Learning Sentences Instead of Words: Pros, Cons, and Strategies

10,000 sentences instead of words? Nope! Try this instead!

“Learn words in the context of sentences in the context of paragraphs!” Kungfucius

Language learners often debate whether it’s more effective to learn individual words or entire sentences when acquiring a new language. Both approaches have their merits and drawbacks, and ultimately, the best method depends on your learning style and goals. In this article, we’ll explore the advantages and disadvantages of learning sentences instead of words, discuss how to incorporate sentences into a Spaced Repetition System (SRS), and share some experiences from learners who have tried this approach.

I. Advantages of Learning Sentences Instead of Words

  1. Context: Learning sentences provides a context for new vocabulary, helping you understand how words function within a sentence structure and how they relate to one another.
  2. Grammar: By studying sentences, you gain exposure to grammar patterns and rules, even if you’re not explicitly focusing on them.
  3. Idiomatic expressions: Sentences often include idiomatic expressions or colloquialisms that you might not encounter when studying isolated words.
  4. Improved listening and reading comprehension: Familiarity with sentences in your target language can enhance your ability to understand native speakers and texts more effectively.

II. Disadvantages of Learning Sentences Instead of Words

  1. Time-consuming: Learning and memorizing entire sentences can be more time-consuming than focusing on individual words.
  2. Less flexibility: If you only learn fixed sentences, you might struggle to create your own sentences or adapt to different contexts and situations.
  3. Overemphasis on memorization: Relying too heavily on memorized sentences can lead to stilted speech and a lack of spontaneity in conversations.
  4. Overemphasis on production rather than understanding: You rely too heavily on reproducing sentences and spend a lot of time on that instead of on how to understand more conversations and books.

III. Sentences and SRS

Using a Spaced Repetition System (SRS) like Anki can help you incorporate sentences into your language learning routine. Instead of creating flashcards with single vocabulary words, you can create cards featuring entire sentences. This approach allows you to review sentences at spaced intervals, maximizing retention and gradually increasing the time between repetitions.

It can be useful as you learn sentences naturally and can potentially reproduce these in perfect pronunciation, but it also limits you in terms of expressions.

IV. AJATT 10,000 Sentences Experience

The All Japanese All The Time (AJATT) blog popularized the idea of learning 10,000 sentences as a way to acquire fluency in Japanese. The author, Khatzumoto, claimed that by immersing himself in the language and studying 10,000 sentences, he achieved near-native fluency in just 18 months. You can read more about his experience on the AJATT website (https://www.alljapaneseallthetime.com).

In later articles, he updated this and moved away from the 10,000 sentence logic. In fact, he extracted the 10,000 sentences from comprehensible input he consumed and hence, maybe it was that input that did the heavy lifting and not the memorization of the 10,000 sentences. Language learners that wanted to replicate by just learning 10,000 phrases often failed as they cut out the important step of getting exposure to comprehensible input!

V. Apronus Norsk Experiment

Another example of learning sentences instead of words is the Apronus Norsk Experiment (https://www.apronus.com/norsk/). The author, Michał Ryszard Wojcik, documented his journey learning Norwegian by studying sentences. He argued that by focusing on sentences, he could understand the language’s grammar and vocabulary more effectively. Over time, he developed a strong foundation in the language, which he built upon with further study and practice.

Let’s sum it up!

Neither words, nor sentences are the answer! That is at least my personal experience and experience derived from articles of Khatzumoto and others. When learning words or sentences was embedded in context, it was a great help. As a standalone strategy, learning either words or sentences will likely fail! 

So, yes, learning sentences instead of words can be a beneficial approach to language acquisition, offering context, grammar exposure, and improved comprehension. However, it may also be more time-consuming and less flexible than focusing on individual words. 

Personally, I am convinced that 80% should be comprehensible input anyways and that this should only be complemented by SRS that focusses on words and sentences coming out of that comprehensible input. In terms of sentences, it makes a lot of sense to learn standard sentences and combinations but when it comes to advanced input like novels or discussions of historical events, there are less and less sentences that make sense to learn and more and more sentences that you just need to understand. 

By incorporating both sentences and words into an SRS, you can combine the best of both worlds and create a well-rounded language learning experience. Consider trying the AJATT 10,000 sentences method or the Apronus Norsk Experiment as inspiration for your own language learning journey. Or use the Kungfucius method instead!