9 things not to do when studying vocabulary

Dani-Sw-Kopie-300x221Today we have a great, straight-talking guest post on learning vocabulary from Dani Maizner, who I was lucky enough to meet in Berlin this summer!

Dani is a passionate language learner from Austria who enjoys the great variety of languages in the world.

You can find more information about her and her language projects on isimplylovelanguages.com or connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

Enter Dani…

We often read about what we should do in order to achieve our goals or improve our language learning skills.

Today I want to give you some tips on what NOT TO DO when studying vocabulary.


1. DON’T think there is a perfect method

The Internet is full of methods and tools for learning vocabulary and, of course, each one claims to be the best. But there will be no method that is perfect.

Look around and try out some things you like and then stick to a few methods or tools you like.

2. DON’T use only one method

When you find a suitable tool, it doesn’t mean that it will always be the best option for your needs. Different situations require different methods. Preparing for a vocabulary test requires different studying than preparing for a conversation with friends.

Therefore, it’s useful to have a personal “vocabulary tool box” at hand out of which you can always pick the best tool for each situation. Also, working with different methods helps you to anchor words in your brain.

3. DON’T let anybody tell you which words are essential

There are many lists and entire books available that provide you with the basic and advanced vocabulary of your target language. While these lists are often a nice and convenient collection, you should always think about whether these words are suitable for your needs and your personal level.

Example: Last year, I studied the words for animals in six languages – about 60 words each. Not because I’m such a big fan of animals or speak so often about them, but I thought it should be part of my personal vocabulary. I know that for many other learners this is not an important word field.

However, I never study slang vocabulary because I don’t use slang when speaking a foreign language. Also, speaking is not my top-priority. For others, it might be just the other way round.


4. DON’T think you need to learn every word you come across

It’s impossible to know every word in a language and often even native speakers don’t understand every word that appears in a text. You only need to retain vocabulary that is useful or interesting to you – and it’s your personal decision.

If there is a word you simply can’t remember although you try hard, this could be a sign that you don’t need this word. Why trying hard then? Just don’t care about it anymore. If you will ever need it in the future, there is still time to study it then.

5. DON’T forget about the context

The context in which a word is used not only helps you understand how a word is used, it also helps you retain the word better than studying an isolated item. Therefore, it’s important to not only study a single word but also to find good example sentences, e.g. on Tatoeba.

6. DON’T neglect pronunciation

When we come across a word in writing we usually only read but not hear it. Especially for beginners it’s it could be problematic to only read the words because often they are not sure about the right pronunciation.

But if you memorize a word with a wrong pronunciation it might be difficult when you want to actively use the word later. So make sure you also know the pronunciation of each word you study. You can easily check the pronunciation of isolated words on forvo.

7. DON’T neglect your learning preference

We can make the best of our studying time when we use methods that fit to our learning style. If you can easily remember things you hear, you should focus on hearing words. If you prefer to write by hand, write new words down. If you like to draw, you can create images etc.

8. DON’T think every day must be the same

We often have goals like “I want to study 30 new words every day”. On some days, this is just fine but on others days we will have difficulties to remember 30 new words. If you feel that after 20 words your daily capacity is reached, just stop.

There is no sense in struggling for the other 10 words because you won’t remember them anyway when your brain is already tired. There will be other days when you will be able to learn 40 words instead.


9. DON’T forget about real life

It’s very tempting to spend hours over vocabulary lists because this gives us the feeling that we actually do something for our language. But studying these words is useless until we go out into the world and consume real-life language.

That’s why we should always combine language learning activities with reading/listening/speaking/….

How about you?

My weak points are #5 and #9. Sometimes I’m too lazy to look for example sentences or to write down the whole sentence I found the word in.

But then I often realize that it’s very difficult for me to retain this isolate word. I’m also guilty for spending too much time with vocabulary lists and SRS apps. It just gives me this good feeling of doing something.

Thanks Dani!

What do you struggle most with from the list above? What is on your personal DON’T-DO-list? Please Like this post on Facebook then leave Dani a comment below!

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  • Nico Büttner

    Thank you very much for this persuasive post! My mother tongue is also German and I’m currently trying to boost my English skills as well as learning some basic Korean.

    In school, I really struggled with learning vocabulary, because I was not able to acknowledge it as being worth the time to invest. I simply did not think learning vocabs for a vocab test about topics I would never talk about in my free-time might finally improve my language level in the long run.

    About half a year ago, I started to care seriously about my language level. I began to read some polyglot blogs and asked people in my surroundings how they managed to reach an aimed level in a foreign language. One of the results: I was introduced to Anki and completely fell in love with its method. In the beginning, it was a big deal for me to constantly memorize 10 new cards everyday – now if feel absolutey comfortable with 30 new ones a day.

    I guess my weak points include as well #5 and #9. On the one hand, I’m already creating my own English vocab decks for Anki by systematically reading more texts in English, especially Quora posts. On the other hand, I still suffer from including all of these new words into my day-to-day speaking/writing. So I would definitely consider this sentence of the blog post as the most relevent (to me):

    “That’s why we should always combine language learning activities with reading/listening/speaking/….”
    Just reading posts without memorizing key vocabulary won’t pitch one’s knowledge to a higher level in a short periode. But simple route memorization of words without any connection to one’s personal life won’t be as efficient as well. At least that’s the observance of my personal learning progress.

    So thanks again for this post, I found it very valuable to read. 🙂

    • Thank you for sharing your experience both in school and in your free time. It shows very clearly that intrinsic motivation has a much deeper effect on our results than extrinsic factors, such as a teacher who tells you to study the vocab list of unit 8.

      Anki is a great tool. I used it pretty excessively in the first half of the year 🙂 30 new words a day is a big portion, chapeau!

      • Nico Büttner

        Thanks for the nice words. 🙂 I just found your serial about how to use Anki effectively – I’m looking forward to read it in the next break.

        Your post about helpful but not necessary learning resources was great to read! I also carry a notepad, which I consider as “nice”, with me all the time. 😀 I guess I’ll try out some of the other ideas during the next semester.

        You got a new subscriber. 😉

  • Sammy

    Thanks for the advice. I study vocabulary by repeating the word a bilion times, but that doesn’t work very well. I’m trying to learn vocabulary by spaced repetition and mnemonics now.

    • It’s great that you keep trying! Through a combination of SRS and mnemonics, you’ll definitely improve your vocabulary!

  • I learned English vocabulary without memorizing word lists. That was simple, easy and effective!

    I always love to learn effortlessly. I never think I am learning when I learn. That’s my secret!

  • Sophia

    I should really take the advice of 4. Although at the intermediate level I don’t do this. But at the beginner stage going through the first textbook, say a colloquial or teach yourself, I literally learn every single word and phrase in the word list…even if I *know* I won’t need it anytime soon. I’ve tried to be more selective about it, but I have a nagging sense of incompleteness if I don’t learn them all.