When it comes to vocabulary learning there’s a lot to be said for learning by rote.

At this point a lot of language teachers will probably close this page and never come back.  « Traditional » methods of memorising vocabulary have become very unfashionable.  New words must be learnt in context or not at all!

I really like the theory of learning vocabulary naturally in context, as this mimics the way we acquire our first language as children.  But I wonder if we are not being a little optimistic when we seek to recreate the environment of first language acquisition in the methods we use to teach adults (or adolescents) a second language.

For one thing, children learn very differently to adults.  They are not conscious of learning the way that adults are; learning happens as if by accident.  Adults learn « on purpose », using methods that they have consciously chosen.  We lose a lot of the natural learning capacity of children as we grow older, and need tools to assist us in learning.  Some of these tools can seem quite « artificial » in comparison.  This is why rote memorisation of vocabulary has been so criticised.

Perhaps it is time to rehabilitate vocabulary memorisation.  OK, it’s not very exciting, but a couple of questions might be in order: is vocabulary building in a foreign language worth it?  If we see it as valuable, is it worth some discipline and effort?  Does all learning really have to be « fun »?  Or are we willing to sweat a little bit in order to reach the goal of communicating more effectively in our foreign language?

I am not an expert in second language acquisition theory, but a language learner and teacher.  These observations are based on experience, not research, so it is quite possible that I have drawn some faulty conclusions.  That said I have noticed as an adult learner that although reading in a foreign language is my preferred context for learning new vocabulary, if I don’t note the new vocabulary and have some method for revising it, I don’t learn it.  My considerations from the teaching point of view are much more pragmatic: I find that intentionally teaching vocabulary in context requires a lot of work and preparation that I don’t always have time for.  It’s one thing to organise a reading or listening activity where you just highlight the vocabulary that happens to occur in the material, but this is very  haphazard.  Teaching vocabulary that is « useful » on the other hand (whether from the point of view of word frequency or  the specific purposes for which the learner requires the language) necessitates hours of searching for materials that  contain the target vocabulary.

So I come back again to word lists.  I’ve made it one of my goals this year to increase my repertoire of activities and tools for memorising vocabulary effectively.  In terms of technology, we have already reviewed the online flashcard system Popling.  Today I came across another tool which seems to fit the way my brain works better, so I took it for a test drive.

AnkiThe app. is appropriately named Anki, the verb for « memorise » in Japanese.  It has some similarities to Popling, although its designer seems to have given more thought to how the memory actually works.  It is marketed as a « Spaced Repetition System », and recognises that memorisation is actually work,  not the « learning without studying » that Popling advertises.  The idea behind spaced repetition is that memory loss slows down considerably when a memorised item is reviewed at appropriate intervals.

Anki is obviously a real labour of love.  It is a work in development though. the interface is not quite as sharp, the help a bit limited and I didn’t find it as intuitive to use.

You can create your own flashcard piles or « decks », or import one of a large number of existing decks (contributed by users so of varying quality).  Anki is very definitely oriented toward language-learning, although it could also be put to good use in other disciplines requiring memorisation.  There is a bent toward Asian languages in the list of available decks.

Some of the features:

  • screencasts for a quick introduction to how it works
  • desktop and online synchronisation so you can study anywhere
  • possibility of sharing decks, and for teachers to « push » materials to a number of students at once.
  • intelligent scheduler which allows you to very easily categorise a flashcard according to difficulty.  Anki will calculate the interval between revisions according to whether you remembered the item easily, with difficulty or not at all.
  • flashcards are quite configurable, and Anki can handle very large decks, even up to 100,000 +.
  • a growing directory of plugins
  • Anki it is completely free, although a donation is in order for a truly useful application.

Popling has the advantage of flashing cards up while you are doing other things which is the idea behind « learning without studying ».  Not everyone enjoys such interruptions, however.  Anki requires you to be a lot more intentional, setting aside specific learning times, although you have a lot of freedom to determine how much time you spend and the number of items you want to revise for memorisation each day.

More on Spaced Repetition Systems.

For general information on building vocabulary, I recommend the following resources:

photo credit: susivinh cc

5 Commentaires

  1. 29 mars 2009 à 17 h 08 min

    Thanks for writing about Anki, i had never heard of it before! I cant wait to play with it 🙂

  2. Jason Wu-Reply
    15 février 2010 à 6 h 06 min

    Is there Anki for Vietnamese? Thanks.

  3. 25 avril 2013 à 17 h 52 min

    I’ve been looking through posts on Spaced repetition software. I’ve been implementing the use of it in my English teaching. I’m wondering if you hve any updates and views on other software. Anki is good but it costs a bit for the iphone app which is not good for my students. Thanks.

  4. Dave Johnson-Reply
    18 mai 2014 à 3 h 28 min

    I am a well-educated, native speaker of American English, currently studying Spanish very seriously, and I have been very pleased with the results I have gotten with Anki. I made a list of the most frequent Spanish words, taken from a frequency dictionary, and in about eight months I have mastered about 5,000 words, in frequency order.

    It should be understood that flashcards will not give you full mastery of a foreign word, but rather are just an efficient way to gain passive recognition ability. However, given that much command of the most frequent 5,000 words, you will be able to read nearly everything in the way of ordinary text (e.g. newspapers and magazines) with rather little trouble. Each page will still have some words that you do not know, but you will still understand more than 95%, so learning the remaining words is pretty easy, because you will understand the context in which they are being used.

    In short, I highly recommend both Anki and the use of word frequency lists. The combination leads to quite rapid buildup of useful vocabulary.

    One key point is to limit the new words to about 20 a day. That will seem very slow at first, and you will be tempted to do more, but you really will do better at the more modest rate. Also, the results add up fast. Twenty words a day for 250 days is 5.000 words. That is really a lot, and doing it in such small steps will make it very easy to persist with the practice, because it is only a few minutes a day.

    Again, there are very few language study tools that are anywhere near this effective for their purpose.

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