How Many Words Can You Memorize A Day?

How many words can I memorize

Eric is a beginner language learner eager to learn French. He knows that fluency in la langue de Molière will boost his career prospects, and while he’s not a big fan of French cinema (is there such a person?), he can’t wait to travel to southern France next year and immerse himself in the local culture. After reading the latest fashionable language learning blogs out there, downloading the latest language learning and flashcard apps, and purchasing 2-3 expensive language learning textbooks, he feels like he’s ready to dive in. His first goal: learn 50 new words a day.

Words on a tableThat’s it: 50 new words, every day. That’s 18,250 words in the space of a year, the approximate size of the (active) vocabulary of a native speaker. He’s even downloaded a list of the 2000 most common French words off of Wiktionary to get started, he’s found some cool pre-packaged decks of flashcards with fancy pictures, and with Duolingo freshly installed on his new shiny smartphone (that he’s just gotten for free with a 10-year contract), learning French is going to be a breeze. I mean, sure, learning 50 new words per day is a challenge, but hey, he’s got the tools for it. After a year, he’ll be pretty much fluent in French, with an impressive vocabulary that’ll be the envy of his friends and classmates.

So what happens with Eric, you may ask? Well, Eric starts off really excited and full of motivation. He reviews 50 new words every day with the help of his flashcard app, uses Duolingo when commuting to the office and learns useful words such as “elephant” and “shark”, and reviews his textbook once or twice a week, when he’s finished watching the latest series on Netflix. But after two weeks, he goes through a slight motivation trough. He has figured out that with the spaced repetition system embedded in his flashcard app, he now has to review well over 100 words every day just to keep up with his goal of learning 50 new words a day, and he starts getting a bit impatient with his other apps which, he feels, aren’t really teaching much in terms of useful sentences that native speakers would use in everyday conversations. After a month, Eric pretty much all but gave up reviewing his flashcards, and after two months he feels like French might not be that much of a big deal after all. He heard that his friend is starting Chinese, and with the new app that lets you memorize characters through cool mnemonics, he feels like he’d have a good shot at learning at least 50-60 new characters every day. At this rate, he could pass the HSK level 4 language test by the end of the year. Now THAT would look slick on his resume.

Why Wasn’t Eric Successful at Learning French?

A lot of language learners appear somewhat obsessed with the amount of words that they can possibly “memorize” every day. Memory and spaced-repetition flashcard apps are all the rage these days, and devout language learners who have been converted—by, in part I suppose, the high-tech nature of the tools and their promise for immediate progress and feedback—only swear by them. Armed with fancy memory techniques, more flashy apps, and textbooks that promise to make you fluent in 30 days, quite a number of people appear convinced that learning a language is, after all, just a matter of brute memorization and practice over a short to medium period of time.

Studying grammar and vocabulary

You or someone you know may have gone through an experience similar as Eric’s. But what went wrong exactly? To start with, Eric set the wrong goals: he focused on output (i.e. the number of words he could memorize every day) rather than input (the interesting resources he would consult to immerse himself in the language). Eric also underestimated the finite amount of willpower (or “motivation”) that he has under his belt, and set exaggerated targets that were not relevant nor in line with the actual progress in fluency he would undergo over time. As a result, Eric quickly became demotivated and lost an interest in “studying” French. It all became too mechanical and repetitive to his liking. That’s why now he’s trying that flashy new Chinese character learning app. I’m sure he’ll do much better on that one.

So, Really, How Many New Words Can I Learn Every Day?

Now, I know you’re probably itching to just get an answer to that question already, so that you can confirm what you thought you already knew. “50? 100? I need to know!”

The thing is, I don’t think this is the right question to ask. In fact, I think approaching language learning with such a mindset is probably more harmful than anything. It can easily lead to a lot of time wasted, frustration, and demotivation. Why is that, and what’s the alternative?

Memorizing… For How Long?

First of all, what does “memorizing” a word mean anyway? Memorizing for how long, and what meaning(s)?

Memorize lists of wordsUnless you plan on actively using a word on a regular basis, chances are that all that time and effort put into memorizing thousands of words will go to waste. I know this because I’ve experienced it personally, and I know many other language learners who have too. The human brain (thankfully) has a built-in mechanism that by default, will make it forget most of the information that it is presented with. As a result, repetition is often key to memorizing new information (i.e. being exposed to the information as often as possible, until it “sticks”). Memory techniques can also be used to enhance memorization capability, such as through the use of mnemonics. The trick here is that your brain needs to be convinced that the information you are feeding it is important; otherwise, it won’t remember it.

The problem is that with the mindset of “memorizing X amount of words every day”, learners end up trying to memorize words that are out of sync with their current level of fluency in their target language. You may very well know the words for “economic growth” or “financial crisis” in your target language, but frankly, if you can’t talk with a native speaker about a simple topic such as the weather in a remotely “flowing” fashion, what good is it to begin memorizing complex words and concepts that you will likely not come across before another couple of months or even years of study? In other words, this approach gets it backwards: you try to memorize as many words as you possibly can in the hope that it’ll make you fluent, rather than focusing on fluency first and then learning new words in a more natural fashion on an “as needed” basis. And the thing is, going the reverse way just doesn’t work.

