have never studied the language, your first hour will be pretty much useless in terms of immediate gain. If you have already studied it for 100 hours, your first hour of input will have some use. 1000 hours and that first hour of input will have a LOT of use. And as you get more input, it’s usefulness goes up for a while first, then goes back down.

    I think the key is learning to judge your ability with a language and what kind of study-time you can use best at the moment. For your first language, I think it’s impossibly hard to judge that until you can actually understand what a child would. After that, it’s all downhill anyhow. So for your first language, you need someone else to help you with that judgement, which is what a structured class -should- do. I think most of them fail to, though, since they try to teach so many people at once.

  3. petr says:

    I like to think about the vocabulary study as an enabler of more natural and fun language acquisition methods. Sure I’d like to read fiction etc., but unless I know the most common words by heart, the text becomes a mess of gibberish with a few isles of comprehension. Cramming 4K words before one starts reading sounds kind of excessive, but I’d think that let’s say top 500, perhaps even more, is very close to being 100% useful.

    • WC says:

      I agree and might even extend that to 1000 words. That’s still a pretty small number.

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