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.
That’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.
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.
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)?
Unless 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
Now, 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!