If you wish to maintain your fluency once achieved and you are human then “the brow of the hill” is an extremely important concept. The brow of the hill is where maintaining the language you have learned is more fun than it is work.

People say it is hard to do things regularly. Not so – ask any alcoholic. On a related if less severe topic – I like chocolate. Throughout my life I have made a consistent effort to locate, purchase, unwrap, chew and swallow chocolate. I have never faltered. So we might as well admit it – we’re human. And humans find it difficult to maintain annoying practices and find it hard to stop doing things that are enjoyable in the moment. And that is why “the brow of the hill” is so important. Fortunately, there isn’t just one brow, the language maintenance terrain is like a series of foothills before a mountain. Here are some numbers you might find useful from our own direct experience.

  • making friends: 20 – 150 words
  • survival: 400 – 800 words
  • transactional: 800 – 1800 words
  • conversation: 1800 – 3,000 words
  • watching movies with subtitles: 3,000 – 5,000
  • reading and audio books: 4,000 – 12,000 (depends on language & book)

Languages are classified as arts not sciences because nothing is precise or definite. What one person can achieve with a 2,000 word vocabulary might take another person a 2,400 word vocabulary and another only 1600. Results depend on many factors including creativity, confidence, facility with language generally etc. So please read all the numbers above as indicative only.

You have to reach somewhere useful from the list above to be likely to maintain at least 80% of your peak ability with a language. For instance, I stayed in Spain for three months after I reached a vocabulary of 2,200 words. I was able to engage in extremely enjoyable conversation with a sympathetic Spanish speaker where we talked about everything and nothing as you do with your friends (excluding technical matters of course). So if I could visit Spain regularly or had a Spanish friend of sufficient good sense where I was living, I could maintain my Spanish ability just using enjoyable conversation with them as my method. Visiting Italy and living there for a month or two is something I would love to do – COVID means that isn’t going to happen any time soon. Reading makes a useful plan B.

I like to read and to listen to audiobooks. One of my goals for my Italian programme was to have sufficient facility with reading that it was more fun to read than it was work – “the brow of the hill”. So far I have sort of succeeded in that goal. I’m close, I’m not quite where I want to be – this may be a personality problem rather than my Italian. Let me explain.

Here is a short piece from Harry Potter one of the books I am currently reading. I trust J.K. Rowling will not mind my giving such a short excerpt.

siamo lieti di informarLa che Lei ha diritto a frequentare la Scuola di Magia e Stregoneria di Hogwarts. Qui accluso troverà l’elenco di tutti i libri di testo e delle attrezzature necessarie. L’anno scolastico avrà inizio il 1º settembre. Restiamo in attesa del Suo gufo entro e non oltre il 31 luglio p.v. Distinti saluti, Minerva McGonagall Vicepreside

The words in black are those I know. The word in blue means I did not know it but I can work it out from the context and other clues. The red is something I don’t know and would either have to look up or ignore. Here’s is my translation for the curious at heart.

We are delighted to inform you that you have the right to attend Hogwarts -the school for magicians and wizards. Attached is a list of all the textbooks and equipment you will need. The school year will start on the 1st of September. We await your Owl by (no later than) July 31st ??. Greetings, Minerva McGonall Vice-president.

My goal had been to reach 99% coverage, which would mean I only had one “red” word in every 100 – hence my adding 4,510 additional words to my vocabulary during the last month of my programme. I failed to reach 99%. Here is my current coverage for a variety of types of book (fiction, non fiction, blog etc) with a well-chosen vocabulary of 11,000 words.

Harry Potter – the Philosopher’s stone97.3%
Assassino Orient Ex (Murder on the orient express)98.2%
Sei Capelli (Six Thinking Hats – Edward de Bono)99.2%
hdblot.it (Some Italian Apple computer blog)99.7%

The law of diminishing returns applies to coverage in an extremely aggressive way. For instance, when I had a vocabulary of only 4,000 words I had 95% coverage of Harry Potter. With 11,000 words I have 97.3% coverage so you can see how little I gained in terms of additional coverage in adding the last 7,000 words. So if you are better than me at not concerning yourself with the words you don’t know then the last 7,000 words learned will not make that much difference to you as far as your reading pleasure is concerned. This is where my personality issue comes in. I’m very curious and I really want to know what the author is trying to tell me and in a precise way – so for me the brow of the hill may be higher than for you. Again, art not science and perhaps I should get therapy.

