How Many Vocabulary Words a Day Should You Learn?

With languages, I definitely tend to use a lot of what I call “organic” learning methods. Actually using the language–reading, listening, speaking, and writing it–is vital in the language acquisition process.

That doesn’t mean, though, that I never study. Almost every successful language learner I’ve ever met sits down and studies. Specifically, they study vocabulary words.

So this brings up a question: How many vocabulary words should you learn every day?

If you’re in a class, this number is more or less going be dictated by your teacher. But if you’re a self-studier like me, what then?

Image Source

By Calvin Teo, [CC], Image Source

What others say

There are countless approaches, but here are three I’ve seen that run a broad spectrum:

  • (Conservative) 5 to 8 new words a day – This seems to be the range that Pimsleur and Rosetta Stone like.
  • (Aggressive) 25-40 new words a day – Whenever I’ve taken full-time, intensive language courses, this is the range the classes use. The language director at one place I studied at told the instructors to teach no more than 25 new words a day (with the assumption being that teachers would go right up to that limit).
  • (Firehose) 100+ words a day – There are language programs out there written by memory experts that claim 100 to 200 new words a day. These programs typically promote memory techniques such as mnemonics and memory palaces.

What I say

You can use any range you like, of course. But for me, the sweet spot is about 15 new words a day. If I’m focusing really hard for a short period, I can double that. Usually, though, I stick right to that 15-word range and enjoy steady long-term results.

One of the most important things to keep in mind is that you rarely learn a vocabulary word the first time you see it, or even the first day you see it. You have to review a word again, and again, and again. I’ve seen estimates that say it takes seven meaningful exposures to really learn a word, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s closer to 20 or 30 exposures.

And these exposures can’t all come in the same day. A word is really “acquired” when you’ve seen it again and again over a period of time–weeks and months.

One way to get this exposure is by simply listening to or reading the language–and listening is really helpful for vocab acquisition.

Another way, though, is review. So when you’re studying vocab, you not only have to learn new words, but you have to make time to review the words you’ve already learned. You should be reviewing so often that you see each card in your flashcard deck at least 10 times throughout the course of your studies.

So when you use the “conservative” approach (5 to 8 words), I think you’ll progress easily with plenty of time for review, but you’ll be going probably too slow. There’s a lot of learning left on the table.

When you use the “aggressive” approach (25 to 40 words), I think you’ll be able to learn the words once, but you won’t have enough time or mental energy to go back and do the necessary review–at least not in the long term, unless you’re able to devote your entire life to language learning.

When you use the “firehose” approach (100+ words)…well, I’ve never seen anyone get significant results using this approach. People get good results with immersion because they are using the language all day and struggling to use their current skills, which build slowly over time in an environment where they are linguistically drowning. They are not learning mountains of vocabulary words a day. I recommend steering clear. If you want to try memory techniques, go nuts, but that’s still no reason to try and learn hundreds of words a day.

With 15 new words a day, I know that I can learn the new words, review old words, and still have time to read, listen, write, and speak. And in a year, I’ll really know over 5000 words in my new language.



  • Stephanie

    Interesting! I use anki to review vocabulary, and I set my new words based on how long it’s taking to get through all of my review cards. I might input several dozen words in one sitting, but I spread out learning them. I don’t like to spend more than 15 minutes per day on vocabulary review, so if I have too many reviews, I set my new words limit to 5 per day. If I have fewer reviews, I set my new words limit to 10 or 15 per day. 20 new words per day invariably leads to frustration for me. So I’d say that my “sweet spot” varies from 5 to 15 new words per day, depending on how I’m doing with the words that I’ve already practiced. That said, I’m also getting lots of exposure through other sources, so often by the time a “new” word pops up in anki, I already have a pretty solid understanding of it.

    • Ron G.

      That’s the same for me. Having seen a word before really helps by the time I try to “master” it with a flashcard program. You know, I never really got into Anki because I preferred having more control of how often I review words. But I’m using Readlang, which has elements of SRS in its program, and I admit that I like that the review is automated. (By the way, 5 to 15 is nice steady progress. You inevitably get a couple from all the acquisition activities I know you do, too.)

  • Kass13

    Great article! I was just thinking about this. I personally don’t make any special effort to learn vocabulary words. I just pick things up as I use them in conversation. But I’ve been wondering if I should, and if so, how many. Thanks!

    • Ron G.

      My pleasure. Please keep me posted on how your vocab learning works. I think that specific vocab learning helps, but a little goes a long way. If you’ve had good results before without any specific learning, you might even like the slower, more conservative approach.

