Words, acquiring words, that is the core task in language learning. Over the years, I’ve seen all kinds of theories on mastering new words, because learning words is such a big deal and  a major preoccupation of language learners. 

A common piece of advice is to try to learn 10 words a day, as if you can just force yourself to learn. It doesn’t work. This approach emphasizes memorization and repetition in the hope that the learner has the discipline to stick with it. Given that you need tens of thousands of words, 10 words a day, even assuming you remember what you study, is going to take you a long, long time.

The Myth of Daily Quotas

Some learners think that adhering to a strict regimen of memorizing a set number of words daily is the pathway to learning a language, or at least of acquiring  vocabulary. However, this method can quickly become a tedious chore, devoid of the joy and natural curiosity that fuel our language learning journey. Instead of focusing on block learning of disconnected words, our efforts should be directed towards integrating new vocabulary into our active language use, understanding not just the word itself, but how it works together with other words. Besides this is how the brain learns. More than simple repetition, meeting words in varied and meaningful contexts is more in line with how the brain eventually puts new words and phrases into long term memory. It is also boring to study lists of words, even in flash cards. The brain doesn’t like boring.

A More Natural Approach

Language is not a collection of words to be memorized in isolation; it’s a means of communication. I have always found that if you can make learning a language interesting you will learn faster and enjoy it more. My approach to learning vocabulary centers on immersion and meaningful interaction with the language. This can be through reading interesting content, listening to engaging audio or video content, or conversing with native speakers. The goal is to encounter new words often in different contexts. That is how they are going to stick.

That is how I designed LingQ, and in fact this concept is at the origin of LingQ. LingQ enables learners to integrate all the content and resources of the internet into a varied and interacting language learning experience.

Vocabulary is then learned using comprehensible content of interest.

Context Is Key

When you come across a new word within a context that interests you, it creates a connection in your mind. This connection is much stronger than the superficial link formed by rote memorization. By engaging with content that resonates with you personally, whether it’s a news article, a novel, or a podcast, you’re more likely to remember them. This is not only  because they have relevance and meaning to you, but recent research on how the brain learns has confirmed that this is how we learn words.

Embracing a Broad Vocabulary

Don’t think you can shortcut your way to a usable vocabulary . Try  to be realistic about how many words you need to even be conversational, let alone to be able read books and understand movies. Forget trying to focus on the most common words. You’ll get them anyway. Don’t shy away from less common words. You will need them. The more diverse your vocabulary, the more likely you will understand and be able to speak, even if your active vocabulary is more limited than your passive vocabulary.

The Journey Is the Reward

Lastly, I want to emphasize that language learning is a journey, not a race. There’s no finish line where you know every word of a language. Instead, it’s a continuous exploration, where each new word learned is a step further into the world of a new language. The more words you know, the easier it is to learn new words. 

So, I think the notion of daily word quotas is a bad idea and unrealistic. Work towards a more natural, enjoyable, and effective method of learning vocabulary. Challenge yourself by seeking out authentic content, more and more difficult, on subjects of interest. You can use LingQ and import text, audio files, and youtube videos and have them automatically converted into lessons so you can learn the vocabulary you need. 

Until next time, keep exploring, keep learning, and let your curiosity lead the way.