The second important aspect of reading facility is reading speed. This comes mostly from both vocabulary and practice and I have practiced a bit less than I should have. You can see from the numbers above that a more optimum route with regard to reading would have been a bit less vocabulary and a bit more practice. The result of the path I took is that I don’t read in Italian nearly as fast as I read in English. Again, the numbers.

per minute
Harry Potter – English308no look ups
Harry Potter – French163including google time
Harry Potter – Italian73 – 90including google time
A1 / A2 exam material – Italian193no dictionary time required

If your reading speed in a foreign language is too far below your reading speed in your own language there is a danger that you will not enjoy reading or if watching movies, that you won’t be able to keep up with the subtitles. Looking at the figures above I would say, with the benefit of hindsight, that I should have sacrificed the last 1000 -2,000 words of my vocabulary and better supported increasing my reading speed. It’s a little low in Italian. I put my French in for comparison – which is much more comfortable. Of course, HP is a challenging book, you can see that my reading speed for A1 / A2 exam material is more than double my speed when reading HP.

My experience of reading in Italian even at this speed is OK. If the book is a good one then it is more fun than work so the brow of the hill has been achieved – just. But it’s close and it isn’t true every day. Reading in French is a much more agreeable experience for me.

One trick you can use to reach the brow of your hill more quickly is to pick a specific field that you enjoy and focus on that. J.K. Rowling is a great writer in my view, but like every good author she enjoys English and uses a brutally large vocabulary to maintain the interest of her younger readers, other fields use much simpler / smaller vocabularies. For instance, here is one paragraph from the Italian Apple computer blog I enjoy – you won’t see words like squeak, rasp, squelch here unlike in HP. It is a much more basic vocabulary in its way.

Qualcuno potrebbe criticare Apple per non aver aggiornato il design di questo prodotto ma onestamente non credo proprio che ce ne fosse bisogno. Mac Mini è già bello e funzionale così com’è e la scelta di Apple va anche nella direzione di far credere all’utente che nulla sia cambiato, mantenendo il family feeling con i dispositivi del passato

I can translate 100% of this easily. Here’s my translation.

Somebody might criticise Apple for not having updated the design of this product but honestly I don’t really believe there was any need. The Mac mini is already beautiful and functional as it is. And it is also Apple’s choice to creat in the user’s mind the idea that nothing has changed, maintaining a familiarity with past devices.

So in terms of reading speed, again it depends on personality. I can’t say what it would be for you but for me 25% of my English reading speed is work not fun, 30%-ish is fun and work and it is a bit close for comfort, 50% is just plain enjoyable. 100% would be a thing of beauty. I will know that I have securely crossed the brow of the hill for reading in Italian when my reading speed has reached around 150 words per minute. Till then, I’m running a risk of stopping reading if I am not careful about what I read.

Although my December and January will be focussed mainly on improving my Thai where I am very close but not yet at the brow of a different hill I’ll continue investing time maintaining the Italian I have acquired and hopefully increasing my Italian reading speed. If I’m lucky maybe I can reach 150 wpm in December, I don’t know – practice makes perfect. Wish me luck. I’ll share anything I learn in this blog if it helps increase my reading speed and is a bit more sophisticated than “practice”. Not that practice isn’t great. But it is rather obvious and this blog is about things that are a bit more sophisticated than the wholly obvious.

Summary Hot tips

  • recognise you are human
  • find the nearest brow of a hill and cross it as soon as you can
  • focussing on a narrow domain whether that is computers, badminton or the news will help you reach the brow of a hill sooner.
  • bear in mind that books like HP are challenging. A good ending goal, not a great starting goal
  • note how much coverage you get from a few thousand words and how little more coverage you get from many thousands of words.
  • enjoyable conversation with a sympathetic speaker is a great interim or final goal.
  • generally “survival” vocabulary does not work for the brow of a hill because most people only use it when the visit the country which is usually not more than once or twice a year – whereas conversation is something you likely engage in voluntarily almost every day of your life.