Another Attempt with Word Lists

I’ve written in the past about my attempt at using word lists, and if you’ve kept up with those posts, after reading this one, you’ll probably think I suffer from split personality syndrome. But, I can at least say I’m being honest here. 🙂

I’ve gone back to Using German Vocabulary and am adding words – lots of them – to Anki. No sentences; indeed, I’ve added no extra context unless it was needed with a particularly ambiguous word. The result? It’s working extremely well. I’ve added nearly the whole first chapter, which, while I can’t give an exact number, probably hovers around a total of 500-600 words. The vast majority of them are sticking in my memory quite well. Some words, particularly those that have a few siblings which are similar in form and nearly identical in meaning, have given me some headaches (Bettbezug, Bettzeug, I’m looking at you!). Overall, though, most of the words I’ve been able to memorize after a few appearances in Anki.

So, what’s different? I said before that I kept forgetting word pairs that I added to Anki, right?

Well, the difference is, I did something I should have been doing from the start: I enabled Recognition and Production cards in Anki. Previously, with all of the material I added to Anki, I was doing Recognition only – see the foreign word, think of the (often rough) equivalent in English. I’m not sure where I got the idea of leaving out production cards – I think it might have been All Japanese All The Time (but don’t quote me on that).

I’ve found this time around though, that the production stage is where you really get to prove your mettle. It’s far easier to look at a foreign word and say “yeah, I understand that perfectly!” than it is to be given a word in your native tongue and to produce a foreign equivalent.

But Why?

I used to think that learning vocabulary in context was the way to go – that is, the only way to go. I still view it in a good light, and it still makes up a large part of my language learning regimen. However, as I’ve used Using German Vocabulary, even just adding all of the words from the first chapter – out of 20! – I’ve realized just how many words in English I take for granted. You can see what I mean by skimming through the English-to-Whatever-Language-You’re-Learning section of your dictionary. I never realized how many English words I knew until I looked at how many German equivalents I needed to learn to have a decent command of the language. And by decent, I mean knowing simple words like broom and kitchen sink, words which I didn’t know until I started going through the vocabulary book.

It’s words like those that lead me to be hesitant to vouching solely for contextual vocabulary learning. I’ve read a lot of articles in German, but unless I’m reading about housecleaning or home renovation, how often am I going to see der Besen or das Spülbecken? Probably not that often at all. And yet these are words that we all pretty much take for granted – every native speaker of English knows broom and kitchen sink.

So, for me, the reason to go through the (at times boring, I’ll admit!) process of adding huge numbers of word pairs to Anki is simple efficiency. I can learn more words in an hour with this method than I’d learn in three or more hours with reading articles or books. Taking the “brute force” approach lets me cover a lot of different ground, covering all sorts of everyday words that I need to know. With most of them, with a few key words added, I can make sure I don’t get things confused due to a lack of context. For example, I recently added die Umgehungsstraßebypass to Anki. While the Recognition portion would be easy, simply seeing bypass could be troublesome – what kind of bypass? Are we talking about heart surgery here? By simply changing it to bypass (think cars!), I avoid any stupid word confusion.

Furthermore, by using large thematic lists from a book, I avoid the issue I mentioned above: if you rely solely on articles and other reading for vocabulary, if the word doesn’t show up in something you read, you don’t know it. Period.

While I’m not going to set anything in stone at this point, if my luck with this process using the above-mentioned book continues, I may make “word hoarding” one of the first steps in approaching a new language. Inadequate vocabulary has been my number one problem with German, and I think a systematic approach like this may be the solution to said problem.


  1. Rohan April 24, 2008 at 1:41 am - Reply

    Whilst I respect your opinion on this, I just thought I would contribute mine.

    The problem with learning words in isolation is they tend to fade from your memory in the long-term. Whilst in the past I learned lots of words in German similar to the way you are currently, I find that years later most of them are forgotten or otherwise consigned to the lowest depths of my passive memory. Anki does help, but I eventually find myself cheating too much over “that stupid word” that I can never remember if it´s not in a sentence.

