Language Learning Goal 1: Learning Vocabulary
This post is a transcript of a video on my YouTube channel.
Studying English? Here’s the transcript as a lesson to study on LingQ.
Language learning has always in my mind being about acquiring words and I’m going to explain what I mean by that.
I made this one video about the seven most important goals in language learning. And number one is learning words. I mentioned in that previous video where I talked about the seven goals of language learning, I’m going to go through each goal and talk about how we, in fact, learn words. For example, today I did a video about how I learned Ukrainian, and I’m going to continue doing videos about how I learned these different languages. I wasn’t happy with the video I did about learning Ukrainian because I know I have a number of books at home in Vancouver, and I wanted to show these to you. So I’m going to either use that video or redo the video, uh, a month from now when I’m home in Vancouver. So if you’re interested in hearing how I learned the different languages, let me know which languages you’re interested in hearing about and I will try to make videos about how I learned them, to the what degree, in fact, I did learn them.
So words. When we designed LingQ, it was designed around the idea that to me, the simplest measure of where you are in the language is how many words you know, and that the task of learning languages is one of learning words. I remember that when we learned French at school and I really couldn’t speak French, but when I was at a football game, professional football, Montreal Alouettes, and I lost my ticket and I was explaining to the usher in French and after 10 years of French, all I could do is put together words. I couldn’t use the verbs correctly, just words. So I think that the easiest thing to acquire is words. And if we have enough words, we actually can do a lot with those words and that the refinement with grammar and so forth comes later. Therefore, when we designed LingQ, we built all kinds of things into LingQ that measure how many words you’ve read, how many words you’ve learned, how many words you know, how many words you’ve looked up. We have different highlighting to tell you what stage you are with that word.
Most of the words you acquire, you’re going to acquire subconsciously by being exposed to them. And it’s difficult to tell when certain words will click in, some you learn fast and some take forever to remember, some we remember and then we forget again, and then we remember them again. That’s all fine. But initially if you’re on LingQ and you’ve got a page of text in a new language, let’s say Finnish for me or Icelandic or something, everything is blue and I have to look up every single blue word and ideally I do it in sentence mode so I’m not having to deal with too much content at once. Then slowly, all of a sudden, each one of these blue words, I looked them up and they are now all yellow. And because each language has a different structure word order and so forth may not be the same as English, but I can kind of figure out what the sentence says. Very often there’s a translation underneath, into English in my case. So I’m on my way to getting a grasp of the language, I’m on my way to acquiring words, the ultimate goal.
If we use again LingQ as the example, the goal is that the whole lesson page will be white. That the blue words will have become yellow words because I looked them up and I mean, you know, I’m trying to learn these words, but eventually these words do become known. When they’re known they’re white and I noticed that over months or so, because any word, once I’ve learned it and it’s become white, it will show up white in every subsequent lesson. And any word that went from blue to yellow will be yellow in any subsequent lesson. So there’s a gradual process of making these pages lighter and lighter in colour.
I should also point out that the only thing we can measure at LingQ is your passive vocabulary. I’ve said this before in videos, I’m a great believer in the power of passive vocabulary. I’m a great believer in input, in comprehension. So when we see a word in a context and we understand that word in that context at least in my case, I consider that word known. It is known in that context. It is known passively. It doesn’t mean that I can use the word, but I’m on my way. And it may be that in another context, I’ll see that word and I won’t know what it means and then I’ll simply move it back to unknown, to status one. It doesn’t matter because the process of acquiring words is largely subconscious and it’s largely a process of being exposed to these words.
Now, some people will say, phrases are more important than words, and I do save a lot of phrases, but you have to know the meaning of the words inside the phrase. When you see phrases with words that naturally belong together, you can then save that phrase and try to remember that phrase so that you have a handy ready-to-use phrase with the way these words are normally used in the language. But the fundamental job is acquiring words. And if you don’t need to look a word up, LingQ will assume that you know it, so another thing you often hear people say is, well, you don’t really need many words because 70% of any context is going to consist of 500, 800, 1000 most common words. That’s true. But if you only ever want to have very limited conversations with people, if you don’t ever want to understand books or movies, maybe that’s fine. But most people, certainly in my case, when I learn a language, I want to understand movies. I want to have intelligent conversations with people. To do all of that I have to have a large passive vocabulary, not just a thousand words, 10,000 words, 20,000, 30,000. That enables me to then listen to a variety of different content: podcasts, movies, and all of that is helping the language come into me and most of all I am driven by the desire to acquire more words.
