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Many people ask you when you say that you are learning a new language "how much vocabulary do you have?" And actually the more vocabulary one has, the more he can master the language. Some people gather vocabulary without context and memorize these words, and other memorize in context through reading.

Which method is more efficient and useful?

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The first question to ask is what it is to "know" a word. According to J.M. Wallace (Teaching Vocabulary, 1982) it involves the following things (quoted in the video Learning Vocabulary in Context Part 1):

A. Recognize it in its spoken or written form;
B. Recall it at will;
C. Relate it to an appropriate object or concept;
D. Use it in the appropriate grammatical form;
E. In speech, pronounce it in a recognizable way;
F. In writing, spell it correctly;
G. Use it with words it correctly goes with, i.e. in the correct collocation;
H. Use it at the appropriate level of formality;
I. Be aware of its connotations and associations.

This list contains a number of aspects that you can learn by using word lists, but it also contains aspects that you won't get from word lists, especially collocations. This is one reason why some teachers and experience language learners advise learning words in context.

There has been research on the effectiveness of learning words in context or outside their context (i.e. contextualised versus decontextualised vocabulary learning). Brian Nielsen wrote A Review of Research into Vocabulary Learning and Acquisition, concluding that

Greater amounts of decontextualized vocabulary instruction should be given to beginner-level learners, gradually increasing toward more context-based vocabulary learning as their language ability develops.

In another study, Seyyed Mohammad Reza Amirian and Sakine Momeni concluded that

The findings of the study showed better results of vocabulary knowledge gain in out of context teaching than the contextualized one which means that the results can be a support of definition-based learning. However, the results should be taken as suggestive rather than definitive, since there are many variables which affect an effective vocabulary learning and teaching principle. Thus, this does not mean that contextualized teaching should be avoided. It seems that the most effective way of teaching in Iranian EFL classes is to start the teaching of the new lesson first by defining the words. This will be a helpful approach to reduce the load of so many new words in the reading text. The next essential step is reading the texts which are related to the vocabularies taught.

They add that

It is noteworthy that context-based and definition-based are neither the only vocabulary learning techniques nor the best techniques that are available for learning. Introducing and having learners practice using a variety of alternative vocabulary learning strategies can be considered an effective way of enabling learners to achieve more effective independent vocabulary learning in the future. (...) Extensive reading is also believed to be an excellent activity that improves vocabulary knowledge and increases learner‟s autonomy. (...)

So the conclusion is that both can be used, but neither method should be used exclusively.

  • +1 I find it interesting that de-contextualized learning is given even that much weight. I would be prone to thinking that, since L1 will largely be learned through context clues (right?), the brain will be wired such that additional languages & vocabulary would most effectively be acquired likewise; your second quote is almost the exact opposite of what I would expect. – Hatchet Mar 18 '18 at 4:13
  • @Hatchet It's also the opposite of what I expected. I need to review my language learning strategies now. – Christophe Strobbe Mar 18 '18 at 17:02
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Memorizing vocabulary without context is significantly more difficult than with context. Context helps you add braces to the vocabulary in your memory; the more you see a word in a context, the more your understanding of that word is upped, and thus your recollection of that particular word.

I strongly advise against trying to memorize raw vocabulary words, as it is, strictly speaking, a waste of time. Instead, try to use various techniques in order to make them adhere to memory, such as:

  • Listening to the correct pronunciation on a daily basis.
  • Using a corpus to learn their correct usages.
  • Learning all their meanings and parts of speech from a good dictionary.

There are other techniques, of course, but the above three should give you a good idea on how to properly study vocab.

  • "I strongly advise against trying to memorize raw vocabulary words, as it is, strictly speaking, a waste of time." That what I used to think, but the research I checked says otherwise. – Christophe Strobbe Mar 17 '18 at 19:33
  • @ChristopheStrobbe interesting! Which research? – YAG May 4 '18 at 9:41
  • @YAG Please see my answer. – Christophe Strobbe May 4 '18 at 9:44
  • @ChristopheStrobbe indeed, your answer is great, thank you. – YAG May 4 '18 at 9:51

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