Why vocabulary lists don’t work

14 January, 2013

People who have been reading Hangukdrama know that I’m sometimes a little too opinionated when it comes to language learning methods. While most of the time I acknowledge/understand that certain methods can work for others (even they are not for me), some methods I absolutely abhor. And topping the list is: vocabulary lists

Books like “10000 vocabulary you should know”, “24000 words for TOPIK beginner” or phrasebooks with lists like “occupation / kitchen” shouldn’t exist. Being published kind of gives the book / method some authority(?) and language learners who see such books will probably think that such lists are helpful. NO. Unless you are one of those people who have a photographic memory, I can’t see how lists work.

The main reason why I hate them? Vocabulary doesn’t exist in vacuum.



I think I’ve talked about this in a long-ago entry before, but words are used in sentences. Meaning that certain vocabulary are used with certain verbs for example.

Take for example, 전화 (telephone/call)

If you see this in a list, you are unlikely to know which verb to pair it with. In English, we will say “make a call”. So are you going to do direct translation and say 전화를 만들다?

Another example. You will unlikely know that 술 can be used with the verb 먹다 (to eat). Such as 어제 술 먹었어?

Similarly, if you learn verbs in a list (the horror), you won’t know which nouns they can be paired with.

If you are learning vocabulary, why not do it by READING. You see the word in a context, you learn how to use it, you improve your reading ability / speed and you (may) learn something new from the passage. See, you can do soo many things at one go (and more efficiently). Compare this to using vocabulary lists. Are you even sure that you can remember the word?

If you have any vocabulary list with you, throw them away.

When I’m talking about vocabulary lists, I mean those that do just list the word and perhaps the meaning.

Heck, even those that has example sentences don’t work too. Unless you tell me that learning vocabulary by reading the dictionary works for you. Then I have nothing to say.

Every time you learn a word, remember that you have to learn it in context, know the meaning, and read through at least ONE more example sentence. 


Finally, if you are a strong advocate of vocabulary lists, I’ll like to hear from you.

P.S. If you need a “context”, buy this book hahahahaha



    1. i second that. i used to do that when i first learn korean. i thought having to write down all the vocabs and go thru them daily will help. actually it didn’t. and you’re right, reading more and understand how they are used in sentences are better that way 🙂

      thank you for this post… well.. all of other ones that increase my motivation.


      1. thanks for reading!! (: Our methods will just keep changing and it’s about try and error so that we can find something suitable to our learning style!

    1. I’m terrible at keeping up with trying to memorize vocabulary lists.
      But when I do try things related to vocabulary, it’s just after I’ve read a word in a sentence and I write it down.
      I’m sure people here if they’re all over the self study method have heard of the All Japanese all the Time method. So I /try/ to make my vocabulary understanding by that way — which is to take sentences from a native source and use a Spaced Repetition System (which is better than flashcards or something in the sense that it’s been made to maximize efficiency so that you’re only studying cards you need to study).
      That being said, I’m really lazy about trying to stick to it, so I’m all for the “method” you posted before: aka read all the time.

      1. ㅋㅋㅋㅋ I haven’t actually heard of the system, will check it out!

        1. Maybe I’ve been around the langauge learning internet too long. But I thought that almost anybody who self studies a language and invovled in the community on the internet knew about it.
          I think the general idea behind it is great. And the author of the blog himself says it’s not so much about the details of how he recommends it, but again, the general ideas that he presents. Aka… having fun in your second language and tips for not giving up 😀

    1. I have that novel. I’m a fan of Big Bang. *squeals* XD I’m nowhere near the last page yet but I’m determined to finish the book no matter how long it takes me to. I read Taeyang’s story first since he’s my fave member. *blushes* :3

      Anyway… *back to the topic XD* Vocabulary lists don’t work for me either. If I ever try studying with long vocabulary lists, I’d consider myself lucky if I ever get to remember at least 10 words and not just remember the words, but also be able to actually use it in a sentence.