Collocations, and the Many Meanings of Words

Multilingual words helloNow, here’s another secret for you: individual words have multiple meanings and they tend to collocate with other words. What are collocations exactly, you’re asking? Put simply, collocations are partly or fully fixed expressions that become established through repeated context-dependent use. For example, in English we tend to say “quick shower” rather than “fast shower”, but we’ll say “fast car” or “fast lane”. We also say things like “take a risk” or “open a bank account”. There is no particular reason why this is the way it is, apart from the fact that it’s just the way people use these words. If you learn Korean, for example, you’ll quickly find out that the verb “open” is simply not used with the word “bank account” (rather, you would use “make” or “establish”). So what’s the point in learning the word “bank account” in isolation if you won’t know with which other word(s) to use it to form a proper sentence?

Collocations are important because they are the foundation of natural and proper sounding speech/writing. You could have a perfectly correct sentence grammatically speaking, but if collocational preferences are not followed, any native speaker will tell you that it’s wrong, and rightly so. Language functions as a web: its individual components (words, intonation, speed, rhythm, etc.) are interrelated. Learning any of these in isolation, such as learning individual words and memorizing individual meanings, will put you on the fast lane to frustration and demotivation.

As if collocations weren’t enough, the other thing is that words rarely have only one strict meaning. To take an extreme example, “set” has 464 definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary. If I see the word “set” in your deck of flashcards, you can trust me that the first question that will pop in my mind is, exactly what meaning of “set” are you trying to memorize, and how on earth are you going to remember this anyway?

Now, as I said “set” is an extreme example, but the truth is that the overwhelming majority of words are used in many different contexts, and different people will use the same word differently depending on their personality andthe context of any given situation to add linguistics flourishes and style to their speech (think idioms, metaphors, figures of speech, you name it). Can you see what you are getting yourself into when trying to “memorize 50 words per day”? Memorizing a particular definition of a word may, in fact, only add to the confusion, because the next time you’ll come across that word in a text, you’ll expect it to mean what you memorized and prepared for, while there’s a high chance that the word may in fact mean something very different depending on the context in which it is used. Trying to memorize specific meanings can also slow down your progress to advanced fluency because your use of words is likely to become constrained by the meanings you have deliberately attached to them. What separates very advanced learners of a language or native speakers (C2 level) from intermediate or advanced ones (B1~C1 level) is in part their ability to use words in a variety of contexts and to “stretch” or “bend” their meaning in a linguistically appealing way.

OK, I Get It, So what’s The Solution?

Despite what I’ve said so far, there’s a good chance that you won’t be convinced yet that trying to deliberately memorize words is mostly a waste of time. After all, you’ve probably already invested so much time doing just that, and by clicking on the link that led you to this article you were likely looking for information that confirms, rather than contradicts, your beliefs (this is called “confirmation bias”, by the way).

Even if you’re not convinced by my argument, the truth is that there are alternatives to learning a language this way and it is perfectly possible to expand your vocabulary in a sustainable manner that is relevant to your current level, needs, and usage. Remember the “output” versus “input” distinction I’ve made earlier? Focusing on input (i.e. interesting resources to consult to immerse yourself in the language) rather than output (i.e. the number of words to memorize every day) is a good start. Rather than becoming obsessed with memorizing new words, simply accept the fact that you will end up forgetting a lot of the stuff you come across. But by being exposed to material that is at a suitable level to you and by trusting your common sense and learning as much as you can from context, you will inevitably end up assimilating sentence structures, collocations, and words in a more natural fashion through exposure. Sure, at this stage, if you come across a word several times and you still can’t get your head around it, it doesn’t hurt to write it down in a notebook or even save it in a flashcard app. But by changing the way you approach language learning, and by taking the focus away from memorizing a set amount of words every day/week/month to actually getting exposed to the language in a more holistic manner, you will find that slowly but surely, your skills will progress and your fluency in the language will follow a path in harmony with the vocabulary and sentence structures you are exposed to.

So, what do you think? Are you somewhat convinced? What about your personal experience learning a language? Has memorizing loads of words off of a flashcard app worked for you? Share your stories with the rest of us below, and make sure to share this article if you’ve found it useful in any way!

By Lingholic

  • www.lingholic.com is all about the art of learning languages. Learn how to learn and dramatically improve your foreign language acquisition ability.

  • Show Comments (42)

  • Taylor

    A good point is to be made here, an actual process of how to learn would be helpful though. Focusing on the inputs is the way to go. Yet when I focus on an input the first thing I am going to do is go look up the word. The most useful words and phrases to learn are those that you have actually heard used. I do find myself using words from “most common” dictionaries, and some of them don’t change very much based on the context. The article has made the point that context and denotation in language is very important, but I still don’t believe memorization is entirely bad, as it relates to common words especially nouns.

