On the loss of certainty in learning and using vocabulary by Andy Barfield

(Published in Learner Autonomy in Language Learning, January, 2008)

Download the PDF version here


This overview gives a brief explanation about how it came to be written and who it is written for. The following short article was written for publication in Hakumon, a monthly magazine that is sent out to students in the Chuo University Faculty of Law’s Correspondence Division. The article is addressed to students, rather than teachers or researchers. It is my first attempt to interpret in an extended written text some of the year-long longitudinal study with four students that I did in the 2007 academic year – and to share the interpretation with a wider audience.

The focus of the interview study is my students’ L2 collocation development. I held individual, then pair interviews with four students; the interviews were held out of class and conducted in English. Each student did (at least) two individual interviews with me, and then took part in two pair interviews as well, with another student (where I also took part, but increasingly tried to step back). In the pair interviews, I tried to create and sustain student-to-student dialogue about their L2 collocation development. In October 2007, the students switched partners and made new interview pairs with each other. This seemed to enable the students to “take over” the dialogues much more as they reconstructed for each other what they did and found salient from the earlier individual and pair interviews. The final interview of the study involved a whole-group discussion and review with all four students.

The following text focuses mainly on the English vocabulary learning and L2 collocation development of one individual, Ken (a pseudonym).

The reference for this article is:

Barfield, A. 2007. On the loss of certainty in learning and using vocabulary. Tokyo: Chuo University. Hakumon 59(12), 6-16.

My contact email is: barfield.andy AT MARK gmail.com

— comments and feedback welcome.

On the Loss of Certainty in Learning and Using Vocabulary


Most people who learn a foreign language are concerned about learning vocabulary. Yet, we don’t often have many chances to discuss what we do when we learn vocabulary—and we rarely have the opportunity to consider different ways of learning vocabulary. Part of this picture is that we tend to believe that we all learn vocabulary in the same way. We may also want to be absolutely certain about the vocabulary that we are learning. Let me explain a little more about these two points. When I ask my students how they have learned English vocabulary before coming to university, they nearly always reply that in senior high school they had to memorise Japanese translations of (mostly individual) words in English. Perhaps they wrote down a particular word or phrase 10, 20 or 30 times in order to fix it in their minds. They may have used small word-cards on a ring, carrying these with them as they travelled to and from school by bus and train, so they could test themselves whenever they had a free moment. More often than not, they were asked to remember whole lists of words and phrases and undergo weekly (and sometimes daily) vocabulary tests. When we learn vocabulary through word-by-word translation and tests, we may well become concerned with having certain knowledge of the individual words we encounter. My students are, for example, particularly concerned with knowing the right word and knowing the right translation of an individual word, because it seems, without such completely certain knowledge, they believe they cannot develop their English vocabulary knowledge.

Ken’s story shows in more detail what this concern with certain knowledge of individual words involves. Ken is a fourth-year politics student who is going to work in the future for a major Japanese carmaker, and part of his story goes like this: “I had started learning English when I was 13, so I’ve already been learning English for nine years. I’ve never been to an English-speaking country and never taken any private English lessons. I was good at reading and writing English in junior high school. To build my vocabulary, I used a wordbook or just my English textbook. I just looked at words and remembered them, or repeatedly wrote the words three times before translating them into Japanese. That’s what everyone did, so I didn’t feel I was doing anything special or unusual. Looking back, I can see that it was pretty boring for me to spend so much time and effort just remembering vocabulary on its own without really using it for my own purposes.”
At senior high school, the emphasis on memorisation became stronger for Ken as he prepared for university entrance exams. Practically each day he would have conversations with his friends about learning English. Ken continues: “I would ask, ‘How many words have you remembered now?’ And my friends would reply, ‘Fifty.’ ‘Ah that’s great!’ we would all respond…” These were the questions that Ken and his friends habitually asked each other about learning English: How many words have you learned? How many new difficult long words can you remember today? It is almost as if Ken and his friends were engaged in a game of English language education where quantity (How many words?) and difficulty (How many new difficult long words?) were the formal measure of their progress. Yet, when Ken finally set foot in university, he couldn’t use English at all at the start, and he found this “pretty
shocking.” What was comforting to him was that his new friends at university had had the very same experiences.

