Why do you want to learn a language?

For some of us, our academic programs require us to learn languages, get grades and pass. For most of us who take up learning languages, we want to be able to use it to speak and listen and understand - basically, communicate. We don't need to reproduce something we learn in a classroom or an exam paper. We want to be able to communicate in social settings, workplaces, public places and so on. If you identify with this, read on.

If you are cramming a lot of vocabulary in the expectation that it makes you prepared to communicate faster, you may have missed a trick. And here's why.


Vocabulary and its utility

Vocabulary is super important. But only if you are focusing on the right parts. Many of us, especially those new to any kind of language learning, overestimate the number of words required to be fluent in day-to-day situations. Don't believe us?

Think back to what words you might have used all day. Now think back to what words you might have used yesterday. You can do this for all the days of your week and you will realize that there is a significant overlap between those words. What does this mean?

It means that our day-to-day vocabulary is actually restricted to some words that we will often use. Okay, you would say. But how many words is it? How do you know the number of words you really need to know to be fluent, conversant in our day-to-day situations? Here, science comes to our rescue.

Check out this example. An Oxford paper on Applied Linguistics concluded that "The knowledge of the words deriving from the 3000 most frequent English word families and the 5000 most frequent words provides a comprehension of 95% of word use,[13] and knowledge of 5000 word families is necessary for 99.9% word coverage."

That means, knowing roughly 5000 words is enough for 95% of all your day-to-day conversations. That's a pretty decent number to target for a new language learner. Don't you think?


So how do I tackle vocabulary then?

We are not advocating that you ignore vocabulary. Consistently adding to your vocabulary is necessary. But when you are working on your vocabulary, there are possibly two things you can work on.

One is breadth - that is the number of words you know. When you are working on breadth, you are adding new words to your vocabulary. The other is depth - that is how well you remember the words. When you are working on breadth, you improve the memory recall of all that you know.

As you progress with your learning, your vocabulary time should be spent more on depth than breadth. Because if you continue to focus on breadth, as you might now realize, the usefulness of that 6000th word is very less when you take into account the effort you would have to spend in memorizing and retaining the word.

On the other hand, if you focus on depth, your memory recall grows stronger. You instinctively know the word you want to speak in your target language thanks to the practice. This definitely adds to your fluency.

The other minor advantage with this change in focus is that it frees up some of the time for you to indulge in activities which provide more value per time spent. Activities like conversation exercises, consuming audio or video, or even pictorial content, in your target language. They quicken your comprehension, force you to speak and listen thus improving your conversation skills.

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