How do you learn vocabulary?

I’m curious as to how other language learners tackle their vocabulary learning. Do you just read lists? Do you not write any vocabulary down, in any form, and simply rely on your memory and exposure? Do you use flashcards? If you do, do you use the index-card kind, or a flashcard program? Do you do something that’s a relatively unique approach?

I use a variety of things to tackle vocabulary. More often than not, I use software to learn words with. In the past, I’ve used Pauker a great deal, a free, open source flashcard based on the Leitner system.

More recently, however, I’ve switched to using a duo of programs: VTrain and Interlex. VTrain is a flashcard application like Pauker, but it’s a lot more robust (and, admittedly, a lot more complicated to use, at least until you figure out the cluttered interface). One of the things I really like about VTrain is that you can set the default language / keyboard setup you want for each side of a flashcard. What this means is that if you’re making, say, Russian-English cards, you don’t have to manually switch your keyboard back and forth between the keyboard setups. When you’re on the Russian side of the card, your keyboard will automatically be in Russian mode; when you move to the English side of the card, it will switch over as to be expected. VTrain has another thing that Pauker doesn’t, and that’s a slideshow mode. In this mode, one side of a card is shown, and then the other; you can customize the time delays involved. If you’re wanting to review but not in the mood for an all out flashcard test, it’s a nice alternative.
Interlex is different from both VTrain and Pauker. Interlex doesn’t use the Leitner system at all; when you create a collection, when test yourself on the words and get the words right, they’re considered “learned.” They don’t move to the next flashcard box or any such thing, because there aren’t any boxes in Interlex. Instead, to go through the words again, you have to reset the statistics of the file, i.e. make all of the words “unlearned” again.

So, why is Interlex in my repertoire? Because it offers something unique: a multiple choice test. I’ve found that using a multiple choice test is a good way to get myself familiar with new words; after that, I can move on to the more difficult types of learning.

Interlex also produces a nicely formatted printed list of the words in your file, much nicer than VTrain (and Pauker doesn’t do it at all). This has been my solution for when I want to “study on the go”; not having a laptop or a high tech cellphone, I can’t bring my software along with me when I’m out and about. So instead, I’ll print out a list of words, say 50-100, fold up the list, and stick it in a pocket. When I’ve got a minute or two I’ll get the list out and go over it.

I’ve found one other good thing about using VTrain and Interlex: they play nicely together, with a little bit of effort on the user’s part. After figuring out how to setup the export options in VTrain, I was able to import words and translations into Interlex, without any bizarre characters thrown into the mix. This is something that would probably hold true for many applications, at least if you’re using VTrain, because you can customize what it exports, and how the words / translations are separate (comma separated, tab separated, whatever you want).

Anyway – when I started writing this post, I certainly didn’t intend on it being so long! Back to my initial question: how do you learn vocabulary?

The top 2000 words in Russian

I came across a good resource for learners of Russian just now: this page, which has the top 2000 words used in modern Russian. The words provided are based on The frequency dictionary for Russian.

According to the frequency dictionary, the top 2000 most used words in Russian account for 72% of the word forms used in texts, so if you learn these, you’ll be well on your way to being able to (slowly) work your way through many Russian texts. The site provides both lists of the words, coupled with their usage frequency, along with their parts of speech, and of course, the translations. Also available are quizes for all of the words.

While the frequency dictionary page doesn’t offer any definitions, they offer lists of Russian words beyond the top 2000. They offer one list of “32,000 words with frequency greater than 1 ipm (one instance per million).” They offer a second list, with the top 5,000 most often used words in Russian. I’d say the latter would be more useful for learners of Russian.

There’s a bit of “interesting” data on the frequency dictionary page which I enjoyed reading:

  • The average word length is 5.28 characters.
  • The average sentence length is 10.38 words.
  • 1000 most frequent lemmas cover 64.0708% of word forms in texts.
  • 2000 most frequent lemmas cover 71.9521% of word forms in texts.
  • 3000 most frequent lemmas cover 76.6824% of word forms in texts.
  • 5000 most frequent lemmas cover 82.0604% of word forms in texts.

I think it’s interesting to note that the first 2000 words gets you to 72%, and yet learning another three thousand words will only gain another 10%. Diminishing returns, ineed. 🙂

Hunting down the words you really want to use

Everyone who has worked on learning a foreign language and communicating with it has most likely experienced a similar problem. You’re trying to talk to someone in the language, you’re doing okay, but then the dreadful happens. You want to say something – something that’s perhaps even relatively simple – but you have no idea how to say it. You might even know the grammar bits that you’d need to use, but you don’t know the vocabulary words.

There’s something you can do to make this happen a little less often. A lot of the time when you’re talking to someone, you’re talking about what you did during your day, what you thought about, etc. This obviously isn’t always the case, but it let’s face it: we all talk about ourselves, and a lot.

So, here’s what to do: throughout your day, carry a small notebook around with you, or even a stack of index cards. As you go about your day, when you have a moment, just think about what it is you’re doing. What action are you performing? What are you looking at? What’s around you? And then, try to think about that in your target language. Do you know all of the words to express what it is you’re doing or thinking about? If you come across a word or expression that you don’t know, write down word that you’d use in your native language. Later, when you’re home and can get to your language learning materials, look up the words you need and note them in whatever vocabulary storage you use, whether it’s a plain notebook or a computer flashcard program.

