Learning a language is hard.

I moved to Mexico a little over a year ago and it’s fair to say that I drastically underestimated how difficult it would be to learn to speak Spanish. Before moving here I had been doing some on-and-off self study (i.e., duolingo) plus a mixture of the occasional italki tutoring lessons and two short beginner Spanish courses through Idlewild books in New York. I remember vividly being on the plane here, feeling very confident that I’d be speaking fluently in a few months — really ready to start my Spanish-speaking Mexican life.

I also remember, very vividly, approximately 48 hours later, when I realized 1) how little Spanish I actually knew 2) how difficult it was to communicate with real native speakers even just doing basic every day tasks and 3) how much work I was going to need to put in to be able to reach even a basic functional level of Spanish.

Since then I’ve been putting in at least half an hour a day of dedicated study time, probably averaging around 45 minutes a day over the past year (made up of 20-30 minutes of Anki flashcard review plus another hour of dedicated study on a grammatical topic every few days). That amounts to over 330 hours of dedicated practice over the last 450 days, which doesn’t include the non-dedicated practice time of just … trying to live my life in Spanish. I can now finally say that I speak Spanish — not fluently, and I still make lots of grammatical errors, but I can sit down with a native speaker and talk about my hopes / fears / dreams and actually make jokes (a big milestone!). Using the CEFR framework, I’d put my level in between B2 and C1.

Even with all of those hours of dedicated practice, the amount of vocabulary that I will need to be “fluent” or to simply read a book without having a dictionary at my side is truly staggering. I’d estimate that today I can recognize and understand between five and ten thousand words in Spanish (that is, I have them in my “passive” vocabulary, so I don’t use all of those in speech and writing). Even with that amount of vocabulary, reading a book is a real slog. I recently finished reading a novel, Las Muertas by  Jorge Ibargüengoitia (review forthcoming!), and I made the decision to underline and create an Anki card for every single word that I had to look up in the novel. I ended up with 579 cards. The book is only 183 pages! That’s 3.16 words that I had to look up per page just to get through the novel. And this is a novel that was recommended to me as being relatively straightforward such that someone at my level could get through it.

What that has made me realize is just how large a vocabulary you need to have in order to have native-like comprehension of the culture (books, TV, movies, etc.). Depending on how it’s measured, estimates for the active (words that are used by the person in speech or writing) and passive (words that the listener / reader can recognize and understand in context) vocabulary of native or fluent speakers of a language very widely. This post summarizes some of the research on the topic and notes that “U.S. native English speakers would have acquired a vocabulary of 42,000 words at age 20 and about 48,000 words by age 60.”

 U.S. native English speakers would have acquired a vocabulary of 42,000 words at age 20 and about 48,000 words by age 60.

Just let that sync in — 42,000 words just to have the comprehension of a 20 year old. Over the course of 10 years, the Wall Street Journal used 20,000 unique words! While it is the case that you don’t need to know the meaning of every single word to grasp the meaning of a paragraph, I can tell you that when you’re speaking with someone and they ask you a question that uses a word you don’t know the definition of, the conversation pretty quickly goes dead.

For this reason, most of my study time today is on two things: 1) acquiring more vocabulary via my Anki cards and 2) practicing listening and speaking at a “real life” pace with native speakers. In order to get from where I am today (let’s say 7.5k words) to where I need to be (40k words) I’ll need to learn close to 18 words a day for the next five yearsLetting that sync in for a second, it’s no wonder to me that so many people find learning a new language so daunting — the sheer magnitude of vocabulary you need to know feels truly astronomical!

About the author


1 comment

By michael