Vocabulary: The Biggest Challenge in Language Learning
All facets of language learning are important, including: reading, listening, speaking, grammar, pronunciation, etc. But vocabulary is the most important. Perfect grammar can't help you understand or speak if you don't know the words. On the other hand, if you get the grammar wrong but use the right words, you will probably still be understood.
Vocabulary is also the biggest challenge. There are only so many grammar rules. You will be reviewing those same rules over and over again, slowly strengthening your understanding of them the entire time you are learning a language. But the amount of vocabulary in a language is essentially infinite -- new words are coined every year.
Read more for advice on how to surmount this challenge!
It is often quoted that the 2,000 most common words in the English language make up 96% of the vocabulary in the average spoken conversation (Schonell, et al. 1956; via the Wikipedia). But this is extremely deceptive. All the meaning is in that last 4%.
If you take a look at these lists of common words, you'll see they're largely grammar or "connector" words like: a, the, in, on, at, with, who, what, where, etc. Later in the list you'll start to hit basic vocabulary like the colors, "boy", "girl", etc.
But you can't have a real conversation with only the 2,000 most common words because in a real conversation you're talking about something! And the topic you're talking about (ex. the weather, music, food, your job, etc) probably has a couple hundreds words specific to it. In any conversation, maybe only a dozen of these specialized words will appear but the other person could say any of them! So, you'll need to know them all.
The 2,000 most common words can be a good starting point, but in order to understand or speak about all the same topics that you do in your native language, you will need to know a lot more words!
There is no magic number for how much vocabulary you need. You have to simply learn as much as possible.
Here is a great article which addresses all sides of this. The article states that Webster's 3rd edition has around 54,000 words and the average native speaker of English knows around 20,000 words. It also lists several studies that show you need to know at least 95% of the words in a written text to understand it.
With written language, you need many more words to reach 95%:
|Vocabulary Size||Written Text Coverage|
Francis and Kucera. 1982; via the Wikipedia
When I started reading Harry Potter in Polish, I had to learn thousands of new words before I could read comfortably. Almost all of those words came in handy later when speaking with Polish people.
There are lots of ways to learn vocabulary: flashcards, word lists, computer programs (ex. Rosetta Stone). But in your native language, you learned almost all the vocabulary you know from context. That is from encountering the words while reading or listening to others.
Why should we learn differently when studying a foreign language?
There is one basic rule that applies to learning a language - QUANTITY. Imagine how many words of your own language you utter and hear in a year - hundreds of thousands - probably over half a million....
If you are going to master a new language, then you need to have as many words as this, if possible, pass through your brain, one way or another, in a year....
Most language students only manage a small fraction of the THROUGHPUT that is necessary, and as a result, their progress is slow....
Success means finding really easy things to read - basic stuff, and reading a lot of it. It also means listening to as much of the target language as you can stomach....
You'll need to learn the grammar, but only to get an understanding of how things work. You cannot quickly learn the language from grammar alone.
- From evan1965, creator of CURSUM LATINUM a free, online video course in the Latin language.
I agree with evan1965 completely! The key to learning a lot of vocabulary for me has always been lots of reading and listening.
Of course, when you start out, you will know very few words. So, you will probably have to look up lots of them in the dictionary. Having a good online dictionary or using a foreign language reading tool like BiblioBird, Lingro, Lingq or The Polyglot Project can help.
In my experience, I rarely remember a word the first time I look it up. I usually have to encounter a word multiple times before I truly remember it. For this reason, using a computerized flashcard system like Anki or SuperMemo to review the words you are learning can help.
I don't think flashcard systems are a complete replacement for learning words in context, but they can help keep the words fresh in your mind until you encounter them in context again later.
Learning in this way, I was able to go from barely speaking Polish to speaking proficiently in only one year!