Approaches to learning another language

How many words do you need to learn?

An analysis of English vocabulary* has found that the first 1000 words account for 84.3% of the words used in conversation, 82.3% of the words encountered in fiction, 75.6% of the words in newspapers, and 73.5% of the words in academic texts. The second 1000 accounts for about another 5% (specifically, 6% of conversation, 5.1% of fiction, 4.7% of newspapers, 4.6% of academic texts). In other words, if you learn the top 1000 words, you would understand 84% of the words used in ordinary conversation, and if you learned the top 2000, you would understand 90% of the words used.

While the effort to learn this second 1000 words may seem a lot of effort for not much gain, the difference between understanding 84% of the words and understanding 90% is actually quite dramatic. Learn those first 2000, and you can go out there and talk to people, and the words you don’t understand will be obvious by context a lot of the time.

You will also have enough to read novels (87.4%) — not quite as good a coverage as in conversation, but good enough, especially when you consider the advantage a book has over conversation — you can take as long as you need to understand what’s being said.

I haven’t seen such analyses in other languages, but I imagine that the results would be similar (perhaps even higher coverage given, since it is generally agreed that English has a particularly large vocabulary).

I.S.P. Nation says, in his widely regarded text on learning vocabulary in another language1, that “high-frequency words are so important that anything that teachers and learners can do to make sure they are learned is worth doing.”

In one sense, high-frequency words are easier to remember because you come across them so often. But words are inherently different in how easily learned they are. What factors govern the learnability of individual words?

Factors that affect how easily learned a word is

The most important factor in determining how easily words are learned is, of course, how similar they are to the words in one's native language (or another language you know well). Learning a language that is closely related to a language you already know is obviously a very different proposition to learning a language that is unrelated. Thus, learning Spanish when you already know French and English and Latin (my own position) is made infinitely easier by virtue of the vast number of words that are "cognate" (words that are the same or very similar in both languages).

You do need to pay particular attention to so-called "false cognates" - words which appear similar, but have different meanings. But in most cases that doesn't require any special strategy; the observation that they are different is enough (provided, of course, that you are sufficiently aware to remind yourself every time you come across the word - this is much easier if you are immersing yourself in a language).

Another factor is the similarity between the word and other words in the chosen language that you've already learned.

Another factor is the context in which you are learning the word. You generally don't learn only one word at a time. So factors that will influence ease of learning will be:

  • the relationship between the words (it's more difficult to remember words that are similar in meaning, if you try and learn them at the same time);
  • how many words you're learning at a time (if the words are difficult, learn fewer);
  • the order in which you learn them (words you learn first and last are more easily remembered, therefore you need to give more attention to those in the middle, to make up for it)

What's your goal?

Your strategy will also be very different depending on whether your primary goal is to understand the language (either in reading or listening) or to produce it (speaking or writing). Learning to speak or write is of course much more difficult than simply learning to understand (which requires recognition rather than the harder recall).

Approaches to learning vocabulary

Your approach to learning a language depends therefore on all these factors. Most particularly, how you learn a language depends on why you want to learn the language.

A large proportion of teach-yourself language books assume your purpose is to travel in a country that speaks that language. Accordingly, the emphasis is on learning appropriate phrases for situations such as eating in a restaurant, buying a train ticket, etc. Another, growing, section is aimed at business travelers, with appropriate phrases for formal introductions, conversations in an office, etc. Both of these categories emphasize the conversational — learning to speak and listen.

None of these, I'm afraid do anything for me. I’ve tried, but they are too far from what I want. Any time I spend on them is wasted by the little voice saying, ‘So? Do I care? Why should I want to know this?’ My own desire is always to be able to read the language.

I was wildly delighted when I found "Literary Chinese by the inductive method" - a 1948 book that teaches Chinese by presenting the text of the simplest classic Chinese text - the Classic of Filial Piety - and providing notes on the meaning of each character, including notes on the derivation of those characters and their elements. This method probably would not appeal to many people, but since my primary reason for learning Chinese is to read the classic texts, it appeals to me hugely.

A large part of the appeal is that you are learning, right from the beginning, something "real". This is a text that people have been reading and studying for over 2000 years. That alone gives the words an intrinsic fascination. And looking at each character through its etymology gives each word a depth of meaning that immediately provides connections, and sometimes, emotional resonance.

For me, that is. I recognize that, for many people, this approach would leave them cold.

The point is that, regardless of how "good" a course/book/program is, what matters is how well it works for you. Which is why, even if you're using a "canned" system, you still need to customize it to your own quirks and style. To do that you need to have a wide variety of strategies to call on, and an understanding of the principles involved.


General resource for learning another language

Learning English:

learning words in context: (news items with difficult words and phrases explained) give it a word and it will find words that rhyme with it, and also point to definitions, and quotations in which the word appears exercises to improve your English new idiom to assist students of English. They provide a definition as well as audio files of the idiom itself and the idiom used in context.


Nation, I.S.P. 2001. Learning Vocabulary in Another Language. Cambridge University Press.

tags strategies: 

Retrieval practice & the keyword mnemonic

Retrieval practice, as its name suggests, is a simple strategy that involves retrieving the target information one or more times prior to testing. It is not the same as repetition or rehearsal! The idea is not to simply repeat the correct information, but to try and retrieve it. Feedback as to the correct answer may or may not follow.

