Vocabulary, Memorisation, and Digital Lexica


When I first undertook theological studies, which for us involved both Greek and Hebrew, an older scholar proclaimed to us with sage wisdom that learners should eschew electronic resources until they were rather advanced, instead proceeding with printed texts, and looking up words and structures in printed lexica and reference grammars.

Then, as now, the fear is that electronic tools make things ‘too easy’, by putting knowledge that once was “at bookshelf’s reach”, to just a flick of the mouse and a hover tool-tip. Depending on your language and text, automatic parsing (more or less correct), and access to increasingly useful lexica, is all available (sometimes even for free). But does this negatively impact the learner?

At the same time, I’m well aware that I am regularly engaging in “Do as I say, not as I did” when talking about language learning practices. Though, the tense of that maxim is important here, and let me illustrate.

Then and Now

Then: When I first undertook Greek, I was a very diligent student of traditional methods. And I took frequency based vocabulary very earnestly. I didn’t use SRS (Spaced Repetition System) but rather a very non-Spaced system, with +1 for correct and -1 for incorrect, all in an excel spreadsheet, and for Greek I rote memorised New Testament words by frequency down to <5 occurrences in the NT. I also, for my 4 years at seminary, took 1-2 subjects a semester of Latin externally, and learn practically all of a set text’s vocabulary by the same method.

Less Then: When it came time to learn Mongolian, I was more convinced of the inutility of such memorisation, and becoming more convinced that such an approach was mostly inefficient. Granted, I had classes 4-5hrs a day and lived in the target culture, but I basically eschewed any such rigorous approach to vocabulary, beyond perhaps the first few weeks.

Now: I do not practice any form of specific vocabulary memorisation, beyond reading and engaging in my L2s. I do not advocate that students do any specific memory work, except in certain circumstances: where students are enrolled in courses where they will be tested explicitly on isolated vocabulary, and that body of vocabulary is reasonably large compared to the time they have, then it’s appropriate to use brute rote-memorisation to learn such lists.

Why I shifted my position and my practice, and how this influences my advice to others

What’s going on when we speak of vocabulary acquisition? The whole premise of the flashcard, and variants, phenomenon is that you can store individual ‘bits’ of translation – side 1 is L2 word “X”, side 2 is L1 words “Y”, where you provide one, or more, glosses, covering as much of a range of meanings as you think either are likely to be relevant. You can include more information on side 1 or 2, as you see fit, but mostly you are trying to map a certain body of L2 content to a certain limited range of L1 material.

And, to an extent, this works. You can memorise lists of information like this, and when you see the L2 “X” in the wild, your brain will bring up your L1 “Y” and then you figure out what applies.

But, and this is the big caveat, vocabulary acquisition is both more complex in terms of what you’re learning, and more nuanced than the binary nature of flashcard slots represents.

All our ‘lexical items’ in our vocabulary, both in an L1 and an L2, kind of exist in a complex web, with multifaceted relationships to other words, and also other ‘things’. When we draw on a word in our L1, for instance, we are drawing on our entire knowledge of what that word can be used for, is used for, its collocations with other words, its register, its history, its nuances, and so on and so forth. And developing that complex tapestry of rich knowledge for L2 words takes (a) time, (b) lots and lots of input – seeing/hearing the word in various contexts, constructs, and usages. Moreover, our ability to draw upon those words is not binary, “yes, you remember / no, you don’t”, it’s much more a scale of how *strong* those connections are, and whether we can remember it in the moment its needed.

These things are difficult to represent most of the time. Which is where a good dictionary is incredibly useful. A good lexicon, say LSJ, or OLD, or the like, *describes* the breadth of usage that a word has across the language, and gives some evidence for those usages. I find myself reading full entries on words a lot more these days, something students would be well advised to do.

Which circles me back to the impetus for writing this – our friends over at Sententiae Anqituae lament, to a degree, that the ease of looking up a digital lexicon, or even using a text designed to aid students by glossing things quickly, seems to produce weaker readers, because the *inaccessibility* of the process of looking things up forces learners to memorise more.

I grant that that might be true at two levels: a surface one and an affective one. Yes, the ease of looking up words in digital text reading environments may impact the attentiveness of a learner, so that they are less inclined to mentally try to affix certain meanings in their head, knowing that indeed help is but a click (or less) away. And yes, the affect of such easy helps may produce an effect on learners’ processes, such that the robustness of lexical representations in their emergent vocabulary is weaker.

Yet neither of these two factors seem, in my view, to compensate for two much greater benefits. Firstly, the sheer speed and facility of using a digital lexicon is a huge benefit to us, both beginners and advanced. I almost never open my print OLD or even BrillDAG these days. The convenience of using electronic lexica is too great, even when I am going to spend the time reading through a full entry. Secondly, though, in speeding up the process of dealing with unknown or less-well-mentally-represented vocabulary, I can return to the process of reading more quickly, which means I can read more and more, more and more rapidly.

And this is where I land: for myself, and my students, I simply want them to read more text, more comprehensibly. Including, I should say, re-reads of the same text. Because it’s this volume of reading, and repeated encounters with words, whether they look them up 100 times or once, that is going to built both a *strong* mental representation, as well as an increasingly complex set of associations for each lexical item.

Which, in the end, changes the nature of “philology as slow reading”. The difficulty of reading texts in a foreign language often forces us to be slow, especially when we’re reading beyond our proficiency, and must use explicit tools to comprehend a text. But is that true slow reading? For a person who can only walk slowly, it makes little sense to talk of a deliberate practice of walking slowly. But for the one who can run, slow walking may become mindful and attentive. Learning to read slowly a text that one can comprehend proficiently opens up a whole new reading experience, and that’s what I’m looking for.

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