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In-Context Vocabulary Learning December 31, 2007

Posted by Edwin in LingQ, Vocabulary.

It is the time of the year that I need to review what I have done this year and formulate plans for next year. I have been working on this in the past whole week, and of course this includes everything in my life, not just language learning.

One area I have been concentrating on is to improve all my processes. For example, in my French vocabulary learning, I have been using a spreadsheet to record all the new words I have encountered, and I use JMemorize as the reviewing tool. I find this to be very efficient in maintaining the list of vocabulary. But then reviewing them might take some time, especially with my current vocabulary of more than 2100 words and phrases. Then in August I have started using LingQ, and I have been maintaining my vocabulary list in both my spreadsheet and LingQ since then. It is certainly not as efficient, and I need to do something about it.

One thing my spreadsheet/JMemorize system is lacking is the example sentences. I still remember right at the start of my vocabulary building project, I was advised to include sample sentences for the new words. But this was something I found time-consuming to do. So I left out that part.

As I have been thinking it over and over again, I am not really 100% learning my vocabulary through context, something many veteran language learners would recommend to do. I store all the new words I have encountered from what I read (in-context), but as I review them, I only look at each word or phrase out-of-context and try to remember it.

It is not difficult for many people to accept the fact that the in-context approach is the way to go. But many people still seem to be stuck in the out-of-context approach. This includes activities ranging from the extremes such as studying the dictionaries or the 1000 most-frequently-used words, to traditional activities such as studying the vocabulary lists out-of-context.

So my plan for the next year, or at least the next month, is to learn my vocabulary in-context. This means that I will copy the examples from LingQ to my master spreadsheet and import them to JMemorize (LingQ automatically stores the example when you save a word/phrase. But you may need to touch it up a bit). This of course would take up more time to maintain my spreadsheet. But I believe it it something that worths a try.



1. Josh - January 1, 2008

I’ve taken a combined approach to vocabulary acquisition, using both in-context items as well as out-of-context items. My choice depends on the word and how closely its usage resembles that of English. I’ve found that this lets me get through more words, and still not lose the helpfulness of context with tricky words.

2. Edwin - January 2, 2008

I must admit that I also occasionally learn out-of-context vocabulary. But research shows that it is going to be short-term compared with the in-context learning.

3. Ilya L. - January 3, 2008

Happy New Year, Tony!

I was reading your blog from time to time since you began commenting on the site of Steve Kaufmann. I like very much your tasteful style and value your balanced opinion.

Regarding your intention to do more of the in-context reviewing. As far as I understand, you want to import the examples from LingQ into JMemorize mainly due to the space repetition nature of the latter, don’t you? (Otherwise you could choose to directly review the textual fragments highlighted in LingQ, which fragments are already in the context ).

Do you think your reviewing of the vocabulary lists of the words and phrases that originate from LingQ would be significantly more effective, if you didn’t have to ” to touch it up a bit” each phrase that cames from LingQ?

Thank you, and thanks for all your previous responses to my questions on Steve’s blog.

4. Edwin - January 3, 2008

Hi Ilya,
I like the flashcard style of learning vocabulary. It is proven to be very effective and there is no doubt about it. But then a simple flashcard system is just not scalable. A spaced repetition system is the way to go.

Steve mentioned about reviewing the vocabulary in different orders (alphabetical, by creation date, etc), butI doubt that it is scalable either. For example, I currently have about 1000 words in my LingQ vocabulary. If I do the alphabetical review, I wonder when I would get to S or T, if I can reach there at all.

I talked to Steve back in October, and he also thought that adding a spaced repetition feature in LingQ could be a good idea. He mentioned the same thing again in the LingQ forum recently. However, he also said that it is not a high priority feature at the moment.

5. chris(mandarin_student) - January 4, 2008

I pretty much gave up on conventional vocab lists quite early on, for a long time everything I learnt was in context (simply because I was only learning that way).

Now I think I am in a phase that is commonly described and seems to ring true. I am pretty comfortable in conversation and a lot of the routine stuff no longer requires thought but I always come unstuck just due to not not knowing enough vocab. At this point the potential vocab I am interested in seems overwhealming, and the number of different ways to say the same thing appears daunting.

I have experimented a bit, simply keeping text files of words and phrases on Google docs and regularly pruning them, the way that works best for me and I am sticking to follows.

I store each word as tagged link in del.iciou.us usually to the online http://www.mdbg.net/chindict/chindict.php reference, but if not in there it could be the chinesepod dictionary or ting dictionary etc. I copy the definitions into the title as well as descritption (this can be done very fast with the del.iciou.us firefox plugin. I can also link to webpages that have good examples of the word usage if I wish.

