How much do I need to learn in a new language? On subject-based language study

A brain with words inside.

Let’s just say you wanted to be fluent in a foreign language. Like, very fluent. Like, native speaker fluent. Capable of talking about any subject they can.

Obviously, that’s an ambitious goal. Native speakers, too, vary greatly in their ability to discuss various subjects. My recent conversation with Luke Truman revealed that he knows more scientific terms in Cantonese than I do. Meanwhile, I am probably capable of talking about music better than most English native speakers.

But there are things that most native speakers who’ve had an average education can talk about: mathematics, plants, common illnesses, political structures, history…cooking…

These aren’t things that language textbooks cover. Language course gets you from a complete beginner to a conversational level, where you can survive in the language. There is still a gap between that level and being able to read any newspaper with ease. You need things that native speakers learn in school.

Your tactic to deal with this problem might be to keep reading, and to learn any new words that stand in your way. Personally, I find that intimidating. Beyond the 10,000 most frequent words, there are hundreds of thousands of words out there, and the prospect of jumping into that ocean without a direction frightens me.

No, I prefer to have a guide through that.

Thematic fluency

Think about it. After years of studying a foreign language, you’re most likely to be equivalent to a child (around 7~10 years old I suppose?) who speaks it natively. You can’t expect those children to read newspapers, not even with a dictionary to look up every word.

No, you expect them to read children’s readers. Youth newspapers. At least until they get to their teens.

Meanwhile, they learn about our world bit by bit, piece by piece. They learn about interpersonal relations in one class. They learn about terrains in one, road signs in another, and arithmetics in yet another.

Our advantage as adults is that we already know a lot about our world. We just need to learn to see it through a different linguistic lens.

(There are exceptions where a culture sees the world in a completely different way…but that’s a story for another day.)

So what we need to do is simply translate our knowledge of the world, right?

Sadly, no. I’m no neurologist, but from what I know, words and memories are stored in neural pathways, and we access them by finding the right pathway—through related ideas and memories—and connecting to our goal, just like connecting trains.

Children remember these words by linking them directly to the concepts, as well as how they feel about the concepts, how they perceive the relationships between these concepts, and how they learnt them at school. There is no intermediate mother tongue there.

We need to create the same links directly between the related words in the target language, and between them and the concepts.

We need to create direct links between related words in the target language and between words and concepts. Share on X

Creating my own school environment

The rule of thumb is still extremely simple: whatever you want to be able to do, you practise that.

If I want to do maths like a native speaker, I practise it. I come up with some basic arithmetic challenges in my head and complete them in the target language. So that if I go to lunch with someone in the language and need to work out how much to pay, I skip the back-and-forth translation into my mother tongue.

Learn like a child, like they say. Except not with a language, but with other things in the language.

Meanwhile, most of the other areas in a language are more knowledge than skill. So instead of putting discrete words in my vocabulary book, I organise them in topics—larger topics and sub-topics—either in my head or on a sheet.

Let’s say I’m imagining being ill and going to the doctor. (Which is something that I’m not confident doing, even in English.)

What would I have to talk about? First, I would need to describe how I feel. This can be ridiculously nuanced: in my mother tongue at least, there are a bunch of different kinds of ‘pains’ that I don’t know how to say in any other language. I will even need to learn the technical terms for symptoms.

And of course, I had better know the names of possible illnesses. Currently, beyond the common cold, the only disease I know in most foreign languages is…coronavirus.

I would also need to understand questions—such as about how I feel—and information the doctor gives, from possible causes to actions I can take against the illness, like how to refer to each pill, ways of describing how often to take them, what kinds of food to avoid, etc.

Under each of these categories, there are a bunch of words to learn. And if I study words this way, I am no longer jumping into a sea of unrelated words. I am learning them in closely connected groups: words under the same category, categories that work together to create conversations, and conversations that make up a real-life scenario that will undoubtedly be ingrained in my mind.

This was my reflection on my current way of studying vocabulary. How do you learn vocabulary? Do you feel like your method is effective? Are there ways you can use to make it more efficient? Let me know in the comments below.