Words In Context Vs. Word Lists, Part 2

I wrote previously about word lists vs. words in context, and said that I thought for a lot of words, context just wasn’t needed much. This is especially true of concrete nouns. A bakery is a bakery, whether you say “bakery” or “die Bäckerei,” a library is a library, whether you say “library” or “die Bibliothek.”


One aspect I didn’t really think about when I was writing that post was the issue of enjoyment during study. I checked out Using German Vocabulary, which consists almost entirely of thematic word lists, with some exercises / authentic German material after each unit, from the university library. I had the intent of systematically adding all of the words in it to my SRS application, Anki. The book has a huge number of everyday words, and so I figured learning all of them would be a good thing.

Except… I’m not doing it. The book has sat on the shelf for a while now, while I’ve continued yanking whole sentences from news articles and from my monolingual German dictionary. Why? Mostly because sitting and typing in word after word into Anki isn’t a great deal of fun, whereas reading articles and slowly increasing my understanding via learning new words, is.

Maybe a dual approach is needed – use the word lists in the book as a guide as to what to learn, but look up sentences for each word via Google or my dictionary. I’m hesitant to just toss out the book (or return it to the library, more specifically), because I’ve found that if I just read news articles and what not, I end up with large holes in my vocabulary, particularly words for everyday things. I’ve not read many articles which have dealt with bookshelves, shelves, sets of shelves, etc., which are all things I recently learned the German for, via the above-mentioned book.

Certainly, though, I don’t think just cramming word lists into Anki isn’t going to work for me, at least not as a long term learning practice. It’s effective – I could learn a lot of words in a short amount of time – but only if I can bring myself to do it, which I’ve failed at. Live and learn.

By |2008-02-25T19:46:41+00:00February 25th, 2008|All Entries, German, Language Journal, Language Learning, Vocabulary|8 Comments


  1. John B February 26, 2008 at 5:30 pm - Reply

    What you’re describing is, basically, what I’m doing for Chinese. I watch a lot of Chinese TV, and words will repeat frequently (I watched a season of The Amazing Race recently, and “frustrating” — which was a new word for me at the time — was repeated with regularity) but too quickly for me to write down the sentence that they’re in, so instead I go online or into my dictionaries to find example sentences and enter them into Anki. Reality shows are a pretty good guide to modern language, and it seems to be working — now I just have to bone up on the more esoteric stuff before tests. 🙂

  2. Josh February 27, 2008 at 8:43 am - Reply

    I’d never considered watching reality TV for language content. That’s a pretty good idea! I tried watching a talk show once at this site, but it was too close to being Jerry Springer in German for me. 🙂

  3. Iversen March 6, 2008 at 3:05 pm - Reply

    I accidentally stumbled over your blog and noticed that I’m quoted in it (in Words In Context Vs. Word Lists, Part 1) for being an ardent supporter of word lists, which is true. And I agree with your interpretation: word lists won’t teach you a language – they will make it easier to deal with words in context later. Personally I use them because nothing beats a word list when it comes to adding words to your vocabulary – but only if you don’t get bored.

    One thing I have noticed is that you use something called Anki. I don’t – I use a folded sheet of paper, two pencils of different color (one for each language) and a support of some sort so that I can sit comfortably in my armchair wathcing telly or listening to music while I work with the lists – otherwise I would probably also get bored. Another trick is make wordlists out of the words you look up when you read – read a chapter, note the words down that you look up (or aren’t topo sure about) and them use them for a short wordlist of maybe 20-50 words. In that way you do have a connection to a context.

    One more thing I have noticed: word lists are hardest to do with an unknown language, – later they get much easier and more enjoyable.

    But let’s face it: making wordlists is an extremely effective method WHEN it works, but it won’t work for everybody. It won’t work for people who learn languages best through interaction or people who easily get restless – and doing it for hours on end is definitely not a good idea for normal people.

  4. Josh March 6, 2008 at 10:07 pm - Reply

    Hey Iversen! Indeed, I use Anki, which is essentially a flashcard program with a much better spacing algorithm than “1 day, 2 days, 4 days”, etc. I guess I’m not being entirely fair – I’m not studying lists of words, but rather word pairs that I’ve taken from a list and thrown into Anki. This leads to the words from the said list showing up at different times depending on how I respond to them in the application – knew them very well, totally forgot, etc. They also end up being interspersed among all of the other language material I’ve entered into my Anki deck, most of which are sentence items – at which point the context of them being in a list is obviously lost. 🙂

    Perhaps part of the problem was that I was not working with a list of words from something I had read; I was taking a premade list of words from Using German Vocabulary, which presents thematic lists of words. There aren’t any sentences with the lists – just a German word and the English meaning.

    Maybe I’ll have a go with your method (i.e. pen and paper 🙂 ) with a list of words I’ve culled from a reading.

  5. Josh March 6, 2008 at 10:08 pm - Reply

    Oh, and by the way:

    and doing it for hours on end is definitely not a good idea for normal people

    Are you implying you’re abnormal? 😉

  6. Rmss March 7, 2008 at 5:58 am - Reply

    Iversen; and how do you take care of verbs? Okay, nouns are maybe okay and maybe even adjectives, but how about verbs? I’ve found out that sentences help me remember the words better, they eventually ‘stick’ like the story (the sentence itself). Loose words don’t make good connections in your brain like sentences do.

    Let me put it this way; in my college class there are people who use sentences (some do reading, some do it with Anki or a similair program) and some do word lists (some do it with paper and some do it with Anki or similair program). Guess who has advanced more; the sentence people.

  7. Iversen March 7, 2008 at 3:05 pm - Reply

    To Josh: One reason that I work on folded sheets is that they are more manageable, another is that I can fill out half a sheet in half the time it takes to fill out a whole sheet – and then I do something different, like reading or writing something (preferably in a another language) or I raid the fridge. So I may be a little freakish, but not more than the average stamp collector.

    TO Rmss: 1) I don’t see the big difference between learning verbs and nouns or adjectives. It would might different if your preferred memorizing method was to use pictoral associations, but for me a word is a word is a word. However there is one catch: in some languages it might be a good idea to indicate the gender of nouns (German), in others it is more important to mark details about the verb (fx the aorist of Greek), – you just can’t generalize.
    2) I don’t know your class mates, but did you mesure speaking ability or reading ability? Did you mesure vocabulary size? Speaking about technical subjects or just simple smalltalk? Maybe the ‘talkers’ are those who choose the sentence method while the ‘readers’ do wordlists? Different methods give different results.

  8. Rmss March 7, 2008 at 5:23 pm - Reply

    Iversen; I’m talking in general. Their reading sometimes sucks, both pronounciation and understanding. They talk English or Dutch most of the time, while I can talk Spanish with confidence because I used sentences. In Spanish a verb can have so many forms, would you really prefer to learn the infinitive and then all the tenses? In class we talked about the load a student can take when learning a language. Thinking too much of grammar with eventually ruin someones progress. So learning infinitives and then the tenses will just slow you down to years.

    I guess that’s the reason why a lot of people study Spanish (or any other language) for years and can’t even have a simple conversation. They can read something, yes. Maybe even pronounce it in a correct way. But they have no intuition, they don’t had enough input and thus they can’t think in the language and use it like they want.

    Maybe you think something else, that’s ok. But think about it; are people who are learning with with lists able to have conversations within a reasonable amount of time? I’ve seen too many people struggling with a language like Spanish and just sucking at it, although they invested a massive amount of time in it.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.