A bit of advice on learning vocabulary

Sunday, March 11, 2012

I was just asked a question about learning vocabulary by email and thought I would share my response to a wider audience.

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What I've been doing is reading novels, taking note of all the words I don't know, and learning them with the Iversen method. The problem is that this is pretty time-consuming.

Do you write them down along with the sentences where they appear? If that's so then the time it takes is definitely worth it because learning a new word is best done when you are able to learn about its semantic territory as well. I would never recommend learning new words all on their own unless they are words with clear English / other cognates and similar usage.

I suppose I could just use frequency word lists instead, but in any case I'm constantly looking for new methods of learning vocabulary and was curious as to your preferences on the matter.

Ever seen wordle.net? That's a good way to take a piece of writing you want to learn the vocabulary from and distill the most frequent words right away. Or if you have your own frequency list you can find the words you don't know and then seek out a few example sentences where it appears in order to help it gel in your mind.

It also depends on which language you're talking about too - if it's Japanese or Chinese for example it's best to focus on kanji/hanzi since they are word roots and serve as a kind of internal dictionary when you have internalized the ones you need to know. You can do something similar with other languages too to a certain extent, by focusing on the makeup of words. Affixes in German for example like zer- (zerbrechen), be- (bedanken), ent- (entdecken, entkleiden), etc.

One other bit of advice depending on how much time you have is to find a book you really want to read in the language you want to learn. Say for example you are learning Portuguese and want to read Game of Thrones - you could find it in Portuguese and read it one paragraph at a time, then go back to the English version (or use a dictionary or Google Translate) to check words you don't know. You'll end up learning a lot of seemingly useless words like dagger and mail and eagle's eyrie and so on, but it's also possible that you'll find time going by a lot faster when doing this, and you could end up doing this for three, four hours without noticing it while a vocabulary list might be tolerable for maybe 30 minutes to at most an hour. That'll depend on your personality but mixing vocabulary learning with a good amount of escapism can be a good thing.


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A note on this: the reason why the amount of free time you have is important here is because you may not always have the hours in the day required to sit back and chill and learn the less-useful vocabulary first. If your only free time during the day for example is your ride on the train/bus to and from work but you really want to learn the language, you are best to focus on a frequency list and work at the vocabulary you are most likely to see. If you have six hours a day to study though, you will likely need to make the six hours as enjoyable as possible in order to keep it from becoming routine or dull.

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