Learning a New Language and Why Many Struggle has been transcribed from Steve’s YouTube channel. You can download the audio and study the transcript as a lesson at LingQ.

Hi there, Steve Kaufmann here. I posted a post on my blog, The Linguist, on Language (I’ll try to remember to leave a link here) where I talked about whether we can learn 100 words a day. I think since I started learning Czech I have learned more than 100 words a day. Maybe 150 words a day, I don’t know. I describe all these numbers on my blog post. Basically, LingQ says that I know 25,000 words, but that includes non-words, numbers and names. How many of those there are I don’t know, maybe 10%. Plus, I have saved about 20,000 links, which includes a number of phrases.

Of the words that I have saved I don’t know how many I know, but I think I know maybe a third of them. So 25-28,000 words in there and then I said that and you’ll see this all on the exchange on my blog. Various people have challenged different aspects of this. Stefan from Denmark said, well yeah, that’s true in an inflected language like Czech where a noun might have six or seven different forms, verbs have different forms. In English there are fewer forms. I mean we do have ‘I go’, but we have ‘he goes’, ‘you go’, ‘we go’, ‘went’ and ‘gone’, so we have a few forms of the verbs. Probably verbs we have as many forms as the Czechs have, but in nouns we just have the singular and the plural and the Czechs might have six or seven. So if I have, theoretically, 25-28,000 words in Czech, what is that equivalent to in English?

I know that Professor Nation in New Zealand has said that the relationship between words and word families is one to 1.6 in English. We also know from research we did at LingQ that those lessons like ‘Who is She?’ and so forth, which are common to all of our supported languages, that there are more unique words in say Russian or French than there are in English and that ratio is two to one for Russian or 1.5 to one for the Romance Languages.

So we get somewhat of a sense, therefore, of our target in terms of learning words in the way we count them at LingQ, which is each different form of the word is different. So ‘goes’ is different from ‘go’ and on that basis if we say you need 10,000 for a certain level, you will need 15,000 in French and you’ll need 20,000 in Korean or Russian, let’s say. These numbers are all to be taken with a grain of salt, but they’re there because they’re an indication of progress. I know that with my 25-28,000 words in Czech, after six months I can read the newspaper on a subject that’s familiar to me, so I do know quite a lot of words.

Then the next point of attack or challenging this whole thing came from a person who said, well, as a language learner, he said, I think you can only say that you know a word if you know how to use it at will. So this is this whole discussion of passive vocabulary versus active vocabulary and I said that I consider that I know a word if I can recognize it in a certain context. Very often I can recognize the word in a context, but outside the context I may not know the meaning of the word, but to me that is enough.

So this was the major point of disagreement between me and this person Neal who with a lot of goodwill and so forth said, look, I’m struggling to learn Cantonese (that’s the language he’s learning) and I can’t learn 100 words a day, there’s no way. To me, when I consider a word known is when I can actually use it at will, he said. Well, I want to challenge the idea that you only know a word when you can use it and, particularly, use it at will and I do this for a number of reasons.

First of all, when I go to learn a language my first goal is to understand it. My first goal is comprehension. I want to be able to read and understand. I want to be able to listen and understand, listen to audio books, listen to people talking, watch movies, so the number one goal is to understand. In order to understand, I only need to know the meaning of words in specific contexts; in other words, helped by the surrounding words so that I can figure out the meaning. I know it well enough to understand it when I see it or hear it, that’s my number one goal. That’s point number one.

Point number two, even in my own language I know far more words passively than I use actively. If that ratio is three to one I don’t know, but in a foreign language the ratio is much larger, always, even in languages that I speak well because I’m not as confident in a foreign language. I for sure want to understand what the other person is saying, but when I go to speak I rely on the words that I really know, trusty words that I know exactly what they mean, I know that they’re correct in this context and I know that these words are used with these other words in this way in this context.

I use only the words that I can really trust. I might try, I might experiment with the odd words to see if it doesn’t raise any strange expressions on the face of native speakers, but mostly I rely on the tried and true words and expressions that I know work and I’m much more conservative in using words than when I’m trying to understand what people are saying and this is perfectly normal. So I think it’s perfectly normal that your passive vocabulary in a foreign language might be 10 times your active vocabulary.

Say I’m learning Russian and one of my goals in learning Russian is to read Tolstoy, so I want to understand Tolstoy, I cannot presume to use words like Tolstoy. That’s just not going to happen. He is an artist, he creates using words, that’s his medium and I’m going to use all the words that he uses? I don’t think so. I want to understand the words that he uses and that’s perfectly legitimate.

To suggest that you’re going to use all the words that you can learn passively to me is not realistic. Furthermore, I think it’s counterproductive to say that if you come across a word you’re going to try and nail that word down until you can use it at will, until you can use it anywhere and so forth. That’s not realistic. It’s far more realistic to let your passive vocabulary grow through lots of reading and listening, lots of exposure, lots of enjoyment of the language, understanding what people are saying in conversation and not worrying about when those words convert into words that you can use. They will do so gradually.

If you try to nail down every single word you learn and convert it into something that you can use at will, of course your vocabulary will grow very slowly because it’s a very difficult thing to do. It’s not because you’re studying this list of words, it’s not because you’re going through flashcards that those words are going to stick for you. In fact, very often things that we study now won’t stick for us until six months later so it’s better to forget about it.

You learn it, you forgot it. You learn it, you forgot it. You kind of can figure out what it means in a context. When you read you can’t yet figure out what it means when you hear it. It doesn’t matter, you just keep going. You exposure yourself to more content gradually and, surprisingly quickly, your passive vocabulary grows and it grows, largely, incidentally. In other words, most of the words I know in Czech I did not deliberately study on my flashcards. Most of the words I know in Czech, Russian or French are words that I just got to know because I had been reading so much. They kept on showing up, they’re similar to other words and I was able to infer the meaning and all of a sudden they’re part of my vocabulary, but my passive vocabulary.

Over a further period of time as I’m speaking more and searching for words, occasionally, I’ll reach back in there for one of those passive words, bring it out, use it and it worked. My native-speaker friend didn’t say, I don’t understand, he seemed to understand. Slowly these passive words are converted into active words, but in my opinion when we evaluate how many words we can learn and how many words we know it’s as passive words.

Learning Czech and Accumulating 100 Words a Day

I sat down to dinner with my wife, who is not a keen language learner. She speaks a few languages, but she’s not into this discussion at all. I just said, to you, when I ask you if you know a word in a foreign language, does it mean that you can use it or does it mean that you can understand it and she said that I can understand it.

So that’s my take on it. Be happy if you have passive vocabulary, focus on the passive vocabulary, increase your comprehension, your ability to understand what you read and what you hear and the active vocabulary will come. This is my advice, this is how I learn, you can do it however you want, but don’t get hung up on the idea that you have to use or be able to use all the words you learn because that’s very, very difficult to do.

So that’s my answer to my friend Neal Murray, who has been commenting on my blog. That’s my take on this whole issue of how quickly can we learn words and what we mean when we say we know a word. Thank you and I look forward to your comments.

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