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Vocabulary Volume: How to Find Your Perfect Word Count for the Day

by Daniela McVicker

It's amazing really. Even though our languages started to differentiate the moment we came out of Africa, we've struggled all this time to know how to learn other people's tongues. For centuries people thought that the most effective system was to stamp grammar and vocab and nature would take its course. Advances in science have, at least for adults, put that idea in the ground.

Instead we know we've got to approach things differently for adults if we want them to learn a language quickly. Nowadays it's all about spaced repetition, where there is a suitable gap between when you repeat the words, and studying content instead of just the language. This seems to be related to the fact that as adults we approach language learning as problem solving.

Vocabulary words or units?

That said, there is still more than enough space for vocabulary learning. The obviously question then becomes, how much should you aim for? Before we can answer that, though, we have to consider something else. What really is the basic conversational unit of a language?

We get obsessed with this idea that individual words are in fact the units of a conversation, but even a moment of self-reflection tells you that isn't really true. Phrases like 'thank you' or 'I'm sorry' are just as much a language units as 'yellow' and 'city'. In fact, a great deal of language learning is the clumping of more basic units into larger phrases. It is to a large extent here that language fluency comes from. That's an important thing to remember when you start writing the words you want to learn onto your index cards.

How many words?

Putting that aside, how much vocabulary should you be aiming at. Should you try for 5 to 8 words or vocab units, as some sites advise? That's certainly a very doable number, the only problem is that it will take you an absolute age to reach fluency in this manner. After all, your average language speaker has about twenty thousand words in their vocabulary, to not even mention basic phrases.

So at that rate, you'd need seven years to get a vocabulary or 20k words.

At the other extreme there are people that say you should learn 100 words a day, using such things as mnemonics and other similar strategies, like memory palaces. Now, though that would certainly speed up the learning process, the investment of time you'd need to not only learn those words but also review them would mean any normal job (or life) is pretty much impossible. To not even mention how you'd have no real time to learn the grammar and practice the language besides – both of which are important aspects of language acquisition.

A more effective speed to try to learn at is somewhere between 15 and 20 words a day. In this case, reaching a fluent vocabulary will take between two and a half to three and a half years, which is acceptable. What's more, you'll be able to review the words effectively – which means repetitions not just in the same day but later in the week, the month and the year as well.

Learning tools

Now, traditionally that would mean writing words on index cards and finding some way to cycle back to words you've already learned. Now this is certainly a viable strategy. In fact, there is quite a lot of evidence that just the act of writing things by hand improves memory. At the same time, for many of us this can get very boring, very quickly.

And that while there are plenty of apps available to help us make learning languages more fun (and therefore make it more likely that we'll continue to engage in it). These use gamification – like point systems, colors and badges – to engage us on multiple levels, while sending us email reminders to keep us coming back.

I myself have experienced their power first-hand, as it taught me Spanish in under a year (admittedly having a Latin American partner who refuses to speak English helps). The app doesn't just teach us new vocabulary, but it also – as I already discussed above – clumps the language you already have into useful chunks and then drills them into you through frequent repetition. In this way you pick up a language quickly.

Language in context

Another strategy that I mentioned briefly above is to learn languages in context. The number of people who have learned to speak a foreign language by taking classes, or even going to university, in that language are astronomical and they often have a grasp of the language unparalleled by people who are just trying to learn the language.

If you do go down this road and you're struggling with getting your assignments done on time, I advise help through essay-writing websites. What really works is to first try to write the essay yourself, to the best of your ability, and then get the site to take over when you can't get any further on your own. Then, when the result comes back, sit down and analyze how they solved the problems you had. You can learn a great deal this way. Do make sure you get a good site for this, however. Here are some reviews of companies for you to consider.

What matters in language learning

So many of us start off full of good hope, certain that we'll stay the course with what we're trying to undertake. Then we realize how hard what we're actually trying to do really is and give up. The problem with language learning is that if you do this, all your time will be wasted. Those parts of the brain that are slowly being molded into a language network need to constantly keep being activated for them to not simply wilt away. For that reason the most important thing to do in language learning is to keep going.

For that reason, whatever you do, make certain that you pick a vocabulary learning level that you can actually keep going at over the long run and if you're struggling to sustain the level you're at, then don't feel bad about taking it down a notch. Whatever you do, though, don't take it down all the way. Keep working at it, even if it's only a little bit every day. Otherwise you'll curse yourself for a fool in a few years' time for not having kept it up.

About the writer

Daniela McVicker is an author, psychologist and educator. She believes that success depends on knowing the ideas that allow you to manage and master the universe of information. Check her Twitter or read her blog to find more about Daniela.

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