The most important task in language learning, in my opinion, is the acquisition of vocabulary.
If we have enough words, we can make sense of what we’re reading or listening to and we can somehow express ourselves. Vocabulary is much more important than grammar. The grammar you acquire gradually as you become familiar with the language, with the words, but first of all you need words.
How do we learn vocabulary?
There are two approaches. One is the deliberate study of vocabulary by reading vocabulary lists, flash-carding, keeping handwritten lists, these kinds of things. The other is to learn through a lot of exposure. Now, the strategy that you adopt will depend on your personal preference and also, in my view, how much time you have.
If you have a lot of time, six-seven hours a day as I did when I was studying Mandarin Chinese 45 years ago, then you can take an hour a day for the deliberate study of vocabulary. However, if you have one hour a day and two-thirds or three-quarters of that time, which I call dead time, is in your car, doing tasks around the house, walking the dog, then I suggest you don’t try to deliberately learn vocabulary.
There is significant research showing that what they call block learning – where you take some material and try to force yourself to learn it, reviewing it many, many times – is relatively inefficient. Interleaved learning, where you come across some information, then you forget it, you go look at some other information and you come back to that first information, so you’re sort of interleaving layers of different things, forgetting and relearning, actually enables you to learn things better.
Very quickly, the Law of Diminishing Returns sets in when we’re deliberately trying to learn something. It’s no longer fresh for our brain and the brain basically pushes back, whereas if you forget and come back to it you learn better. But if you have six-seven hours a day, there’s nothing wrong with spending some time reviewing flashcards.
If I look at my own pattern where I consume a lot of content through listening, reading and acquiring lots and lots of words, if I had to review them all in flashcards or on lists, I would spend all the time I have with the language doing it. I have to decide, do I want to spend my time reviewing words in flashcards or do I want to spend that time listening and reading to things of interest? I tend to do the listening and reading. I find that I acquire words very quickly and I have an enjoyable time doing it.
When to Speak
Of course, speaking is also helpful. What you hear the native speakers say while speaking is what I call high resonance, just as interesting content is high resonance. You notice things and learn vocabulary better if you’re engaged in a conversation. You also notice when you weren’t able to find the words yourself and then you hear someone else use them.
However, in my own case, I prefer to delay that speaking situation unless there’s a need: if I’m living in the country where the language is spoken. Otherwise, I prefer to delay it until I have something meaningful to say and can understand what the other person is saying. Otherwise, we end up with a very limited range of language that we’re exposed to like, “How are you?” “What’s your name?” “What’s the weather like?” etc.
Therefore, I prefer to give myself that significant exposure through listening and reading, quite confident that the high-frequency words will appear very often, the medium-frequency words will appear less often, but I will eventually get them, and the very low-frequency words, some will stick and some won’t. If they’re that low frequency, maybe I don’t really need them.
Ultimately, the choice is with the learner and my preference is to study in an enjoyable way. If I were in a course somewhere working five-six hours a day having to write an exam, I might take a different approach.
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