When I first started out learning Korean, I learned most of my grammar and vocabulary by translating Korean songs. These days, I pick up new words by reading books, 만화, articles, and watching interviews and reality shows. But the critical question is, of course, how does one retain this seemingly endless onslaught of unfamiliar words? With regards to that, I’ve seen that there are usually two factions of language-learners: those who swear by flashcards and those who condemn them. I fall under the latter category.
Honestly, I like to think I have a fairly good memory (you can’t really be a scientist without one heh) but I just cannot memorize decks and decks of flashcards and store them in my long-term memory. And this problem isn’t just limited to Korean. I made about 200 flashcards in order to study vocabulary for the GRE but the only words I could remember consistently were the ones I had encountered while reading something. Why was this the case? I strongly believe it was because I was incapable of just memorizing definitions; I had to actually learn how to use the words for it to stick.
The general way I go about learning new vocabulary is this: I pick a song or an article or a passage out of a book and write down all the words I don’t know. Then I look up the words in a dictionary and write down the part of speech and the definition that most closely matches the context of the word. I don’t bother with writing down numerous example sentences (maybe one or two); the main example is already in the original source. After that, I DO NOT SPEND HOURS MEMORIZING THE WORDS I’VE LOOKED UP. I’m a huge proponent of learning a language organically – that is, not really forcing yourself to sit down and STUDY (I mean, unless you’re in a language class or something.) My language acquisition process is kind of undisciplined in that regard.
But despite that, I noticed the more I read, the more I would come across a certain new word or phrase I’d just looked up in the dictionary. Sometimes while I watched a drama, I would start picking out those newly-encountered words in the dialogue as well. Soon, I would develop a fairly good sense of not only the definition of the word, but also its nuance and the context in which it’s usually used. That right there is the difference between memorizing vocabulary and learning vocabulary. To me, memorizing is superficial recollection of the definition of a word through repetition but learning implies that you know how to correctly use the word yourself in different contexts. That sort of solid, thorough understanding cannot be attained by merely seeing the word once, noting its definition, and then losing it in a stack of 200 flashcards. It’s critical that one develops a deeper knowledge of how the word is used by encountering it in not just one but several different circumstances.
Nouns don’t present that much of a challenge; in fact, I would say that flashcards are effective for the rote memorization of nouns. But one has to be careful to learn how to appropriately use certain adjectives and verbs. When I wrote my entries for Lang-8, I tried to use only the words I felt I had learned well enough to use correctly (you might argue this defeats the purpose of Lang-8, but I’ve noticed that many native speakers just correct a misused word without really explaining why). I only looked up nouns and avoided looking up adjectives and verbs. Undoubtedly, the one unfamiliar adjective I used, I had used incorrectly.
Of course, I’m not saying there’s no merit in flashcards. In fact, I applaud you if you can retain new words in your long-term memory with just rote memorization (I can’t, no matter how hard I try.) Flashcard proponents may also argue that it’s fine to quickly and steadily build a base of words that you “semi-know” (i.e. know only the basic definition but don’t use that much) and then wait for the deeper understanding (i.e. the nuance, stylistic usage) to come later. I think that’s fine too, but personally, the only way I can remember a new word is if I learn its definition in tandem with how and in what context it’s used.
The only issue with my way of learning vocabulary is that it can be slow. If I look up 100 new words in the span of a week, because I don’t force myself to memorize, I’ll probably only learn the twenty that I encounter over and over again. But the advantage is that I usually end up knowing those 20 new words fairly well; they’ll be nestled in my long-term memory, ready to be used when needed.