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.


"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.

Audiobooks galore from China.

I am just back from China and 20% of the weight in my suitcase consists of audiobook CDs that I bought there. History, philosophy, literature, lots!!, in Mandarin and Cantonese. Some even have the text on the CD. My Czech learning has been brought to a halt by the quality of these resources, and the stimulus of being in China for two weeks. More on all of this later.

Language politics in Canada, Seven-up and Quebec Health website.

Languages can divide just as much as they can bring us together. In Canada, French-English language hostility is something we have just become used to in our country. The most recent nonsense concerns two unrelated issues. On the one hand a francophone passenger on Air Canada was awarded $12,000 because he was unable to order a soft drink in French on an Air Canada flight from Toronto to Atlanta. (He asked for half a million dollars.)

At about the same time, we have another controversy, as the province of Quebec put up a website with information about government health services in French only, promising that an English translation would be available in months. (Note that Quebec is 80% francophone).

My view is that a lot of people are being very silly. The French rights campaigner who won $12,000 is being silly.?? I have seen him interviewed, and he is fluent in English.

Air Canada, as the national carrier,?? is just stupid for not being able to provide services in both official languages.

Above all, it is appalling to me that in Canada, where English speaking school kids study French for ten years or so at school, people expect to be hired as flight attendants by the national airline, if they cannot communicate in French.

And the fuss about the Quebec website is also silly. I am sure that the Quebec government could have arranged for translation into English, concurrently with the preparation of their website. We deal with translation into 12 languages at LingQ and we do not have the unlimited means of government.

As with most government undertakings, this website probably cost millions and took years to produce, and so there was ample time to ensure that everything was available in both official languages. The Quebec government just wanted to make a language point.

On the other hand, if the inept Quebec government only has a French language version available, and assuming that the website has useful information, the government might as well put it up and help people, while awaiting the English version.

All in all, just a lot of silliness.


The rewards of learning another language.

We have a contest going at LingQ, where we ask people to submit an article no longer than 400 words long, on the greatest rewards of learning another language. I am not going to compete in this, but I am going to add my two cents worth.I will do so after the competition closes on July 20.

If you have not already submitted an article, it is not too late to do so.Check it out here.