Word Lists Don’t Work (For Me)

I wanted to add a little bit more to my previous post about words in context vs. word lists. I said in my last post that going through and adding word lists to your SRS application, like Anki, could be effective, if only you could bring yourself to do it. At this point, however, I’m thinking words without context are perhaps more trouble than they’re worth, even if you can bring yourself to adding them to your SRS program.

Before I became dreadfully bored with the process, I had added 40 or 50 German words from Using German Vocabulary to my Anki deck. They’ve been in my deck for a few weeks now, and I’ve noticed a rather blatant trend: I keep outright forgetting these words, or getting them completely wrong, whereas with words that are in context, I rarely forget them completely, and only very occasionally will I make a mistake in remembering them. Some of the words that I’ve added without context, I’ve forgotten completely 3 or 4 times.

Die Kommode is one example of one of the words I’ve “lost” repeatedly. It means “chest of drawers”, something rather simple, but everytime die Kommode would pop up in Anki, I’d blank on it, or think of something similar – a coatrack, a closet, etc.

A couple of days ago I added some context to the card, changing it to die Schubladen der Kommode aufziehen (essentially “to open the drawers of the chest [of drawers]”), and the word seems to be sticking well now. It hasn’t been long enough to see if the context makes a long-term change, but I expect it will.

So, I have to reiterate something that I’ve seen elsewhere many times: while it may take a bit more time to find example sentences / phrases for the words you’re trying to learn, they really do seem to make a difference.

By |2008-03-03T16:45:04+00:00March 3rd, 2008|All Entries, Language Learning, Vocabulary|6 Comments


  1. Rmss March 6, 2008 at 6:16 pm - Reply

    You nailed it, just nailed it. Today I wrote about the exact same thing (don’t worry, it was before I read this post). Words in context just stick better because you can think of a situation (I see sentences as the stories they tell me) and remember the exact word. I just love it.

  2. Josh March 6, 2008 at 10:20 pm - Reply

    Hi Rmss: No worries, I don’t have any copyrights on the idea. 🙂

    Another problem I’ve ran into with word lists is that one English word will end up having multiple translations in my target language. “Connection”, for example: in German, it can be der Zusammenhang (for say, the connection / correlation between a language and one’s identity), die Verbindung (for say, an internet connection), or der Anschluss (for a railroad connection or something similar).

    With something like that, I don’t see how a word list is going to help much. Am I supposed to list all of the possible German words after “connection”?

  3. Rmss March 7, 2008 at 5:51 am - Reply

    Of course there is the technique of mnemonics where often one word is translated to one general word. But you still don’t have any clue about how a conjugated word is. And, like I said, sentences help you remember is better anyway.

  4. lucas luky March 18, 2008 at 10:44 am - Reply

    i completely agree with you. most of the times if you can imagine a situation, an image or something fun about the word it’s easier to remember later.

    i’m using the same strategy 🙂

  5. Elliott April 1, 2008 at 8:11 am - Reply

    Totally agree. Words lists are boring and dull.
    I’m learning Japanese and just like this guy suggests here
    I’m using Anki to memorise sentences. Words lists make me feel like I’m trudging uphill through treacle.

  6. Josh April 1, 2008 at 10:17 am - Reply

    Elliott: That’s pretty much the approach I take. When reading, if I find a word I don’t know (which seems to happen with nearly every sentence, despite how long I’ve been learning German), I lift the whole sentence out and put it into Anki along with a definition of the word in question.

    I love Anki.

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