      1. hehehe i started off with Taeyang’s story too!! But I really like G-Dragon’s story too. Somehow I kinda know all their stories, but i don’t remember reading everything o.O in any case, I’m going to re-read it!! So inspirational. 😀

    1. I totally agree with you and I also hate word lists on their own, but I’ve found a “solution” to it !!! I must say that I am learning words with vocabulary lists at the moment through the memrize website (awesome website for my learning type: I kinda have a good visual memory) but for each word, I try to find various sentences to put them in context ^^ I think that as long as you don’t dissociate the words from their context it’s worth it !!! 🙂 For example I’m doing this http://www.memrise.com/course/52852/topik-in-30-days-intermediate/ + checking on naver lots of sentences and different meaning of the words + 연세 읽기 series ! I’ve just started and it’s going good ^^ but I really hate that they associate one word with one meanning only, this often makes me confused xD

      1. oooh visual learning! great that you found a method that works for you!! I always wonder if i’m more of a visual or audio learner. or something else? haha. You’re right. as long as the words are not dissociated from their contexts, the method works!

      1. oooh, just tried the website myself and I like it! I think it is a nice addition to my learning, and I like the fact I also have to type the words, not only multiple choice… flash card systems teach me to recognize words, but when it comes to recall and using it, I have a problem.

    1. I knew I should’ve grabbed more “free books” when we went 2 years ago to KAIST to visit our friend who was there for her exchange programme! Only Korean book that I have at home now is this Marketing Journal which is just gathering dust somewhere!

      1. hahahah!!! that’s random 😛 but the internet is full of reading material!

    1. I trust your advice on issues that I have very little knowledge on. However sometimes you express a view that makes me see something I’ve taken for granted as good and true in a different and surprising light. I am indebted to you for your excellent advice. It might not seem like much to you to just share your experiences and wisdom but for someone who pretty much just started, your advice is invaluable because it saves me wasting time, effort and much heartache. Thank you.
      I too would be interested to know if anyone has an argument in favour of vocabulary lists. For the most part I have always found them tedious.

      1. Thanks for reading!! Actually someone gave me a pro argument. But not so much of vocabulary list for learning, but for reviewing!

    1. My view on vocabulary lists is somewhere in between. On one side I use them, but on the other hand, I know I will not miraculously learn 10000 korean words from them (since I don’t really remember vocabulary from the ones I had for French – we had weekly vocab tests). My process is rather, writing vocabulary that I come across when reading, with a translation and sample sentence, and going over it for example when I’m on the underground, waiting somewhere, or have nothing better to do. I also have some flash card systems on my ipad that I occasionally use. So I use vocabulary lists/flash cards to repeatedly expose myself to words. And then comes a point when reading a new text I realise I know a word, because I saw it several times on one of my lists and end up remembering it. I think vocabulary learning is the most difficult part of language learning. After all, there aren’t as many grammar rules as there are words.
      Also I try to be careful before using words taken out of context, that I find in a dictionary and I’m not familiar with, since several times I ended up writing something bad instead of what I wanted to *awkward language moments…. =.=””

      1. hehehe awkward language moments 😀 Maybe that can be the next open thread 😛

        1. 😀 I’ve had a few… in the latest one, I called myself a bad word I think (which my friend didn’t translate) – she just gave me the correct word to use when I want to say that “I am lazy/feeling lazy”. This was for Japanese.

    1. I understand your hatred of vocabulary lists, because it’s almost impossible to learn that many words. And actually be able to recall them correctly, but what about the vocabulary lists with an example sentences (involving new words and grammar topics) revolving around one word? I’m not sure if you have seen the TTMIK weekly vocabulary, but I think they made it a good way to learn the word naturally and learn new vocabulary + grammar structures! If not, I hope I actually hyperlinked it correctly haha.
      What do you think of this kind of vocabulary learning?? Yay for TTMIK 😀

      1. i know they have the weekly vocabulary but havent actually seen it! will check it out 😀 😀

        p.s. next time you can just put the url and it will show up! But it’s likely to erm go into the spam inbox but I’ll approve them! ㅎㅎ

        1. yeah I think they have a good concept for learning vocabulary! 😀 i would like to know your opinion on it! ^^

          ahhhh okay great! 고마워요~ ㅎㅎ

    1. I also dislike such books. But I don’t think vocabulary memorization is itself bad, as long as it is combined by other strategies, like reading as you mentioned. Memorizing useful words and reading a lot are really complementary strategies – they work together, the memorization expanding vocabulary faster than reading can do, and the reading giving greater depth of knowledge.
      The biggest problem with those books is they make the decision of what vocabulary to learn, instead of the learner. I always choose what words I’m going to learn. When I notice a word, when I need a word, when I keep seeing a word, or just when I think a word is worth learning – then I decide to learn it, and add it to my word cards (never lists). That way, the word is relevant, and gets learnt quicker and more efficiently.
      But it’s really important to take the new words at the right pace – too many, and you won’t learn them properly. I think most people tend to try to memorize too many too quickly, then get discouraged.