Google search is important for context (you can run a google search on a word straight from the dictionary reference). Delicious allows RSS feeds on tags so I cam pull “views” on my vocab straight into google reader, even star them or combine views depending on what I feel like studying.

Once I have a small set of appropriate tags it is easy to prune words by retagging, I can define words that I want to learn, or words that I know but can’t read yet, or link to an online video with good contextual usages etc.

Sounds mad but it works, for me it is really easy to add, view, delete or change the status of words. I don’t really do flashcards at the moment but if I do feel a pressing need to I am a programmer so it would be easy to pull out the data I want from a tag feed.

BTW I couldn’t resist. An extract from Steve’s book The Linguist.
Zhuangzi, the Taoist philosopher, is supposed to have lived in China over 2,300 years ago. He encouraged people to achieve their potential through effortlessness, by not resisting their own natures. THAT is exactly what I meant by effortless.

BTW of course you can tag a whole sentence or more easily in many ways, just link to the sentence breakdown page in mdbg for example. Really the sky is the limit.

If this sounds like the ramblings of a martian madman then that might be because your head isn’t in a web 2.0 space yet. I intend to start writing up this and other methods I use properly soon, all should become clear, of course they won’t suit everybody.

6. Ilya L. - January 4, 2008

Thank you both, Edwin and Chris.

Edwin, you wrote about the flashcards: “It is proven to be very effective and there is no doubt about it.” Perhaps I should overcome my prejudice against the flashcards. When I look at my vocab lists at LingQ, I nearly instantly realize if I know the meaning of a particular word or phrase (and then I would not like this one to appear among the flashcards) or I don’t know its meaning (and then I immediately click on it with the Babylon to find out its meaning). And no need for the flashcards remains. At least so it is with the LingQ. Perhaps the spaced repetition adds a value?

Chris, you wrote “I intend to start writing up this and other methods I use properly soon…”. I hope to find it on your site and look forward to reading it.

7. chris(mandarin_student) - January 4, 2008

Ilya L. I am not sure how many people my approach will be useful to, I think increasingly the emphasis is on the learner which means more paths to the same destination.

I will find another place to write, my current Chinese learning blog is fairly randomw and sporodic, I write a bit more formally about webstuff elsewhere, I think need somewhere else again to collect a more disciplined summary of my language learning experiances.

8. Edwin - January 4, 2008

Sorry, my comment was based on my own experience. I should be less subjective. But then I believe most language learners would agree with me.

“Flashcard” is just a name for the review activity. There are different way to implement it. When I was at school, I used to have a word list with the meanings written on the right hand side. When I reviewed the words, I covered up the right hand side. This, and your ways were just different forms of ‘flashcard’ activities.

9. Edwin - January 4, 2008

I did have this idea in mind a while ago, to utilize Google for context-based vocabulary learning. But then I didn’t develop the idea, and had never implemented it. You way sounds very interesting.

I guess the main problem with this is the materials. You may find your word referenced in an article which is poorly written. Another thing is that it helps a lot to find references of the word in other articles you yourself have already gone through.

Anyway, looking forward to the detailed write-up of your approach.

10. Geoffrey Barto - January 8, 2008

For a while, I was learning whole sentences for Mandarin using Anki. I found myself having a different sort of problem: I knew the structures, but not the details. For example, I’d remember that a certain sentence type meant “I need,” but not know whether it was shampoo or a comb that I was in need of in the particular sentence.

I recently ran across the suggestion of doing flashcards for individual words, but including a sample sentence for each word, untranslated. In that way, you get a sense of how the word works in context, and get a background sense of structure, without trading one type of rote memorization for another. The trick, then, is finding the word you’re curious about used in context. Some learners’ dictionaries are good for this, offering examples for most words. I plan on trying this with Breton soon since I have a children’s dictionary that fits that bill. We’ll see how it works out.

11. Edwin - January 9, 2008

Geoff, as for the sample sentences, you can try to google it, as Chris has mentioned. But then you never know how good the source is.

12. Jim Morrison - July 1, 2008

I made a Free application to make notes of whole sentences with their audio. The website is http://www.mylanguagenotebook.com and the application is downloadable from there. The sentences can be saved as a project and projects can be shared with others via the website. I am using it to learn Catalan and it is really helping me. Anyway, I hope you like it.
All the best,
Jim Morrison

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