The keyword mnemonic is the most studied mnemonic strategy, and of proven effectiveness in learning vocabulary, most particularly when measured against rote repetition or “use your own methods”, but also when compared with the popular context method (students experience the word to be learned in several different meaningful contexts; they may or may not have to guess the meaning from the context). It has also effectively been used to learn artists’ styles, taxonomic information, attribute information, and the main points in text passages.

Results from using the keyword method have been quite dramatic. For example, in a classic study from the researchers that developed this strategy (Atkinson & Raugh 1975), over a third of the 120 words were remembered more than 80% of the time in the keyword condition, compared to only one item in the control condition (glaz for eye — a mnemonic link so obvious I am sure most of the control participants used it). Moreover, only seven words were remembered less than half the time in the keyword condition, compared to 70 in the control (“use your own method”) condition! Overall, the keyword group recalled 72% of the words when they were tested on the day following the three study days (40 words were studied each day), compared to 46% by the control group. When they were (without warning) tested again six weeks later, the keyword group remembered 43% compared to the control group’s 28%.

As you see, the benefits of the method are quite clear.

Which demonstrates how impressive it is that in a study that compared the two, retrieval practice resulted in the same, and in some cases, better performance than the keyword method.

In this 2007 study1, two lab experiments involving university students compared the learning of German words using either the keyword mnemonic, retrieval practice, or rote repetition, and found no difference in performance between the two experimental groups, and both significantly better than rote repetition. This was followed by an experiment involving 56 secondary school pupils, comparing the learning of German words learned in four different ways (that is, all the pupils were given the same instruction; groups of words were presented in different ways).

In the first section of the instruction booklet, each English word with its German translation was presented with an elaborating sentence (for example, “The German for SHARP is SCHARF, scharf also means hot (as in spicy).”; “The German for LIGHTHOUSE is LEUCHTTURM, Leuchtturm consists of the two words for shine and tower.”) — this was the elaboration strategy. In the next section (retrieval practice), the English and German words were read out when first presented, and on the following pages the students were required to retrieve the German word on seeing the English word. There were filler pages in between each retrieval attempt on the expanding schedule of 1-3-5-7 (that is, one intervening filler item before the first attempt, three items before the second attempt, and so on). In the third, keyword, section, the English and German words were presented with a description of a suggested image (e.g., “The German for SHARP is SCHARF. Imagine cutting a German flag with SHARP scissors.” “The German for LIGHTHOUSE is LEUCHTTURM. Imagine people LOITERING near a lighthouse.”). In the last section, a strategy combining both the keyword and retrieval practice was employed.

The time allowed for each page was controlled, and was only a few seconds.

There were two tests: recalling the English meaning on seeing the German words, and giving the German words when presented with the English meaning. The tests were given twice — immediately, and one week later. For the easier task (giving the English in response to the German), words learned using the elaboration strategy were significantly more poorly remembered, and results from the other three strategies were not significantly different in the immediate test, but after a week, the words learned by the combined method were significantly better remembered than those learned by the others. Words learned by the retrieval practice strategy were slightly, but not quite significantly, better remembered than those learned by the keyword method.

For the harder task (remembering the German), the difference between retrieval practice and keyword mnemonic reached statistical significance.

The big advantage of retrieval practice is of course that it is a very simple, easily learned technique. It also requires much less cognitive effort than the keyword mnemonic, which puts off many people because of the difficulty of finding good keywords, and the effort (which is greater for some than for others) of creating images.

There are two aspects of the retrieval practice strategy, as it was used here, that should be noted. One is the basic principle that retrieval is always better than rehearsal, because retrieval is the task you should be practicing for, and because rehearsal gives you no feedback as to how well you have learned, and retrieval does. That is why testing is so valuable — more valuable as a learning tool than as an assessment tool. Testing teaches; even pretesting (before the student even knows the information to be learned) improves learning. (Two studies on this are reported in a Scientific American article at )

The second aspect is that the retrieval occurred on a distributed schedule.

I have talked before about the importance of spacing your learning (rehearsal; practice). So now I’ll just add one thing, from a recent (2009) study2.

Interleaving practice is a related strategy that has (mostly in the area of motor skills, but of wider applicability) been shown to improve learning. With interleaved practice, a lesson is followed by practice problems relating to many earlier lessons, ordered so that no consecutive problems are of the same type. As is readily apparent, interleaving naturally involves distributed practice, so it’s not clear whether interleaving is on its own, separate from the effects of distribution, of benefit. This new study managed to disentangle interleaving from spacing, and found that, even when spacing was held constant, interleaving more than doubled test scores (77% vs 38%).

However, and this is perhaps the really interesting part, it did so having impaired performance during practice. That is, not unexpectedly, performance was poorer during the learning period, when practice was interleaved.

And here we bring in a concept that is also of relevance in discussing the value of testing for learning: the idea of desirable difficulty (a term devised by Robert Bjork and colleagues).

In these days of trying not damage students’ self-esteem by having them experience failure, it is well to remember this concept.

(I have summarized this material in a 7-minute video.)


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