    • Good points, Taylor. I still think a surprising amount of words do change meaning based on the context, or their equivalent in English (or whatever your native tongue is) is used more restrictively/liberally, etc. In the end, I’m not saying that memorizing phrases is a bad thing in itself; I’m simply arguing that if you make it your goal, you’ll set yourself for disappointment, and it might not be the best use of your time.

      Out of curiosity, could you give me a few examples of common words that a beginner would typically learn and that has only one meaning (i.e. used only in one particular context)?

      • Taylor

        Hi lingholic – Thanks for responding, and great article. I think a lot of words do change based on context, and you are right in that studies should be context-focused. No disagreement here. I was just wondering what the methodology is supposed to be. Keep in mind there are learning styles; for me I score high on “reflective” learning (versus active).

        It isn’t so much that the words have only one meaning, but that a word is 95% of the time in that meaning. We know in English that you can “dog” someone, but when we talk about “dog” as a noun it almost always means a furry critter. I am learning Spanish so, perro is one of them I would put on that list. When I look this up, there certainly are other meanings, but not any for nouns.

        Eventually in a language a person has to learn the multiple meanings of context; the more advanced a person gets is pretty much determined by their abilities to understand and transmit that context. However to increase the level of conversational ability (in practice), they need to know a certain amount of words just to begin.

        Remember the fundamental fact that the more words you know, the greater your chances are for deriving the subtle meanings and contexts. It is much easier for an advanced speaker in a language to pick up a nuance than a beginner, because they are still trying to grasp things like structure.

        Thanks for writing this one.

    • I would argue that the challenge those days is not to describe the process of learning a language. There are lots of blogs and books on the topic already and, like any learning endeavor, a lot comes from the experience of doing it ourselves, something books can evoke but not transmit.

      I’d rather argue that the challenge is to find the right resources. Resources that:
      – Offer audio and phonetic transcriptions: in order to develop good listening and speaking habits from the start.
      – Are at your level, in terms of both grammar and vocabulary range (frequency list.)

      – Are easy to use: easy to understand (translations), easy to commit to memory (SRS.)
      – Are of interest: natural language you can use and/or topics that are highly interesting to you personally.

      Just my two cents.

  • Great article. I mostly agree but memorizing vocabulary has its place for me with certain languages. If the language is wildly different from my own (e.g. my studies in Indonesian, Turkish, Japanese), I definitely dedicate about 1/4 of my learning time to memorizing vocabulary – 50 words, phrases, or grammar rules/conjugations per session is my concentration span. If the language is closer to my own, such as French/Portuguese/Spanish, I rarely actively memorize; I just learn in context since the words will seem familiar quickly with exposure (or are ‘guessable’). Then, even with languages dissimilar to my own (such as Chinese), once I have gotten to an intermediate level or above I no longer memorize, I also just learn through active reading/socializing/watching media etc But definitely for dissimilar languages I rely heavily in the beginning on my Anki flashcards. How else would you remember “nice to meet you” in Indonesian (senang berkenalan dengan anda) without the repetition of flashcards? While “enchantée” or “encantado” you kind of just need to breeze by a time or two and will remember. Do you know what I mean?

    • Yes, you are making a good point, words in languages that are very far from own’s one (Japanese, Korean, Chinese, etc.) are a lot harder to remember than those in languages closer to your native tongue.

      So how else would I remember “nice to meet you” in Indonesian? Probably just by going over and over the dialogues that I’d find in my beginner textbook (or audio method, etc.). Because dialogues are introduced as a whole, rather than a part, I think it makes more sense to practice them this way rather than saving individual bits and pieces of a dialogue (i.e. words) into a flashcard app. But you’re right, I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad way to go. As I explained to Taylor below, I think the problem is when your entire goal becomes to memorize words rather than to focus on input and to enjoy getting exposed to the language and assimilate it.

  • Drea Lynn

    I feel like this article is contradicting the rest of the site, if not fully but partially. It may just be me, but I swear that I saw both Anki and Memrise recommended very strongly because they help with memorizing words. I’m confused now; should I not be drilling nouns and verbs? Is memorizing vocab detrimental to my learning of another language?

    • Hi Drea,

      Lingholic serves as a hub for language learners from around the globe to share their experience, success stories, and recommendations to other language learners. You are right, Anki has been recommended a few times over the past 2 years on this website, mostly through guest posts by language learners other than myself. Ultimately, the goal of Lingholic is to share a variety of perspectives and experiences; it is then up to the individual readers and learners to choose what they think might work best for them.

      Also, if you had asked me two years ago on whether I would recommend Anki or not, chances are that I would’ve said yes, although I have always included quite a few caveats when it comes to recommending memorization apps. In any of the article that I have personally written, you will always see that the emphasis is strongly put on context and the learning of whole sentences, rather than individual words.

