How to learn a lot of! Part One

One of the scariest parts of language learning is vocabulary memorization. No matter what language you study, there’s just so many words to learn. How does someone find the time to sit and learn every single one?

Well, as any expert language learner will tell you, there’s a right way and a wrong way to learn words. By learning a few simple techniques, and by using some free language learning tools, you can learn up to 95% of a language’s most common words in six months to a year. And the best part is you don’t have to be a memory master to do it…

Choosing your words

The first thing we want to do is make sure we are learning the most useful words we can.

Language vocabularies have some interesting features. If we were to take all the words in a language and list them by how often they are used, the first 1000 would make up 80% of every individual word spoken in that language. If you consider that the English language has over one million words, that’s a huge amount of use from a VERY small amount of learning. If we take the first 2000 words then that would equate to 90% of all words spoken, and if we take it up to 3000, that’s 95% of all words spoken in your target language.

So to get the most amount of use from our studies let’s start with the 1000 most common words.

You can use a list of the 1000 most common words in English as a guide.

What is "spaced repetition learning"?

This is the best method for studying those 1000 words.

Many of the best language learners use a technique called ‘Spaced Repetition Learning’ to quickly and efficiently master a set of words.

Spaced repetition works like flashcards, but with one major difference. When using normal flashcards, a student will see words at random and in no particular order. This means that difficult words have as much chance to appear as easy words, making it harder to remember the whole set.

With spaced repetition, each word is set to reappear after a certain amount of time. Once the student has studied a word once, it reappears later, just when they are starting to forget the meaning. As the student gets to know the word better, the time intervals get further and further apart, until the word is stored permanently in the student’s memory. The intervals are based on the ‘forgetting curve’ developed by Hermann Ebbinhaus in 1885:

As you can see from this curve, every time a word is reviewed it takes longer and longer to forget it. By reviewing words at the right moment it is possible to maximise the time that they are remembered.

Many language learners use special software called SRS (spaced repetition software) which is freely available online and on smartphone applications. Spaced repetition software is intelligent, and keeps track of how well you know each word so that it can schedule them to appear at the right time.

You can find SRS apps for your computer or phone.

In the next part in the series, we’ll talk about how to use spaced repetition alongside special memory techniques to create the ultimate study toolkit! See you next month!



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