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A previous question, "Is it bad to only learn vocabulary through conversation/applied use?" (The question is now only visible to users with 2000+ reps) looked like three questions combined into a single post, so I am splitting off one of them:

Is learning vocabulary by means of (bilingual) vocabulary lists inefficient, and if yes, why?

This should be easy to answer. The ideal answer cites research to back up what it says.

Notes:

  • I originally wrote "ineffective" instead of "inefficient". Using vocabulary lists does have an effect, but the question is whether the learning effect is lower than other methods (e.g. spaced repetition) for the same amount of time or effort.
  • In response to Michau's comment: I am excluding the so-called Goldlist method from this question, since this is not how most people use vocabulary lists.
  • It's hard to directly contrast vocabulary lists and spaced repetition, as they apply to different aspects of learning and there are learning methods that use both (e.g. the Goldlist method). – michau Dec 3 '16 at 7:22
  • It can still be effective. Depends a lot on exactly how you do it. If somebody just glances through the list it will be hard for the words to stick, however, if he makes active efforts by means of association, making his own sentences etc., then it can be a very effective and efficient way to learn a language. – xji Dec 12 '16 at 14:01
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Robert Kleinschroth describes the issues with vocabulary lists in his book Sprachen lernen. Der Schlüssel zur richtigen Technik (Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1992, 2012; roughly: "Learning Languages: The Key to the Right Technique"). The paragraphs below present some of Kleinschroth's arguments against vocabulary lists with some additions of my own.

Research has shown that many language learners at school learn vocabulary by means of a list of word pairs (L2 - L1); the list order typically represents the order in which the new words were presented in the classroom (or in the texts the pupils read). See D. Mahnert: "Worte, Worte - nichts als Worte! Vokabeln einführen, üben und lernen in der Sekundarstufe 1", Der fremdsprachige Unterricht, 1986, p. 191-201; English: "Words, words - nothing but words! Introducting, practising and learning words in Sekundarstufe 1"). When reviewing vocabulary, pupils then cover one side of the list to check their knowledge of the translations in one direction (e.g. L2 to L1) and then possibly the other side to check the other direction (L1 to L2). There are several issues with this method, including the following:

  • When reviewing the vocabulary lists, you aren't simply checking whether you know the translations; you are also checking whether you remember which word comes next (because there are memory traces of the order in the list and/or the position of words on the page). This is not a learning goal but an undesirable side effect. Instead, you need a method that allows randomisation of the words (e.g. paper flashcards or spaced repetition software).
  • When reviewing words, you don't see which ones you already know (i.e. words that are easier to remember, for whatever reason) and which ones need more reviewing. You review the known or easy words with the same frequency as the words that are hard to learn. This is a waste of time and therefor inefficient. What you need is a system that present the difficult vocabulary more frequently than the easy vocabulary. (This is another argument for spaced repetition software or a Leitner box with paper flashcards.)

(Additional arguments are that learning word pairs is boring (which also reduces its effectiveness) and that normal conversation in a foreign language does not require that you translate everything you hear.)

  • @PeterMasiar I have added a few translations. – IkWeetHetOokNiet Jan 2 '18 at 19:54
  • @PeterMasiar Sekundarstufe literally means "secondary level" (something like secondary education), but I don't know the German educational system well enough to provide an accurate translation. – IkWeetHetOokNiet Jan 2 '18 at 20:14
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I can only quote my own experience and methods being actually used. Effectiveness is an issue, just as efficiency. Teaching or learning a language is generally conceived as a toolkit.

Suppose you have to prepare yourself for a specific situation (like visiting a place, or giving a lecture). The vocabulary list is your effective weapon of choice. It is also efficient, because it takes you exactly where you want to get.

In any case, I found this method more efficient when each word was accompanied with a simple sentence that exemplifies its use. Flashcards with both the word and the example written on both sides (e.g. English / French) can work very well -- I found a good idea to learn the words with the example. On this, see: How does learning vocabulary through sentences compare to learning with words alone? .

For building up vocabulary "in general", there may be other ways, but in the end they will all have to boil down to an enumeration of words that need to be translated or visualized.

Language methods than ban the definition or translation of words altogether may not be as effective (there used to be a fashion the early 1980s in France, but I don't know how prevalent it was elsewhere; the Swiss, by contrast, were relying heavily on vocabulary lists). ESL stays in Britain, which are still attracting droves of foreign students, generally rely on vocabulary lists among other tools.

  • Sources that "language methods that ban the definition or translation of words altogether may not be as effective"? Not that i disagree... – SAH Feb 19 '17 at 16:23

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