How I learned my first 10,000 words in Korean

by Joe LeBlanc

My Method

Spaced repetition, everyday, for an hour. I don't think I have missed a day in 3 years. If you are unfamiliar with spaced repetition please take a look here and come back.

Consistency has been the key here. I will note- this is roughly an hour per day of reviewing the words. I spend additional time reading materials(fiction books, textbooks, news articles, twitter etc) to find words I don't know and make new flash cards based on those words. That is probably an additional hour per day.

After the first 2000 words or so- I started using Korean definitions for all my cards(got this tip from the Fluent Forever book). Initially this is extremely painful- but it's been SO worth it. You dramatically improve your reading speed, comprehension and pronunciation this way(I read aloud when I study).

My App - SmartCards+

This is the app I use to learn. I started with Anki 3 years ago and in the process of becoming obsessed with learning Korean vocabulary I created this app. It's very similar to Anki in terms of the Algorithm but (for me at least!) much simpler and more satisfying to use. Also for what it's worth- it's now completely free to use (ad supported). It also supports Anki Deck import for anyone that might want to switch over.

SmartCards+ app images

Vocabulary acquisition continues to get easier over time The more words you know the easier it is to make connections with other words. I'm still reviewing my words for about an hour per day, but my rate of learning has steadily increased. Each year I'm reviewing and more cards per day but I'm spending less time reviewing each card because my reading speed and confidence continues to improve.

Average words learned per day over time

I'm finally starting to regularly be able to guess word meanings from context

To be able to grab most words from context it is said that you need to understand about 95% of the words you are hearing/reading. From my personal studies this seems about right. I've read 3 Roald Dahl translations and I typically highlight one or two words per page I'm reading. Most of the time it's easy to tell from context what they are(or guess close enough) and rarely will I hit a word or passage that I can't easily understand. I'm also reading a longer form Korean fiction book right now and I'm probably closer to 80%-85% word comprehension here- and it's MUCH more difficult to understand. At this rate I can understand main plot points, but I'm missing a LOT of nuance. If I'm not reading a book I try to read one news article per day. Usually these are fairly difficult and require me to look up a lot of new words, but sometimes depending on the topic I can surprisingly understand most or all of it easily.

Passive Learning Becomes Easier and More Effective

Watching shows, reading books, listening to podcasts is a great way to learn. In my opinion it is REALLY REALLY hard and borderline impossible to effectively learn vocabulary and grammar through passive methods. However, it's an incredibly effective way to reinforce and learn the nuance of vocabulary and language. For me- If I can't at least roughly follow along with what's happening I just zone out and learn nothing. So improving vocab has been critical in expanding the number of possible learning sources. The more I put into my studies- the more I get out of passive learning.

At any point I probably can't remember 15-20% of the words in my SRS

This is to be expected of course and is the whole point of using an SRS(spaced repetition system). Forgetting is a part of learning. I've come to appreciate that relearning old words you have forgotten is JUST as valuable as learning new words. Another common occurrence is- I've learned a word, but when I hear it come up for the first time in conversation it doesn't jump out at me as a word I know. So the speaker may have to explain it to me. At that point the word generally comes back and despite not recognizing it at first- having that ‘aha' moment is much more satisfying because the explanation I'm hearing of the word is then matched up to the previous study I've put in on it.

Final thoughts on learning 10k words

Some guides say that 10,000 words is ‘fluent' but I would have to disagree. Everyone has a different definition of ‘fluent' so this is super subjective. 10k words is a huge milestone and a lot of Korean speakers are impressed by my Korean and might even call me fluent. However when writing and speaking, even though they have improved A LOT, I have a long way to go for me to consider myself fluent.

About the writer

Joe LeBlanc is a musician, photographer and indie app developer based in Washington DC.

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