Monday, 27 October 2014

On vocabulary learning

So today we began a new chapter, and I received another sheet of vocabulary, with the request to review it by tomorrow. And this was quite a depressing prospect, because I realised that I still haven't got round to even looking at the last two sheets of vocabulary I got (last week, and the week before). This isn't because I'm a lazy swine; it's because I was too busy learning vocabulary.

These particular sets of vocabulary come from the new textbook I began on moving to the pre-Intermediate stream. On a quick skim-through, each sheet seems to contain around 50-80 terms. Thankfully, I already understand some of these (maybe a third) and have a broad idea of some more (another third) either from recognising a Chinese character, or because it's a compound. The latter case is much less useful, of course, because generally I can guess the approximate pronunciation or the approximate meaning, but not both, and am sometimes wrong anyway. So I need to study roughly 30-50 terms per sheet.

On top of these 40ish items of vocabulary, there are others that come up in class. I get around 10 new vocabulary items a day, unless I had a particular complicated conversation, which may be 30 or more. Outside class, I may also encounter new important vocabulary relating to business, food, a conversation with a friend, or something I'm reading. Conservatively, let's assume 140 words per week, or 20 per day.

This would entirely viable to keep up with, in theory. But it's not that simple.

One thing is that I front-loaded myself. When you start learning a language seriously, there's an awful lot of vocabulary you need to learn to be able to usefully do very much - like live in that country for six months. So I'm not starting with a blank slate, but with a large reserve of vocabulary that I was already working through slowly. Too slowly, perhaps, but I was working full-time and trying to sort out rather a lot of things at that time.

Also, learning vocabulary in isolation is both difficult and mostly worthless. This is especially true in a language very different from your own. While you might be able to do some basic reading just by knowing the terms, you can't use them productively or understand normal speech unless you know how they're used in context. This means studying not individual words, but sentences. These are longer, so things like writing practice takes more time, but they help drill the term and its use into your head far more effectively than an isolated gaggle of new syllables. The problem is, of course, that often finding a useful sentence (never writing one! bad idea!) takes time, and even a good one may well involve one or two other items of vocabulary you don't actually know yet. This will increase the time taken to study the vocabulary.

Plus, in quite a few cases vocabulary can be used in multiple ways. Sometimes these are very important to learn, and so that single piece of vocabulary might lead to three or four different phrases to learn. Maybe a common idiom or two, also.

Personally, I use Anki to study vocabulary, so I don't need stacks of paper, flashcards or to remember when to study what. One of the things Anki does is let you form different cards from the same information. In the case of Japanese, and Chinese, I need four:

  • Understand the meaning of this sentence (reading comprehension)
  • Remember the pronunciation of this sentence (pronunciation)
  • Translate this sentence into Japanese (vocabulary recall)
  • Write down this pronunciation in correct Japanese (writing)

Most languages call for only two, but there we go. Both languages kindly make this task even more difficult by having multiple pronunciations for the exact same character, and multiple characters with the exact same pronunciation, but then English has its own problems in that regard.

What this means is that I may technically need to learn 20 new vocabulary items per day; this may translate into 30 new phrases, several of them including multiple new words or expressions. Each phrase generally translates into four cards. This means that keeping on top of 20 new bits of vocab means studying around 120 cards, many of them multiple times. This is very difficult to keep up with. It certainly makes it very difficult to make any kind of dent in my backlog, which stands at a couple of thousand words.

What usually happens is that I learn a bit of the newest vocabulary, and some of the oldest material also makes an appearance (Anki presents the oldest cards I created first), and everything else vanishes into the bowels of Anki to resurface sometime in the distant future. I don't have time to learn all the most recent vocabulary before the next lot arrives. I'm not really sure I can do much about it, to be honest. Most sources suggest you can realistically learn 20 words per day, and much more is hard to sustain in the long run. Since I'm also studying at least 4 hours a day in class, I don't really have the energy to spend more than an hour or two poring over vocabulary - and of course, making up my review materials also takes time.

Right, best get back to my vocabulary...

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