Words in context vs. word lists

In poking around at the How to Learn Any Language forums, I’ve come across many good discussions on vocabulary acquisition. One of the things that the discussions usually revolve around is whether one should avoid using word lists, relying solely on items in context. For a long time, I had stuck strictly to context items, basing my usage of SuperMemo and Anki on the strategies given at antimoon.com. However, based on one of the forum member’s (Iversen) posts, I’ve been giving word-to-word cards in Anki a try, and they’re working well, depending on the type of word.

Iversen views wordlists (or simply learning L1-to-L2 and vice versa translations without context) as a stepping stone, not the end of the road. He figures (rightly, I think) that by exposing himself to the translations of words, when he encounters the words in context, he’ll either A) understand it correctly or B) have something to work with in regards to figuring out what the word does mean, if the translation he learned doesn’t work.

Furthermore, while I see the value in learning words in context, particularly verbs, with many words, the context just isn’t needed, because the usage in L2 corresponds so closely to the usage of its translation in L1. For example, do I really need context to understand der Hund (dog), die Stadt (city), der Korb (basket)? Certainly, by simply learning that der Korb means basket, I won’t be learning any idioms, but I wouldn’t be doing that anyway, even if I had a sentence with Korb in context. To learn the idiom I’d have to see it in context or look it up in a dictionary, and then add that to my SRS program.

I’m coming to see that it’s not really a matter of “words in context vs. wordlists.” Instead, I see them both as things which have their purposes along the way toward proficiency in a language. For many words, context is vital, and trying to learn the words without it is a waste of one’s time. An easy way to see this is to pull up the English-German translation of “to go.” Here’s the page for the translation at Reverso. For the vast majority of those words, you really need some context to figure out what exactly is going on.

On the other hand, for many words, context isn’t really needed. I think by obsessing over “words in context only!“, people have made it sound as if languages have no correspondences whatsoever, that if you learn the word der Hund, you better learn how it’s used. To that, I say: unless I’m missing something, dogs in German-speaking areas behave essentially like dogs everywhere else in the world. And, again, learning anything about a word in your target language, even if its a simplified idea about it which will be refined through reading and use, is better than learning nothing at all. (As can probably be gleaned from that last remark, I don’t go for the idea that making mistakes in your target language is devastating; if that were the case, no one would ever learn any foreign language decently – let alone their native tongue.)

4 thoughts on “Words in context vs. word lists”

  1. I add mostly sentences to Anki/Mnemosyne, but lately I’ve been adding straight words too. What I do, is if there are any unknown/tricky words in the sentences I enter, I’ll make a separate entry for just those words. Then I end up seeing the word inside and outside of context. So far it’s helped me to acquire words faster. You are right though – for simple physical object nouns, sometimes the meaning is extremely obvious even without an example sentence for context.

  2. I agree, with everything there has to be balance. Context is most important i think for learning how words ‘feel’. Anyone can learn what words mean in their language, but not the feelings they conjure. Context and familiarity create that, and allow for more creativity in said language.
    Plus, situational context and emotional context really help with this – what expression someone pulls when saying a word, etc. Leaning amongst natives is going to give you the best insight into how the words of that language communicate particular states and emotions.

    But yes, always balance. Learning completely in context would be confusing as hell, and take forever!
    Very interesting topic for a post.

  3. Thomas: That’s a good idea, to enter tricky words separately from their “father” sentences.

    Camilla: Certainly, I agree with you – context is vitally important for getting a feel for many words, especially verbs. I think Thomas nailed it: with concrete nouns, very often, context just isn’t needed. A German courthouse serves, as far as I know, the same purpose as American courthouses. But many words do need context to truly understand them. So, I guess one could say I’m trying to save time by learning the words that I can get without context with simple word-to-word translations. This saves me time that I can apply to learning trickier words, grammar, whatever. Language learning would be a piece of pie if we all had infinite time, eh?

    I’m going to keep trying to mix my studies up, using both word lists as well as words in context. Thus far it’s working – we’ll see how I’m doing in 6 months or a year. 🙂

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