      Lastly, this article mostly dealt with the distinction between output vs. input, and the frame of mind with which you should approach vocabulary acquisition and, more broadly, foreign language acquisition. Flashcard programs such as Anki may very well come in handy in some situations and for some types of people. I simply warned against using such an aide to rote memorize decontextualized words and to focus on output, which in the long run is not an efficient way to learn. I hope this clarifies things a bit! I welcome your additional feedback and I’d love to hear about your personal experience using apps such as Anki and memrise and whether you personally think it’s a worthwhile endeavor to focus on memorizing list of words.

      Best,

      Sam

      • Drea Lynn

        Thanks for the response. Personally, I like Anki if just for the fact that I have notoriously poor memory and simply don’t remember the words with or without context. When I tried to learn Spanish in university, we would always have to write short paragraphs – to which I always failed miserably because I would, somehow, always forget how to conjugate ser, estar, and ir (nevermind any nouns I should’ve known; all I remember from that disaster is “baño, por favor?”).

        Anki helps a lot with that. I can make fill-in-the-blank cards for verbs and force myself to remember that way. Nouns don’t need conjugation and I can use pictures to show physical objects instead of associating it with the English word.

        • Stefan Malic

          Has that been helpful to you in your Spanish studies?

          I’ve been studying Spanish for the past 2-3 years, but really I’ve mostly done it on and off. I would do it for a few days, 2 weeks most, and then quit for the next few months.
          Recently, I’ve started using Duolingo every day and I found it very effective. Granted, there are many words that I simply don’t care about.

          I don’t really remember how I learned English, but I know I started learning it in elementary school and I would read forums and that would provide me the necessary immersion. However, I do remember that the elementary school approach was pretty good. But yeah, I think immersion was definitely the key to successfully retaining the language and expanding my vocabulary and understanding of various collocations.

          Would love to hear more about your experiences.

    • Drea, I think it all depends on how you use an SRS program. I have tried it with a straight vocab deck (word-> definition), and I find that as interesting as licking wet paint off of a splintered fence. Also, as the author notes, you lose all the context of usage and appropriate colocations.

      I have benefited a lot from using Anki in conjunction wih subs2srs, which enables me to create flashcards from Japanese drama and anime. Having that additional context of how a word is used and the words it’s commonly used with has been a big boost to my language learning. Plus, subs2srs enables you to accompany text with audio, meaning you get both reading and writing practice.

  • Tiffany

    There is a place for rote memorization, and I think it a worthy goal for a beginner. Great words would be concrete words, words that you can easily show a picture of or point to. I am learning Japanese and enjoy watching YouTube videos in Japanese and listening to music, but I really desire to read in Japanese. I have bought a book I would love to immerse myself in (a cookbook, with pictures, since I love food) but I still need more vocabulary. I need more vocabulary to understand the YouTube videos, too.

    I am trying to keep in mind how I learned English: It was being spoken around me all the time, I started speaking it before I was literate, and I became literate a letter and word at a time. Words were put together to make simple sentences, and simple sentences were put together to make simple paragraphs. Things became more complex as time went on.

    We have to use different approaches according to our goals. The example person in this article needed to learn less words per day, and more concrete ones at that. He needed to speak, write, and listen to it also. I can only see him immersing in a French movie/show/Youtube channel and music. (And really, just for getting used to hearing the language.) If he wanted to immerse himself in a French book about something interesting, he is going to need knowledge of vocab and grammer, or look up each word as he goes.

    Really it all comes down to, What are you going to do consistently? And, Are you willing to do some hard work? Learning a language is similar to wanting to become healthier in this way: it is a lifestyle. There are different ways to eat food, there are different diets, but you get healthier by eating food that is better for your body, everyday, including when you don’t feel like it.

    • Brett

      Good points Tiffany, especially in asking ourselves “are you willing to do hard work?” Much is made of “interest,” as it should be since (probably) most learners aren’t training to be government spies. However, a little drilling and memorization never hurt anyone, as those types of activities are very helpful, even if we can discipline ourselves for 15 minutes a day.

  • I’d love to hear more specific examples for, “interesting resources to consult to immerse yourself in the language”

    • Hi Charles. I guess it all depends on the level of your skills in any given language, but I find that short, simple stories in bilingual format are great for high beginners/intermediate learners. Other ideas include watching TV series, listening to music (and singing along with the lyrics), reading the news, reading blogs in your target language, going through interesting dialogues in a language textbook, or even following popular accounts on social media (FB, Twitter, etc.) in your target language, or watching popular videos on YouTube. The list is endless. It all comes down to what your interests are, what makes you “tick”. The hard part is to find material that is suitable to your current level and needs, but the Internet has really made that job a lot easier for all of us…!

    • I personally break this down into the following categories: songs, TV/movies, the Web, making friends online or offline, video games, books, audio books and podcasts, thinking in English.

      There’s a whole world of resources waiting to be explored. It’s easier to find those for major languages (English, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese…) but it’s doable for smaller languages too (e.g. Hungarian.)

      It’ll get tougher if you’re learning a truly rare language (e.g: non-script) of course but then I’d assume you have access to native speakers.

  • How many words does one need in the first place?

    I designed my own frequency list for American English and 5,000 words would cover 96% of spoken American English. The numbers are on par with other studies.

