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There are many word lists sorted by how often they appear during speech (for example, NGSL or Top 100 Spanish words) and also lots of software and online services which make them easier to memorise (Anki, Memrise, Quizlet,etc.).

It is obvious that one cannot learn a language outside real context, but can learning these lists by heart help learning process when combined with constant exposure to the real language?

  • Nice question! A related resource for English words is wordcount.org, which orders English words in order of usage. – fi12 Apr 21 '16 at 22:39
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    One often overlooked disadvantage is this: these lists usually enumerate words (lemmas=dictionary forms, or word forms), not their meanings. For example the word "to be" has 19 meanings in the Collins Cobuild Learner's Dictionary and the list does not tell you which ones of these you should learn. A related issue is that many of the most common words are actually grammar words (auxiliary verbs, articles, prepositions), so mastering them requires mastering a greater part of the grammar of the language. – Ansa211 Apr 24 '16 at 18:36
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The main advantage is that by learning higher frequency words, you get a greater "bang for your buck" - that is, if you know the most frequent words of the language, you'll be able to understand more of the words you encounter, and therefore you gain the greatest benefit by studying those frequent words first.

According to Nation & Waring (1997), text coverage in the Brown corpus is as follows:

  • Most frequent 1000 words: 72.0%
  • Most frequent 2000 words: 79.7%
  • Most frequent 3000 words: 84.0%
  • Most frequent 4000 words: 86.8%.

So by learning the top 1000 words, you'll know 72% of the words in the average text you read. But after that, there are diminishing returns: the next 1000 words gives you another 7.7% of a typical text, and the next 1000 words allows you to understand just 4.3% more. After that, the returns on memorizing by frequency decrease even more, so learning from frequency lists becomes less useful.

Note that text coverage (the percentage of words that you know in an average text) is important. We don't need to understand every single word in a text in order to understand the general meaning. Some research has investigated what percentage of words we do need to understand. Laufer and Sim (1985) suggested 65-70% should be understood as an absolute minimum for comprehension, but Laufer (1989) (as described in Hu and Nation (2000)) suggests 95% should be known for solid comprehension. Hu and Nation (2000) suggest that 98% of words should be known for unaided comprehension.

Although learning high-frequency words is a good idea, especially when you first start learning a language, frequency is not the only consideration when choosing words to learn. Barker (2007) suggests that "cost" and "benefit" be the primary considerations when choosing words to learn; benefit is partially defined by frequency, but also on personal needs.

So it's good to learn the "technical" vocabulary of your major or field, and it's also useful to learn words related to your interest. It's also beneficial to learn words with a lower "cost" - words that are familiar, that you've encountered a lot recently, or that just seem easy.

Also, although memorizing words has benefits, it is best to combine this with real exposure to words, so that you learn them naturally in real contexts.

  • it's true for me that we don't need to know every word to understand the general meaning. But then, if the author decides to use a rare word instead of a common one, then there is a reason behind that. If we don't know that word, then we will miss that reason. Usually, that word will give the author the freedom to create complex message. If we only need to know "adequate" vocabulary, we can only understand the message "adequately". – Ooker May 30 '16 at 10:33
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    @Ooker Yes, the long-term goal can be to acquire a very large vocabulary so we can understand things more completely. But to get to that point, extensive reading is very helpful - and having an "adequate" vocabulary and comprehending the message "adequately" is enough to gain the benefits of extensive reading. – gaeguri May 30 '16 at 11:55
  • do you think that if the learner has acquired a good vocabulary - enough to be called as an advance learner - then is it helpful to learn the very low frequency words beforehand via SRS program? I would argue that yes, because 1) it is not likely to meet that word again in the near future and 2) you need to spend time to know what it means anyway, in order to really understand the reading. – Ooker May 30 '16 at 13:57
  • As someone who has learnt German mostly by reading, I find that frequency lists are very practical for consolidating my knowledge. Going through a ready made deck of flashcards for the 5000 most frequent words, I can make sure that I understand each one of them correctly (sometimes I thought I knew the meaning but I was wrong!), that I know their gender and their plural/past forms and that I pronounce them correctly. – Ansa211 Oct 20 '16 at 19:36
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I think the biggest advantage is morale. If you for example learn all the parts of the body at an early stage, then you're forced to learn words like elbow and heel which are almost never used. This is demoralising since you are very likely to forget these rare words because there are so many other more common words vying for your attention, resulting in these words not being refreshed in your memory. Therefore you should just learn the most common parts of the body first. I would also say that with regard to fruit, learning apple, orange and banana is enough in the beginning unless there is a very common local fruit.

However, many very common words have lots of complex meanings associated with them. For example, lets say you've learned the word "out" in English - out is the opposite to in. Does that mean that you are going to understand: "get out", "hand out", "put out", "knocked out", "fill out", "out and about", "happy out", "out of the question", "out and out liar"? So when learning word meanings as a beginner, stick to the most common meanings as it will help you a lot of the time. If when starting out you learn meanings that are not that common, chances are you will be forced to learn them again.

Also, when learning common words, listen to them, don't read them. I made this mistake before and still pronounce certain common words wrong after 10 years of speaking a second language since I rely on the English pronunciation of the letters in the word. http://forvo.com can help you in this regard.

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Interesting work Hirsh, Nation - What vocabulary size is needed to read unsimplified texts for pleasure, 1992 shown that for English knowing 2000 words (it is very popular threshold) is insufficient for reading text, because at each line of text you see unknown word. Below is word coverage table:

Book\Words coverage   2000  2600  5000  7000
The Pearl            89.7%   95%   97%   98%
Alice                91.9%   97%   98%   99%
The Haunting         90.2%   97%   98%   99%

With 5000-7000 vocabulary you have 1 unknown word on 10 lines of text and with that ratio you can easily guess word meaning from context.

Article also has shown that after 5000 threshold huge effort to learn frequent words gives less value. In that case they suggest to learn special/relevant word list in advance.

There are many words that you will see only once in a given book:

Book \ Words#   1-2 times  5-6 times
The Pearl            776        75
Alice                591        63
The Haunting         864        52

I do not see any reason to learn such words at all...

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