      1. That’s true. I haven’t thought about it that way, but the books do really decide what to learn. Especially for such guide books and textbooks. That’s why I like to read up on topics I’m personally interested in (:

        I haven’t memorize a single word though. I find it a chore ><;;

    1. In general I agree with you — I also don’t really go for vocabulary lists. Context and usage is incredibly important. I did find several vocabulary books useful in the beginning though (and they all had example sentences). I used a book with the 2000 most common words as well as 500 top adjectives and 500 top verbs.

      I also find vocabulary lists sometimes useful to fill in any gaps in my vocabulary — or if their domain based (so I can look up all the words for banking, or something).

      1. I think my vocabulary lists come in the form of reading lists. It’s like I’ll read about history and after a week or so I’ll switch to say.. economics. So I ended up exposing myself to a wide variety of vocabulary!

    1. Vocabulary lists worked well for me when I started learning Japanese, at least that was part of our home assignment. For Korean learning, I was in Korea in year 2001 where I picked up a couple of elementary school books including a 800page Kor-Eng picture dictionary. Pretty and colorful graphics with a good amount of sample sentences, still it was small in size so I always had it with me. I would just flip to random word, connect verb to noun, picking up grammar points as I go along. Ah, it was fun and I learned loads.! Never worked with long boring vocabulary lists for Korean. Nononono…

      1. i loveeee all those picture dictionary! Owned a few when I was a kid (for English) and they are just so fun to look at!

    1. My methods in remembering words are reading books and memorizing words using flashcards.But I have to admit,memorizing words using flashcards bores me to death.After reading this posts ,after several times of using flashcards maybe it’s time for me to give it up 🙁

    1. I guess in terms of Korean language you’re totally right~ But I’ve heard it helps a lot to my English-learning friends though. And sometimes it help me actually, like for instance I run out Korean words and I’ll be like “이거… expensive…네요” because I don’t remember the vocab for it. So I guess a vocab list pretty much helps if one already knows the rest that is needed to use it properly.

      Not even sure if I’m making any sense now haha anyway I wanna read the book!~ 🙁

    1. I totally agree that words shouldn’t be studied out of context. But still the TOPIK vocab list (from the official site) has proved extremely useful for me. Instead of just studying the words, I search the internet for sentences that contain them. I put those into Anki and make myself fill in the missing words. Besides that I do a lot of reading, listening and speaking, so the list is just a supplement (보충 – I learned this word thanks to the list), as well as a catalyst. I think it helps me improve faster at my current level and ensures that I don’t totally disregard certain word fields.

      1. That’s a good way of learning! And yeah, it’s important not to disregard certain word fields!

    1. I think vocabulary lists depend on the person studying and on their technique with the list. I was originally very skeptical about memorizing a ton of words, but while doing practice TOPIK tests, I realized that I was missing questions because of my poor Korean vocabulary and I didn’t enjoy reading in Korean because of my poor Korean vocabulary.

      So I fixed it in about 2 weeks. I got TOPIK in 30 days, mined it for words (I took about 900 and some idioms), learned them in the context of sentences, and then passed level 4. It worked for me because I used the Anki/AJATT method Sojin mentioned. My retention rate is higher than 95%: it amazingly worked. Now, I feel so much more comfortable reading news articles about the environment, politics, and social issues.

    1. Memrise is the greatest vocab tool I have found. It makes learning vocabulary easy and is extremely helpful with retention. After you have memorized some words, reading/listening to them in context will solidify understanding. There is a place for studying lists, but I also believe it should be supplemented by context. I wish there were Korean graded readers! Graded readers for studying English is a fantastic way to learn new vocabulary and improve grammar, but they don’t have them for Korean yet ㅠ.ㅠ

    1. I think you’re partially right about vocabulary. But not completely. Vocabulary alone is not the way to go. But mixing vocabulary lists with other things works great.
      Basically I think if you really want to learn a language you need to use the shotgun approach. Do lists, and reading, and listening, and writing, and conversation, and use a number of different programs, and most importantly be obsessed.
      Of course I think that the most efficient and effective ways to use vocab lists is to make it directly reflect what you’re learning elsewhere.

    1. A vocabulary list can be of value to someone who understands how to use it. True that memorizing lists of translations is counter-productive. But if you take some of the most common words, and search for them in authentic texts to see how they are used, ….

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