Re: memorizing vocabulary

Carl W. Conrad (
Sat, 5 Oct 1996 07:03:54 -0500

At 2:37 PM -0500 10/4/96, chris stanley wrote:
>I'm a rather new member of this list, having only found out about it a few
>weeks ago, so please excuse my ignorance if my question has been dealt with\
>in the recent past. I am currently teaching a first-year New Testament Greek
>class, and some of my students are having serious trouble memorizing their
>vocabulary. I've experienced this problem before in other classes that I've
>taught, but the difficulty seems to be greater this time. (I'm using Bill
>Mounce's Basics of Biblical Greek for the first time, and perhaps the words
>are harder.) I'm wondering if anyone on the list has any creative ideas
>that I could pass on to my students. At present they are following the
>standard flash card route, which works well for some people but not for
>others. Even my tips about how to use the flash cards aren't helpful for
>some of them. Any bright ideas?

I've read the other responses to this question, and I think the resources
David Moore has mentioned can be very helpful; I also think Paul's
reference to memorization of a short work like Titus may be helpful. I
think flash cards are helpful, and probably the computer programs that do
flash cards are particularly helpful--Mounce has his own which you probably
already have, and it's quite helpul, I think. But it is not something that
every student is going to make ready use of.

The fact of the matter is that while a very few are blessed with a
"photographic" memory, the vast majority of us are not, and for us the
learning of vocabulary is a matter of patient, committed application over a
considerable period of time to what may appear to be drudgery; personally,
I don't think there's any substitute for reading continuously large textual
sequences and making one's own vocabulary notes as one goes along;
eventually, after seeing the same words repeatedly in similar and
not-so-similar contexts, it gets through even a thick skull what the sense
and range of a word is fundamentally, and as one gets deeper into the
language, it is imperative to spend considerable time with a lexicon, not
scanning for a useful equivalent in a particular passage, but rather
meditative study of the lexicon entry--endeavoring to grasp a basic sense
and the way ramifications of meaning relate to that basic sense.

But there's no substitute for the "drudgery." I still remember vividly my
first weeks in grad school where I'd been set the task of reading 12 books
of each of Homer's epics in one month--and Homer's vocabulary is voluminous
indeed. I remember working through the first three books of the Iliad and
filling a notebook with vocabulary items, line after line after line, then
checking back over pages and discovering that I had noted down the same
words many times. I wondered whether it would ever get better! But then, as
I started working on Iliad 4, I found that I was going through ten- or
twelve-line passages without looking up a word, and gradually these
stretches of smooth sailing became longer, until suddenly I felt like a
child learning to ride a bicycle, pedaling away on my own without a father
holding the back of the seat to keep my from falling. What an exhilarating
feeling that was! BUT--getting to that point was the consequence of
several long nights of plodding slowly, word by word through single lines.
And of course that applies not only to vocabulary but to recognition of
syntactic structures as well.

But I repeat: there's no substitute for the "drudgery." The very gifted
student may learn vocabulary by osmosis, but most of us do it only through
applied, consistent effort. I've never had a class wherein all students
make the same applied consisent effort, but that kind of driving industry
is ultimately what makes the difference between impressive quick grasp of
concepts and the real scholar.

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University
One Brookings Drive, St. Louis, MO, USA 63130
(314) 935-4018 OR