7 myths about vocabulary acquisition

At the HTLAL forums, someone linked to an interesting PDF dealing with myths about vocabulary acquisition. The myths:

  1. Knowing a relatively small number of words takes you far.
  2. Word lists are of limited value.
  3. Words learned in semantic sets are retained better.
  4. Words should always be learned in context.
  5. Words whose meanings are inferred from context are retained better.
  6. Words learned productively are retained better.
  7. Vocabulary knowledge should not be tested separately.

As someone who often tires of hearing “only learn words in context, never use lists” etc., this article made my heart sing a little bit.

You can read the full PDF here.

By |2010-04-28T15:28:53+00:00April 28th, 2010|Learning Methods, Vocabulary|4 Comments


  1. drahcir May 4, 2010 at 12:33 pm - Reply

    Thanks for that =) I read all of that and it’s put me in such a good mood, I think I’m gonna go and learn some German words right now! I actually really like word lists and I use Anki as well. That article just verified what I thought all along, I’ve always found trying to remember vocabulary from context a waste of time.

    I also have a suggested vocab learning method for anyone interested:

    1. Look up all the words you don’t know and add them to a vocab list. Also just randomly read the dictionary and add words that you like, even if they seem pointless.
    2. Add the words to an SRS program such as Anki, Mnemosyne, or SuperMemo.
    3. Don’t worry too much about context BUT make sure you absorb lots of native materials from your target language so that you start to get a feel for the context of words you learnt from the list.


  2. Richard Phillips December 23, 2010 at 11:32 am - Reply


    It’s a bit confusing to be honest. According to my understanding, if something is a myth, it means that it’s not true. And yet you say under 1: “Knowing a relatively small number of words takes you far.”
    To me it’s not clear whether you’re saying this is true or not true and the same applies to the other six statements. Are they true or false? Does knowing a relatively small number of words take you far or not? Relatively small compared with what? (Obviously knowing the meaning of 2000 words takes you further than knowing just 500.) And how far are we taking about? It’s says nothing to be honest.
    For example, in 4, you say: “words should always be learned in context”. Are you saying that this is a myth and that it is better not to learn them in context? As a linguist and translator myself, I would say that it IS better to learn words in context because this way (providing the model or sample sentence is correct) you learn how to use the word correctly in terms of idiomatic usage and register etc However I wouldn’t go so far as to say they should always be learned in context. So the statement is false because it is an unqualified statement.

    A bit more intellectual clarity please.

  3. Justin Peters February 8, 2011 at 3:36 pm - Reply
    • Josh February 9, 2011 at 4:51 pm - Reply

      Thanks for the heads up, Justin; I’ve corrected the link in the post.

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