Always study vocabulary in the context of real example sentences or phrases

When I had one month’s notice before my trip to Thailand last year, I did what I always do before international trips: I tried to cram as much of the language into my mind as possible so that I could decode Thai script, use Thai for basic travel vocabulary, and have basic conversations in Thai with the local people.

I knew that if I could master only the 1000 most common Thai words, I would be able to recognize at least 70% of the Thai I was likely to encounter on my trip. So I found Anki vocabulary decks with English translations, loaded them onto my phone, and started trying to pound them into my head.

That, it turns out, doesn’t work. Rote memorization of word-translation pairs is the most common method of studying vocabulary, but I realized that I was forgetting the words as soon as I moved to the next flashcard. Even with the help of Anki’s spaced-repetition algorithm, I was boring myself and wasting my time.

I made a vow to never again study isolated vocabulary words out of context. We don’t read books featuring one word per page, or walk around communicating with one-word shouts. Instead,we write and speak in sentences and phrases.

You can add game-like elements and nice graphics and animations to traditional flashcards, but ultimately these ornaments do not fix the core problem that by studying words in isolation, you aren’t really studying a language at all. Studying a language means studying and imitating the actual communications of native speakers. So memorizing isolated words is neither effective nor rewarding.

This realization became one of the guiding principles of WordBrewery: we never ask you to memorize isolated words or definitions. Instead, we show you words as they actually occur: in the context of real sentences written by native speakers, for native speakers.

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