Specialists in language instruction spend a lot of time doing research and debating the best ways to learn new vocabulary. All agree that a word has to be seen often before it can be learned.
Some educators stress the importance of learning in context. Others feel that there is a faster and more direct route. This latter group feels that there is an order in which words should be learned. The most frequently used words should be learned first, followed by the less frequently used words etc. These people feel that the deliberate study of word lists prepared by “experts” is a shortcut that can speed up the learning process. They point out that less frequent words appear so seldom that a person would have to read or listen to a lot of context in order to meet these new words often enough to learn them.
My view is that vocabulary learning cannot be looked outside the context of language learning itself. In language learning there are three cardinal rules.
1) The motivation of the learner to cross into another language and culture is the key to success. It needs to be constantly stimulated, encouraged and fed .
2) Fluency is the only meaningful goal of language learning.
3) The learner has to direct the course of his/her own learning.
Reading and listening to a lot of content is the best way to keep most learners motivated and to achieve fluency in the language. It is entertaining and motivating. It will improve the learner’s understanding, familiarity and enjoyment of the language as long as the learner can choose content of interest to learn from.
Learners, if allowed to, will normally choose content in areas that are of interest and therefore familiar to them. Vocabulary specific to the chosen subject matter will naturally appear more frequently and therefore be easier to learn. Words that do not reappear frequently are not yet needed and will not be learned. Later as the learner moves to other content, a different range of words and phrases will appear more often. The learner will then be able to learn them.
That said, there are ways to increase the efficiency of word acquisition. Developing lists of frequency of use of different words is one, but not a very important one. There are others that are more effective. More later.