    I’ve spent the last 20 months designing a training that lets people learn those 5K words in 12 months. That’s an average of 14 words per day. It’s already pretty ambitious but sustainable for anyone willing to study several times a day. e.g.: 20 min in the morning, then 5-10 min several times throughout the day to review, plus another 20 min the the evening to relax with an interesting dialogue.

    Let’s insist on one thing: they learn those words in the CONTEXT of sentences, and with a SRS to help. Context is key! Memory functions mostly by association. Learning a word on its own is close to useless. SRS and other reviewing schedules are not a must but they help optimize are efforts and save ourselves a lot of time. (Someone practicing a lot without an SRS will get better results than someone using useless content inside of an SRS.)

    One last thing: what’s a word? As silly as it may sound, it’s something that needs to be defined. Do `(one) book` and `(two) books` count as different words? Do `(to) book` and `(a) book` count as different words? Do the conjugated forms count as different words? Different trainings will use different definitions and may lead to a huge gap between one estimate and the next. Personally, I think the only definition that makes sense is counting in “lemmas” (words in dictionary form, roughly.)

    • Thanks for sharing your insights, Fabien. Out of curiosity, does the training material you’ve been working on only include words, or also sentences? Feel free to share the link for others to find out more about it if they’re interested to check it out.

  • Brett

    No doubt we’ve seen and heard this many times from various learners in different ways, but I’d like to know, method-wise, where “learn ___ words a day” came from. Since I haven’t seen any linguistic studies lately I may assume (hopefully not wrongfully, I’d like to see some) this phrase probably emerged from an advertisement, blogger or from some anonymous forum contributor. Personally, since questions like these do smack of click-bait marketing, I tend to agree with the author that, at least more often than not, these are wrong kinds of questions to ask for beginning language learners; maybe when Eric gets some more experience.

    But about the post…

    Not to draw out the illustration too much, but among other things, Eric, who is probably 20-23 years old, also has no discipline – perhaps a common trait in the modernized young person – as he tries French then Chinese, then perhaps another later on (again, not to beg too much from the illustration). As a side note, discipline seems to be, unfortunately, a taboo word nowadays. Is it me or does even the “fun” stuff get monotonous and tedious sometimes? Nothing wrong with a little “can-do” spirit once in a while, amirite? In any case, it’s always easy to get started and feel the somewhat illusionary benefits of quickly learning a new language; it’s always harder to put in the work over an extended period of time, just as in anything else. Despite Eric’s method, as inefficient as it may be to other methods, he would have attained a respectable intermediate level in maybe half a year if he kept on plugging away (there have been studies – Folse’s “Vocabulary Myths” comes to mind – that suggest learning words in isolation may not be all that bad. But these types of studies never get around the simple fact, as the author stated, that it’s much, much, much better to learn in context). And after all, he was studying French, a language closely related to English, and was using textbooks and watching TV alongside deck-study.

    But in this illustration it was wrong of Eric to let demotivation in one area of study to affect every area of study, and inevitably that was his downfall.

    He would also benefit by studying an introductory book on past and current foreign language instruction methodologies and maybe another on second language acquisition. This would help inoculate him from current trends, fads and methods that all vie for his attention (and his wallet). Getting the benefit of seeing that nothing is new under the sun and surveying the different methodologies, pedagogies and theories will also better enable him to pick and choose the right strategies to achieve his personal goals; this instead of perhaps slavishly trying to live up to an idealistic or some other learner’s goal that is unsuitable for his circumstances (which is in lieu of commenter Tiffany pointing out, that “we have to use different approaches according to our goals,” which is entirely correct). He could then find a “base” method, something sensible that he could do everyday for a smaller amount of time, then with the rest of his time experiment with any and all of the other methods out there, finding what he likes and dislikes to do. Then he can incorporate all of that into his base method and repeat the process over time as his circumstances and goals dictate. If that means he likes “learning ____ words a day,” I say let him go for it.

    I also have a question – how is memorizing words a form of output? Or perhaps, how can it become a form of output?

    Thanks

  • Vinicius Barbosa

    I am Brazilian and I have achieved the advanced level in spanish, in just 3 months, beucase I studied the most common words (+4000), and then I was comfortable to try all kinds of approaches there are to learn a language.
    I.e, watching series without subtitles, or with subtitles in the language I was learning, listening to music, writing short estories and asking someone to correct them if needed, reading articles, books or comments on videos I watched to procrastinate (haha) and a lot more.

    But I wouldn’t have been able to do that If I learned entire prhases, which take more time to learn and to review, and therefore, could lead us to a bad path on learning something, which is “Do I really need to repeat all the time the same thing?”. How about creating things with the words you already know? Getting yourself involved, with much more confidence, in all those approaches I have described, it is, to me, the best way to keep motivated.
    After you know the most used words (or the way natives say, if I was trying to repeat the “correct” way to say something in order to learn a language, the most common words) in the language you are learning, you could also study complete prhases. But with one difference, you already know all the words and you are only doing this to talk as a native would.

