How Many New Words Can You Learn Each Day?


Many language learners are fixated on quantifying learning, i.e. counting how many words they’ve learned, what level of Duolingo they’re on, or what stage of standardised language proficiency material they can understand.

This is understandable, as progress in a language is often hard to gauge. As human beings we want confirmation that our actions mean something, so “learning” 20 words in a day can bring great comfort to a language learner.

As always, though, language learning just isn’t that simple. When has one really learned a word, anyway? To make things more confusing, there is little scientific literature on how many new words is possible to learn in a day.

Depending on what one actually means by “learned”, there isn’t a limit of how many vocabulary items one can learn in a day. However, just because you’ve “learned” 100 words in a day, it doesn’t mean you now have complete command of those learned words. General wisdom in the language teaching world suggests introducing 5-10 new words per day.

But for almost every language learner out there, you’re not going to have a perfect grasp of 5-10 new words by the end of the day.

What is a “Learned” Word?

Let’s get this out of the way now so I can stop using quotation marks.

Say you’re learning Mandarin and someone asks you how to say ‘penguin’, and you say, “Ermm, err, ahh, I think it’s ‘chi yi’ or something close to that? I definitely know this.” This means you don’t know it.

I consider a learned word something you can use correctly in any context, and something you can translate clearly in your mother tongue.

Forgetting a word is a very normal part of life, and it’s very normal for language learners. However, there is a difference between a ‘brain fart‘ and a word that you don’t understand.

How Many New Words Should I Learn in a Day?

It depends.

Annoying, aren’t I?

Part of my daily language learning routine is using the popular flashcard app Anki. I’m introduced to 20 new Mandarin Chinese words daily in my study deck. Does that mean I learn 20 new words each day?

Absolutely not.

On most days, I will also review old Anki cards, shadow a Chinesepod podcast, maybe listen to an audio download from Mandarin Corner, and probably watch a Chinese TV show or film.

It’s hard for many learners to hear (especially beginners), but all of the activities I’ve outlined above are much more beneficial to my progress in Mandarin compared to “learning” new words individually.

Is it all Just About Words?

Let me tell you a brief personal story.

In my quest to study Mandarin, I went through a phase of thinking the rote memorisation of words was the path to fluency.

“Learn all of the words, and you’ll learn all of the language.”

That was my thinking.

Well, let me tell you, even with a language like Mandarin where grammar is a particularly simple aspect of it, my strategy didn’t work. It really didn’t work.

I had “learned” the entire HSK 5 word list, but I failed the HSK 5 mock exam I took.

Don’t get me wrong, words are important. A large collection of vocabulary is a big part of knowing a language. But you have to spend time glueing everything together, and that means plenty of exposure to your target language in general – not just lists of words.

How do I Really Learn New Words?

If I could describe language learning in one word it would be:

Exposure.

How you get this exposure to new language is up to you, but the amount of new language (and individual words) you know tends to correlate with how much time you’ve spent with the language in general.

With that being said, let’s get down to the nitty gritty and look at some proven strategies and tools for learning new words.

And remember, these learning strategies need to be used in conjunction with a lot of overall exposure to your target language to feel the full benefit of them.

SRS (Spaced Repetition Software)

Technology now offers language learners a more efficient method of “learning” new vocabulary, especially in comparison with trying to memorise words from a paper dictionary (people actually used to do this).

SRS is basically software with an algorithm that displays flashcards at systematic intervals. This has proven to be an effective memorisation technique, and most language learners I know use it, including myself.

Although SRS can help us memorise new words more quickly, it doesn’t come without its downsides. I’ve written about flashcards in more depth in Flashcards in Language Learning: Are They Worth Your Time?

Exposing yourself to new words daily in this manner is part of the process. Granted, most advanced learners of languages have abandoned this technique in favour of comprehensible input. Input will be talked about later, and it’s something learners at every level should focus on.