  • Lindsay Dow

    I love the terminology you use – firehose! Brilliant! :)

    • Ron G.

      hahaha thanks! :) that’s the way it feels some time, for sure.

  • Jo Milz

    Mnemonics are really by far the best and fastes way to remember new words. Remembering by repetition is not as efficient as mnemonics. I tried many methods and programms like anki, rosetta stone, fluenz, the gold list method etc. and through mnemonics I experienced a whole new level of language learning. You also don’t need to repeat bew words so many times, due to the fact that the picture or the story you made up for every word won’t let you forget it. if you don’t try, you won’t believe it. I use mnemonics not only for vocabs, but also for my exams. And once I made a story/picture for a word/sentence/solved problem etc., I always remember it in the exam.

    • Ron G.

      Hi, Jo! Nice to meet you. I haven’t had a lot of success with mnemonics and/or memory palaces in language learning personally, but I know that some people swear by those methods. Good to hear your experiences! Might be worth giving another shot.

    • JASON

      Which mnemonic techniques do you use? How did you learn them?

  • Ahmad Alrowainy

    Thanks a lot dear for this valuable and well constructed article. I’m a bilingual teacher for science (arabic and English) and I translate as well, but ironically, I am very bad in memorizing most things; words for sure are included. What I can add to this article is the role INTENTION plays in memorizing and learning new words. I say this because for 20 years I have had read and translated thousands of words but -honestly- they still unmemorized for me. This is because in most times my Intention is not to learn them, but to get the idea of the texts I read or to just understand and translatthem! This seems like hearing a phone number for the first time, if you write it down on a paper you will never memorize it, but if you don’t have a paper and decided to memorize it, you give it attention, some effort, many trials and decide to put it in the long-term memory. This shortens the time needed to memorize a word, learn it and facilitate recalling it later.
    Finally, sorry for using the word MEMORIZE many times. I know learning is more than memorizing, but when it comes to language, the ability to memorize makes many things easy.

  • Chimwewe Chipeta

    Hi there, whilst I agree with your approach that learning 25-40 words a day is not sustainable long term, I definitely do think that in when just beginning to learn a new language (that is in the first 3-4 months) 25-40 (my range is 25-50) words a day is not only feasible, but also necessary for learning the basics of a language (which you will use for the rest of your life) relatively quickly, especially if you would like to attain fluency (my definition of fluency is being able to hold conversation at length in the target language, regardless of whether or not you completely understand every single word ) within a year.

    There are a few things to take into consideration though:

    1) How useful are the words you are learning.
    2) Am I really learning the words (i.e. Would I understand them when used in a proper context)?
    3) Am I able to recognise/use these words myself?

    The solution to number 1 is to learn the most frequent words in your target language. It is often stated that 90% of the words spoken in a given language are accounted for by only 2,000 words. Whilst this number may seem like a huge one, when given the size of the average educated native speakers vocabulary, it really only represents about 10% of the words the native speaker knows. Learning the most common words in a given language will incredibly help the learner in learning new less common words in the future through context, without the need for constantly referring to a dictionary.

    The solution to number 2 is to simply start exposing oneself to the language from day 1. I would suggest listening to beginner level podcasts (e.g. For french I used “Learn french by podcast” and “French for beginners”, for Spanish I used “Notes in Spanish”). These are useful as they introduce the beginner to native style conversations and then afterwards dissect the conversation and vocabulary in English, and then as the learner moves from beginner to intermediate level the conversations are then dissected using the target language to explain the meaning of phrases and vocabulary. This helps solidfy the knowledge gained from rote memorisation as they are hearing it used in context.

    The solution to number 3 is partly given in number 2. However, the learner would additionally have to learn the basics of grammar (i.e. Verb conjugations, word order, any declensions etc.) so that for instance if they were to hear a verb conjugated in the present 3rd person plural (for instance hablan in Spanish or ils parlent in french) they would be immediately be able to take that same verb and use it correctly in all its forms despite only just encountering it.

    Obviously this is a lot for 3 months’ work for learning the basics of a target language and I understand that not everyone is capable (due to time contraints) or motivated enough to do this. Personally, I do not see it as a huge undertaking as being a Medical Student, I was regularly learning something like 100+ new medical words a day in my first year and regularly reviewing 200+ anki flashcards a day. Therefore I do not see the problem in reviewing 100 vocabulary words a day. With discipline this would literally take 30 mins (probably less) first thing in the morning.