During the first year of high school Spanish the average student learns around 400 new words and expressions in only a few months. Many of these words are learned without an incredible amount of effort from the student’s part. This is a pretty good number if we consider that classes are an average of 40 minutes long and filled with inattentive teenagers. This shows that vocabulary learning at the early stages is a linear process: if you put in an average amount of effort, you will get a decent retention rate in result.After we learn enough words—around 1,000 for Spanish—the learning curve goes up exponentially. The amount of time we put in is no longer proportional to the number of words we can remember. This is because the way most people learn new words is by repeated exposure. We don’t go running to the dictionary every time we hear a word that we are not familiar with. But if we hear it three or four times, we might actually look it up. The same holds true for learning words in a foreign language: the words that get learned first are those that get repeated the most. When the percentage of repetition gets too low–that is, when we don’t get to see or hear the word very often– it keeps getting harder and harder to find the motivation to actually pick up the dictionary and look it up. Especially if the meaning can be guessed from the context.
This means that if we found a way to give more focus to less frequently repeated words, we could still learn them as fast as we did in the beginning. This is what I am currently working on: decreasing the difficulty bump that comes after the initial stages of the learning process.