I have heard that when learning any language, if you are exposed to a word 1000 times, you know that word well enough to use it without having to think about it very much. You own that word. Some words require fewer than 1000 exposures, and some more, but the average is apparently 1000. I’m not sure how researchers were able to follow people around long enough to judge how long it took them to learn new words, but judging how I feel about a lot of the new vocabulary I have been learning these past few weeks, 1000 times sounds about right. Not that I count or anything. (disclaimer: I actually have no idea and am just going off of what I heard.)
Assuming the 1000-times figure is correct, I think I can tell approximately how many times I have heard words I am learning. Here’s my guess as to my word-learning progress stages:
1-10 times: I have trouble pronouncing the word because it is unfamiliar. I would not think of using it in a sentence, spoken or written, because it is not familiar enough yet. If I have to read the word aloud, I will have to concentrate pretty hard if I want to not mispronounce it.
11-200 times: This is the embarrassing stage in word-learning. I know the word for this person, place, thing, idea, action, descriptor, etc. exists, but when speaking or writing, I often need a lot of time to remember what the word is. If I don’t happen to have a dictionary handy, expect me to say “uhhhh…” when trying to remember the word, because it’s figuratively speaking just on the tip of my brain.
201-500 times: I can think of the word more quickly now when I need it, but I am still likely to mispronounce it or misspell it. If the word in question is a noun, I might get the gender of this word correct half of the time. (German nouns are all either feminine (die), masculine (der), or neuter (das), by the way. The gender determines adjective and pronoun endings and sometimes differentiates between entirely different meanings of a word. Such as die Leiter = ladder, der Leiter = leader.)
501-750 times: By this point, I can generally think of the word when I need to use it, but will occasionally still slip up. Common spelling mistakes (mixing up ie/ei, using the wrong pluralization, forgetting an umlaut (the little dots over ü, ö, ä)) are still likely. I might remember the correct gender 70% of the time. Maybe. I am still likely to mix up words that have the same spelling but different genders.
751-999 times: The word starts to come to me naturally, without me having to think “what was such-and-such auf Deutsch again?” I generally get the spelling consistently correct by this point, and with verbs, I am familiar with how the spelling changes as it goes from past to present to future tenses and in-between. I will still mess up on the noun gender occasionally because noun genders are hard to memorize. At some point in this interval, I start to really own the word and become more confident in its use, to the point of being able to define it both in English and in German if I am asked.
1000 times: I don’t have to think about the word to use it in a sentence, and I know the meaning (or at least the meanings to which I have in some way been exposed). There may be alternate definitions to learn, and I may not know all of the prefixes and suffixes associated with the word, but when I do run across that kind of variation, my knowledge of the base word makes understanding the meaning of the modifications much easier.
Learning a language is hard, but I am thankful that I already posses the ability to think in German. Not all the words I would like to use always come to mind immediately, and I will probably always find it easier to think and express myself in English than in German. But German is getting easier. When out interacting with the world, I try to seize onto every bit of German I can find; if I hear a word in the streetcar or see it on an advertisement or newspaper, that’s one more time I have been exposed to the word. Which gets me that much closer to the magic 1000. One tiny little step at a time.