I expect that Ken’s story—up to the point where he gets to university—is quite typical of your English vocabulary learning experiences, too. Ken was required by the education system to play a game where he largely separated his exam-focused memorisation of English vocabulary from real-world language use. Although he was highly successful in playing this game, there is, I believe, much more to the activity of learning and using English vocabulary than just following the rules. ln this short article, I would like to tell you more of Ken’s history of English vocabulary learning, particularly after he arrived at university. I would like to consider with you what happened when Ken decided to move away from the certainties of memorisation towards creating his own rules for real-world vocabulary learning and use. I will also mention some of Mayuko’s story. Like Ken, Mayuko is a fourth-year student, and Ken, Mayuko and myself have spent some this year talking about learning English vocabulary together. At the end of this article, I will put some questions that you may find useful for thinking about your own way of learning English vocabulary.


Once Ken got to university, he started to focus on “using English” instead of “just remembering English”. He noticed how people simply reacted to what others said and, if they did that, then communication and discussion took off. He felt he didn’t need to sit at a desk and remember language, but rather just use it. Ken decided to read lots of novels in English. As reading was sometimes difficult for Ken, he also tried to read comics and use audio CDs so that he could listen at the same time as he read. He believed that doing the same as what people do in their first language would be a good way for him to develop his English. In Ken’s view, this basically meant having lots of contact with, and using, English rather than memorising it. It also involved choosing different reading sources and creating a hybrid reading agenda for himself of difficult, serious texts and lighter, more humorous everyday readings.
At university, Ken moved away from encountering and practising English vocabulary in decontextualised genres like textbooks and English-Japanese word-lists to meeting English vocabulary in real-world texts through reading and listening. In fact, Ken decided to read The Lord of the Rings in English. He applied himself to the task with the same motivated commitment as he had displayed in preparing for entrance exams, managing to finish reading the lengthy novel by the end of his second year at university. Ken also started listening to English on a regular basis. By the time I talked with him in June 2007, he had become quite comfortable with watching Premier League football matches and using the football commentaries as one type of meaningful listening practice for himself. Indeed, he was in fact particularly keen to watch Celtic matches so that he could follow the progress of Shunsuke Nakamura’s football career in Scotland. Ken was also watching some movies in his spare time. Thus, Ken made a conscious decision to take action by reading and listening to English on a regular basis for an extended period of time. Although Ken had done hardly any listening practice at all before coming to university, he began to improve his listening ability and confidence consistently each week. Another equally important point is that Ken moved away from focusing on new and difficult vocabulary to connecting the words that he already knew.


As a fourth-year student looking back at himself at the start of university, Ken notices that he already had a very large but disconnected English vocabulary at the start of his first year. He realises too that, more than anything, it is the lack of connections between the words that he already knows which stops him from using English. He has, after all, learnt English vocabulary in a taxonomic style, item by item, where the main relationship of meaning that he created was word-for-word translation. Ken analyses his old habits of disconnected learning in these terms: “The reason I couldn’t speak English was not that I don’t know the words. It’s that I didn’t know (which) words to say with (the) words that I already knew.”

We began talking about collocations—or the combination of words that particular groups and communities of people repeatedly use in the real world. In English, for example, people say strong possibility or weak possibility, but do not use the combinations high possibility or low possibility. A collocation dictionary such as The Oxford Collocations Dictionary for Students of English (Oxford University Press, 2002) indicates the common combinations of words that English users often produce.
Ken had been consulting a collocation dictionary and writing down some useful phrases for discussing micro-finance in developing countries. This was an issue that he was interested in researching, reading about and discussing. Ken directed his attention towards the phrase the government has fallen. He had just looked up government in his collocation dictionary, and now he was noticing something important for himself. After pausing for a moment or two, he put it like this: “They are not new words. I don’t think it is necessary to know new words like I did for juken. All I need to know is how to use the words. These words I chose—a junior high school student knows them for juken, but they don’t know how to use them. …Learning how to use them is very important, because, if I can use them, using helps me remember more.” Ken repeated the phrase the government has fallen to himself, then continued: “This phrase I always wanted to say in my English class, but I didn’t know how to, so I just couldn’t say what I wanted to say. I realised all I have to do is look at the collocation dictionary. These words are not difficult, so they are easy to say and to understand. It’s pretty amazing because I believed that, in order to be able to speak English, I had to know all the words, but this wasn’t right. The words I know already are enough.” This insight allowed Ken to turn away from focusing on quantity of words to concerning himself with the quality of his English vocabulary knowledge.


