Tuesday, January 11, 2011

My vocabulary master list

I've had this excel file with me, in one form or another, for nearly 10 years now. It's my master list of new vocabulary words to study. I started it shortly after college, when I was trying to keep improving my Japanese ability by listening to Mainichi Hoso Radio on the internet and reading short news articles on the Japanese version of MSN.

At that time my reading comprehension was still fairly low, and if I had written down every new word I came across, I would never have learned them all. So only those words which seemed particularly useful would get added to the vocabulary file. Each entry had three columns: the word in kanji (Chinese characters), the word in hiragana (Japanese phonetic characters, so I could remember how to pronounce the kanji), and the English definition. Several years later, I added another column for a sentence or phrase that used the word.

In another worksheet of the same file, I used simple excel functions to generate 10 random entries from the vocabulary worksheet, with 2 of the 3 columns in each entry hidden. In this way I could give myself a simple test of 10 randomly chosen words any time I refreshed the file, testing my ability to pronouce the characters, understand what they mean, and reproduce the word from memory when presented with the English definition. It was a pretty simple concept, which had evolved from the common frustration of knowing that I was probably looking up the same words over and over again.

Once I felt that I had a thorough knowledge of an entry, I would transfer it to the "hospice" worksheet (the place where old vocabulary go to die). I only rarely reviewed the entries in the hospice. The rule was, if I hadn't looked at a word in over a year and still knew what it meant and how to pronounce it, then it could be deleted. Sometimes I would come across words in the hospice that I had forgotten, and those entries would get moved right back into the active vocabulary file.

At some point I created a new worksheet for Korean. This time there was no need for the second column, since Korean words do not use Chinese characters and are written using a phonetic alphabet. After I moved to Korea, I removed the Japanese worksheet for a while, but put it back in after I realized that I was still learning a lot of useful new words in Japanese. Today the file has worksheets for Korean and Japanese, as well as a new English vocabulary worksheet that I started to help me prepare for the GRE.

What the file looks like today - you can detect the subtle influence of the sort of things I've been translating lately.
I think it's important for each person to find the learning strategy that works best for him/her. In my case, I seem to be inclined toward the rote memorization method. I know of others who learn vocabulary simply by talking with their friends, reading, and watching a lot of TV, without needing to write things down. Other people keep language journals, which I admit would probably help me but which I've never had the patience to do. This file system works for me because it is highly convenient and functional, and it gives me a pleasant feeling of recognition when I spot one of my "list words" in an article. These days I usually open my vocabulary file first thing after I arrive at work in the morning, and keep it open until I finish for the day. This file has been with me for so long now that it feels like an old friend, one who has undergone many facelifts but is still vaguely recognizable.

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