Mnemonics

Mnemonics are images, associations or ideas that help you remember something. In terms of language learning, mnemonics are most frequently used for remembering new vocabulary.

Examples of Mnemonics for learning Chinese characters. Image courtesy of chinese.stackexchange.com

Many learners speak about the effectiveness of mnemonics for remembering vocabulary. I tried out using mnemonics as part of Mandarin Blueprint’s learning strategy, but I gave up on it rather quickly for one main reason.

Mnemonics don’t help me remember how to use Mandarin language or apply the words I’ve “learned”. Mnemonics helped me “learn” lists of new words … but I’m not going shopping. I’m learning Mandarin.

As I approach a more advanced level in Mandarin, I believe the ‘exposure’ rule is still proving correct – using mnemonics would take up valuable head space that could otherwise be used to simply consume your target language.

For me to truly remember and understand a word in all situations, I need to have been exposed to that word from all angles i.e. read it in a book, used it in a conversation, written it on paper, heard it on the radio, and Googled what context it can be used in… and even then, I still might forget it again.

Shadowing

Shadowing is a very powerful and useful learning technique that I didn’t discover until I’d been learning Mandarin for a number of years.

Shadowing is the act of mimicking or ‘parroting’ audio in your target language as close to real time as possible, but you’ll likely be on a split second delay.

Here is how to shadow effectively:

  1. Choose some audio – the more you’re interested in your learning content, the better. I’ve used textbook audio, podcasts, and interviews from YouTube previously. Try to keep your content under 15 minutes long – if it’s too long then there’ll be too much new language to remember and it’ll fry your brain. Also, try to get transcribed audio so you can read what you’re listening to.
  2. Slow it down – shadowing is very difficult for newbies, especially if you’re trying it in real time. Take the audio you’ve got and use an app where you can slow it down to about 50% speed (I use AudioStretch for this), and then gradually speed it up when you’re feeling more confident.
  3. Shadow – speak along with your audio (with an inevitable short delay), or as close as you can get to it. Mimic the tones, pronunciation, enunciation, pitch, emotion, etc. as best as you can.
  4. Repeat – do this as many times as you can handle with the same audio for an entire week. Repetition is key. It might sound boring as hell to some of you, but that’s why you need to be interested in your learning content. You have to really want to know everything.
  5. Repeeeeeat – find a new bit of audio and go again. Do this for a year. If you haven’t vastly improved your language skills by the end of the year, I will let you punch me in the face.

There are numerous benefits to shadowing, namely accent formation, rhythm, pacing, confidence in speaking, etc. However, I’ve found shadowing to be incredibly effective for remembering new words and speech patterns.

Comprehensible Input

Comprehensible input is the most important thing for reaching an advanced level in a language.

Seriously, don’t just take my word for it.

Any advanced learner of a language will tell you that it’s not flashcards or mnemonics that got them there – it’s exposure through countless hours of reading and listening. And that is basically what comprehensible input is.

Comprehensible input is language that can be understood by someone even if they don’t understand every word in it.

I know there will be beginners out there saying, “but I can’t read anything or understand any words in my target language. How can I read and listen if I don’t know any words!?”

I hear you. For this reason, I feel it makes more sense for newbies to focus on apps, online courses, beginner textbooks, etc.

But the second you’re up to the challenge of reading the most basic graded readers or shadowing the audio from your textbook, it’s time to consume as much comprehensible input as you can.

Get into this habit early.

I promise you won’t regret it.

Summary

learning new words isn’t a simple process and one learning technique can’t be relied on to learn your target language.

It’s also important to be aware of the drawbacks of “learning” lists of words with rote memorisation techniques.

Expose oneself to new words daily, and consolidate your knowledge of said words by spending as much time with your target language as possible. Learn vocabulary in as many different contexts as possible to develop a deep and thorough understanding.

If you keep this in mind, you can “learn” as many words per day as you want to!

Further Reading

If you’re interested in learning Mandarin Chinese, check out links to my most popular and helpful posts below.

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