Vocabulary Myths – Myths to Look Out for when Learning a Language

I recently read Vocabulary Myths: Applying Second Language Research to Classroom Teaching and really enjoyed it. I also see that I posted about a distilled PDF about this 8 years ago (wow, time flies!). Check that out if you’d rather not read the whole book. However, I think it’s certainly worth your time. It’s a fairly short book.

While the book is aimed at teachers, don’t be fooled – the myths are helpful to know for foreign language learners, tooSome of these myths are pretty widespread, and at least a few of them have made their rounds in language learning forums / blogs (including my own). Below, I’ve listed the myths, along with some of my experiences with them over the years.

Myth 1: In learning another language, vocabulary is not as important as grammar or other areas.

If you’re into languages and read about learning them, I bet you’ve seen many of the articles discussing this idea: “you only need 2000 words to understand 80% of many texts!” Mathematically speaking, sure. However, you may have also seen the counterarguments to this. Namely, take any text of average difficulty, and use a frequency list to remove words that are less frequent than those 2000 words. What do you have then? Swiss cheese. You end up with a paragraph or page of text that you truly can’t understand, because a lot of the key words you need are missing. It should go without saying, but vocabulary is important. In fact, probably the most important.

Anecdotally, when talking to friends in one of my target languages, most of the time when I can’t get my point across, it’s not because I don’t know a particular bit of grammar. It’s because I just don’t know the right words. Sometimes I even start to say something with a fancy (to me) bit of grammar, and then trip over a simple word like flour. If your L2 goal is first and foremost to communicate, then vocabulary will take you a lot further than grammar. If push comes to shove, you can always do your best cave man impersonation and say “Where buy chocolate?” But if you don’t know the word for buy or chocolate, you’re going to have suffer with your sweet tooth.

Myth 2: Using word lists to learn L2 vocabulary is unproductive.

This one gets around a lot, usually bundled with the idea that the only way you should learn new words is in context – preferably whole sentences. I’ve written about this before, but in short: my experience tells me that word lists are probably one of the most efficient ways to learn new words. Thankfully, this book agrees. The idea of learning vocabulary only through context is a good one, but in trying to do that over the years, I’ve ran into a few problems:

  1. There are just too many words that I need or want to know! I’d rather flood my brain with vocabulary than rely on comprehensible input for finding new words. There are so many words I’d like to know that just don’t appear in most of what I read, and using word lists helps me hunt those words down quickly.
  2. Personally, learning words in context seems to actually lessen my ability to learn the word I want to. When using sentences, I seem to learn the gist of it, or even the exact meaning of the sentence, but if I later need to pull out the key word I was aiming to learn, I can’t find it in my memory. Odd, no? Taking words out of context helps me focus in on just them, and then I can worry about slotting them back into context later.

Of course, what do you do with word lists? Do you use Iversen’s Word List method? The Gold List Method? Put them all into Anki? Read over them again and again? A combination of all of that? I think that’s mostly personal preference and exploration. Some people find that Anki works great; others need to write things down by hand. Try lots of things out and see what works for you, regardless of what all of the experts tell you is “best.” (A bit more on this below, under Myth #6.)

Myth 3: Presenting new vocabulary in semantic sets facilitates learning.

I’ve recently been working through Using German Vocabulary again, filling in holes in my vocabulary (a never-ending battle!). The book is arranged in semantic sets, and depending on the complexity of the topic, the arrangement does make it harder for me to learn the words. Case in point: I was just working with words about trees, and found I’m still constantly confusing the words for lindenfir, and maple. Of course, my knowledge of trees in my native language is fairly lacking, and I’m sure that contributes to the problem as well, but still: trying to learn lots of words that are close in meaning just causes a headache.

The Vocabulary Myths book argues that thematic lists are better – lists based on things like booking a hotel, making plans for dinner, a trip to the museum. The theme still gives you something to anchor the words to, without having all of the words be closely related in meaning. Trying to learn words for 20 different fruits all at once leads to sometimes calling an apple an orange.

