The Word Brain 1: Words

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Words are the fuel of language and the number of words you are familiar with determines your language abilities. The more words you know, the better you are. Put in numbers, this statement reads as follows:


15,000 > 10,000 > 5,000 > 2,000 > 1,000 > 500


Between 2 and 18 years, you learned 10 new words every day. Later, at work or at university, you enriched your brain vocabulary with thousands of technical words. Now, after decades, you know more than 50,000 words of your native language. Learning words is the hardcore task of language learning; in comparison, learning grammar is a finger exercise for pre-school children.

To be comfortable in another language you need roughly half of the words you possess in your native language – 25,000. As about 40 percent are variants of other words and can be easily inferred, a good estimate of truly unique words you need to start with is 15,000 words. This is a huge number and double what you are expected to learn in 8 years at school. Fortunately, you do not always have to learn them all. Take the word evolution. In Spanish, Italian, and French, the word translates into evolución, evoluzione and évolution. As you can see, many words are almost identical between some languages and come with just slight differences in packaging. Once you understand the rules that govern these differences, you have immediate access to thousands of words.

In order to understand how many truly new words you will have to manage – words you have never seen before and which you cannot deduce from other languages you know – we need a short history of your linguistic abilities:

  • What is your native language?
  • Have you learned other languages before?
  • Which level did you achieve in these languages?
  • Which language do you want to learn?

Based on your answers, good teachers are able to make a reliable estimate of the number of words you must transfer into your brain. This number varies between 5,000 and 15,000. Worst-case scenarios are languages that are completely different from any of the languages you know: for Europeans, typical examples are Hindi, Arabic, Japanese or Chinese. In these languages, only a handful of words resemble European words and leave you with 15,000 words to absorb.

At the other end of the spectrum you will find languages that are closely related to those you already know. If you ask a 17-year-old French student without any previous exposure to the Italian language to screen an Italian dictionary, he will immediately be able to tell you the meaning of around 6,000 words. Provide him with additional clues on how Latin words evolved differently, but still recognisably, into French and Italian, and he will easily increase his vocabulary to 10,000 and more. The descendants of the Roman Empire – the Italians, Spanish, Portuguese, French, and, to a lesser extent, Romanians – are therefore navigating in familiar waters when learning each other’s languages.

Once your teachers define the word quota you have to burn into your brain, the next question is: ‘how long will it take me to learn these words?’ You may be surprised to know that the total study time for wiring a new word into livelong memory is around five minutes. Children tend to have it easier because they have so-called ‘fast-mapping’ abilities, a fabulous fast lane for word learning after a single exposure, which partly explains the prodigious rate at which they learn new words. As an adult, however, you will take the long road, repeating new words over and over again. Some words are easy, others are not. Among the easy words are the words of everyday life, such as man, woman, child, water, air, big, small, go, come, do. They are usually short and their meaning is unambiguous. Other words are longer and will need more frequent rounds of rehearsal: Gerichtsvollzieher, jeopardy, abracadabrantesque, zanahoria, sgabuzzino, orçamentário, Bundesverfassungsgericht. Still other words resist memorising because their very concept, or the difference between one word and another, remains vague and confusing even in your native language: haughty, valiant, valorous, courageous, intrepid, contemptuous. And finally, how could you easily learn Semmelknödel without ever seeing it, sugo without smelling it, or tartiflette without eating it?

The Memory chapter shows in more detail that word learning is a result of repeated exposures over weeks and months, a succession of stations, a Via Dolorosa. You will not be nailed to a cross, but don’t be amazed that the stations of a typical Via Dolorosa may not suffice to nail new words permanently into your brain. Learning is a biological process that requires new connections between brain cells, and these connections are being produced from a huge number of biochemical substances. Give them time to grow.

At a conservative estimate of 10 words per hour, it will take you 500 hours to learn 5,000 words (French/Spanish) and 1,500 hours to learn 15,000 words (European/Arabic). Based on the number of hours you are prepared to invest on a daily basis, your total study time can be predicted with fairly good accuracy. Take your daily study time from the left column in Table 1.1 and pick from the appropriate column on the right side (easy language: 5,000 words; difficult language, 15,000 words) the number of months you need to complete your word training. As you can see, a quota of 5,000 or 15,000 words makes a huge difference. For highly related languages that require learning of an additional vocabulary of 5,000 words, one hour per day is sufficient to be ready after two years. With difficult languages and a word count of 15,000, a single daily study hour would put you on a frustratingly extended study course of 6 years.


Table 1.1: Study time (in months)*
  Number of words to learn


5,000 10,000 15,000
0.5 50 100 150
1 25 50 75
1.5 17 33 50
2 12 25 37
3 8 16 25
4 6 12 19

* At five days per week; figures are rounded


These numbers have important implications. First, language learning means daily learning. ‘2-hours-a-week’ schedules are likely to be insufficient. Two hours a week is like saying, ‘I am preparing a Mount Everest ascension. I climb two flight of stairs twice every day.’ If you are not ready for daily practise, reconsider your project. Low input cannot produce high output.

Second, language learning is mostly a do-it-yourself job. The thousands of words you need to learn are currently outside your word brain and must get inside. Nobody, except you, can do this job. Be prepared to spend hundreds of hours alone with your language manuals, smartphone and dictionary.

Third, for adults and adolescents, language learning is a focused and persistent intellectual effort. This is in stark contrast with the seemingly easy and playful way young children learn languages. In order to learn like a child you would need to be born into a new family, with a new mother, a new father, new brothers and sisters, to be raised with love until the age of 6 and be sent to school for another 10 years. Unfortunately – or fortunately – there is no way of simulating being the new child in a family and in a born-again childhood environment.

So, who is eligible to embark on a full-scale attack on another language in the sense we defined in the introduction, that is, being fluent in reading newspapers and understanding TV documentaries and day-to-day conversation? It all depends on time. If you have little or no time – think of busy physicians – or prefer to dedicate your time to geology, neuroscience, or evolutionary biology, new languages are out of reach. Apart from these two cases, however, anyone who demonstrated the ability to learn the language of their parents are entitled to learn their next language.

The figures presented above are excellent news. Language learning is not a bottomless pit, but is as predictable and quantifiable as climbing a mountain in excellent weather conditions. You are planning the final ascent to the 4,808 m summit of Mont Blanc, starting at the Gouter Hut at 3,800 m? As you know that it takes you 30 minutes to climb 100 meters, you can expect to reach the summit in about five hours. Some of your friends may get to the summit in 4 hours, others in 6 hours, but nobody will do it in 30 minutes.

There is another piece of good news. As you will see in the coming chapters, importing 5,000 to 15,000 new words into your brain in 500 to 1,500 hours turns out to be THE major battlefield in language learning, representing 80 percent and more of your total effort. In comparison, other aspects of language learning – grammar, pronunciation, etc. – are minor construction sites. If you are motivated and still willing to follow me, my first prescription would be that you start learning words on a daily basis, at least five days a week, and that you start now. In Chapter 7, you will find a number of strategies to cope with hundreds of words every month. You will discover that you have powerful allies. One such ally is your smartphone, which will turn out to be a fabulous assistant to keep track of your progress, shortcomings, and successes.

What would you expect the second battlefield to be, grammar or pronunciation? It is neither! Against all expectations, grammar and pronunciation are theatres for minor skirmishes. The second major task in language learning is speech recognition. If I were your teacher, I would continue tomorrow working on sound waves and training your ears. Decoding the sound track of people who speak an unknown language is a dizzy task.


Total workload after Chapter 1

500 – 1,500 hours