Can we learn 100 words a day?

In a comment to a previous post, Stefan asked me how many words I thought I could learn in a day. We had quite a discussion on this, and I have given it some more thought.

If I take my own Czech studies, I have been at it about 6 months.  It is all part time, one hour a day most of the time, some days much more, and for stretches of time, nothing. The main activity is listening, then comes reading, and saving words at LingQ, (LingQing). A smaller amount of time is spent on reviewing words in flash cards, and just recently I have started talking to a tutor online at LingQ.

So if we call this period of time 180 days, and if we use the statistics generated by LingQ, the numbers look like this.

“Known words” by this I mean only my ability to recognise the meaning, or a meaning: 25,260.

This includes non-words, numbers, names etc. How many I don’t know but let’s say 10%. So the number is really  probably 23,000

Stefan made the point that Czech is very inflected and therefore this inflates this number compared to English. At first I agreed that this is relevant but now I am not so convinced. In fact we need to learn the different forms of the words, for tenses or cases, or person, whether in Czech or French, so each of these words does count, in my view.

“LingQs created” or saved in the system: 20,600

 of which 7,425 have been moved up in status towards varying degrees of”known”. Note that I do not do a lot of flash carding and only move words up in status sporadically.

When I look at lists of these words in the vocab section, I know most of them, but certainly not all.This number includes 1725 phrases. So perhaps I should count this as 5,000 words. Even among the other so-called status “1” words, roughly 13,000 or so, there will be words that I know. but never mind.

So maybe I know, albeit passively, 28,000 words.Maybe. And I have been at it, although not every day, for 180 days. This means that I may have learned words at the rate of 155 words a day. Who knows? Maybe it is a lower number, but I believe it is at least 100 words a day. Most words are learned incidentally through reading, and especially through seeing the yellow saved LingQs highlighted in our texts at LingQ.

Note that I have read over 250,000 words at LingQ in Czech, often more than once. This is the equivalent of 3 average length novels.

I can read the newspaper fairly well.

Apparently Czech shares 40% vocabulary with Russian,(which I have studied, also in the same way at LingQ). By that I mean this is the number of words that are the same or recognizable, like zitra/ zavtra for tomorrow. English has 60% Latin based words, so I think that an English person who put the same effort into French or Spanish, could learn the same number of words in those languages.

100 words a day, if you are willing to put in the time.

 

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Learn the basics in the language first? Really?

Can we even learn the basics first? I find that I cannot do it. I just forge ahead and learn words and get used to the language? I think we need to cover a lot of ground, some new, some old. We need to explore new things, pushing the boundaries, while regularly reviewing the basics, many times during the learning process. The basics take a long time to learn. We need to go back to them over and over. I do not think they can be learned up front. I think trying to force learners to learn the basics first discourages many learners, since it is very hard to do, and for most people very boring.

“Babel No More” by Michael Erard, a book review

Babel No More by Michael Erard  is described on the front cover as “the search for the world’s most extraordinary language learners.”  

The book is well written, like an adventure or treasure hunt. A number of well known speakers of many languages, hyperglots as Erard calls them, from history to the present day, are described or interviewed. “What makes them tick” is the question and there are no simple answers.

Many things are left deliberately unclear. Why call some language learners extraordinary, and others not? Why draw an arbitrary line? Is three 3 languages enough, or 6, or 11, or 50?

It is also not clear what constitutes knowing a language. How well do we need to speak, read and write?

As to whether there is something special about the brains of these super-learners, or their methods, or their mindsets, there are also no conclusions, unless you accept Erard’s statement that “hyperglots persist in repetitious activities that bore most other people.” I don’t accept this premise. I am no hyperglot but I enjoy learning languages.

Hyperglots,in fact, are simply people who enjoy learning multiple languages. Their motives vary. How is that different from other interests that people have?