Now, some people like using spaced repetition systems, I don’t, because I don’t want to spend so much time going through these decks of words. Also I’m not a big fan of flashcards, but other people do use them and swear by them and think they’re great. And so that’s fine. I’m not against them, but even at LingQ where we have flashcards, different activities. I sometimes do them, but mostly I just work with lists in every lesson behind every lesson page, behind every sentence I can review the words from that page. I can review the LingQs, words that I’m trying to learn. I can review words that I have never seen before, Blue words. I can review words that I have long since moved to known. I can review them if I want. I like seeing words in lists. Lists to me are better than flashcards because you can see more of them more quickly. And to me, reviewing words is just another form of exposure. It gives you another kind of activity where you are being exposed to the language, and with lists there are a number of advantages. You can go through the list alphabetically so then you start to see words that have the same prefix. Very often you’ll start to see connections between words. You’ll see that you have saved three, four or five, six words that begin the same way and maybe share some common meaning. I find that very helpful.
You can review your words in lists based on frequency. And if you like, I’m often motivated to move some of the words that I have saved, and I have a lot of them in all the languages, I want to move them to known. So if I take my high-frequency words, I’m more likely to find words there that I actually already know, but I haven’t had a chance to move them to known. So I’ll go in there and I’ll move a bunch of words to known. It’s good for my known words total, and also for my learned words total on LingQ.
Words have different functions in the sentence. So even without knowing, say, all of the conjugations of verbs, at least we’re aware that there are words that are verbs. There are words that are nouns. There are words that are adjectives, adverbs, conjunctions, in other words connecting words. So we can tag for these and this is helpful because then you can go to your vocabulary section and you go through just verbs or just adjectives. And you can start to see things that these adjectives or verbs or whatever have in common. Another thing is it may be that in some languages, you have trouble with a third person of the past tense you can tag for that. So you can look at the third person of the past tense only as a list or you might, in languages that have cases, you can look at just the instrumental case, let’s say in Russian or Slavic languages and you can just review those. So lists to my mind are more useful in terms of reviewing for exposure than flashcards, because I’m not actually that interested in racking my brain to try and remember something. I don’t actually believe that that’s all that useful.
So the main thing is acquiring words so that I understand more things so that when I’m listening to it, I find more words that I recognize, even if I’m fuzzy on the grammar, the words generally speaking, the meaning is redundant. So even without having a full knowledge of the grammar,
you can kind of figure out the meaning if you have the words. So goal number one to me is acquiring words, acquiring them naturally, varying your activity so that you can sometimes get tired of reading and, and saving words and phrases. And so you can go through lists of words for different reasons in order to maybe move the status to known or whatever it might be.
As you progress in the language and particularly when you get past sort of the first stage in the language, because again, remember that frequency declines very, very quickly. So in an initial period, you’re seeing words quite often, you don’t have to worry about aceing the most, the 500 most frequent words in the language. They’re frequent, they will show up, you needn’t worry about them. And the frequency declines very, very quickly. Pretty soon we’re into a space, what I’ve called the sort of long shaft of the hockey stick, where it, we feel as if we’re not making any progress. We’re not seeing these words as often as we used to, because the words we now need are less frequent. And that’s where again, on LingQ, we keep track of how many words you’ve learned, how many words you’ve known, how many LingQs you’ve created, how many words you’ve read. This tells you that you are being active, that you are pursuing these words. And if you are pursuing these words, you will improve. You will acquire the language because to pursue these words, you’ve got to be it listening and reading. If you’re listening and reading and pursuing words, the language is coming in you.
So to summarize, the number one goal in language learning is to acquire words, keep that as your goal, your major activity, be conscious of the fact that you are acquiring these words. Even though at times it seems that you can’t remember them. You can’t remember when you need to use them. You keep on forgetting their meaning. None of that matters. If you continue to pursue words, you will eventually achieve your goal insofar as words are concerned. And your goal insofar as achieving fluency is concerned.