    • Hi Vinicius. I think that ultimately, everybody learns in a different way. You also have to remember that Spanish and Portuguese are very close languages; in fact, if it weren’t about politics, one of the two would probably be called a dialect since they are so similar (pronunciation notwithstanding). You also mentioned that you used a variety of approaches after having memorized a lot of words, which I assume helped to further widen your vocabulary and understand how sentences in the target language are formed and used in real life.

      I would argue that for most other languages, learning isolated words may not be a very good strategy.

  • Great article. Puts the argument well, shredding the belief that you can memorize your way to learning a language. There may be a few who may believe they did it that way, but I can guarantee they were also learning in other ways that enabled the mastery.
    Memorization gives the illusion of progress but when the rubber hits the metal and you actually have to conduct a conversation, all those hours spent memorizing soon comes to nought for most people.
    As Lingholic says best spend your time learning, what I call, organically so that your vocab develops with your interests and growing control of the language. Develop more interests and you vocab will grow faster!

    • Brett

      “but I can guarantee they were also learning in other ways that enabled the mastery” – exactly. Like when people say “all I did was ____” or “language learning is all about just doing ____” as if the entire field of practical second language acquisition rested crucially on one factor/method. One of my favorite cases is Krashen’s case study (freely available on his site) of Heinrich Schliemann, a guy who was famous for memorizing The Vicar of Wakefield and Ivanhoe – but also – wrote essays to his tutor and spent time listening to church sermons.

    • Thanks for your comment Andrew, I think you definitely hit the nail on the head. We live in an era where people expect instant gratification, and being able to put a finger on the exact number of words that you learned on any given day satisfies that urge, I guess.

      As you say, it’s in a certain way a false illusion of progress. Worse, memorizing too much vocabulary can lead to blockage, leading to situations where people overthink instead of “going with the flow”. I’ve seen a lot of language learners who knew very advanced vocabulary and yet, could not hold a simple conversation with a native speaker discussing things such as the weather or what they did over the weekend.

  • Tannay

    I would have never thought anyone would just want to memorize random words. I’ve always gotten mine from newspaper articles, poems, a book on Greek mythology, and when I come across words that I want to know, I save them in my Anki deck. Words that are useless to me, I just forget about them. Maybe I’ll see them a few times and remember them, but I really don’t need to know how to say forge in the target language.

    • I think people don’t memorize random words on purpose. They truly believe that they need to have knowledge of these words in order to reach fluency, while in fact it’s the opposite: you need to be fluent in a language before gaining knowledge of more advanced vocabulary. People focus too much on memorization rather than exposure to engaging content. You seem to be on the right track from what I can see 🙂

  • Thomas Bevan

    I was pretty successful learning French and Spanish while living in countries that spoke those languages.
    My approach was to systematically rote learn about ten new words each day that I had encountered during the day.
    This ensured that the words were relevant to me and likely to recur.

    In both places I was around other students. My observation was that people who did not systematically study vocab and grammar slowly fell behind those who didn’t.

    The author’s point about maximizing the number of sources of input is a good one but it need not be at the expense of sole me formalised learning and probably presupposes a certain level of competency.

    • That’s a great point Thomas. Based on your observation of students that fell behind, though, were these students also the kind not to get exposed to large amounts of input in the foreign language they were learning? Also, when rote learning 10 or so new words a day, did you try to have them memorized as part of sentences to give the words some context? Did you feel that you could easily use in conversations the words you had rote memorized? Thanks for commenting!

  • Jenny

    For me the best tactic is definitely doing flashcards to learn 30 or so new words a day that I encounter and decide are worth learning plus reading a French book everyday for 30 minutes to absorb grammar and learn/reinforce vocab.

    • Great to hear that this tactic has been working well for you Jenny. Do you feel you end up remembering the words that you review through your flashcards for a long period of time?

      • Laura Estefanía

        It has been working great for me too. It helps me to learn new vocabulary and improve my pronunciation. At the end of the day I think the thing that really matters is patience and consistency. It’s not a matter of which method works and which one doesn’t, I think most of them are ok if YOU make them work. For myself I have tried different methods and techniques, from classical school, to “street smarts”, also using flashcards. I think everything has its place in language learning as long as you be conscious there is not “magical way” to really learn a language.

  • Flashcards by NKO

    Unfortunately, it happens to a lot of people and not only once (I’m no exception). It turns out that I’m also trying to figure out why it happens over and over again despite all amazing tools and technology we’ve got nowadays. Yes, Eric sets a wrong goal. At the same time, I believe his even bigger mistake is committing to it too soon, being unconscious about the learning process itself, and letting automatic negative feedback loops to kick in. “But after two weeks, he goes through a slight motivation trough.” – that’s the point where he should’ve stopped and ask himself: “Should I adjust my goal? Why am I getting upset? How to make the process more relevant to me? What part of French I like the most?”. Probably carefully guarding his positive attitude and following what he enjoys and loves doing (by blending it with French) would be the right thing to do.

