What is the Best Way to Improve Vocabulary?
I have probably read more Chinese novels in this past year than I have read English novels in past five years. As a result, my Chinese vocabulary has grown rapidly. This should be the aim of every language learner, to learn the language by actually using it to do something they enjoy. If you don’t enjoy reading novels then don’t force yourself to read them in a foreign language just because you think it will help your vocabulary. If you are learning Chinese and enjoy video games then maybe play games that are in Chinese, play multiplayer online with Chinese people. Even better, if you’re in China go to the many internet bars that are full of gamers and make some friends there.
Language learning always reaches a point where you say to yourself “okay I’ve got a foothold in the language, now what can I do with this language that I couldn’t do without it?” Focus on that, on doing something with the language, and you will improve without any effort, because all your effort will be on something that you enjoy doing anyway.
That said, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that the best way to improve vocabulary is just read a lot. Stephen Krashen is a particularly strong advocate of this method, and this method works for every level of language learning. If you’re not at the stage of language learning where you can just pick up and read novels, magazines, websites and newspapers then you can pick up children’s books, graded readers, web resources for learners, and textbooks.
I used to think textbooks were really boring, but that was mainly the way I was using them. Chinese textbooks often follow the same old format: a lesson text, followed by a long vocabulary list, then grammar explanations and a few fill in the blank exercises. I used to read through the lesson text (or listen to the recording) and highlight all the words I didn’t know. I would memorise all those words along with the vocabulary list and then read the grammar explanations and force myself to come up with lots of examples (preferably using the vocabulary I was memorising) and then do the exercises.
This was the learning though brute force method. I would just use brute force to shove the vocabulary and grammatical structures into my brain and then force myself to use them. I would even force myself to use in conversation recently learnt, grammatically complicated sentence structures when a grammatically simpler phrase would have actually been easier and more natural.
This method undoubtedly brought about results and I was able to improve quickly. I went from not knowing a single word of Chinese to passing the HSK 4 in the space of a year. But the price was that for a whole year I had no life outside of study, and the time and effort I had to put in was perhaps not proportional to the results I got. In hindsight, I think the biggest mistake I made was to force the memorisation of vocabulary.
Now when I use a textbook I read though the texts the same way I read a magazine. I’m not studying, I’m reading. I pick up the vocabulary because I now read so much that I keep seeing the same words crop up again and again. Sometimes I see a word that looks useful and I think to myself “I should memorise that”. I want to pull out a pen, write the characters out and few times and make some example sentences. Old habits die hard. I control my desire to go back to forced memorisation because I want to focus on the enjoyment of reading. I tell myself “if the word is really that important or useful then I will surely see it again lots of times as long as I read enough.”
The key here is “as long as I read enough”. Every time I force myself to memorise vocabulary and grammar I’m using up time that could be better spent exposing myself to more of the language. Now Chinese textbooks don’t seem so boring anymore. I read the lesson text like it’s a magazine article. That is, I read it quickly and for pleasure. I use the vocabulary lists and grammar sections purely as a reference tool in case I don’t understand a particular part of the text. I focus on exposing myself to as much content as possible, and enjoy what I’m reading in the process.
So my advice is this; work your way though a textbook quickly and focus on comprehension. Don’t worry about trying to memorise vocabulary or grammar, just understand it and move on. The same goes for audio resources such as podcasts. Just listen and then move on. How about flashcards/ flashcard apps? I’ve never been a fan. They’re undoubtedly useful for memorising vocabulary, but you’re usually just memorising a word out of context. It’s much better to just expose yourself to far more content in the language and actually see these words being used in lots of different contexts. Vocabulary will be a lot easier to remember that way. And study will a lot less of a chore.
Agree with me? Disagree with me? This post is open to comments so please share your thoughts and experiences below.