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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.


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