Open Book

How to Learn Words

How to Learn Words has been transcribed from Steve’s YouTube channel.  The original video was published on November 20, 2012



Hi there, Steve Kaufmann here. Today I want to talk primarily about how I learn words because that was a request I had from one of the people who follows me here at YouTube. How do I learn words? First of all, before I get into that let me just say that I’ve been experimenting with using Google Plus hangouts for discussions primarily with our LingQ learners to explain some of the functions of the new version of LingQ 2.0 and so forth and I found the experience extremely frustrating. It may be because I’m technically inept, but it seems that I go to invite people who sign up, they want to be there and then they don’t get invited. It’s just been a mess. On the LingQ page at Google Plus it seems that there’s like four, five or six postings of the same hangout. I don’t know what’s going on.


I must say that, in general, this whole world of Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, LinkedIn, whatever, I only use as a means of trying to spread the word about LingQ. I certainly don’t follow anyone there. After this little video I’m going to settle down with a book. I have a Spanish hangout tomorrow at 8:00 so I’m going to read a book in Spanish, I haven’t quite decided what. I have a book on Spanish history. I have El Sombrero de Tres Picos, which I have never read, and then there’s a book about the functioning of the brain in Spanish. So I’ll choose one of them and settle down for a couple of hours in peace and quiet, just to get away from all this constant chirping that comes at you on these social sites. But that’s another issue…


Words – To me, language learning is primarily about acquiring words. I firmly believe that and that is why at LingQ the most important statistic we track is the number of words you know. We don’t necessarily think the number is accurate, scientific, but it’s an indication of your relative improvement in the language.


Now, let me backtrack a bit. I can still remember when I hitchhiked on a boat, a small German tramp steamer going from Montreal to Europe in 1962-’63. For two or three days I went down to the docks in Montreal and asked if I could work my way across the Atlantic. Finally there was this one German tramp steamer that had lost a sailor in Quebec City and they said fine. I still remember sitting there in my cabin at night going over these declension tables for German hoping that somehow would help me to speak and it really didn’t.


Of course then I studied in France and I didn’t do any of that sort of stuff with French. Mind you, I had had French in school, but mostly when I was studying I was reading books because I had to. I was at university in France. I had to write essays in French. I had to read tons of stuff in French. Of course I had a dictionary handy and I was looking up words.


So then the next language I went after was Chinese where I was assigned by the Canadian Trade Commission Service to learn Chinese. There again what I did in order to learn words was I only read books which had glossaries. I refused to go after any material where I had to use a dictionary because it was so time consuming and, of course, we all know that any word we look up we’re going to forget right away.


It was tremendously frustrating to spend all this time counting strokes or going by what they call the radical component of the Chinese character, so in order to find this character and in order to find out what it meant I just went with glossaries. I did better than anyone else who was studying Chinese at that time in Hong Kong and I believe it’s because I read so much. I read and read and read. I had a huge library. Every book that was put out in Chinese with glossaries I had it and I’d read it, until I got to the point after seven or eight months where I actually could read without the glossaries.


Steve Kaufmann


I’m kind of leading to how you acquire words, which was the question. You acquire words through input, in my opinion, again at LingQ. LingQ, to my mind, is the most efficient way to acquire words. You don’t need the glossaries. The problem with a glossary is that it’s kind of behind the chapter or at the back of the book. So you come to a word you don’t know, you look it up in the glossary and half the time it isn’t there. On the other hand, there’s a bunch of words in that glossary you already know. In other words, the person who wrote the book can’t anticipate which words you know and which words you don’t know.


Nowadays with online dictionaries you don’t have to do that. You can read the online dictionary and it gives you the word right away. That’s not to say you know the word because you looked it up, you don’t. The definitions you find in the dictionary may not even suit the context that you’re reading, but it gives you a bit of a half a hint. Then you encounter the word again and again and again and each time you get a better sense of how that word is used and, of course we do this at LingQ. Every time a word is highlighted in yellow, that reminds you that you once looked it up and then you go in and look at the definition again because you’ve forgotten. Then you might add to the definition, adjust it or whatever.


The surprising thing is that in both Russian and Czech where I have very good statistics, I have learned more words. I know more words that I never looked up than those words that I looked up. So if I have saved 30,000 links at LingQ, maybe 20,000 words and 10,000 phrases or 25,000 words and 10,000 phrases, our statistics say that I have 75,000 words, whatever that statistic means. I know for a fact that nowadays if I import a text from a Russian book or a Russian website there’s five percent words that I don’t know there, very few words that I don’t know. So I have learned a lot of words, most of them I have learned through listening and reading.


