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?

5 thoughts on “How do you learn vocabulary?”

  1. Funny, but I don’t think I’d ever use a computer for it. It makes me think of language labs too much – which I’ve always detested.
    Maybe the best way is to ask foreign girls down the pub what the naughty words in their language are?

  2. Nils: Haha. 🙂 I don’t have that option. I don’t do pubs, and even if I did, there aren’t any foreign girls where I live.

    What about language labs do you hate?

  3. Oh, I don’t know. Maybe the way they always pretended to be high-tech and actually weren’t (tape decks in this century!), the impersonal bit about them… Or just the fact that I always felt like a fool being sat with these huge headphones muttering to myself, never knowing when the teacher would decide to listen in. It’s all just too ‘institutional’ for me. Like prep school for call centre operators. Nah, gimme those pubs anytime 😀

  4. I’ve found making flashcards very difficult and demanding for time. It seemed to be “just for self”, if you understand.

    Much better is practising and then correcting with vocabulary. As practising I mean using internet for finding resources I’m interested in (mainly in english) – so I can use PC dictionary in parallel. Using weblogs (posting comments as I’m doing right now) or Skype. The best is connection of interesting content with language for me. So you work on language and also on special knowledge.

    Fluent reading The Economist seems as a good challenge 🙂

  5. Nils: First of all, my apologies for not responding for damn near half a year. The more I look, the more I see that many comments at LG fell from my radar. Oops.

    I can see where you’re coming from, but my usage of the computer for language learning is much looser than anything you ever did. I don’t have to worry about instructors listening in, and my learning is as “personal” as I make it, seeing as I pick out what words I’m going to learn. 🙂

    Prep school for call centre operators. Hah!

    Daniel: Well, I go at it both ways. I read content online and learn words from context, but I also make individual word flashcards. Attacking vocabulary on multiple fronts, I suppose. 🙂

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