“Liberty & equality forever, or Death!”
Written on the Luxor Obelisk at the Place de la Concorde in Paris, France
(Click for a larger image)

I recently read Scott H. Young’s article on How to Learn Vocabulary in Another Language and realised it would be a handy guide for me, as I go about increasing my French & Urdu vocabulary.

This is what I took away:

  • The first 2000 words will cover 80-90% of a language’s vocabulary. 3000 will cover 95%. That should be your goal.
  • Use a frequency dictionary, then according to frequency do 1000/2000/3000 words
  • 10000 will lead to almost being fluent. Hard to do that quickly with French, sitting in India. But, aspirational goals :)
  • Do:
    • Flash cards, knowing that this will not teach you the nuance and flavour and texture of French
    • Graded reading, Like the article states

    To successfully guess the meaning of a new word from its context, we need to understand between 95% and 98% of the surrounding words. This is difficult to achieve with native-level materials. Graded readers, which deliberately limit vocabulary, can be beneficial here.

    • If you’re doing the slow and steady way, because you lack the time, then growth will be slow. Assume 400 new word families a year
    • Use the four pillars of learning. Paraphrasing & Quoting the article:
      1. Meaning-focused input.
        Input provides the raw data for learning new words and enriches the contextual associations of words studied deliberately elsewhere. This includes conversations, books, films, television and other media that you attend to primarily for their meaning.
      2. Meaning-focused output. (Note: I am focussed on reading and writing)
        Speaking and writing are more difficult than simply understanding particular words from input, as using words correctly requires a more precise knowledge of each word and its meaning.
      3. Language-focused learning.
        This is the deliberate act of memorizing words, studying flashcards, or receiving explanations about word meanings. Webb and Nation argue that this should account for ~25% of the time spent learning a language.
      4. Fluency development. (I don’t know how I’ll do this. Re read stuff? Watch TV again.)
        Finally, attention should be paid to activities that speed up the understanding and production of words already known. Familiar materials that enable quick reading or conversations on familiar topics may not be needed to build new vocabulary, but they reinforce what was learned previously.

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