Language Learning: Vocabulary

The other day I noticed I could more or less understand simple Spanish. This is the result of studying other Romance languages, French and Latin, and just a bit of Spanish itself. These little glimpses of comprehension were enough to prompt further study and acted as motivation to deepen my knowledge of the language. Actually, what got me reading Spanish was a headache which I thought would be ameliorated by the sounds of the language, but that’s another story. There are basically three things I do when studying languages: basic grammar, vocabulary and composition, in that order. I’ve come to think of vocabulary as the crucial step to fluency.

With languages, the learning process is never over and one must spend some time maintaining the languages one knows while updating others and maybe beginning the next one. I’ve known at least one of those annoying people who seem to have acquired eight languages with relative ease and almost pass for a native speaker in each. I’m not one of them and actually have to study. It takes time to learn to read a foreign language, even if it is a familiar European language like French or German that doesn’t have a script that looks like a Keith Haring piece or grammar that makes differential equations look like … another Keith Haring piece. It takes a lot of time and effort, I’m sure, even if you have a mutant brain. And vocabulary acquisition in particular takes a lot of time.

One of my past language purchases, an impulse buy really, was Rush Hour German. It sounds like a fairly standard language course and I’ve been more or less happy with it. The file is five hours long, which is usually a good indicator of quality. But here’s what I came to realize listening to the course: there are not enough words in it to make you able to read a German newspaper. Bild, maybe, but that’s mostly pictures of cars and tits. Rush Hour German says it will teach you 400 essential words and that that should get you going. Maybe it will, but it will not get you very far.

English has the most words of any language and my Wikipedia source tells me 2,000 words is enough for a rudimentary grasp of English — the figure is based on research conducted in the fifties. Probably, but you are going to need quite a few more words to read and write anything resembling decent prose. The number sounds low for some reason and 400 sounds ridiculously low for German as well. Perhaps the hours checking French words from dictionaries are knocking in the back of my head.

To get back to the Wikipedia article, research from the 80s tells us that 2,000 words provides 80% reading comprehension (whatever that means), for 6,000 words that number is 90% and 98% for around ten thousand words more. I suspect something of importance happens on the higher end of that scale — perhaps something like what is argued by the generative linguists. At an average rate of 3,000 words per year the average student will have gathered the 12,000 words possessed by the average high-school graduate in four years. Chomsky told Ali G that a normal mature human being will have tens of thousands of words at his or her disposal. I’m guessing here, but tens of thousands sounds like true fluency. I’m sure I know more than 400 words of German and yet can do very little. Perhaps it’s because I don’t know much of what is being left unsaid when I say something.

The larger figures begin to make sense when you think about how long it actually takes the average student to learn a new language. Four years of active study sounds about right — by active I mean that you are learning about eight new words a day or 3,000 a year. It’s a leisurely pace when you compare it to Mr Mutant Brain and his ilk, but even so it does assume daily contact with the language. It also gives us a hint as to how to accelerate language learning: by learning more vocabulary. If your memory is more or less normal, you might be able to double the amount of vocabulary you learn in a year. Make it not the word of the day or eight words a day, but sixteen. It sounds simple, but demands great discipline. Especially if this has to be done while maintaining other languages. An experiment might be orchestrated quite easily and perhaps I’ll do that in the near future. Then, we could tell the world that the secret to learning a language is looking up words in the dictionary and remembering them when you see them the next time.

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