How many new words do I need to learn? This is a question often asked by ESL learners. To answer this question, we first need to agree on the definition of a new word. Do you regard “clear” “clearer”, and “clearly” as one word or three words? If we treat them as one word, we are talking about word families. Words have families. If we know one member of the family, we can recognize the rest of the family. When we talk about new words, let’s just talk about word families.
Do you know how many word families are there in a dictionary? About 55,000. How many word families does an ordinary native speaker know? About 20,000. How many words does a five-year old child know? Between 4,000 to 5,000.
We know some words are used more frequently than other words. As an ESL learner, we should learn the most frequently used words first. Do you know which word is the most frequently used word in English? According to the General Service list by Michael West, it is “the“, the second most frequently used word is “be“, the third is “of“, the fourth is “and“, the fifth is “a“. The Dolch list contains 220 most frequently used words. A good ESL textbook always introduces the most frequently used words first. -Ron Lee
One of the difficulties in learning English is vocabulary. Students are complaining all the time that they can’t remember new words. According to research, an ESL student learns about 2,500 new words a year. That may sound like a lot, but this is just in average. You can actually learn more. How do you remember all these words? Well, it is really not that difficult. How do you know your classmates? Do you remember everyone’s face the first day? No. By the end of the semester, you know everyone well. Why? Because you see each other every day. Learning English is the same. If you want to remember the new words, you must see them often. When you do a lot of reading, you see words you learned often, and you remember the new words naturally. So remember new words in their contexts. It is easier to remember them that way, and then you know how to use them once they are remembered.
If you’re not making good progress in learning English, maybe because you have not kept a balance between input and output. For some people, the problem is input. They don’t do enough reading. Some people rarely listen to English. They go to school, but do not read books after class. I asked my students of level 3 if they watch English TV programs regularly, most of them shook their heads. It’s terrible. Learning English should be an enjoyable thing to do, but many students struggle because of so many new words to remember and so many grammar rules to learn and exercises to do. This needs to be changed. Borrow some interesting, easy to read books from the library, some children’s books, I suggest. While learning English, try not to read anything in your native language. If you want to read news about your country, read it in English. For listening, watch your favorite English TV programs. You may want to order a DVR (Digital Video Recorder) from your cable company, and record the programs you want to watch and watch them at your convenient time. You also need an MP3 player, which is not expensive to buy these days, and download listening materials from ESL podcast sites (http://www.rong-chang.com/podcast.htm). The advantage of having an MP3 player is that you can listen to English anywhere, anytime, while walking, doing the housework, before going to sleep. All the time you spend listening to music should now be spent listening to English. Regarding output, you need to find opportunities to speak English. The most important learning principle is LEARNING BY DOING. Learning English is the same. You learn to speak English by speaking it. In a new country, try to make new friends. Learn how to start a conversation with a stranger. Go to parties on the weekend. When a salesman calls you, pick up the phone and talk to him, just make sure you don’t buy things from them. For writing practice, use your email often. Email your friends, your teachers. You can also find a pen pal to write to or chat with for English learning purposes (http://www.rong-chang.com/talk/talksign.htm).
Many English learners complain about not making much progress in learning English. One question they need to ask themselves first is: Have I kept a balance between input and output? Input means listening and reading; output means speaking and writing. For some learners, input is an issue. To learn English well, we need to read a lot and listen a lot. How much reading have you done? How much listening do you do every day? If you are an ESL/EFL student, you probably go to school twice a week or more. In your English class, you listen to the teacher, you do in-class reading, but there are other activities in class. Your English language input is probably only a few hours a week. This is not enough input to learn English well. Do you know how many new words an English student learn in a year? According to research, a full-time ESL student learns 2,500 new words a year in average. That sounds like too many new words. However it means only about 7 words a day. If you read in English, I’m sure you come across more than 7 new words a day. Therefore, don’t think you cannot learn 2,500 new words a year. You can. The problem is that in order to know how to use the word, according to research, you have to see the word being used in different contexts 7 to 9 times. This gives you some idea of how much reading and listening you must do. In-class time is simply not enough. You need to do a lot of reading and listening out of class in order to know how to use the new words and how to use the language.