If there are time constraints and the urgent need to pass a language proficiency exam, would it be better to just do rote memorisation in order to achieve a high score in a short time, or would my previous method on reading a lot and by themes (see: how to revise vocabulary for foreign languages) still work?
I received this question (my paraphrasing) yesterday, after my previous post on my vocabulary-learning method.
While I have yet to be in such a situation, I can imagine the pressure in order to pass a language exam as soon as possible in order to secure a school admission / job / scholarship etc. It can be tough to enjoy learning at a leisure pace when you know you cannot afford to fail it. There are two choices: (1) find a shortcut; and/or (b) go all out and raise the intensity to prepare for the exam.
Firstly, there’s no shortcut to language learning. Any form of shortcuts are likely to be pitfalls in disguise. It may serve you well in the very near term, but often does nothing to help build your proficiency in the longer run. (hence it ends up to be time-wasting too). So don’t fall for that.
So yes, go for the option of increased revision intensity.
Alright, there’s so much to say about this topic. Let me jump straight into a couple of points.
Rote Memorisation: Stay away from it
There’s really no point. Sure, it could possibly help you remember a lot of words in a short time frame (provided that you are good at rote memorisation! I’m not), but how much can you remember after the tests? Not much surely, and it’s more than likely that you will be so exhausted from the process that you will want to take a break from any kind of studying for a while. That’s counter-productive
In the best scenario, yes, you may pass the test. But if you can’t remember anything you’ve memorised after the exam, it’s all time wasted. Surely, the end goal cannot be to pass the exam only. Once you live in that country / start to use the language for work or education, it will become an even more stressful process to increase your proficiency (possibly in another short timeframe). Unless you love rote memorisation, it will be hard to keep this up for long.
So… I just read.. a lot?
Yes. Read intensively and read a lot of everything and anything you can get your hands on. There’s a upcoming test and time is limited. As much as I hate to take a practical approach to things (hah), well, there’s no choice. So, I would suggest coming up with a schedule (omg I hate this haha) where you dedicate a couple of hours to reading and learning vocabulary. It’s important to read widely, so choose perhaps 2-3 themes a day and search up online (news) articles / magazines / blogs relating to the topic. So you’ve got yourself covered for non-fiction. Then, spend time reading fiction too. Find short stories online, or in reading textbooks.
Try to read a wide variety of text types: expository, argumentative, information guides, academic articles, news etc.
Looking for good reading textbooks?
- Yonsei reading 읽기 series (review of Book 6 here)
- Yonsei academic reading series (review here)
- SNU reading series (review coming soon)
- [Intermediate] TTMIK News in Korean (review here)
Anything else to do?
Do a lot of practice questions! Since the short term goal is to prepare for a test, part of it is also exam techniques (gosh I am not really into this line of thought). As a sidetrack, language learning should never be just about passing the test! (but ok, practically the issue at hand is to pass the test.. ok ok I get it) So yes, to do well in an exam, there is a need to be familiar with the question types. So yes, do a lot of practice papers 🙂 You can also learn vocabulary through that. It’s still learning from context, so all good!
But how do I ensure that I learn all the necessary vocabulary in that level if I don’t use vocabulary lists?
For a lot of language exams, vocabulary are categorised into different levels. When I study Japanese, and the dictionary entry at says it’s “N1 level”, do I skip it just because it’s too high a level? No. Is it a bad thing that I’m at N2 and I still don’t know N4/N3 words? No.
Doesn’t it matter? No.
Do I care? No.
Even for the purpose of language exams, I would suggest not being too bothered about learning all the “necessary” vocabulary. As long as you are reading a lot and knowing more and more words everyday, you will end up covering most of the necessary vocabulary. 🙂
What do you think of “vocabulary books”?
Ahem. Let’s see how best I can phrase that diplomatically.
I personally do not like books that are just about listing words, even if they are organised by themes. Even if they come with meanings and example sentences.
Note-taking is your role. You are supposed to make the notes, not have the notes written for you. 🙂
Also, if you are learning vocabulary in context (i.e. read), you are improving your reading comprehension, reading speed, reinforcing your knowledge of grammar points, and learning new knowledge!
It’s never about improving one skill at a time. You just improve in general 🙂
Enjoy the process
Easier said than done given the exam stress, but please try. Beyond the exam, there’s soooo much to enjoy and love about languages. Even if you are “forced” to learn one by circumstances, try to see it as an enjoyable thing to do.
It’s not difficult to fall in love with languages. After all, they are so fun 🙂
For those who have taken language exams for a specific purpose, let me know your thoughts on the topic!