To Learn a Word One Has to Hear It 160 Times

There was a study done by The University of Cambridge, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, where they measured the brainwaves of 16 people while having them listen to familiar words with an unfamiliar word (in this case a word invented for the purposes of the experiment) mixed in for a total of 14 minutes. The studies showed that the new word registered the exact same as the known words on the brain scans after hearing it 160 times.

The article posits that based on this information it is possible to learn a new language solely by listening.

Your thoughts?

Here is the article I first read about it (Italian) (Per imparare nuove parole è sufficiente ripeterle 160 volte - Corriere della Sera)

If I find the English version I’ll post it here.

Here is the abstract of the article from the Journal of Neuroscience. Unfortunately, since I am not a subscriber I can’t read the whole article.

Hi odiernod,

I wasn’t able to access either source, but just based on your thread title and the content of your posts, I have a few comments.

I am cautious about the findings of any single study.

Sixteen people is not a large group.

What kind of “brain scan” was done?

It’s not necessary to listen to a word 160 times in order to learn it. It’s important to hear the word, make sure that you can pronounce it, understand its meaning and how it’s used in context. If you take the extra time to do this, plus review the word within a few days of first seeing it, you should have it.

Thanks for sharing the topic. I hope that you get some good posts out of this topic.

A lot of people don’t want to do that because it takes a little bit of effort, but people who do, own their words long before people who hope that they’ll encounter them 159 more times.

I have heard very odd sounding words once but somehow they stuck . I have also heard this certain word since I began studying Japanese and I can never say it correctly or remember it and I know i have heard it more then 160 times sadly. I think the article is just measuring learned by brain waves compared to word you already know. So I don’t think a person has learned the word, just that they are able to hear it and distinguish from other words after 160 times,which they should that a lot of times of listening to the same words. Good article though.

I’m not surprised that odd sounding words stick, andres9888. We remember the person with the green wig, but we may not notice someone who blends in with the group. I could not remember one word in English that used to be trendy and is still used. I could pronounce and spell it (and it’s weird to spell too), but I could not use it until I heard my husband give me the definition in his own deep voice.

Do whatever it takes to make your words stick.

when I hear something new, I hear enough to understand. after a few days I hear again and realized I did not miss.

I wonder if these links will work (English) (Italian)

Yup they work. I will comment later after digesting this, my meal, and doing the dishes.

Thanks for the links, Steve.

This is what I said on my blog.

You need to hear a word 160 times in order to learn it, according to recent research at Cambridge University. See these summaries in English and Italian.

I do not know if this is true. I do know that I often understand things and remember things better if I have hear them, and if I hear them more than once. I also find some texts easier to follow when I listen than when I read. Proust is a good example.

I recommend repetitive listening in language learning, and I think it should also be used for other kinds of learning. What I read makes less of an impression on me than what I hear. If this can be proven it may have major implications for teaching. Maybe we need fewer text books, and less explanation, and lots of repetitive listening.

I do believe the effect is enhanced when we listen to meaningful content, rather than just a meaningless list of words. At least that has been my experience.

I also think that combining repetitive listening with reading is even more powerful than just listening. But that is not scientific, just my experience.

“Lo studio può anche essere utile per gli effetti dell’ictus sul linguaggio: «La riabilitazione potrebbe essere più veloce - spiega l’esperto - se ci si concentra sul ricreare il prima possibile le connessioni neurali associate alle parole».”


Grazie…I enjoyed reading this in Italian.

The quote is from the link. If you’re not allowed to quote here, like that, just delete my post.

Of course you can quote from there on our forum Vi7 and thanks for your active participation on our forums.

I do not have a biased opinion toward the article in either way, I just found it interesting and wished to share it with others who may find it interesting and discuss its possible implications. I too know that I have definitely “learned” words with well less than 160 repetitions, especially when there is context involved. Reading the articles there is no clear distinction whether they are just lists of words or whether they formed into sentences with some sort of context. Perhaps this study should be done specifically with context to see what the difference in required repetitions is.

As far as the types of brain scans they used, the English article abstract says this: “Initially, we found enhanced activity for known words, indexing the ignition of their underlying memory traces. However, just after 14 min of learning exposure, the novel items exhibited a significant increase in response magnitude matching in size with that to real words. This activation increase, as we would like to propose, reflects rapid mapping of new word forms onto neural representations. Similar to familiar words, the neural activity subserving rapid learning of new word forms was generated in the left-perisylvian language cortex, especially anterior superior-temporal areas.”

Since I am not a neuroscientist I can’t tell you exactly what this means, however it seems to me like they know what to look for as far as the memory and language centers of the brain are concerned. The scientist who conducted the study’s profile and contact information are linked to in both articles, maybe we could ask him.

@Vi7 I agree, I actually get a lot of my “what’s happening in science” information from Italian News and radio programs.

With regards to the quote that you listed, I found that very interesting as well. More even than foreign language learning, this research could have a more profound affect on relearning lost abilities in your native language, such as rehabilitation from a stroke.

This would come under the catagory of neurolinguistics, I suppose? I have been wondering what that is!