This is a good way to hunt down the words that you really want; the words and expressions that are important to you. While I think it’s a good idea to learn the vocabulary lists that are provided in language books, often, these vocabularies are quite generic, and will not cover what you as an individual want to express in your target language. For those words and expressions, you’ll have to take matters into your own hands and hunt them down. Paying attention to what you do throughout your day, along with your thoughts, and trying to express those actions and thoughts in your target language, is one way to find the words you really want to know.

Balancing formal and informal vocabulary

A native German, kittyiseverywhere, commented on my May German vocabulary list, at Language Geek’s former location ( (Here is the complete vocabulary list for May.) Here’s her comment:

Hey there, some words you have on here are pretty uncommon in daily life ;) if you still need sample sentences, I’m happy to help (I own three blogs here – you can write me under (her email address) in MSN ^^)

Her comment highlights an issue that all language learners must deal with: what words are used in everyday life, and what words are typically reserved for news articles or other registers?

Even though words might make sense in a sentence meaning-wise, they might seem peculiar, in that they don’t really fit into the context. For example, let’s look at some English adjectives that have similar meanings:

  • great
  • awesome
  • exquisite
  • marvelous

Now, all of those words, while not exact, mean similar things. Someone learning English might find it okay to use “exquisite” in a sentence, when the word they really should be using is probably “great” or “awesome.” A native speaker of English would probably recognize this issue right away, i.e., which of these sentences sounds like something you’d hear in an everyday conversation:

  1. Our trip to the amusement park was exquisite / marvelous.
  2. Our trip to the amusement park was great / awesome.

There’s nothing really wrong with the first sentence – a native speaker of English would understand the message being conveyed – but it still sounds pretty bizarre.

So how does one deal with this issue? How do you figure out what words a native German (or Russian or whatever) would use, and what words they’d find to be a bit odd in an everyday context? You deal with it through lots and lots of exposure to different types of language material. A language learner has to realize that the language style and vocabulary that the news site Deutsche Welle uses will be quite different from the language style and vocabulary that say, a personal German blog uses. The differences can be easily seen in your native language (English, in my case). Do I write on my blogs the same way journalists write on, say, BBC News? Do I use the same vocabulary? Of course not.

It’s easy to forget this, however, when learning a foreign language. A language learner can fall into the trap of seeing all foreign language material as basically “the same” – it’s in the same target language, so all of the vocabulary, styles, expressions, etc. can be used in any context. This is wrong, and you need to watch out for it. You don’t talk the same way at a rock concert as you do at a formal wedding dinner, do you? 🙂

So, when learning a foreign language, make sure you have lots of examples from various sources – both formal and informal. More formal or “reserved” examples are easily found on lots of news sites. On the other hand, with the explosion of blogs during the past few years, there are countless sources for informal language all over the internet. Reading personal blogs in particular is a good way to gain access to everyday speech in your target language. Casual podcasts in your target language are another source for everyday speech, for example, Schlaflos in München offers a huge amount of casual German speech for learners of German.

Finally, it should be noted that most decent dictionaries will tell you if a word is strictly used in informal situations or is typically offensive. In one of my German-English dictionaries, for example, many words are marked as “umgangssprachlich” (colloquial). Other words are marked as “formell” (formal), impersonal, offensive, etc. However, this is rather rare in most dictionaries, in that while these markers are applied to some words, most words have nothing of the sort. You are given the meanings of the word, and are not told whether the word is formal, informal, offensive, etc. It’s up to you to know how the word is used, and in what context. To be able to do that, you have to be exposure to various forms of the language you’re studying.

May vocabulary list complete

I posted back on the 14th of May that I was going to try and add 5 German words to my “to learn” vocabulary list. It now being June 1st, the list is officially complete (more on that shortly, however!)

I fell a little bit short of my goal. Since I started on the 14th, and the month ended on the 31st, I had 17 days. 5 words per day, for 17 days, should come out to 85 words total. I ended up with 72. I missed some days completely due to being swamped with other work; other days, I did far more than 5 words. All in all, I’m happy with the results. I fell a little short of my goal, but 72 words isn’t too bad. For June, I think I’m going to try and do 7 words per day.

In regards to the list being complete, it is complete, in that I won’t be adding any more words to it. However, a huge proportion of the words don’t have example sentences. I’m trying to go back and get sample sentences for all of the words, but if you want to help, that’d be great, too, particularly if you’re a native German speaker. You can drop me an email at langgeek (at) gmail (dot) com, if you want to contribute example sentences.

German vocabulary list for May updated

I just went through my vocabulary notebook and added a bunch of words to my May, 2007 vocabulary list. While a large number of the words don’t have them yet, I’m also trying to find example sentences / usages of each word, to make the list more helpful to me, as well as to others. After Kelly mentioned it, I’ve started using Google search to find example sentences. It’s actually pretty effective, and doesn’t take much time at all, at least for words that are used often in everyday speech and writing.

Vocabulary goals

I’ve decided to copy (hey, at least I’m honest) edwinlaw’s plan of learning so many words per day. I’ve created a Resources page, which links to the lists I’ve worked on thus far (only one, for German, currently). I’m planning on 5 words per day, at least for the first month. I got started yesterday, but as can be seen, there’s more than 5 words on the list. During my studying of an article in German, I just kept going and going, so I decided to copy out all of the new words that I’d written down in my notebook. Starting either tonight or tomorrow, I’m going to try and learn 5 new German words per day.

Heavy Russian vocabulary learning is on hold at the moment. I’m still exposing myself to some Russian, particularly in the listening department, but I just don’t have time for a lot of active studying of it right now. College classes and German are eating up most of my time.