What’s Wrong And Right With Vocabulary Lists — How To Use Them Without Being Used By Them

So I met a German girl at a cafe today…actually, she was Austrian but, same difference. Anyway, we got to talking about books and  I gave her a book recommendation, and it came out that I’ve only ever read the book in Japanese, so I had to find out what the English title was. She was shocked (or maybe surprised…whatever, same difference), and she talked about how she could never learn Japanese. And I was like, no way, of course you could.

Because, here’s the thing. I have a lot of positive stereotypes about German people. There was my friend and neighbour Wolfgang (actual name), who would slice, spread, lay out and eat his afternoon teatime Nutella baguette slices with ruthless — almost mechanical — forethought, precision and efficiency. And then there’s the punctuality thing, of which I am a big (if imperfect) fan. If you send me an email, Heaven help you, but if we have a face-to-face meeting, I will be there a good ten minutes before time, and that’s in large part thanks to the influence of my German friends in college; I slept with dogs and caught their fleas.

Now I just likened a group of people to dogs…no good can come of this.


The point is, I like to think that I learned Japanese “like a German”, that is, in a calm, directed, systematic, way. Of course, I wung it where winging it was appropriate and effective — I was systematic, not mechanical; I’m too lazy to be mechanical — that’s why I have the SRS be mechanical for me. I tackled finite, clearly defined tasks — kanji, cards — with unstoppable forward motion.

And yet, you won’t hear much talk of vocabulary lists here at AJATT. Why is that? Are they evil?

No, it’s a lot more complicated than that. Live in East Asia for a while, and you’ll overcome your desire to classify everything into two categories, where one has completely (or even mostly) positive attributes and the other equally and oppositely negative ones. The character alignment system that I’ve been seeing around the Internets lately goes a long way toward helping people outgrow this.

Back on topic.

What’s Right With Vocabulary Lists

  • They imply (correctly and helpfully) that the language is finite and tractable
    • Human language is — thankfully — capable of infinite variation, but all those permutations and combinations are based on repeating a large but finite set of parts. There are an infinite number of numbers possible, but only ten digits in the Arabic numeral system. Similarly, there are only about two hundred (give or take) repeating parts in the kanji system. There are only about four hundred possible sounds in Mandarin.
  • They give you something to focus your attention and energy on (instead of free-floating anxiety and self-loathing)
  • Can help people to focus on simple, foundational knowledge — the basics, whose mastery is the essence of mastery itself
  • They’re really good for handling small subsets of the language, like days of the week and months of the year

What’s Wrong With Vocabulary Lists

  • In a nutshell: people and how they use them
  • People start to feel wedded to their lists
  • People feel obligated to go through every single word in the list. This is bad. Stop as soon as bored.
    • Doing good in one area is not license to do harm in others
      • Yes, a surgeon gets to cut you up so he can heal you, but just because your parents feed and clothe you, doesn’t mean they get to beat and rape you as well
    • Similarly, just because a word is on your vocabulary list, exists in the language and is “useful”, doesn’t mean you have to suffer and bore yourself in order to “learn” it
    • Every word you don’t know in a document you want to read (or that is about a topic you’re interested in, e.g. the Ghost in the Shell entry in L2 WikiPedia) is already an implicit vocabulary list
    • Even the best rugby players don’t try to tackle two people at the same time (in part because you’re only allowed to go for the guy with the ball…I think). So tackle one and only one word at a time, one and only one article at a time.
    • You don’t learn a language, you learn quanta — sounds, words, phrases
  • Learning single words without context
    • A word is almost meaningless without its context
    • A word without context is multiple accidents waiting to happen
  • Learning words between languages as though a one-to-one correspondence existed. It simply doesn’t, not even at the simplest level, not even between closely related languages like English and French or Mandarin and Cantonese.

How To Use Them Without Being Used By Them

  • Use vocabulary lists the way you use the TV guide — as a starting/focal point to your viewing experience, not as an ultimate authority
  • Every word you don’t know in a document you want to read (or that is about a topic you’re interested in, e.g. the Ghost in the Shell entry in L2 WikiPedia) is already an implicit vocabulary list — use that. So…you don’t actually need an explicit list. Every document is a list.
  • Never learn words out of context, always in the context of a phrase

There’s a lot more I wanted to say (this post is based on something I spoke into a voice recorder), but I can’t be bovvered to type it out, so…more later 😉 .

  9 comments for “What’s Wrong And Right With Vocabulary Lists — How To Use Them Without Being Used By Them

  1. Sarin96
    July 6, 2014 at 13:47

    Especially at the beginning of my Japanese adventure there was something that I did a lot and I think it’s quite amusing (at least for me).
    1.I searched a sentence that had interested me.
    2. I put it in Anki.
    3. I took one word of this sentence and googled for examples (Sentences from 知恵袋、2ちゃん, tatoeba etc.)
    4. I took the new sentence with the one word that I already knew.
    5. Repeat it until you don’t enjoy it anymore.

