Words, Why They Matter And How To Acquire Them

In language learning, the importance of reading and a large vocabulary, can’t be overstated. In response to my recent video on this subject I received comments from those who are convinced that we can converse quite comfortably with just a few hundred words. This debate is a regular feature of the discussion of language learning on the web. “We can communicate well with only a few words”,  “We need to speak right away”, say some. I don’t agree. You can communicate with a few words but you can’t say much and you understand even less, and that means a very limited form of communication.

Many Words

My views have been formed through my own experience of learning, or trying to learn, 15 languages. I constantly find my lack of words to be the greatest obstacle to enjoying the language more. Why? Because the words I am missing prevent me from understanding things that I hear and read, and want to understand.With enough vocabulary and comprehension comes confidence, the confidence that I can defend myself in the language. With this confidence to sustain me, the speaking part develops naturally, as I have more and more opportunity to speak.

I realized this with the first language I decided to learn to fluency, French. As with most English speaking school children in Montreal in the 1950’s, I had studied French at school since grade 1 but couldn’t hold a conversation. At school we had boring and bored anglophone French teachers and boring text books, and spent most of our time on grammar exercises, writing meaningless essays, and, with some difficulty, reading mostly uninteresting stories.

No doubt the instruction of French in Canada’s anglophone schools has improved since then, with more francophone teachers rather than anglophone teachers. The results, however, remain the same, dismal. This is a constant source of hand wringing by politicians, leading to reforms of the instructional system, but not to improved learning outcomes.

In my first year of university in Montreal,  I had a French Professor from France. He managed to excite my interest in French civilization. This changed my attitude completely. I started reading a lot, thumbing through the dictionary in those days before the internet. I watched movies in French, attended plays, read the newspaper, listened to the radio, and within 6 months my French just blossomed. My interest in the language drove me, but it was the exposure to the language that enabled me to learn. At first I had to look up many new words and gradually these unknown became fewer and fewer. Yet they were always there. Especially when reading novels, there were always unknown words that prevented me from enjoying the book I was reading. This was also true in films or when I was hanging out with francophone friends. I was always missing key words.

This article by Ernest Blum explains why. In a nutshell, while a few high frequency words account for most of the words used in any given context, the remaining 30-40% of any text consists of low frequency words, sometimes only appearing once or twice in the text.

Since you need 95 or even 98% coverage to enjoy reading a text, according to vocabulary researcher Paul Nation, the sad fact is that you need to know a lot of low frequency words in order to enjoy reading books. Why is this important? Because reading is one of the most effective ways of acquiring fluency in a language, especially when combined with listening.

As Blum points out, research has shown that wherever languages are taught, the students don’t acquire enough vocabulary to read interesting texts. For the French daily newspaper Le Monde, 22,000 words only gives you 94% coverage. Even a popular magazine like Time requires 14,000 words to achieve 96.9% coverage. Most school children, Blum points out based on research in a number of countries, know  at most 3,000-5,000 words. Few of these students can read longer more meaningful texts. This hinders their language development.

Teaching languages with an emphasis on grammar rather than on reading and listening, is ineffective and goes against an earlier more effective tradition, that of focusing on reading texts, and especially reading with interlinear translations.

The result is boredom for the learners. This was true over 300 years ago as this quote from John Locke illustrates.

“How is it possible that a child should be chained to the oar, seven, eight, or ten of the best years of his life, to get a language or two, which I think might be had at a great deal cheaper rate of pains and time and be learned almost in playing? “ John Locke Some Thoughts Concerning Education 1692.


James Hamilton, quoted widely by Blum in his article, was an early 19th century  proponent of reading, and especially of reading with interlinear translations, to learn languages.

According to Hamilton:

Reading,is the only real, the only effectual source of instruction. It is the pure spring of nine-tenths of our intellectual enjoyments. . . . Neither should it be sacrificed to grammar or composition, nor to getting by heart any thing whatever, because these are utterly unattainable before we have read a great deal.

theory of grammar should be taught only once pupil can read the language

Reading with interlinear texts is a great help, especially to beginners. As the learner progresses, however, the importance of interlinear texts declines. The learner is able to understand more and more of the words, and is better off staying in the target language.

The availability, on the Internet, of vast quantities of interesting language content, both audio and text, enables the learner to seek out meaningful subject matter of interest to him or her. Perhaps most importantly, online dictionaries make it possible to read and understand interesting material with a much higher level of unknown words. Thus we can acquire new vocabulary more quickly. If the learner had to rely on content with 98% known words, the vocabulary growth would be painstakingly slow.

Surprisingly, I have found it better not to focus my attention on learning vocabulary from lists or flash cards, although I do some of that. Instead I learn best when I am able to expose myself to as much content as possible, reading and listening, taking advantage of the technological conveniences of the age of the electronic tablet.


The result is a surprisingly rapid and enjoyable increase in my vocabulary and in my enjoyment of the language. This is quite different from the deliberate and ineffective learning process fifty years ago at school. In summary, read and listen and you will learn!


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4 comments on “Words, Why They Matter And How To Acquire Them


In some ways, you’re kind of missing the point. For many people, getting by with a few hundred words is what they need. They’re not looking to become fluent (or better) with a language. They’re looking at the minimum viable vocabulary, etc. to get by in a certain situation like travelling or finding information.

I read a blog post a while ago that said not everyone has the same goals or same reasons for doing something. We are all different. Mastery is fine for some. Learning just enough is fine for others.

As a fellow Canadian I didn’t learn much French in Ontario schools. I learned a lot more in one month when I did the Explore immersion program in Quebec then 10 years of schooling. The focus has got to be on vocabulary and using the language not grammar.

Learn German

This is a really inspirational piece of writing. We also deal in languages and tutor our students to reach new heights using languages as a tool. Recently, there was a wave of German speaking jobs. Please keep us updated on language specific news and any recent developments that you come across.

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