Most beginner language learning books use thematic lists, but once you’re done with those, it seems most vocabulary books are all about semantic sets; frequency word lists are also a possibility. While I’m not sure, I imagine thematic word lists disappear at higher levels because it becomes increasingly harder to “deliver” vocabulary to a learner through such themes. At some point, regardless of whether it’s less effective or not, it’s easier for vocabulary book creators to put things in semantic lists.

Myth 4: The use of translations to learn new vocabulary should be discouraged.

Now here is an interesting one. This ties into the idea that if you rely on translations, you will forever be translating in your head, and never learn to think in your target language. Your L1, according to the myth, is a crutch, and you should cast it aside as quickly as possible.

While I have dabbled with monolingual dictionaries (more on that below), I largely rely on English translations for words when learning L2 vocabulary. Why? Because I still think it’s a shortcut to relative clarity. Of course, I don’t think a one to one translation is all I need, and certainly, the depth of one’s understanding of a word grows with time. But in my experience, relying on a translation to get yourself up and running quickly isn’t at all a bad thing. Instead of seeing your native language as an enemy, see it as a tool to help you learn your target language. With a lot of words, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel – you know the concept already.

I see our native languages as a sort of scaffolding that we can hang target language words on, until we’ve built up that language a bit. Once it’s built up enough in our minds, the native language scaffolding can (and will) fall away. When you’re getting started with a language and trying to speak or write it, when you stumble over a word, you will try to find that word in your native language. It’s automatic. You’ve been doing it your whole life and it’s not going to suddenly stop just because you want to think in French right now. You want your brain to be able to work with that native language word when it pops into your mind, instead of saying, “sorry, no links found.” Over time, instead of grabbing for the L1 word and then connecting to the L2 word, you’ll just grab the L2 word.

Remember: a tool, not an enemy. You already know a language very well. Put that to work in learning other languages instead of trying to start from ground zero.

Myth 5: Guessing words from context is an excellent strategy for learning L2 vocabulary.

Myth #5 boils down to this: learners can try and guess at meanings of words based on context, and a lot of the time, they’re wrong. And even if they are right, trying to guess at meanings is still not as effective as more explicit instruction / learning.

Of course, the argument for this myth is that this is how most people have learned a very large amount of their vocabulary in their native language. True. However, this ignores the time factor – native speakers have years and years of daily exposure, practically around the clock, to their native tongue. Most foreign language learners don’t have that luxury, especially those of us who want to learn multiple foreign languages. So it’s a race against the clock. If we’re going to tuck away thousands and thousands of words in our brains, we’re going to have to pick up the pace.

Another thing the book mentions is this: the more words you know, the better your ability to learn new words in context. Seems simple, but it’s important to keep in mind. As the number of unknown words in a chunk of foreign language increases, our ability to figure out the meanings based on context decreases. The take away? Trying to figure out words based on context when every third word is new to you is a bad idea. Grab your dictionary, you don’t earn any points for struggling.

Myth 6: The best vocabulary learners make use of one or two really specific vocabulary learning strategies.

I will admit right up front: I have spent a stupid amount of time over the years trying to find “the best” method for learning vocabulary. Instead of, you know, just focusing on learning the damn words. Vocabulary is the biggest timesink for language learning, so it makes sense to want to optimize your usage of time. However, since I have spent lots of my time trying to hunt down the best method, I can save you some of your precious time: there isn’t a best method. There are perhaps best methods for you to learn certain types of vocabulary. But there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution.

For me, lists of words work well, but specifically for nouns and adjectives. Those words go into Anki. Verbs are a trickier beast to tame, and I often need them in both a list (with prepositions / required cases), along with some example sentences. I’ve also had success with Iversen’s Word List method, and even if it isn’t as efficient as Anki, it’s also a bit more enjoyable; there’s something incredibly relaxing about writing out lists of words, then their translation, then going the other direction. For me, anyway.

Then there are more social approaches. If I stumble over a word when talking to a friend and ask them for it – that word usually sticks. Same deal when a friend says something and I have to ask for clarification. The desire to understand and communicate is apparently an excellent motivator for the memory to wake up and pay attention.