It was now becoming for Ken a question not so much of what and how many, but of how and how differently to…What is interesting was that Ken had started to focus on particularly frequent words for developing his English collocation ability with, specifically nouns. He explained: “For the entrance exam I think we knew a lot of words, especially nouns… but I realise if I don’t know how to use those nouns, it’s useless for the conversation, and so that’s why I chose I decided to check verb + noun because I know nouns, but I have to check how to use that noun. That means I have to check the verbs with the noun, so that’s why I have two pairs of verb + noun. I also wanted to check another combination, so I chose one pair of noun plus noun or adjective plus noun.” Ken didn’t mean, however, that he was trying to learn slang or very informal phrases. Rather, he was paying attention to collocations with words that he might meet (but not for certain) if he kept contact with English each day—simple, not complicated, collocations with words like government, accident and hospital, for example.

Mayuko was less clear about which words she might choose to build her collocation knowledge with, so Ken talked through a particular example that he had in his notebook: “I usually choose nouns, especially easy words. People might think I don’t have to check the dictionary for accident—it’s a very easy word, and everybody knows this word, but I think the easier words have more potential, so I chose accident. I have written down avoid accident and cause accident. And the last one is disastrous accident—this is adjective plus noun. There were a lot of combinations, but I chose these combinations because I thought I can use these combinations in my daily life.”

Ken continued to explain to Mayuko the reasons for some of his other collocation decisions: “I chose hospital and I wrote build hospital and establish hospital and psychiatric hospital. I also chose these combinations because it’s very easy—well, maybe psychiatric hospital is a bit of a difficult word. My partner today in the class asked what the meaning of psychiatric hospital is, but actually in the movies, especially Hollywood movies, people use psychiatric hospital many times. It might be unfamiliar to some people, but to me it was very familiar.”

Ken then started explaining another example from his collocation notes: “…and next I checked personnel, which means ‘staff’, and I found cut personnel and reduce personnel…” It seemed Ken was now starting to focus on collocations with roughly similar meaning—but the explanation that Ken offered had a slightly different emphasis: “This is I think the same meaning—and then I checked government personnel. Yeah, this also an easy word, and I also start to work from next April and cut personnel and reduce personnel is a very grave matter for me, so I chose these words, but I hope I won’t use these words in my life. But I chose the easy words, familiar words, so that I can use them.” Not only was Ken connecting up very frequent words in English that he knew well, but he was also connecting his collocation learning to how he imagined he might use those combinations in the future—although he couldn’t be absolutely certain that he would ever meet these collocations in the future.

What had become clear was that Ken had now chosen to do the exact opposite of what he had been required to do in high school. There he had experienced encapsulated learning (Engeström 2005)—where he had learnt individual words in a way that was quite disconnected from his interests and from his involvement in the world outside of school—but now he had now lost all concern with long complicated words that others might require him to memorise. Instead, he had decided to connect up his knowledge of individual words according to his own purposes, whether or not he would have a chance to use these collocations in the future. The whole focus of his vocabulary learning had become clearer, yet it was also less certain at the same time. He couldn’t be sure that he would meet these collocations again, but he was confident that paying attention to simple but useful collocations was quite meaningful and helpful for him.


Mayuko was intrigued because she was still concerned with certainty and being able to memorise correctly the collocations that she had chosen for herself. Yet, she was also feeling a lot of stress whenever she forgot to use a particular collocation when she was speaking or writing. One reason was that, in using English in her part-time job at a fair-trade company, Mayuko was worried about being misunderstood by the English-speaking clients she interacted with. In response to Mayuko’s concerns, Ken began to explain at some length his enjoyment of uncertainty in developing his English collocation knowledge.

