Effective word articles

2017-10-01

At some point, almost every learner starts keeping a vocabulary notebook, but not many take their time to stop and think a little bit about the format of their word articles. My experience suggests, however, that how you write down word articles has an enormous impact on how fast you will memorize new vocabulary. In this post, we will discuss how to make these word articles really efficient and why it is important.

Combining two different approaches

When it comes to adding a new word or phrase to their vocabulary notebook, many people attempt to do it as fast as possible. As a result, their typical record consists of only two parts:

  • the English spelling of a word
  • a randomly chosen translation from an English-to-X dictionary
An empty notebook

Interestingly that as bad as it sounds, this approach works perfectly well at the beginning. Indeed, words like "house", "dog", "girl" are extremely simple and rarely require additional clarification. If we think about this for a moment, we will come to a realization that countable nouns make up the vast majority of words in any language. Also, it is very likely that you'll find absolutely precise equivalents of these words in your mother tongue. This phenomenon is very easy to explain - English-speaking people live on planet Earth and use their language to describe the same things and events as we do. Of course, you can always look up a word in a monolingual dictionary and find out that dog is

a common animal with four legs, fur, and a tail

but the native translation will be more practical and easier to memorize. I would also like to point out that these kind of words can be encountered on all proficiency levels, including advanced ones. For example "teletype" is a word from the 18th thousand, whereas "deadlift" is a word from the 20th thousand.

When we start considering verbs, adverbs and adjectives, the situation changes but only a little. The main problem here is that each English word can be translated into your mother tongue using different translations. Not surprisingly, bilingual dictionaries try to include all of them. For example, a popular English-to-Russian dictionary called Multitran offers this many translations for the adjective "laborious":

трудный; тяжёлый; утомительный; трудоёмкий; вымученный (о стиле); трудолюбивый; старательный; усердный; кропотливый; напряжённый; работящий; многотрудный; труженический

We have 13 translations here and for those of you who don't know Russian, some of these words describe completely different things. Ideally, we should treat those as different words that happen to have the same English spelling. It's not surprising that any attempts to memorize all these translations inevitably meet with an epic failure.

However, if we look at monolingual dictionaries, we will find out that the word "laborious" has only 1 or 2 meanings. Here is, for example, the only meaning offered by Longman Dictionary Of Contemporary English:

taking a lot of time and effort

At this point, some people go to extreme and suggest we abandon bilingual dictionaries altogether as well as translations. Supposedly, memorizing the meanings from monolingual dictionaries will force our brains to start thinking in English, and this way, we will eventually reach the level of native speakers. In reality, however, this rarely happens, and most students adopted this approach struggle with recalling words while producing fluent speech even years later. If we remember what Paul Nation says about training for fluency, we will realize that thinking in English happens when you speak using familiar vocabulary on familiar subjects and not when when you struggle to recall the meaning from a monolingual dictionary.

Let's get back to our original dilemma. If we take Longman's meaning and translate it ourselves to our mother tongue (Russian, in my case), we will immediately notice two things. Not only does Russian have a precise equivalent of this word, but it was also included in a set of translations provided by Multitran! This word is "трудоемкий".

This brings us to the following algorithm. When we see an unfamiliar word, we should first take a look at its meaning in a monolingual dictionary. Then, we need to translate this meaning into our native language. In most cases (regardless of the word frequency), the translated meaning will be reduced to just a single word, sometimes two words. This is what we need to take to our vocabulary notebooks. Sometimes (roughly 1% of all words) we cannot reduce the meaning. In such a case, we should take whatever we ended up with.

Using Overfluent

The vocabulary notebook in Overfluent supports the method described above perfectly well. The word editing form includes a panel with multiple links to numerous monolingual dictionaries that you can always use to determine the true meaning of a word. There you can also learn whether this particular word is countable or uncountable, formal or informal, British or American. This information can and should be reflected in tags, as tags are showed during the training and might be used to help you find the right answer. For example, if you have two words - curb and kerb, the tag "british" will help you to understand that you should choose the latter, not the former. Moreover, tags can be used for targeting purposes. This way, you can create a specialized training that consists only of phrasal verbs (the phrasal-verb tag) or formal vocabulary (the formal tag).

An empty word article for the word craze

Also, most monolingual dictionaries show example sentences, and you can take those to your dictionary. The system knows about regular word forms, and in most case it can deduce which part of the sentence replace with asterisks during the training:

His car mounted the **** and ploughed into a bus queue.

If an example sentence contains an irregular form of the word, you can always mark it manually using double asterisks.

As for synonyms, I recommend adding them to the translation field, after real translations. Therefore, the translation field for the word ferocious will look like follows:

свирепый, лютый (syn. fierce, savage)

This way, synonyms help to convey the meaning even more precisely and also eliminate definitely incorrect answers. The translation above, for example, suggests that neither fierce nor savage can be the right answer.

Conclusions

My experience suggests that the quality of word articles determines how fast words will be memorized. If the word article doesn't reflect the meaning of the word or created by brainless copying of the meaning from a monolingual dictionary, this word will be very difficult to memorize. The described method, on the other hand, works for all words on all proficiency levels and allows students to expand their vocabulary by several thousand words every year.