I studied Spanish and Russian in school for many years, and a few years after graduating university, I wanted to get back into it. I had basic vocabulary and grammar drilled into my head, and I wanted to self-study to become fluent one day. I had always done well in my classes, so how hard could it be?
It turns out - very hard.
First, I tried immersing myself by reading a Spanish novel. The idea was that the novel would be interesting enough so that I could learn naturally and effortlessly. And so I picked one up from Amazon that seemed interesting. I tried reading the first few pages, but I was struggling with every other word. Moreover, the story turned out to be not so interesting, so I stopped reading it.
A lot of people recommend reading Harry Potter in Spanish, but the truth is that it’ll likely be too hard for you. If you’ve only ever learned Spanish in school, you probably vastly underestimate your vocabulary level. Even if Harry Potter is a book for young adults, it’s geared towards young adults who are fluent!
Then, I went back to the drawing board and decided to watch TV shows and movies in Spanish and Russian but with English subtitles. I picked up bits and pieces, but I ended up just focusing on the English subtitles and not learning very much. So I got rid of the English subtitles and put on the Spanish or Russian subtitles. That worked ok, but I only understood 50% of the words. Understanding 50% of the words separately is like understanding 20% of the words when they’re put together in sentences!
My next step was to hire a tutor. I went onto an online language learning tutor marketplace and picked out a few high quality tutors for lessons each week. Throughout the lessons, they focused on grammar review, but I had largely learned all the grammar already. The main improvement was in my speaking skills because I got more confident. But this progress quickly plateaued, because I simply lacked the vocabulary. All the confidence in the world can’t help, if you don’t have the words to express yourself.
The last thing I tried was downloading a few textbook pdfs onto my tablet. But as many of you may know, textbooks are so incredibly boring. It’s hard enough to read them even when your grades are on the line. For self-studying, it’s basically impossible to maintain motivation.
I was about to give up and call it a year until the next time I made my New Year’s resolutions when I hit on something…
Essentially, I figured that my main problem was vocabulary. Books, tv shows, movies, textbooks, tutors, are only useful if you’ve built up a solid base of vocabulary. If you want to naturally build up your vocabulary, then it will take a long, long time. Native speakers are exposed to their native language from birth, spending all their waking hours immersed in their native language. Are you able to imitate that?
I found an interesting statistic that the top 5,000 most frequently used words account for 95% of text and speech. That’s when the light bulb clicked. All I needed to do was study these words, and then I could understand almost everything!
And that’s the origin story of ListLang. I built it out of frustration of this whole process. Intermediate-level language learners need to focus on a strong vocabulary foundation before moving onto other learning methods like comprehensive input with books, movies, etc.