The BEST Way to Learn New Vocabulary - Steve Kaufmann

There’s an abundance of academic studies about vocabulary, what words do and how they’re acquired. But it’s really quite simple: listen and read and your vocabulary will grow!

Hm, “just enjoy the language” (Steve)
The problem starts when you have internalized this message and try to learn an L2 that is far from your L1 or the L2s you have already mastered, and you don’t find much enjoyment or interest, esp. in the beginner stages (A1-B1) of your language learning process.
This is exactly what happened to me in the 18 months I learned Japanese, but I still learn it almost every day - without relying on joy, enjoyment, fun, etc.

And this goes beyond language learning:
Learners with this fun / enjoyment attitude in challenging academic disciplines like math, computer science, physics, etc. probably won’t even survive a week at university. But, ok, most with this attitude run away from these disciplines as fast as they can…

I like Steve (and LingQ), but there’s something “seriously wrong” with this (simplified) message :slight_smile:

I think fairly often he’s mentioned that the beginning levels you have to go through a somewhat boring stage in terms of content and the repetition of that content. There’s simply not a lot of interesting content at the beginning stages. It’s only the excitement of learning something new that keeps you going through those parts. So I think he’s covered the bases many times beyond the “simplified” message in his hundreds of videos.

I agree with your point that anyone who wants to learn anything beyond a basic level needs to go through a bit of pain at times, and doubt. Sometimes in language learning it feels like you aren’t making any progress…or even taking steps back so you have to know you just need to keep going. I think that’s his point though too…you can get to caught up in how much (or little) progress you’re making that you aren’t simply enjoying the language, culture, or process. Don’t worry if you don’t remember a word. Don’t worry if you forget a word you already marked known.

I think anyone who’s not prepared for a little pain will never make it beyond the basics in any discipline, but they need to find something that motivates them to do so, so there is some enjoyment/reward.

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Hi, Eric!

Well, I’m in the middle of writing a book on this topic, i.e. “learning and the avoidance of discomfort / mental pain”, but I won’t go into too much detail here. So just two points:

  1. “I think anyone who’s not prepared for a little pain will never make it beyond the basics”
    I agree. But it goes beyond your “personal expectation management” as a language learner and the “basic level” because all these experiences of discomfort (frustration, low motivation, stagnation, plateaus, etc.) repeat themselves at higher levels as you tackle more challenging tasks.
    Therefore, as language learners, we should always expect discomfort. If there is no discomfort, we are likely to avoid anything that is challenging or tiring (that’s the case even for native speakers when it comes to writing!):
  • Reading? “Nah, I’m not a reader.”
  • Comics? “Only, if there are a lot of images”.
  • TV Series? “I can watch it once, but where’s the fun in watching something over and over again?”
    etc. pp.

Don’t get me wrong in this context, I have nothing against efficiency, fun, enjoyment, interest, etc., but it isn’t realistic that you can avoid (all) uncomfortable experiences when trying to learn a challenging skill in sports, programming, math, AI, data science, language learning, etc. So your “learning motto” should be, “Embrace discomfort and learn to overcome it. Only then will you succeed!”
But, from my teaching experience, esp. in languages and math, fun-first learners usually don’t want to do (or even believe!) this. They prefer to fail as long as they can stay in their comfort zone.
Why is that the case? I’ve been thinking a lot about this “preference / resistance” since 2010 and my current thesis is thati it’s a kind of addiction based on domain-specific pain/discomfort avoidance habits and shattered self-efficacy expectations (which are important for competence development).
The question is then: How is it possible to change these habits that usually tend to “ruin” learners? Recent gamification, infantilization, “funification”, etc. trends in offline and online education foster these avoidance habits. So they belong to the problem space, but not to the solution space…
2) Motivation / (initial) excitement / enjoyment
"It’s only the excitement of learning something new that keeps you going through those parts. "
No, as soon as the going gets tough, this initial enthusiasm fades very quickly.

“they need to find something that motivates them to do so, so there is some enjoyment/reward.”
I’d say “no” learner who really wants to successfully master a challenging skill should rely on motivation, will, or self-discipline. These resources are too volatile and usually don’t last very long. And as soon as you reach your motivational or volitional low point, then what?
We now know that there are much better “strategies.” The three most important are:

  • Start with WHY?
    As learners, if we don’t have a good answer for why we want to do/master something that is hard, there is a good chance we will quit as soon as the mental pain sets in.
    Or to quote Andrew Solomon: “We can endure great pain if we believe it’s purposeful”
  • Good routines (habits) and systems:
    If bad habits, for example: pain avoidance habits, are “quasi-addictions”, then good habits have the same power. Therefore, it is of utmost importance to establish a good learning routine and learning system.
    Once these are established, almost nothing can stop us from mastering a challenging skill
    Or to put it another way: The combination of “habits (routines) and good systems” is so powerful that mental pain or motivational problems are unlikely to ruin us.
  • Raise your tolerance level for (mental) pain/discomfort by doing something every day that you find highly uncomfortable (cold showers, hard workouts in the morning, learning to program, etc.).

In sum: Learners who have a purpose (WHY), good habits/routines/systems, and a high tolerance for (mental) pain tend to be the most successful learners because they aren’t dependent on fleeting experiences (changing motivations, moods, and emotions) or comfort of any kind (easy shortcuts, fun/pleasure addictions, external help, etc.).

Well, there’s more to this topic (the triad of learning death, identity issues, the conscious separation of self-worth and self-efficacy, the Dunning-Kruger bias, paradoxical relationships like not giving up but determining the exit point from the start, positive self-talk, determining the most important values, etc.), but my comment is already too long, so I’ll stop here.


I agree with Steve’s point of listening and reading to grow vocabulary. That is most of how I learned English words when I was young. Although I am not entirely against lists, I do it from time to time. An example would be shown in my blog post.