How Much Vocabulary to Study?

If you’ve decided to learn a new language, you will eventually face the inevitable: Vocabulary memorization. But the question often arises, “How many words should I study in a day?” That’s a great question, and it’s different for everyone. Recently I posed that very question on a language learning forum and received some interesting responses. Here is a brief summary of what people said (keep in mind, this is small scale research and everyone is unique):

  • The least number of vocabulary studied per day was reported as at least 2 words.
  • The greatest number of vocabulary studied per day was reported as 50 words.
  • The mean (average) reported vocabulary words studied per day was 26 words.
  • The median reported vocabulary words studied per day was 20 words.

From a qualitative perspective (meaning what was reported that can’t be understood through numbers alone), more vocabulary words are typically studied earlier in the language learning experience. Thus, not surprisingly, the best time to focus on intense vocabulary study is some time during the initial stages of language learning – that is, when you’re laying a solid language foundation. Because educating yourself in the new language must come before speaking with people, that stage of education is the best place in which to focus on vocabulary acquisition (for more information on the language learning process, take a look at The Pocketbook Guide to Learning Languages).

Additionally, responses also indicated that the nature of the language being studied also had an impact on how many vocabulary words should be studied in a single day. Eastern languages, for example, use a vastly different system for documenting the written language. Kanji characters in the Japanese language are nothing like the letters derived from Greek and Latin used in so many Western languages (like those you are reading right now). Because of this, it may be more difficult to study large quantities of Japanese or Chinese vocabulary, whereas Spanish or French might be much easier for an English learner (especially where cognates, or similar words, exist between the languages).

Individual differences will account for the huge spread between the lowest reported number of 2 and the highest reported number of 50. Such differences include time, ability, motivation, and other resources. Those with more time and motivation will be able to study more vocabulary than those without.

What does this mean for you? Well, your individual resources will largely determine what is the most appropriate vocabulary for you to learn. Personally, I like a more conservative and steady approach to vocabulary study. Initially I would stay closer to 10-15 words per day, at most, and gradually scale that quantity back as I begin to focus on sentence comprehension. Homer Simpson's BrainFor me, learning any more than 15 words in a day would be frustrating, simply because I’m certain to forget the additional words (which would then carry over to the next day, effectively lowering my “words per day studied”). However, I will admit that many people have a much greater capacity (and constitution) when it comes to vocabulary acquisition. If you’re one of those people there is nothing wrong with studying much more than 10-15.

To establish a game plan, I might recommend evaluating at least the following:

  1. How much time do you have each day for vocabulary study? It may be wise to plan on around 3 minutes for each vocabulary word to really sink in. This means that over the course of the day, at least 3 minutes will be actively focused on acquiring a single word (e.g. 20 seconds here, 15 seconds there, etc.). Therefore, if you only have 30 minutes per day to dedicate yourself strictly to vocabulary, you may want to limit your goal for vocabulary acquisition to 10 words.
  2. What is your current language focus? If you’re focused more on grammar, pronunciation, or listening comprehension, for example, you may want to set lower expectations for daily vocabulary learning. The more important thing is to set realistic goals that are achievable, then to consistently achieve those goals. However, if your focus is on vocabulary, then play it by ear to find an appropriate balance to effectively learn the greatest number of words possible.
  3. What language resources do you have? If your current focus is on vocabulary and all you have is a grammar text book, you’re going to find yourself running out of vocabulary words rather quickly. Make sure you have the resources to find meaningful vocabulary to study.
  4. How motivated are you to learn vocabulary right now? If your motivation is low, don’t set a goal you’re guaranteed to fail achieving. Set reasonable expectations, then meet or exceed those expectations. If your motivation is higher, on the other hand, then up your daily vocab study.
  5. What opportunities will you have to use your studied vocabulary? The age-old saying “Use it or lose it!” comes to mind here. Just like anything else you study, you’re going to quickly forget what you learn if you don’t apply it. If you know you’ll have limited opportunity to use what you learn then focus your vocabulary study on only the most meaningful words at this time in your life. What I mean by this is that it doesn’t make any sense to study new words about traveling on a train if you know you won’t be riding a train any time soon. Those words can come later when context suggests it. For now, study words that you can use as soon as possible for easier memory storage and recall. It will also motivate you substantially to continue studying vocabulary.

Regardless of how many words you decide to study in a day, the real lesson here is to be consistent. If you can ensure 10 new words per day, for example, that amounts to 50 new words per week (assuming you take a couple of days to rest your brain), or 200 new words per month. That’s over a thousand words in a year, which is a great start to achieving fluency.

How many words do you study in a day? Let me know in a comment below!

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How much vocabulary do I study per day? First I have to say that I don't work with a fixed study-plan, so I don't study my target language every day. I rather use my foreign languages in different ways on a daily basis. So I don't learn vocabulary every day, but I usually do it with my handwritten vocabulary books when I use public transport or I am somewhere in the city sitting for example in a cafe. A suitable dosis for me is 10-15 new words or expressions per session. Fasulye