    The big advantage that I saw, was, that I had one word in two different sentences. And it was somehow funny to see how different the sentences became after a certain time.

  2. mark95427
    July 8, 2014 at 00:06

    The only problem I face with ordered word lists is that it becomes an empty, rote experience. Sure, word lists ensure I learn. But they also ensure I become bored as I learn. I then associate Japanese words with said boredom. I then forget said words. I then try to relearn these words. I become saddened by my lack of progress, and begin to feel a gnawing uncertainty of when I will finish said word list. I then lose my desire to learn Japanese. Of course, for those that have an uncanny ability to review consistently and daily, I’d say go for it. My own experience, albeit anecdotal, tells me that if one requires excitement, interest, or stimulation to learn; he must learn individual words through excitement, interest, or stimulation.

  3. James
    July 8, 2014 at 04:04

    Ah memories of taking the train home from work, dog tired, trying to memorise row after row of German verbs with their English translation underneath. Wechseln, verwechseln, abwechseln… how I ever imagined I would then be able to use these accurately and in context really baffles me.

    The trick I use now works much better. When out and about I run a monologue in my head where I try to describe things I see, think of what I’d say in certain situations etc. I keep a list of ‘unknowns’ on my phone which I work through whenever I’m at a computer with time to spare. I look up the correct phrase and force search this in google to find examples, creating anything from 1 to a handful of MCD cards depending on the number of decent sentences I find.

    The advantage of this is that the sentences tend to contain other words and usages previously unbeknown to me. I can then create MCDs for these too, using examples that contain the word I was originally looking for. This leads to a sort of force-multiplier effect, whereby I learn the phraseology around a certain idea as well as the word itself.

    For example I recently looked up the word for direct debit (Abbuchung), which lead me to people complaining that their bank statement (Kontoauszug) listed debits they weren’t able to account for (konnte diese nicht zuordnen). Just doing this for a handful of new words quickly proliferates into whole chunks of overlapping knowledge, all nested in neat sentences ready to be put into the SRS.

  4. 雷撃
    September 26, 2014 at 14:33

    That’s kinda how I use them now… pick up a list (any list! (just make sure it’s Japanese!)) and abuse it! pick a few unknown words (just the pretty ones), take them on a date, show them around, get to know them a little better. And then just trow the the f*** out! Really, who does she thinks she is, that dirty list!

    See, I don’t even make SRS cards anymore. It’s just not my style I guess, it bores me, makes it feel like work, makes me feel bad when I can’t get that one card right! The words will stick in the end, you’ll come across them again. And if not, who cares? Really, not that important now, are you “word”! Anyway, reading books is what I love, I just do it in Japanese now. (Kindle paperwhite has a dictionary build in so you can just tap a word to see the definition, pretty awesome, my best learning tool to date)

    Only Kanji, keep repping kanji, can’t do that without an SRS… but 5 minutes a day of reps is not so bad. 🙂

  5. Peter
    September 28, 2014 at 23:09

    I learned French entirely with word lists. I really like it, and find it way better than Anki because I can drill the words over and over. I never get enough exposure with Anki. Once I know a word fairly well from my word lists, only then do I bother adding it to Anki.

  6. Daian
    January 16, 2015 at 14:39

    Learning vocabulary from a list can be boring, but I don’t think it is put to waste.
    I’ve been listening to Vocabulearn on my free time without really forcing myself to learn all those in the list.
    Just passive listening, putting the audio file on loop.
    I guarantee you that some words will really stick in your memory, and you’ll be surprised when you listen or watch some Japanese shows (or your language of preference) that you will remember some of them.
    This is when discovery learning and context will come in.
    Just my opinion. ^^

  7. Jam
    March 7, 2015 at 18:20

    I love the way you write, it reminds me of how I write haha
    “Every word you don’t know in a document you want to read is already an implicit vocabulary list”
    This was the most important part for me, it basically made me instantly get my shit together. I’m just going to try and read shit with rikaikun and that should give me words in context… that combined with Japanese TV should get me somewhere ’cause they love subtitling shit and it’ll hopefully give me revision. I’m sick of fucking around with SRS at the moment.
    Thankies Khatz.

  8. May 8, 2015 at 21:59

    Yup, learning from wordlists can get boring! For some more enjoyable practice that makes you process the kanji in different ways, check out the different games at www.kanjigames.com



  9. September 20, 2016 at 07:14

    I learned a lot of vocab with flash-cards, which helped me and boosted my knowledge in that time, but I was at a very low language-level. Nowadays i prefer writing a vocab-journal (you can see here: nerozumiemblog.wordpress.com/2016/09/05/vocab-journal/). There I note down the new word and words that are connected to it. These connections can either be more meanings of that word, other grammar-forms or even other words that just mean something similar, but different. (Like smile and laugh) This way I get a big picture of this word – or better this groop of words and learn/mezmorise it easier…

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