    There is something about context that cements a word in your mind for a much longer period of time. Even if this means learning less words initially, in the long run I personally find the rate of retention is higher. The key is being patient. Those words that are learnt well will be like old friends when you next encounter them.

    I have also found that overstretching myself on Anki usually ends up in having dozens or possibly hundreds of cards to review in one day. Certainly not a fun scenario.

    Saying that, the most important thing is , of course, not in the method but its daily execution!

  2. David Snopek April 24, 2008 at 4:09 pm - Reply

    You can learn a lot of household vocabulary from reading fiction. I learned the words for broom and kitchen sink in Polish (miotła and zlew) from reading Harry Potter. Actually, that is the best book in the world to learn the word for broom! Its used excessively.

    I agree that alot of words can be learned using flashcards and lists. But they seem (to me) to only be learned to a certain level. I need to encounter them again in a few contexts before the meaning really solidifies.

    The thing you mention about similar looking words being easily confused happens to me alot with my flashcards too. But only when the words in question are still in that lower level. Once one of them solidifies from contact in other contexts those problems go away because the word is no longer just a random combination of letters that can be easily confused with an other combination of letters.

    Anyway, I’d be the last person to say that flashcards/lists aren’t useful: (1) I use them excessively, (2) I am the developer of a spaced repetition flash card program. 😉 I just think its important to recognize their limitations.

  3. Josh April 25, 2008 at 7:32 am - Reply


    Whilst I respect your opinion on this, I just thought I would contribute mine.

    Exactly why I have comments here. 🙂 Regarding forgetting words learned via this method, I don’t really have any long-term data to look at for myself, particularly due to my switch from SuperMemo to Anki. It’s also difficult for me to compare my older cards in Anki, which are sentence items, to the cards I’m adding now, which are essentially word pairs. This is due to the fact that with sentence items, the sentence itself would “help” me understand the word. Seeing the word in that particularly sentence would often help me understand the word, but if I removed the word from that context and placed it in a different sentence – what then? I’m honestly not sure if I’d understand it.

    Regarding overstretching with Anki, right now, I tend to have 75-100 words to review each day, not counting going through new material I’ve added. I don’t mind it much; at this point in time, I’m willing to do some trudgework to get my vocabulary up to speed, and this seems like the quickest method to do so.

    Also, I’d like to point out that I’m aware that learning words in this fashion is not going to teach me everything about them – far from it! 🙂 As “Iversen” from the forums stated about his word list method, I tend to view this whole process as a first acquaintance with the words. Even if I do end up only having a passive understanding of them, that’s far better than not knowing them at all when running into them in reading or conversation. Also, while it may seem like a huge timesink, I’d say that if I did the division, overall, using this method, I don’t have much time in any one word.

    Thanks for commenting!


    But they seem (to me) to only be learned to a certain level. I need to encounter them again in a few contexts before the meaning really solidifies.

    Agreed there. See my above remark about my process being a “first acquaintance” with the words.

    Regarding the easily confused words: yeah, I ended up adding some context to those items. I still had trouble though, due to how similar their meanings were. I was able to take care of Bettzeug, at any rate, by looking closer at its second part, zeug. Once I learned that Zeug means “stuff” or “things”, Bettzeug and its meaning “bedding / bedclothes” stuck easily. Go figure. 🙂

    I just think its important to recognize their limitations.

    Agreed again. 🙂 I don’t want to ever give anyone who reads this blog the idea that you can master a language by solely studying individual words and translations with a spaced repitition program.

  4. Ramses April 28, 2008 at 7:21 am - Reply

    Josh, not to bash you, but I think the fact that you’re not using the sentence method long enough is the cause you’re not learning much from them. It takes weeks before you can say: “Yeah, I THINK this is working for me”.

