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.
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 Umgehungsstraße – bypass 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.