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.
The 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:
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.
For general information on building vocabulary, I recommend the following resources:
“Learning without studying” is the strapline of a new language learning application called Popling. I think the idea that you can learn anything without working for it is a bit unrealistic, but I do think that the creators of Popling are on to a good thing.
The idea is to help you by “tricking” your brain into learning while you are doing other things. It works on a classic pedagogical tool which every language learner has used at some time or other: the flashcard.
So what’s new? Flashcards have been around forever. Popling is flashcard software which works especially well for second language learners who spend a big part of their day in front of a computer. Every few minutes as you work, Popling will display a question or a prompt in a small online flash card window. It is very easily configurable for vocabulary in the language you are learning, so that if you are trying to learn French kitchen vocabulary for example, you might get the prompt “dishwasher”. If you have learnt the word, you will type in “lave-vaisselle”. If you haven’t learnt it, you can take a peek at the word and try to memorise it for next time.
You also have the choice of ignoring the flashcard if it arrives at a bad moment, and it will just go away. Apparently it’s “learning with no motivation required”. I doubt that it is really possible to learn anything without motivation, but in spite of the blah blah, it is a very good tool.
You can either subscribe to an existing set of flashcards in the language you are learning, or create your own. It takes a bit of work writing your own flashcards, but it’s part of the learning process and that way you can be sure to learn the vocabulary you need.
It requires the installation of a lightweight Adobe Air desktop application. Have you tried it? Found any other interesting uses for it? Have your say in the comments.
For more information on online flash card systems, see Building vocabulary through spaced repetition.