    For example; I’ve only been using sentences, some radio and some television (and some normal reading aswell) the last half year. Last week I was in a Spanish-Only environment for a whole week, and had no troubles discussing the deeper things in life. Why? Because sentences helped me with both the grammar (along with some grammar studying) and the words. The family I stayed with was impressed by the large vocabulary range I had (bit arrogant to say, but I’m just referring to what they said). So yeah, sentences do help, but just stick to them long enough.

  5. Josh April 28, 2008 at 11:13 am - Reply

    Hey Ramses,

    I’m not sure if it’s a time issue – I’ve used the sentence method a lot longer than a few weeks, probably 7 or 8 months with SuperMemo. However, to be fair, I wasn’t very eager to add material to SuperMemo, because.. well, I’ve ranted about that enough around the blog, I think. 🙂

    And, to clarify: I never said sentences don’t help (or at least, I’m pretty sure I didn’t – if I did, I didn’t mean to!) I’ve not stopped adding sentence items to Anki, I’ve just started adding a lot of word pairs from a reliable source as well. I’ll get the benefits from sentences, as well as the efficiency from using a good quality word list.

  6. Edwin April 28, 2008 at 2:35 pm - Reply

    I always have this fear of working on the production side. How you do deal with the situation that multiple German words map to the same English word?

  7. Josh April 28, 2008 at 4:26 pm - Reply

    I deal with that problem with a couple of different approaches. If the words are more or less interchangeable, I’ll put hints on the English card to avoid confusion. For example, both das Lokal and die Kneipe can be translated as “pub.” I’ve not had any trouble in remembering the two German translations, and so I’ve simply resorted to making the English sides of the cards like this:

    pub (begins with L)
    pub (begins with K)

    When it’s the meanings are subtly different, I’ll try to keep the translations straight with some keywords that help guide me towards the right context. While I’ve a long way to go to entering all of the Using German Vocabulary stuff into Anki, I’ve not ran into any words that have proven impossible to deal with, and most of them haven’t posed any problems at all. If I run into any major problems down the road, I’ll definitely post about it.

  8. Thom October 7, 2008 at 1:14 pm - Reply

    I’d like to second the recommendation for fiction. I found that my German seemed to develop by leaps and bounds when I stopped fumbling around with news sites (German news jargon and style are notoriously obtuse) and started reading “Harry Potter und der Stein der Weisen.” Since then, I’ve read all kinds of novels, and I was surprised how often everyday words came up when they seemed to not exist while I was chained to All of a sudden, I found myself able to think more and even dream more in German because my vocabulary was developing in a more useful direction. I mean, how often do we need to use words like ‘delegate’ and ‘policy’ and ‘recession’ in mundane, everyday life? Sure, we know them and use them if we’re discussing current events, but if we’re just hanging around, talking to our children, etc. it’s much more useful to have words like ‘broom’ and ‘sink’ and ‘shelf.’

    So I guess I’m saying don’t give up with the word lists if you think they help and you enjoy working with them–the most important thing is always to GO for it and do whatever keeps you happy and interested and excited. But if you’d like to start seeing them in context more, I’d look into German fiction. There are lots of places on the internet with free out-of-copyright stuff (see Projekt Gutenberg), and if you don’t mind spending a little money, eBooks are great because you don’t have to pay’s astronomical international shipping prices.

  9. Josh October 9, 2008 at 6:49 am - Reply


    Thanks for the recommendation. I tried fiction, but fell off of it, mostly because what I had chosen to read (Harry Potter) didn’t interest me. Or rather, it didn’t interest me anymore – I’d read all of them in English, and after about 30 pages of it in German, I was ready to throw in the towel. I suppose I should give it another go with something I’ve not read before.

    I’m still enjoying my word lists, and seem to making excellent progress, but I’ll certainly poke around for some decent fiction. That’s a hole in my learning regime that needs to be filled. 🙂

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