Sentence Mining: What It Is and How to Use It

What makes it so hard to learn languages?

They have their own logic, but it takes trial and error to figure them out.

What if there was a shortcut?

Here’s a simple tip: Learn example sentences rather than memorizing words individually and out of context. 

In other words, sentence mine.

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What is Sentence Mining?

Sentence mining is learning languages by collecting, saving and reviewing sentences.

The more traditional approach is to memorize long lists of vocab words individually. While this method can greatly expand your vocabulary, it often means you lack the context and examples needed to fully understand new words and how to use them.

With sentence mining, you’re committing whole sentences to memory, often by using spaced repetition methods—a double win.

If you mine and study the sentences correctly, you’re giving yourself the context you need to learn new vocabulary properly, as well as improving your language instincts in a way that’s more in-line with those of native speakers.

Why Does Sentence Mining Work?

Sentence mining works for several reasons:

  • It helps you create mental associations with what you already know. The sentences give you a “place” in your brain where you can attach the new vocabulary or grammar.
  • It exposes you to vocabulary terms in different contexts. This accelerates your learning in the same way that you would get to know a person faster if you saw them in multiple social settings.
  • Vocabulary is nuanced, like people. Just like you don’t truly “know” someone by knowing their name, you don’t truly “know” a word just by knowing its definition.

Essentially, sentence mining is useful because it helps you master a word more quickly while truly understanding how and when it should be used.

How to Start Sentence Mining

1. Select the right learning content

Comprehensible input is the key to successful sentence mining.

Comprehensible input is “one level” above where you actually are in your language learning, meaning that you can understand the general ideas of the content even though you don’t know every word or grammar pattern.

Using this type of content for your language studies may seem like it’ll be slow going, but many find that the opposite is actually the case.

That’s because you get the positive reinforcement from recognizing words and structures you already know, while gathering contextual knowledge of the ones you don’t.

You can tailor your sentence mining content to the type of language learning you’re trying to do. That is, if you’re looking to improve your reading and writing skills, find some stories or news articles that are a step above your level. For listening and speaking practice, video and audio content is ideal.

2. Look for the right sentences and words

Now, even when you have the best learning content, not every sentence you come across can or even should be mined.

You should be looking for sentences that contain only one word or grammar structure that you don’t know.

A sentence with multiple unknown elements poses a few problems. For example, if you have a sentence with three unknown words you want to learn, you could run into these issues:

  • Accidentally linking the meanings in your mind, even though the words aren’t actually related.
  • Forgetting just one of the three, meaning you don’t know the sentence/flashcard even if you remember the other two.
  • Spending more time and effort trying to internalize three new elements at the same time.

It’s much more effective to learn one word or grammar pattern per sentence.

You still don’t need to study every new word you come across, however. Here are some criteria for selecting words and grammar structures to learn via sentence mining:

  • Will it be useful in casual, everyday conversation?
  • Does it have multiple unique meanings?
  • Have you seen or heard it often in other authentic material?
  • Is it essential for understanding the content you’re consuming now?
  • Are you interested in learning it?

If you answer yes to any of those questions, it’s probably a good word/structure to include in your sentence mining practice.

3. Create sentence flashcards

Here is the meat of the sentence mining study method. Whenever you find a sentence with a word you want to learn, you’re going to create a flashcard.

There are a few different ways you can do this, but the simplest is this:

  • On one side of the card, put the entire target-language sentence.
  • On the other side, write the definition of the unknown word.

That’s it—really!

Okay, that’s all you need to be successful, but you can step it up a notch. If you’re using a digital flashcard program, you can do it like this:

  • Put the target-language sentence on the front of the card.
  • On the back, put the word definition alongside audio of the word, a screenshot of the word in use or both.

Sentence Mining in Action

Need an example of how this really works?

First, find a resource that can provide a steady supply of accurate sentences, like FluentU. Next, select your words and sentences. Finally, create your flashcards. After you’ve created 10 or so cards for your study session, you’ll want to periodically review them.

 

However you choose to approach it, sentence mining can take you to the next level of your language learning journey very quickly.

Good luck, and happy mining!

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