“I said I chose the words that I think I can use in my daily life, but that means not just using those collocations. I try to choose the words that I might hear or read in my daily life when I watch the DVD, some American soap opera or something. I chose the words which can be familiar to me—not some words which I will never see again. Before I check the collocation dictionary, I try to decide which words I should check and which words I shouldn’t, so that I don’t waste my time checking some difficult words which I will never see again. It’s all for my daily life, not academic study. I won’t become a professor, so that’s what I do when I check the collocation dictionary.”
Ken and Mayuko continued talking about their English collocation development:

Mayuko: Anyway, do you have any other comments about collocation?

Ken: Err I always try to choose the words which I may hear in my daily life, and trying to hear the combination I checked is very interesting. It’s like a game when I see the movies—I always try to hear the combinations I checked. It’s very exciting and makes the movie or news programme much more interesting for me.

Mayuko: So you pay attention to the combination when you see some movies. Mmm…when I hear English speaking, I can’t pay attention to the word combinations—this may be one reason that I can’t remember the collocations well.

Ken: Well, I don’t think we have to remember all the combinations. We don’t want to memorize all the words like we did for juken.

Mayuko: Yeah.

Ken: One thing I’m always doing when I check the collocation and when I speak English—I try to relax as much as possible. I don’t want to try too hard. I tried too hard when I studied for juken. It made learning English very uninteresting—it was just something you have to do. It was not fun, so when I learn English now I try to relax and enjoy as much as possible…


In this short article, we have looked mainly at the story of Ken’s English vocabulary learning and development. Ken shows us that, at different points in his story, he was able to make fundamental choices about how to change his way of learning vocabulary. Ken was dutiful in memorising English vocabulary for the entrance exam; later, he shifted his attention away from word-by-word translation and memorization towards using language for his own purposes. To do this, he tried to keep contact with English in different ways. One of his decisions was to read and listen to different kinds of texts in English, and to focus on useful and important, rather than difficult, vocabulary. At the same time, he also became concerned with connecting up the words that he already knew. So, another decision of Ken’s was to stop learning every new and difficult word he met. Instead, he attended to noting down a few useful collocations for the everyday words that he already knew very well. He also decided not to memorise collocations; rather, he hoped that he would have a chance to meet them again as he continued to read and listen to English. In this sense, Ken lost certainty in order to develop his own way.

His story can help us focus on several interesting questions, such as:

(1) How did you learn English vocabulary in senior high school?

• What kind of actions did you take?
• How did you feel about what you were doing to learn English vocabulary?
• What worked well for you? Why?
• What didn’t work well for you? Why?

(2) How do you try to learn English vocabulary now?

• What kind of actions do you take?
• How do you feel about what you are doing to learn English vocabulary?
• What works well for you? Why?
• What doesn’t work well for you? Why?

(3) What are the similarities and differences between your past habits and present practice for learning English vocabulary?

(4) How do you keep contact with English at the moment—mainly by reading, listening, speaking or writing English?

(5) What similarities and differences do you see between Ken’s story and your own?

(6) What are some interesting insights that you have gained from reading Ken’s story?

(7) What are some interesting insights that someone else might gain from hearing / reading your own English vocabulary story?

(8) If you want to develop the quality of your English vocabulary knowledge, what would be some useful actions for you to take?

(9) What kind of resources (dictionaries, listening and reading texts etc) can you use to take those actions for yourself?

(10) Who could you talk with (or write to) about your English vocabulary learning history so that you can develop the changes in your practice with the support of another person/other people?

I hope that considering such questions about your own English vocabulary history and habits (and those of someone else you can be in contact with) may help you develop different choices and actions for yourself in the future. Good luck!


Engeström, Yrjö. 2005. Non scolae sed vitae discimus: toward overcoming the encapsulation of school learning. In An Introduction to Vygotsky, ed. Harry Daniels. 157-176. London: Routledge.

The Oxford Collocations Dictionary for Students of English. 2002. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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