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How to Acquire Korean - Vocabulary

Updated: Mar 20, 2021

In this post, I will use Elon Musk’s first principles approach to analyze the most effective way to acquire a language. First principles are things that we know to be true. They will be the building blocks with which we reason up from.

Before we start, I want to stress that I believe that there is still a lot we can learn about acquiring languages. I hope that by putting these ideas out in the community, we can continue to discuss and refine them together.

The most fundamental question that we need to ask is: what is necessary to become fluent? I believe there are 4 main building blocks: Vocabulary, Grammar, Listening, and Speaking

Today, I will be focusing on how we can learn vocabulary better to remember it over longer periods of time.

First principles to improve vocabulary acquisition:

  1. Test yourself (Active Recall)

  2. Learn with stories

  3. Mix up your practice (Interleaving)

  4. Employ Spaced Repetition (SRS)

Testing yourself (Active Recall)

An experiment performed by Roediger and Karpicke, split 120 students into 2 groups. The control group studied material then restudied. The experimental group studied material then took a test. They found that after 1 week, students in the experimental group (study, test) recalled more than twice the amount of material as students in the control group (study, study)

More peer-reviewed evidence for Testing Yourself (aka Active Recall):

Learn with stories (Emotional Arousal)

In an experiment by Inal and Cakir, 90 1st grade students were divided into 2 groups. The experimental group was taught vocabulary through stories. The control group was taught vocabulary using traditional methods. They were both taught for 90 minutes one day a week for 4 weeks (total: 360 minutes). Students were tested 30 days after this teaching process and the experimental group (learn through stories) performed 245% better than the control group (traditional methods)

I believe that one of the reasons why learning vocabulary through stories is so effective is because it attaches emotion to words. From a molecular biology point of view, emotional arousal leads to the production of norepinephrine (aka adrenaline), which leads to memory formation.

Mix it up (Interleaving)

There’s a laundry list of evidence that suggests that it’s better to mix up/interleave your practice (A,B,C,A,B,C,A,B,C) rather than practicing one skill before moving on to the next (A,A,A,B,B,B,C,C,C).

**A,B, and C are different skills

In a 3 month experiment by Rohrer, Dedrick, and Stershic, 9 classes of 7th graders learning math (slope and graph problems) were split into 2 groups. 5 classes used interleaving (old and new problems of different types were mixed together) for slope problems and blocking (practicing one skill at a time) for graph problems. In the other 4 classes, the reverse was true. They were tested 1 month after their last class and students performed 76% better on problems that they practiced through interleaving.

It is believed that interleaving improves learning because: 1) it helps the brain distinguish different concepts and 2) it improves memory associations by accessing many different parts of the brain.

Employ Spaced Repetition (SRS)

This is the concept that most of you guys are probably familiar with so I won’t spend too much time explaining it. Basically, it’s better to practice a little bit over the course of many days rather than a lot over the course of one day. Additionally, you should ideally practice material right before you forget it. Programs like Anki, Memrise, Supermemo, etc. provide spaced repetition systems.

This video does a good job explaining SRS.


So now that we know some principles with which we can learn vocabulary faster, what’re some ways we can put them into practice?

  • Instead of passively reviewing vocabulary and their definitions, try covering up the meaning to see if you can remember it. (Active Recall)

  • After learning vocabulary, read a story or watch a video that uses those words. (Learn with stories)

  • Try practicing vocabulary in the context of a variety of sentences (Interleaving)

  • Don’t just practice reading vocabulary. Also practice listening to it (Interleaving)

  • After learning new vocabulary, space out your practice to remember it (Spaced Repetition)

  • Read stories and watch videos to naturally space out your vocabulary review (Spaced Repetition + Learn with stories)

Lastly, I’ve been working on an app that utilizes these principles to acquire Korean and I’m looking for beta testers! Please email if you're interested!

Phew. This was a long one, but, if you got to the end, thank you! Like I said in the beginning, these ideas can be further refined so please comment if you guys have anything to add!

tl;dr: test yourself, attach emotions, mix up and space out your practice to acquire Korean vocabulary quickly

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