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.)