How to Master a Language for Life
Imagine a language-learning method where, during enjoyable conversations with native speakers, new vocabulary is introduced as needed; and immediately afterwards, you can solve crossword puzzles with precisely that vocabulary, using contextual clues taken from your own conversations. Such a method exists!
It’s worth noting that you need to learn thousands of words to master a language: one reasonable estimate is 20,000 that you can understand and 10,000 that you actively use. By extensive reading and immersive listening you will naturally pick up most of these words, and by regular writing and speaking with natives you will efficiently convert them to productive vocabulary.
However, the process is significantly enhanced—especially in terms of automating and retaining vocabulary—if some of this vocabulary is learned explicitly by dynamically reviewing words that you have learned in context (and not using prefabricated word lists).
Flashcards using a spaced repetition system are a great first step toward consolidating this context-based vocabulary, but their use should be followed by a more enjoyable and challenging method of review. That’s where crossword puzzles fit in.
Among the Natural Language Institute’s games is Crossword, which shuffles through the vocabulary you learned in conversation and creates endless automatically generated puzzles. They are a challenging and fun way to permanently ingrain words and expressions in your long-term memory.
Like any crossword puzzle, the definition of the word (as chosen by your teacher) is shown as a horizontal or vertical clue. Uniquely, however, most words also have a “Context” clue, which you can click to see the actual sentence you used in class with the vocabulary word blanked out.
You will know when you have successfully completed the puzzle because fireworks with appear on your screen. If you’ve filled in all the answers, but the fireworks do not appear, you’ll need to review them carefully to see if you’ve made a mistake. If there are any words or letters you are unsure of, position the cursor on a specific square and click on the light bulb to get a free letter. You get five of these hints for each puzzle. (However, the fewer hints you use, and the more quickly you solve the puzzle, the higher your final score.) If you are still unable to complete the puzzle, click on the check mark icon to give up and see the answers. Study them carefully before beginning a new puzzle.
Check out the video that accompanies this post to see Natural’s Crossword game in action.
If you’re not a student, but would like to try our Crossword game, you can practice English vocabulary from the hit Netflix series You here.
 There are various estimates, but no definitive number representing how many words you need to learn to master a language or attain any intermediate level of fluency. Even a clear definition of what constitutes a word or item of vocabulary is elusive. Nonetheless, estimates are useful in giving one a sense of the challenge involved in acquiring a language. The estimate mentioned here can be found in the top answer to this online query on the topic.
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