The important point: as with most things in life, variety is the spice of life. Don’t force yourself into a rigid system. I use Anki a lot, I use Readlang nearly daily, I have vocabulary notebooks scattered all over the apartment. I ask friends about word meanings every single day. Try lots of things and see what works for you. If that means you use half a dozen systems, that’s fine – just do something, and analyze its effectiveness. Ask yourself if what you’re doing is working, and if not – ask yourself why. How can you change it to work better for you? Don’t settle on a system because someone said it’s  good.

Myth 7: The best dictionary for L2 learners is a monolingual dictionary.

This is connected to Myth #4. In short, your native language is the bad guy, and you need to lock it up in a closet so you can properly learn your target language. Or so the myth goes.

I own a couple of monolingual dictionaries, and I enjoy using them – but more as a fun activity. I don’t use them as a primary vocabulary learning tool. Why? Because I tried it and it was sort of a miserable experience.

A long time ago I said to myself: Josh, you’re going to use only your monolingual dictionary for German vocabulary. Lots of people recommend it, so it has to be great, right? You’ll be reading solely in your target language – no pesky English to mess you up! So I went forth with my monolingual dictionary, a notebook, and some stuff in German to read. About a week into trying this, I gave up and grabbed my German-English dictionaries, because this is how it went:

  • Run into a word I didn’t know, which I needed to understand what I was reading…
  • Look it up in my dictionary.
  • Run into three words in the definition that I didn’t know.
  • Track those down in my dictionary.
  • Find three or four more words in each of those definitions that I might kinda’ sorta’ know, but not 100%, so hey, better check those, too…

It was a never-ending spiral of word lookups, and it was slower than glaciers. In a world where have an infinite amount of time, this would be a great way to really dig into a language. But I don’t live in that world and neither do you, so just look up the translation for boarding platform or whatever it is you’re stuck on and get on with your reading. (And try out something like Readlang, while you’re at it. Clicking and getting an instant, rough translation is divine.)

As a last aside regarding this myth, check this out for some proof:

  1. a small domesticated carnivore, Felis domestica or F. catus, bred in a number of varieties.

I’m a native English speaker, and if I hadn’t been the person who looked up the word cat, this definition would briefly give me pause. If I weren’t a native speaker, I probably would have fallen down the rabbit hole of monolingual definitions, to (eventually, hopefully) learn what a cat is. You know what a cat is – you don’t need a convoluted definition like the one above when learning such words.

Myth 8: Teachers, textbooks, and curricula cover L2 vocabulary adequately.

I’m not a teacher nor have I ever been in a foreign language class. (I’m going to ignore my brief stint in French class in 9th grade; I was clueless and lazy and, at the time, disliked French. ) However, I have used a lot of language courses. Textbooks don’t often adequately cover L2 vocabulary acquisition. The beginning stages of vocabulary learning – certainly. We all need to know how to say hello, goodbye, talk about our day, food, etc.

But once you get beyond that, guidance on what words to learn and how to learn them quickly becomes more rare. There’s a sort of, “well, you’re on your own now!” attitude about it. There’s also this peculiar idea of, “now that you know the basics of this language, you’ll just pick up the rest of the vocabulary that you need.” I’d love it if that were the case, but at least for me, it hasn’t worked that way. I’ve had to do a lot of learning how to learn vocabulary, in addition to learning the vocabulary itself. and most of my language learning courses didn’t really offer any tips on which direction to go.

Thankfully, there are more advanced vocabulary books (like Using German Vocabulary) for many languages. These are a great place to start once you’re finished with your first language course. Or perhaps even better, start with the vocabulary book alongside your course. You can never know too many words.

So, those are the myths and my experiences with them. If you’re interested in the research that was done about these myths, definitely check out the book. It’s worth your time, and is an interesting read in its own right.

As for the myths – how about you? Have you found some of the myths to actually be true? Have you had a different experience with, say, monolingual dictionaries? Let me know, and as always, good luck with your learning!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to top