Making good use out of frequency lists

In Uncategorized by Skritter

author photoLast time on the Skritter blog I talked about the pitfalls of context free learning and list overdose. Near the end of the post I did, however, mention that these mega lists can be used as a tool for study when used effectively. So this week, is all about making mega lists work for you.

Before I begin, It is important to consider that frequency lists are very useful when conducting research. In fact, frequency is one of the most important variables in language research. In Second Language Acquisition, for example, most researchers will assess second language comprehension on a subjects usage of high-frequency words rather than low-frequency words. Frequency lists also provide teachers and textbook creators a very rational basis for ensuring that learners get the most out of the language learning materials.

While there is lots of discussion about usage of frequency lists in Teaching English as a Second Language, things haven’t been so simple for Chinese. In the past, frequency lists were quite limited, due in large part to the lack of space between words in Chinese writing and the fact that a Chinese characters can serve as both a morpheme (the smallest meaningful element), and part of a disyllabic word (often two characters). Today, however, we have much better information thanks to things like the HSK and work by Cai & Brysbaert, following the SUBTLEX movement.

For those interested in research about modern frequency list I highly recommend the SUBTLEX-CH thesis paper found here.

Bearing this in mind, how can language learners make good use of these research tools? 

This question depends, in large part, on one’s current language level. Assuming that you are past the basics and have a solid foundation in Chinese, than frequency lists at or below your current level, can be a good resource for identifying missing vocabulary. Instead of adding a whole list to your study routine, however, I think it is a good idea to physically download such a list (you can find lots of them on Skritter and Anki) and search out those glaring omissions. This is especially useful when preparing for HSK or TOCFL exams, which clearly outline the words they will be testing you on.

Once you’ve found the the missing words you’ve got to figure out the best way to study them. That might mean a few solid days of sentence mining (see my past article on the topic), or finding study materials that focus on these types of words (guided readers, HSK study books, etc.). The key here is that you are not using these lists as a way to greatly expand your vocabulary, but rather fill in the gaps, especially for those HOW THE HECK DID I NOT KNOW THAT words.

Second, I think that these lists can be a great way of organizing and sorting unknown vocabulary words. When reading an article or book for example, I like to keep track of any new words that I simply don’t understand, or can’t guess based on context. At that point I have to make a conscious decision about what words I want to simply comprehend (for now) and what words I want to commit to long-term memory. In this case, having a HSK, TOCFL, or other trusted frequency list nearby might be a great reference point for making such a decision.

Of course, there is always going to be exceptions to the rule. Frequency lists are going to be little help if you are taking courses on Chinese Medicine or Psycholinguistics and the like, but that is the beautiful thing about being a human–there is nothing stopping you from trudging off the beaten path and exploring a language for yourself and on your own terms. In fact, I encourage it!

Do you have a particular method for using frequency lists? If so, please leave it in the comments below.

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