Often, on a learning journey, you find your way back to a trusty old path travelled a while back. And recently, I have found my way back to the mass sentence site Tatoeba in order to solve a very particular language learning problem.
Sourcing specialist vocab in context
The issue to solve was familiar to many of us: a lack of formal learning materials on vocabulary topics of specific interest to us. For me, politics and current affairs are such hot topics, and I enjoy chatting about them. Why not bring that into my conversational sessions?
Here’s the rub: not many language primers cover this material thematically.
Of course, I could dive straight into primary news materials like newspaper websites. But these are frequently well beyond the ‘intermediate improver’ stage I am at with a number of my languages.
The solution? Tatoeba’s vast corpus of searchable sentences taken from all areas of written life, and translated into multiple languages by native speakers.
Curating custom Tatoeba lists
Why is Tatoeba such a perfect platform for sourcing very specific vocabulary for speaking lessons? It is atomised, for a start. The sentences may be lifted from extensive, lengthy, real-world texts online and elsewhere, but they are broken down into single sentences for consumption on the site. As a result, they are much easier to work with.
For example, rather than scouring tvp.info for useful instances of the word rząd (government) in use, I can simply search Tatoeba for sentences containing that word. Not only is it quicker, but the yield is greater too; scores of sentences pop up in an instant. It would take a lot of online scouring to find so many items from scratch.
Creating custom lists
The second big advantage of vocab-hunting on Tatoeba is list curation. With all those useful governmental phrases called up, you simply work your way down the results, clicking the little document icon to add them to a custom list. These lists become you very own personalised vocab learning banks.
A note on quality: for best results, use the advanced search and ensure that you check the owned by a self-identified native option when phrase-chasing. You can even specify whether the entries have audio or not, which may be useful if you are brave enough to play with more complex options for export!
Once created and populated, your list has its very own page, including a simple text export option. You can also make what you have created publicly available, if you are minded to share.
After you have refined and exported your list, it is an easy final step to add the data to your Anki decks via File > Import. Likewise, importing into Quizlet is hassle-free with the basic tab-delimited format of the exported file.
Then, the real work begins as you start to drill your new vocabulary bank!
A word of caution on importing your sentence cache into Anki: be kind to yourself. The default daily drip rate for new vocab items is ten per day. As these are full sentences, sometimes quite complicated, that can be a stretch. That is true especially if you are running these new sentences alongside your current decks, doubling your daily load.
I reduced my new card rate to five a day for the Polish deck above, which was just challenging enough whilst ensuring that I worked through them at a decent speed.
Back to its best
Tatoeba bounced back from a serious crash in recent months, and is now back to its best as a top tool for vocabulary expansion. It is a very welcome return for anyone hunting custom source material for language learning.
As for my own progress, so far so good. Slowly but surely, that carefully selected material is making its way into my memory. And since it matches my interests, motivation to learn is high. Not only that: I am so used to drilling single dictionary items in Anki, that the fresh wave of full sentences has made for a helpful change. And it deserves a mention again and again: variety is a fundamental pillar in any successful language learning regime.
Give mass sentences a go if you struggle to find support for the things you want to talk about. There’s nothing like some vocab DIY to revive a tired routine!
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