Thursday, March 6, 2008

Word lists don't work (and why they don't work)

When beginning with Spanish, your first goal is probably to get a big basic vocabulary. That's a logical step, as you want to understand at least bits of the Spanish you read or hear. You probably learn a nice amount of chunks to survive in a simple Spanish conversation. That's all fine and good, but how are acquiring a new vocabulary? Word lists? Alphabetical word lists? Thematic word lists? Frequency word lists? It doesn't matter and I don't care. As long it's a word list without example sentences (sentences are gooood, because you can add them to your Spaced Repetition System) they're worthless and mostly work contra-productive.

When I started majoring Spanish in college I knew almost nothing. Ok, I knew how to say hello and ask people how they're doing. But that's nothing. So I first started with reading a lot, which I still like. I even made a word list for my tests, just to survive. The first word list was also the last one, and I used it for about 20 minutes. It just didn't like it, it was dull and gave me the feeling I wasn't learning anything. However, I've had many discussions with classmates who think word lists are the one true learning method. They learn a few hundred words before an important test, know them for about three days and then forget 95% of what they've learned. It's no surprise they've only made little progress or at least not as much as I did. The only reason I've learned so much in the past few months is because I started to learn everything in context. I got myself a thematic dictionary, but not to learn the words but to add the example sentences each word has to my SRS.

So what's the reason word lists don't work? "I'll get myself a big word list and add it to my Spaced Repetition System" you might say. Good luck... with failing, I would say. The weakness of word lists isn't just the way you use to tackle them. It's the concept itself. Loose words are useless, especially in a language like Spanish. Unless the language you're learning is Esperanto (where word order isn't that important and words stay the same most of the time - but not always) I wouldn't even consider learning loose words, it's a waste of time and energy. Almost every word in a Spanish sentence depends on a noun, subject or a specific tense. Learning words in one particular form is just useless, and again a waste of energy. You want to see everything in context, using sentences for your plain learning moments or simply watch tv or listen to the radio. It doesn't matter, as long as the words are in context.

The power of context is not only that you get a better understanding of the Spanish grammar or that you get an intuition. Every sentence tells you something, and the words you don't know will stick better if you understand what the sentence is trying to say to you. Analyze your SRS sentences, look for the unknown words and special forms of verbs and nouns. Look for the awkward things in Spanish, it'll be even funny. Each and every sentence which contains a hard to remember word will help you to remember that particular word. It will also help you with remembering most of the other words in the sentence AND the grammatical structure. So throw your word lists away, get yourself a (thematic) dictionary word LOTS of example sentences and start adding them to Anki. Don't have a computer at hand? Doesn't matter, just listen an audiobook or a podcast. Don't want to use the computer but just being plain lazy? Doesn't matter, fire up a DVD with Spanish audio (even a lot of dubbed ones are fun to watch. Me for example always enjoy Bad Boys 2, it's just funny as ****) - better not turn on the subtitles (not even the Spanish ones), they make you lazy.

It doesn't matter how you acquire vocabulary. It doesn't matter how long it takes before you feel confident (but hopefully it won't take too long either). Just do a little bit every day, in context, and you WILL build an impressive vocabulary.


Jeffrey Hayes said...

This is a great post! I was browing around that Spaced Repetition System website (Anki), and that seems like such a great language-learning tool.

Also, what I have been doing recently is, believe it or not, just reading dictionaries. Not dictionaries with just words, though, but the Spanish phrasebooks that you can buy at an airport in Europe, and "The Red-Hot Book of Spanish Slang and Idioms" by Mary McVey Gill. These are really useful for me because I already have plenty of Spanish vocabulary built up, but I need to familiarize myself with the context to which my vocabulary belongs. And these are especially helpful because they provide thousands of phrases and sentences that are used in a certain country or region (i.e. Latin America and Spain; just Mexico; just El Salvador and Guatemala, etc.).

Finally, I have recently been watching "Seinfeld" and other sitcoms with Spanish subtitles, so I would actually write down in a notebook all of the useful phrases and sentences. Hopefully all of this effort will lead toward some resemblance of Spanish fluency in the near future!



Rmss said...

That's great, really useful. Try adding them to Anki because the algorithm it uses is really good (Spaced Repetition ;)).

Also, I love the thing you're doing with the subtitles. But as your Spanish is already strong (judging on what you've said so far), try doing Spanish audio without subtitles. I used to hate dubbed series, still do. But I can stand dubbed versions of my favorite comedies. So try it.

Jeffrey Hayes said...

Oddly enough, I haven't tried doing Spanish audio with my favorite TV shows. That will definitely be a good way to get used to forcing myself to understand what people are saying.

Just out of curiosity, what are you learning right now in your Spanish classes?

Rmss said...

Well, as said before we going to Spain in April. So post classes concentrate on how to survive in situations with the family you stay with. Also, we learn more and more slang, and have some presentations we have to do. For example; next week we have to promote a Spanish company (we can choose the one we want to promote) and put that into a presentation in front of the class.

For the rest, 90% of the talking in class is done in Spanish, so often we also speak about things in general in class.