With languages, I definitely tend to use a lot of what I call “organic” learning methods. Actually using the language–reading, listening, speaking, and writing it–is vital in the language acquisition process.
That doesn’t mean, though, that I never study. Almost every successful language learner I’ve ever met sits down and studies. Specifically, they study vocabulary words.
So this brings up a question: How many vocabulary words should you learn every day?
If you’re in a class, this number is more or less going be dictated by your teacher. But if you’re a self-studier like me, what then?
What others say
There are countless approaches, but here are three I’ve seen that run a broad spectrum:
- (Conservative) 5 to 8 new words a day – This seems to be the range that Pimsleur and Rosetta Stone like.
- (Aggressive) 25-40 new words a day – Whenever I’ve taken full-time, intensive language courses, this is the range the classes use. The language director at one place I studied at told the instructors to teach no more than 25 new words a day (with the assumption being that teachers would go right up to that limit).
- (Firehose) 100+ words a day – There are language programs out there written by memory experts that claim 100 to 200 new words a day. These programs typically promote memory techniques such as mnemonics and memory palaces.
What I say
You can use any range you like, of course. But for me, the sweet spot is about 15 new words a day. If I’m focusing really hard for a short period, I can double that. Usually, though, I stick right to that 15-word range and enjoy steady long-term results.
One of the most important things to keep in mind is that you rarely learn a vocabulary word the first time you see it, or even the first day you see it. You have to review a word again, and again, and again. I’ve seen estimates that say it takes seven meaningful exposures to really learn a word, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s closer to 20 or 30 exposures.
And these exposures can’t all come in the same day. A word is really “acquired” when you’ve seen it again and again over a period of time–weeks and months.
One way to get this exposure is by simply listening to or reading the language–and listening is really helpful for vocab acquisition.
Another way, though, is review. So when you’re studying vocab, you not only have to learn new words, but you have to make time to review the words you’ve already learned. You should be reviewing so often that you see each card in your flashcard deck at least 10 times throughout the course of your studies.
So when you use the “conservative” approach (5 to 8 words), I think you’ll progress easily with plenty of time for review, but you’ll be going probably too slow. There’s a lot of learning left on the table.
When you use the “aggressive” approach (25 to 40 words), I think you’ll be able to learn the words once, but you won’t have enough time or mental energy to go back and do the necessary review–at least not in the long term, unless you’re able to devote your entire life to language learning.
When you use the “firehose” approach (100+ words)…well, I’ve never seen anyone get significant results using this approach. People get good results with immersion because they are using the language all day and struggling to use their current skills, which build slowly over time in an environment where they are linguistically drowning. They are not learning mountains of vocabulary words a day. I recommend steering clear. If you want to try memory techniques, go nuts, but that’s still no reason to try and learn hundreds of words a day.
With 15 new words a day, I know that I can learn the new words, review old words, and still have time to read, listen, write, and speak. And in a year, I’ll really know over 5000 words in my new language.