Using a Frequency Dictionary to Learn a Foreign Language

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It has been three and a half years since I completed my minor degree in German language. When I occasionally read Deutsche Welle in German, I feel that my vocabulary has deteriorated to a great extent. Therefore, I took up the challenge of brushing up on my German, which was also one of my new term’s resolutions. While I was looking for a resource in the University of Manchester Library, I came across the book called ‘A Frequency Dictionary of German: A Core Vocabulary for Learners’ in the high demand collection. I assume that the book is popular among the students even though it may not be used in German classes. I am also surprised that there are frequency dictionaries of many languages, including Polish, Spanish, Russian, French and Japanese. It is a pity that Turkish still does not have one, but it must be on the way as the compilation of Turkish National Corpus is fairly recent in comparison to other languages.

I studied the frequency dictionary for a week, and I can say that I have a very positive learning experience. It was a quick way for me to revise the most frequent 4034 words (not 4000!) in German language. The writers claim that the word count was not arbitrary, and it represents approximately 80 percent of the words in Leipzig/BYU Corpus of Contemporary German. Perhaps the best element of the book is formulaic language that is listed under the entries. For instance, the entry for the noun Sinn (meaning) also offers im Sinne (according to) and in diesem Sinne (in this spirit). Frequency dictionaries can also be beneficial for adult learners to prepare for the exams. I passed my German proficiency test four years ago by studying a frequency list that I created out of the past exam papers. Creating your own frequency list or downloading one from the internet is always a perfectly viable option for the corpus lovers!

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There are also some shortcomings of using frequency dictionaries to master a foreign language. Learning through the book proved to be very efficient for me as I am an advanced learner of German. However, I am not convinced that the frequency dictionaries appeal to beginner or low-intermediate learners as they tend to need more input to contextualise the words. Frequency dictionaries usually provide learners with one example which might be ambiguous for polysemous words. Taking all these points into consideration, I recommend using a frequency dictionary as a supplementary tool to brush up on a foreign language. Even if one has not encountered a word that is included in the frequency dictionary, this may form the basis for a discovery experience.

I believe that a frequency dictionary has been of great utility for me to remember the words. Nevertheless, there is a strong possibility that I can quickly forget them again. The key issue to maintain foreign language skills is to make the language an important part of our lives by constantly using it. Listening to German podcasts and reading news in German are the most straightforward steps that I will take as of today. Finally, I would love to gain insights into the experiences of other foreign language learners in using a frequency dictionary.

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5 thoughts on “Using a Frequency Dictionary to Learn a Foreign Language

  1. Interesting post; I didn’t know that you speak German! It’s great that you found the dictionary useful. My boyfriend and I watch the German kids documentary series “Die Maus” for his German learning ^^. It may be easy for you but it’s always interesting and fun so maybe you can give it a try if you don’t know it :). I actually have the Mandarin Chinese frequency dictionary (with some authors from Lancaster!). For an MA term paper I interviewed some other Chinese learners about the use of the dictionary. They found it interesting but with mandarin there were some problems with usability: finding the word even if you haven’t learned the characters yet and understanding the example sentences although they don’t have the pinyin sound translation.

    • Thank you very much, Viola. 🙂 I have found the dictionary very useful for German, but this type of dictionary may not be useful for languages that are orthographically unfamiliar to learners, as you have said. And thank you for the recommendation of the documentary ‘Die Maus’. I will definitely watch it! 🙂

  2. I just recently starting flipping through my frequency dictionary for Arabic, mostly in order to figure out what I am missing and what I should focus on going forward. How would you go about studying with a frequency dictionary? Just reading through it?

    • Thank you very much for your comment. A frequency dictionary can be a good starting point to identify which words/phrases one is not familiar with. In order to promote long-term retention of words/phrases, I would suggest using a wide range of strategies, including grouping, making acronyms, and highlighting.

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