A Practical Problem with Vocabulary

I’ve been trying to get a decent system going for my vocabulary learning over the past few days. I’m going with a flashcard system, based on the Leitner system. I think flashcards are effective when you’re disciplined about using them (which I haven’t been in the past, much to my annoyance). I’m running into a tricky problem though, one which I hope to get some feedback on.

The problem revolves around words that, when translated, can have a wide range of meanings. I don’t mean different shades of meaning, such as with the German word umfassend: it can come across as thorough, comprehensive, encompassing and quite a few others. However, when you get down to it, the words are all expressing a similar concept. Instead, I’m talking about words that have blatantly different meanings attached to them. The example that brought up this issue for me was this word from the Word of the Day piece at About German. Here’s the entry:

die Vertretung (-en)  replacement, substitute (teacher), deputy; representation (of firm, agency, etc.); agency, office

So, this single word can be a replacement, a substitue teacher, or a deputy; it can also be representation of a firm or agency, or, it can express not the representation of a firm or agency, but an agency or office! The issue, of course, is this: what do I learn? All of it? A substitute teacher is quite a bit different from an agency or office (and even a deputy is quite a bit different from a substitute!) If I opt to learn all of the meanings in one go (as opposed to learning the different meanings as I come in contact with them in reading or conversation), do I make a separate flashcard for each meaning, or do I make one flashcard for die Vertretung and attach all of the English meanings? That sounds like a path for disaster, I think.

What’s your take? How do you handle this problem?

By |2007-01-15T16:58:22+00:00January 15th, 2007|Language Learning|5 Comments


  1. Geoff January 19, 2007 at 3:29 am - Reply

    I, too, am very bad about sticking to using my flashcards. Which means that when I do make them, I have to learn with them quickly. That means the association has to be made well and quickly.

    I find flashcards are good for reinforcing what you’ve learned but could forget any day now. They’re not so good for learning items at random. So use the flashcard to remind yourself not of mere words, but of what you can do with them. If you’re getting your words as you read, include the sentence you came across them in and use that meaning – and only that meaning. If you’re learning a wordlist, create sentences of your own, however simple, that show the word used in the situation you’d want to use it in. Again, stick with the meaning you need for that purpose.

    There are some people who can learn all ten meanings on the back of that flashcard, and bully for them. But most don’t, which is why serious language learners always wind up making their own flashcards instead of using the comprehensive, all-inclusive ready-made sets.

    Using handmade flashcards, you can both document and reinforce the stock of vocabulary you are learning by virtue of your contact with the language. Too much info on the cards and you’re just documenting your ability to copy from a dictionary. And setting yourself up for frustration.

  2. Josh January 20, 2007 at 11:59 pm - Reply

    Thanks for the comment, Geoff. I think you’re right. For a while now, I’ve been trying to put half a dozen various meanings on one card. I’ve found that it just doesn’t work for me. I’m going to follow your advice and make separate cards for each various meaning of the word, and generally only make cards for the meanings I’m going to be using.

  3. languagelearner January 25, 2007 at 5:04 am - Reply

    Geoff is right ,you can’t copy the dictionary if you want to learn something.Most of the meanings of a word like Vertretung ,you won’t find so frequently, I suggest selecting the words you think you will.
    The one thing that still troubles me is why everyone seems to resort to flashcards ,why are they any better than writing the words on a piece of paper.

    I mean with my care ,they would easily get lost ,or dog-eared(I wanted to say muzzled hehe )
    In my opinion it’s cool to see a precedence in your words ,their chronology.
    Do you have enough space to write sentences to reflect the word better on flashcards?
    Maybe you already did an article about this ,so I’ll go find it 🙂

  4. Josh February 22, 2007 at 10:22 pm - Reply

    languagelearner: Nope, no article on that yet, but that’s a good idea. 🙂 I think many people prefer flashcards because they’re small enough that you can literally flip them over to test yourself. With a sheet of paper with a long list of words, it’s a bit more difficult to do; you have to cover up all the words, etc. Also, when you uncover one word, you generally uncover ALL the meanings, and your eyes will invariably fall on those meanings. When you get to the words further down the list when testing yourself, do you REALLY know the word meanings, or do you know it simply because you read it just a moment ago?

  5. Michael January 2, 2013 at 1:10 pm - Reply

    Learners can improve their English vocabulary in the following ways:

    a) when listening to audio and video recordings with diverse content;
    c) when reading various materials in English on a multitude of topics;
    c) when practising speaking on various topics.

    Thematic English reading materials can be combined with English phrase books, conversation books, thematic English dictionaries, English synonym dictionaries and vocabulary practice books (with lexical exercises) for comprehensive, logical and intensive learning of English vocabulary.

    I believe the best way to learn English vocabulary is by topics with explanations of meaning, examples of usage in sentences and with subsequent exercises.
    It is possible to practise English vocabulary through exercises in listening comprehension, speaking, reading and writing.

    1. Do ready-made lexical exercises from textbooks in vocabulary practice. Exercises in vocabulary practice can include dialogues, narrations (telling stories), thematic texts, questions and answers in various situations, discussions, talking points and expressing opinions and views on real life topics and issues, etc.

    2. Learners can also master new English vocabulary by reading thematic texts (materials), first of all on everyday topics with important content, for example: Practical Tips and Advice to Make Everyday Life Easier and Better (practical solutions for everyday problems). Such self-help books on settling everyday matters are available at libraries, book stores and on the Internet. It is better for easier memorisation to write down unknown vocabulary in whole sentences. It is expedient for learners to practise telling the content of the texts that they have read.

    3. Students of English can learn a lot of vocabulary on every topic from thematic English dictionaries. Good thematic English dictionaries provide clear word usage explanations and also a few usage sentences for each word meaning, which is especially important. It is a good practice for students to make up their own sentences with difficult vocabulary for potential use in daily life. Think about real life situations where and when that vocabulary can be used.

    4. It is helpful for learners to have lists of difficult word meanings and of phrases (expressions) on every topic with usage sentences. By reading those ready-made vocabulary usage sentences many times if needed learners will gradually master the vocabulary. Longman Language Activator Dictionary (unique English Idea Production Dictionary) covers this issue thoroughly. It is useful for learners to make up their own sentences with that vocabulary, taking into consideration real life situations.

    5. Thematic general English dictionaries combined with English synonym dictionaries are a valuable tool for mastering English vocabulary logically, comprehensively and intensively for real life needs of learners. Some English synonym dictionaries provide usage explanations and usage examples for words with similar meaning.

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