Language Learning

I’m no expert, but I like languages a lot and I have strong opinions on how to go about learning one. This essay is about the mistakes I see in language teaching at the elementary and intermediate levels, based on my own experience, what I see in textbooks, and so on. I have suggestions on how to learn better. None of this advice should be used directly! It all has to be interpreted for your situation.

There are many approaches to language teaching, and the history is more complicated than I can understand, but there are two mistakes I see that affect mainstream language teaching in general.


The biggest mistake is to de-emphasize vocabulary. Learning vocabulary is the most time-consuming part of learning a language, and if you neglect it early you’ll have to take extra time to make it up later. A language starts to become functionally useful when you reach the intermediate level, which I’d say is when you know the common grammar and all of the most-common words, say a vocabulary of 1000 words. At that level, you can’t easily understand much of what you happen across, but you can make sense of texts with heavy help from a dictionary and you can communicate with a motivated native speaker. When I was taught German, I was taught rare grammatical constructions used only in formal writing before I knew enough words to read real text, let alone difficult formal text. That makes no sense, but it still happens. Learning words out of order, second-tier words before the most valuable common ones, is also usual, even though language courses claim otherwise. It delays students from reaching the intermediate level.

Once you’ve reached basic functional usefulness, learning more words rapidly makes the language much more valuable, up to around 5000 or so. Non-native speakers commonly plateau around that level and get by well with it forever. A native speaker probably knows more than 20,000, but the extras are much less common and the non-native speaker will only miss points here and there.

Most elementary textbooks that I’ve looked at would be more efficient at bringing you up to the useful level of skill if they taught you, I’d guess, 50% more to twice as many words per lesson. You want grammar and vocabulary skills to hit the early usefulness points at the same time, or if anything you want vocabulary skills to push ahead because they make more difference in comprehension, and current course designs generally have vocabulary lagging (maybe less so in languages with especially difficult grammar, I’m not sure!). Vocabulary and usage learning have to continue long after you have all the basic grammar down solid, so it helps to get into good learning habits right away anyway.

I suspect the underlying mistake is that language teachers overestimate the difficulty of learning words. With a flashcard program, even in a brainbending language (like Chinese for English speakers, where you have to learn the characters as well as the pronunciation, and the alienness of the word forms tends to slow you down) you can learn and retain twenty new items a day with less than an hour study time; in an easy language that you’re good at remembering, that many might take fifteen minutes. Add overhead if you use paper flashcards, but they work too (with paper cards, follow the Leitner system). Even though a lot of the cards should go toward learning irregular forms, practicing inflections, and examples of grammar points and usage, plenty are left over for basic vocabulary.


Almost all elementary textbooks are divided into chapters, and follow the plan that you should master one chapter then move on to the next. That may make sense from a teacher’s classroom management point of view, but not for learning. Everybody knows that cramming is bad, but it is openly built into the basic structure!

I recommend overlapping study of about four chapters at the same time, depending on how long the chapters are. As you’re polishing up your mastery of the oldest one, you should be looking over the newest one to gain some initial familiarity. With a sliding window into the material instead of a peephole, I think you can learn to the same level in about three quarters the study time, and you will retain it better.

I think the underlying misconception is a false folk theory of memory, which holds that you learn by repetition and considers all repetitions the same. But research says that one good recall of a fact per day is all that helps; further repetitions are little use until you’ve slept, unless you’re practicing specifically for fluency.

other points

I think those two are the big ones that affect mainstream approaches to language teaching. There are other points to keep in mind.

Original version, March 2009.
Updated and added here March 2010.