    • Looking at Eric’s situation, I think the problem lies in the very fact that he focused too much on goals rather than the process, or “system” to learn the language. Based on the argument made in the article, would you agree that trying to memorize a set amount of words every day is the wrong way to approach language acquisition? I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on this. Thanks for commenting!

      • Flashcards by NKO

        If we look at lives of high achievers, many of them have faced a lot of failures and wrong goals, wrong processes, wrong questions, etc. What makes a difference is their mind-set and ability to learn from mistakes. It helps build resilience (discipline if you wish) and techniques not only coping up with failures but praising them as valuable lessons. As Jenny mentioned, learning 30 cards a day works for her. Yes, it goes together with reading and creating cards (often ignored by beginners). So, what memorizing means anyway? 🙂 It depends on how we define it. Learning pre-made cards is probably the least effective tactic. Collecting words from reading (active relevant reading), spoken language is more effective because of connections you mentioned and relevance. If you try to build sentences with those words, spice up with mnemonics, the SRS, a lump of gamification, and immerse yourself into language environment, it would be a whole different story about “memorizing X words a day” because recalling those words would trigger a lot of connections, context, emotions, stories, and new questions. It would be actually even fun.

  • DeProgrammer

    I wrote software to sort my Anki deck by frequency of usage, and I’m making an English Anki deck for Japanese people sorted by frequency of usage based on my chat logs over the last 8 years. I’m much more likely to find a rare, nigh-useless word reading some manga than I am to find it early in my deck–and I’m speaking on the basis of countless such experiences here. I knew about that problem, so I rendered it a non-point. We can memorize common words first, and having their sound in our memory makes it easier to recognize them when they’re used and to mentally link the details of usage with the word, and the context in which we later hear those words helps shape our understanding of them until we truly know them.

    Using Anki makes your brain understand that information is important because you see it over and over until you remember it. Even if you only learn a word in one way (by that, I mean only by reading hiragana, or only by reading kanji, or only by recalling in response to an English stimulus), the fact that the word is somehow stored in your mind enables you to more easily learn other aspects of the same word. Indeed, the more links you can make between already-known information and new information (mnemonics, anyone?) the easier it is to commit something to memory.

    You’re absolutely right that one must still learn more detailed aspects of language such as nuances or alternate definitions via experience (at least until someone makes a truly amazing dictionary, I suppose), and you’re right that collocations are important. I figured I would try developing a collocation detector to improve my English Anki deck, but I know I don’t have anywhere near the volume of data really needed to make my deck highly effective on that front. As for my Japanese, I have a book called Common Japanese Collocations, but I can’t sit there and read a dictionary-like book. I need to put that into an Anki deck, too.

    Thanks to Anki, I have ‘memorized’ (based on hiragana prompts) over 13,000 Japanese words. I can’t recall most of them to use them in a sentence, and it’s incredibly difficult to say whether I ‘know’ a word when there are fourteen homophones and I can only think of some random set of five of them each time I see the prompt. However, when I struggle to complete a sentence and my Japanese friend suggests a word, I almost always recognize the word, and after just one such instance, it becomes a whole lot easier to remember that word when I want to use it later.

    Trust in Anki.

  • tolstoi

    It is a great article. It is something I found out hard way last year, when I breezed into French using the 625 “fluent forever” words, some grammar and practice. Then I got sick of anki and got studying and became pretty good (it was by no means a full time thing).
    But then now I realised that my vocabulary didn’t keep up. I.e. I am well past fluent but my limit is the lack of first 5000 word families and I suspect learning by rota would work in this case.
    as I moved to Denmark, I had to pause French on maintenance mode and start Danish and am learning from this mistake.
    So I did a few hundred words, assimil, some series with English subtitles just to get used to sounds and pick up words, then a 1000 families or so with first shot serious grammar study, then we see.

    What I noticed this time round is how words just don’t stick if they are beyond your level. You can anki all day using every memory technique out there and if you are ready, you can do 200 words in a day. But if the words are past your level then you start to burn out at 20. Obviously 200 words get you to your level in 2 or 3 days and then you hit a wall. I presume most people give up because of that rather than move to other learning methods for a bit.

    Anyways. Late to party but like this article and will follow you

  • Simi B Good

    I am using this kind of memorization apps but I make sure to not advance with the level of my vocabulary more than one lesson ahead of the course book I’m using (I prefere to go through lessons concentrating fully on the grammar presented rather than being held up wondering what this or that new word might mean).
    And of course if i keep stumbling over the same word in immersion material (books, movies, daily life etc) I might add it to my flashcards as well if I can’t remember it properly.

    Used that way I really thing memorization apps are a great help. It helped me greately when I was living in Chile for 6 months. Without every having studied Spanish before, just after 3 months I was able to at least cope with daily life situations and read my first (not too hard) Spanish novel.

    However, I completely agree that the way some people treat language learning as an almost competitive race for cramming in a short amount of time as much into your head as anyhow possible will most likely result in demotivation but even worse lots of time wasted.