My father-in-law buys old cars and orders great numbers of parts which he carefully catalogues and stores in his garage, and then uses to rebuild these cars. Growing up I had an older  friend who made model sailing ships from small bits of balsa wood, painted them and put them into bottles. I could never ever do these kinds of things, no matter how much you paid me.

No doubt the brains of language learners are different from the brains of non-language learners. But why is that strange? As Erard points out, the brains of pianists, as an example, quickly develop differently from the brains of other people. Which comes first, the brain or the talent? Erard asks the question but does not answer it. Do language learners keep learning because their brains are more plastic, or are their brains more plastic because they continue learning languages?

Erard provides some interesting gems of information. Did you know that we remember much better if we chew gum while studying? Dopamine and the fitness of our hippocampus both help us learn languages. Exercise stimulates both. Maybe that is why pro athletes often seem better at language learning than academics.

One skill that seems to vary depending on the nature of our brains, is the ability to mimic. This suggests that the likelihood that we will achieve close to native-like pronunciation if we take up a language after childhood, varies from person to person, no matter how hard we try.

Erard describes the typical hyperglot as meaning-oriented, pattern-seeking, analytical, somewhat introverted, yet flexible, open and attentive. Furthermore, it is important to be able to get outside one’s own language ego.

So where does this leave the rest of us, the ordinary language learners? Where we were before. We need to want to learn a language, we need to put in the time, and we need to train ourselves to notice the language. We have no way of knowing if we share some of the characteristics of these super-learners. Nor do they have any special insights to offer. If we are interested and put in the time we will learn.

The major activity of language acquisition is using the language, at first listening and reading and eventually speaking and writing. The more languages we learn, the better we get at learning languages. Once we learn one language, learning a related language becomes easier. So if the goal is to rack up an impressive number of known languages, if we have the motivation, and especially if we have the time, our language learning skills will become honed over time. If we want to, we can also become hyperglots, on our own terms of course. But first we have to get that first language under our belts.

Is Pimsleur effective?

Many people like using Pimsleur. I consider it a poor investment of time. I think the difference is in how different people study and what their goals are.

My goal is to acquire as many words as possible, in the shortest period of time, so that I can understand what I read, and what I hear on radio etc. I am less concerned about speaking right away. I am confident that I will be able to speak once I have enough words. Pimsleur does not cover a lot of words, but tries to get you speaking from the beginning.

I find it useful to measure the time I spend on a language in hours rather than in months. I have spent about 100 -120 hours or so on Czech. I can make out what the newspaper is saying on a familiar subject and am reading a history book on Central Europe in Czech. I listen to Radio Prague and can understand a lot of it if I listen after I have read the article. I don’t think that 100-120  hours on Pimsleur would enable me to do that.

For reference, when I studied Chinese I spent 7 to 10 hours a day at it. For Russian I was only able to spend an hour or so a day. After 10 months of Chinese I had spent over 3,000 hours on Chinese. In five years of Russian I had only managed to spend half that amount of time, or 1,500 hours. My Chinese is better than my Russian.

100 hours of Czech is not a lot. But the structure and some of the vocabulary is the same as Russian. In think that in another 2-300 hours I will be able to read quite well, and by then I will be able to discuss certain subjects. I expect to understand much of the radio without having to read the article ahead of time. Again, I don’t think Pimsleur would enable me to do that.

If I can understand, I can always learn to speak when the opportunity to use the language arises. If I master the most common words and phrases, I will still not understand most of what I hear and read.

Online educational badges a new form of credential.

Will online badges replace diplomas one day? Here is an article on the subject. Right now students have to go to college to earn diplomas, the tickets they need for success in the work place. Studies show that many of these students learn little, at least in the humanities, and of course the cost of universities is enormous, whether paid for by the student or someone else. Could it be that in the future people can learn wherever they want, including on the Internet,  and still get a form of recognition that will be recognized in society? These are just the early days in the dismantling of an archaic education system. What do you think?