Rule breaking: Why memorizing vocabulary lists is a waste of time

In our second post of the Rule Breaking series, we are looking at vocabulary and why memorizing lists of words is not only pointless, but a waste of your valuable language learning time. 

Language is too intangible to be rote

I have talked about this subject a few times in past posts, but it is something I do feel quite strongly about. 

First, a small disclaimer: this is my axe to grind when it comes to teaching English. This doesn’t mean learning and memorizing lists of words don’t work for some learners. In my personal experience, language, not just English, is far too intangible to be whittled down to a list of letters on a page to be learned in solidarity. 

Let me start from the top. Vocabulary is important! One might argue that vocabulary is more important than grammar in a lot of situations. You might know how to form the present perfect, but if you don’t know that “to see” is an irregular verb, and its past participle is “seen”, then it’s not much use to know the perfect aspect. Likewise, you might be able to grammatically construct the sentence “I am going to go to the ___”, but if you don’t have sufficient vocabulary, this sentence is rather useless. 

Vocabulary is the backbone of communication

It reminds me of when I moved to France and was living with my French roommate. Her English was about as good as my French. In other words, we both sucked at the other’s language. Most of our communication for the first few months was done with Franglish and miming. 

One afternoon, I was trying to tell her I was going to the bank. The sentence sounded like this: “Je vais (with the hand action of two fingers walking), to le banque” (bank was said with a poor imitation of a French accent). I had no idea what the word for bank was so I therefore had to make it up and probably sound very condescending. Honestly, had I been going to the gym or the store or the supermarket I probably would have done the same thing: just said it in English with a French accent. This is all to say that words are the backbone to communication.

So if words are so important, wouldn’t memorizing vocabulary and learning as many of them as you can aid you in your ability to communicate? Yes and no. 

Yes, soaking in vocabulary is important for beginners

Soaking in as many individual words as possible is important when you are a beginner or just starting out with a language. I think increasing your vocabulary is a huge priority. You are like a sponge getting wet for the first time. You need to soak up as many new words as possible.

Most language books dedicate a considerable amount of time for novice learners to learn a lot of the basic vocabulary that they would need to communicate. Greetings, personal information, dates and times, free time and hobbies, and places are the topics and subjects you would need to know to carry out a rudimental conversation, even if you don’t have the grammatical structures to support the correct sentence usage. When you are first starting out, you need to learn as much as you can in order to help fill in the gaps when learning the grammar. 

No, learning individual words will not help you communicate

This brings me to my no. Once you have a handle of the language, and you have all the basics covered and in general you can carry out a basic conversation, or at least have the ability to ask “Hey, what’s the word for…?”, then I believe that learning lists of words is no longer a fruitful endeavour. This is because language, especially English, is far too finicky to be learned by rote memorization. 

For example, think about the word “have”. It’s a basic English word, one taught in all elementary English books: “I have a dog” or “I have a brother/sister/son/daughter”. These are all very common phrases you learn at the elementary level. You are speaking about possession. 

However, what about this sentence: “I am having a good time.” Are we still speaking about possession? Are you in possession of a good time or are we now using “have” to talk about experience? Once more, “I am having friends over for dinner.” Again are we talking about possessing our friends, or are we talking about experiencing our friends in our presence, or are we talking about a future intention of an event?

“Have” is one small way in which the context of the sentence is way more important than the words itself. Another simple example of this is with the word “left”:

  • “I left the house without my keys.”
  • “The store I need is on the left.”

Both sentences contain the word left, yet the use of the word left is completely different. This is extremely frustrating for students, as they feel like they have a handle of the language only to be told, “Oh, we can use that word a lot of different ways.” Their efforts of memorizing vocabulary is in vain, they may feel.

So, what can be done to avoid frustration?

It is all about context

My big thing when teaching vocabulary is that context is key! When I teach vocabulary to students, I always encourage them to use it in a sentence. This way they are assigning meaning to the word, not just learning the sequence of letters or the sound it makes. 

For more advanced students, I encourage them to think about if a word is a verb, noun, or adjective, and if the word does indeed have multiple meanings. The students that learned outside of the classroom, such as through Netflix, TED Talks, or reading English books, were more likely to encounter authentic and unique usages of language. 

Building functional vocabulary through TED Talks

I would often assign TED Talks to students to watch and their homework would be to identify new words that they encountered. They then report back and tell me the definitions. We then work together for them to create a new sentence using these words in context, focusing on how it’s used in the context and the sentence.

Find your ideal way to soak in authentic use of the language

At the end of the day, you need to find what works best for you as a learner. However, I think memorizing vocabulary in solidarity from a list can only get you so far. It’s important to look at language as a fluid, ever-changing, intangible thing, not as a static combination of vowels and consonants on a page.

I am an energetic English teacher with a specialized education (Master’s degree in education from Durham University). Born and raised in Melbourne, Australia, I later studied in the USA and England, so I am very familiar with both American and British English. I have worked as an ESL teacher in Poland and Malta, and I know how to find an approach to students of different ages and temperaments, from shy teenagers to demanding company directors. I enjoy coaching and playing basketball and spending time with my (new) family!

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