    Let’s be serious. If you are never going to actively use the word and add context to it (the situations or environments it appears in), you just will forget it again. If you are very honest to yourself unless you love watching medical TV series or you’ve spent some time with a organ failure in a…let’s say French…hospital, you won’t permanently remember the word for ‘liver’ in French.

    I realized this instinctively even as a school kid. So when our French teacher wanted to get some (for him) no effort grades by just quizzing us on chapters from our vocabulary book, I simply refused to go along with it. Nope, I will not memorize the hospital related vocabulary by next week as I know I’m not going to use it any time soon.

    Otherwise having been a straight A+ student in languages, this got me 4 or 5 Fs straight in a row. I didn’t care.
    Lucky for me the teacher erased all those Fs cause I was the topper of the class and keeping his average grades quite high, which in return would show favourably on his employee evaluation. :p

  • Romy

    This article truly sums up what I feel is the biggest problem in language learning today! After years of just giving up with language learning, and having the mindset of ‘Eric’ in the story above, I discovered Steve Kaufmann and Luca Lampariello on youtube around 2 years ago!

    I immediately started learning German simply using short articles with audio, and shockingly, within a few months I could make my way through a novel, and then after a year, I could now comfortably read a novel (with many unknown words, but it never hindered my enjoyment), and could watch documentaries and TV shows!! I love reading German novels, and watching TV, and speaking to German friends when I have the chance, and it all just feels so ‘natural’, and I feel so free. It truly feels like you are discovering and exploring a world, not even aware that you are learning. Lying in bed watching ‘Friends’ in German, or staying up late into the night reading a fascinating novel, or going to a restaurant with Germans and chatting over good food, none of this is ‘work’ or ‘studying’, it is simply living :).

    Once you are on the other side, away from these ‘hardcore’ learning techniques such as brute memorization of words and grammar, you see how amazing language learning can be! The process itself is exhilarating! I think a big problem is that even when someone mentions to learn words in context, a lot of people see that as ‘Ah! instead of putting single words in Anki, I will now put whole sentences!’, which again, is completely missing the point. Reduce Anki to the minimum possible usage, and use simple articles with audio to work yourself up to the point where you can read a novel. As fast as possible, get into the world of authentic content, and then swim in it for years, following your interests!

    Do you have tips for how to approach friends who are interested in learning a foreign language, but keep trying it in methods that aren’t that efficient or useful? I find it hard to formulate a simple message on how to learn naturally, especially when in their mind, they already have an awful method they consider good pretty solidly anchored in there lol.

    • “Use simple articles with audio”? Without understanding the words? How does that even begin to make sense?

      • Ellie

        I agree. I’d say taking phrases you hear from native material (TV, songs, articles, etc) and then throwing them into Anki, or, bringing out a dictionary that has the translation AND the words used in multiple example sentences.

        You can’t just read an article with audio and magically become fluent. It takes a few different approaches that complement and supplement each other.

        Read native material, listen to music, skim a grammar book just so you’re AWARE of the patterns, and watch TV in the target language. And most importantly…. Actually speak it! It sticks more when you’re forcing yourself to think on the spot.

  • MarkR307

    I think it just depends on how much time you are going to invest on average every day. I use Anki, so I adjust the number of new words over time across my decks, so that the total amount of daily time spent with it is about 45min to an hour; and it’s usually not all at one sitting, it’s often several minutes here and there, even when I stop at a red light while driving, LOL.

    As for whether to learn words by rote in advance, or learn them as you go along while immersing yourself in a language activity (e.g. reading a book, watching a movie), I think do whatever feels more natural for you. In my case, I prefer to learn them in advance as much as I can, and the keep the immersion part to a level where I know at least 80% of the words, because: 1) I hate stopping and looking up words all the time; 2) I actually enjoy using memorization software, it’s not a burden and actually enjoyable if I keep it under 1hr a day 3) every time I see or hear a word, e.g. in a book or movie, that I had already memorized using software, I suddenly realize I know what it is and how it fits in a real situation – it’s like a little jolt of pleasure!

    But I can easily imagine that for others it could be quite the opposite. Using memorization software for more than several minutes a day might be extremely boring; looking up words is not such a problem; they might also be good at figuring out words intuitively (I’m very careful when doing this – I don’t always guess close enough).

    I think, my advice would be, experiment with different ways of doing it, and do it whatever way works out best for you. If you don’t enjoy the learning process, you probably won’t stick to it in the long run.. Besides, you are not going get a medal for doing things you did not enjoy.. 😉

  • anna

    Seriously, you have to understand a word to learn it. Just trying to memorize words is stupid.

    You have to encounter the word in a situation that will trigger you to think about it so that you will understand it.

    For example, my drunk German boyfriend would always say to me “ich bin booooooooooese” before he would pass out from his all day Alcohol binge.

    Boese means “evil”. I guess that because I am really anti drugs, and he was a closet druggie then it fitted.

    Another thing I found that made me learn was when the words were funny, like Geschlechtsverkehr- directly translated it means “gender traffic” !!!! How funny is that??? Can you work out what it actually means 😉

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