I am a very sporadic flashcard user. I don’t do it regularly, but only because I don’t have the time. I have an hour, an hour and a half a day and not every day to spend on language learning so I’m going to do things that I enjoy doing, which means reading and listening. I’m not going to sit down and flip through flashcards most of the time. If I had six or seven hours (obviously, it’s good to vary the kind of activity you’re engaged in) then I might spend more time with flashcards.


To me, overwhelmingly, you learn words through listening and reading and there are little things you can do to help you. Personally, I think the yellow highlighting in our texts the way we do at LingQ helps you. I will occasionally look at a word and see all the examples we have because that helps me see how that word is used. There are words you see and you always seem to have only a 60% sense of how that word is used and you’d like to nail it down. Even the dictionary definition doesn’t nail it down for you, but if I see 10 examples of how that word is used in different contexts it moves me along. After all, you’re constantly kind of moving from that initial exposure to the word to where you finally are confident you know how that word is used. So I learn words listening and reading.


Now, there are people who say you can’t claim you know a word until you can use it. I don’t agree. I feel that your passive vocabulary will always exceed your active vocabulary in a foreign language by quite an amount because if you’re talking to native speakers they are going to have a much bigger vocabulary than you do and you have to be able to understand what they’re saying. You can choose from a more limited range of words to express your thoughts, but you need a much larger vocabulary to make sure you understand what they’re saying. Similarly, if you read books, if you’re watching movies, if you’re listening to a radio program, you need a larger passive vocabulary to make sure you understand. So it’s normal that you have a smaller active vocabulary.


The passive vocabulary is basically the foundation for the active vocabulary. You’re not likely to have part of your active vocabulary that isn’t already in your passive vocabulary. It starts in the passive. To my mind, everything starts with understanding. If you can understand, you can learn to speak. The way to acquire words is to focus on understanding, focus on listening and reading. Just listen and read as much as you possibly can.


Obviously, to speak well you have to speak a lot. But, as I’ve said before, until you have enough words and enough of a sense of familiarity with the language, any conversation you’re going to have is so limited that I consider it to be not a meaningful conversation, the kind of conversation you can only have with a tutor or a friend. Personally, I would rather spend the hour or two that I have a day engaging with more meaningful content, even if it’s passively listening and reading, rather than having some kind of a ‘make’ conversation with someone just so I can practice saying the limited things that I know how to say in the language.


I would rather wait until I’m able to have a meaningful conversation and that’s what I do in Czech and in Russian. We have meaningful conversations. We talk about politics. We talk about history. We talk about things that are going on in Canada or in those countries. Those are meaningful conversations and that is where I want to get to, but I begin with this focus on understanding and learning words and, overwhelmingly, I learn them through massive listening and reading.


So whoever it was who asked me how you learn words, that’s how you learn words. You say okay. Well, you can’t read if you don’t know the words. That’s right. You start with small, short content items, preferably where you also have the audio to reinforce it, you have some way of looking up the words you don’t know and keeping track of those words. You can do it with pencil and writing out lists, you can do it the way we do at LingQ, you can transfer them to flashcards, Anki, whatever system you want, but you have to have some way that you are gradually increasing the length and the level of sophistication of the content you’re listening to and somehow keeping track of your accumulation of vocabulary.


Again, there are people who say you should use graded readers and that 95% of the words should be known to you. This sort of N+1 only slightly too difficult, for me, that’s too slow. If I did that in Czech, I would still be reading kiddy stories in Czech. So I tend to spend a couple of months to get to a certain level and then I jump right into difficult stuff, slog my way through where there’s 30-40% unknown words. I save those words in LingQ, will review them and then listen and read again, listen and read again. Slowly, I just keep grinding through. Because the actual content is interesting to me, I have a great sense of elation that I’m reading about Czech history or politics and now I’m into Korean.


So maybe that’s it, you fight your way through, initially, very simple and uninteresting material. As quickly as possible, you hopefully get into interesting material, but with a high level of unknown words. You fight your way through those reading and listening until there’s fewer and fewer unknown words there and then gradually it becomes more and more pleasant and you’re on your way. The thing about words is the more words you know the more words you can infer and the more interesting content you can expose yourself to and, therefore, acquire more and more words. It’s a bit of a snowball.


So there you have it on acquiring words. I hope that answers the question. Thank you, bye for now.

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