Active Ignorance

In language learning, “less is more.”


Today I have a difficult job:

I have to convince you that actively ignoring information will actually speed up your learning process.

Honestly, this is one of the language-learning messages I’m most passionate about, because I truly think that this technique changes everything.

The fact is, until a certain point in your language journey, it’s extremely important that you restrict your knowledge to a (relatively) very small amount of vocabulary.

One day, after a certain point in your language learning journey, you’ll be ready to expand your horizons. Then you can confidently absorb every single thing that you find important… And it will work! But ONLY because of the foundations you’ve laid first.

Let me give you a tangible example.

Are you a native English speaker?

Suppose I introduce to you the English verb “to exculpate”, which means “to declare not guilty”. Almost at once, you know how to use this word in a variety of situations and in different forms:

“We found him innocent and exculpated him.”

“The argument proved that the man was right, exculpating him.”

“For him to have been exculpated more quickly, he would have needed a more solid alibi.”

But are you going to teach a beginning English student this word?

Of course not!

That student would have no clue how to use this word, and besides, they would be very unlikely to have a reason to use it.

However, now let’s try out the word “get”.

This word is used all over the place in English, with many different meanings. It’s very handy, because you can use it in place of many other verbs. And the more you use it, the more you sound like a native English speaker.

Here’s the point: One of these words is clearly more important than the other. Teaching a student “exculpate” before “get” will impede their learning and increase their frustration. The effort they’re putting into the obscure word is effort they should be putting into the words that will actually help them to start thinking in English, so that they can get to the point where other vocabulary integrates effortlessly.

So when do you move on to more advanced vocabulary?

AFTER you’re basically fluent.

Not only that, but the better you follow this advice, the more you’ll accelerate the learning process.

For example, instead of just avoiding obscure words (e.g. “exculpate”, “abstruse”, “requisite”), you can speed up your learning even more by choosing to learn ONLY the top 500 words in your target language (e.g. “get”, “do”, “actually”).

In fact, my advice is that you outright REFUSE to learn any other words, until you’ve mastered the minimum amount to make you basically fluent.

This is extremely important. If you set yourself the goal of only mastering 500 words, in all of their possible uses, you can make tangible progress. Each day you’ll know you’re closer to that goal.

But if your goal is to learn “everything”, you’ll end up going in circles… which is sadly what most people do. They think that just learning more words will make them fluent, but they would serve themselves much better by focusing on the core essence of the language and not moving beyond there until it’s mastered.

Don’t get distracted

Although this advice will theoretically make your work easier, staying on track and following this principle is harder than it sounds. Most early language learners look around them at the world they can see, and as they see physical objects, they think that it’s important to learn the names of all those nouns as soon as possible.

But realistically, which of the following sentences do you think you’ll find yourself saying more often?

(A) “The eggs and milk are in the kitchen, with the apples and carrots.”

(B) “I want you to do it as soon as you can.”

Each of these sentences requires approximately the same amount of vocabulary. But the second one will obviously be useful in many, many more situations.

And yet many second-year Spanish students can easily say the first sentence, but they have no idea how the grammar works in the second one.

Why do most people make this mistake?

It’s a simple temptation: The first example is visual and physical, while the second one is abstract. But that’s why the second one is SO much more valuable.

Instead of entertaining ourselves with shiny objects like foods and animal names, we need to focus on clear, perfect communication.

Yes, some grammar is required, but this is where the language truly lives. If you learn not just the top 500 words, but every important idiomatic use of those words, you’re a much better speaker of the language than someone who has simply memorized the dictionary.

But… grammar? When will it stop?

During this process, you’ll find that using 500 words perfectly involves a lot of grammar.

However, the beauty is that once you’ve mastered those 500 words… your grammar work is basically done.

The language lives in those most frequent words, and when I say “the language” and “the grammar”, those basically mean the same thing. If you can effectively think in your target language just using the top 500 words, you’re ready to move on and learn more vocabulary, and grammar won’t be a big part of it.

Verbs, nouns, adjectives, and adverbs will now all come as second nature, fitting perfectly into the fabric that you’ve created in your mind. Now you can learn words like “exculpate” and it won’t be intimidating; you’ll be able to use it like any other verb that you know.

And best of all, if you avoid learning trivial vocabulary until you’ve mastered those top 500 words, that turning point will come much sooner than you might think.

Put this into practice.

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