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"All I need to know is 2500 words"

 Language Learning Forum : Language Programs, Books & Tapes Post Reply
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Ishikawa Minoru
Diglot
Newbie
Portugal
Joined 4865 days ago

31 posts - 33 votes
Speaks: Portuguese*, EnglishC2
Studies: Japanese

 
 Message 17 of 32
02 September 2006 at 5:16pm | IP Logged 
When I first started teaching myself Japanese I purchased a small book entitled "Read Japanese Today" whose author purported to teach the Kanji most often seen in Japanese media.At first I thought this method worked,but what the author doesn't tell his students is that knowing 300, or even 1500 Kanji isn't of much use when you can neither recognize a myriad of other characters nor read the ones you already know in compounds.Also, newspapers, novels and specially technical books make use of very specific jargon the reader is either familiar with or will be forced to look up in a dictionary.
So,with this in mind, it is my belief knowing 2,500 words(or even 5,000 for that matter) simply isn't enough.Knowing common words is very useful but there's always a chance some obscure terms are going to show up.

Regarding the learning method most commonly employed by the members of this board, namely learning from context, I never completely understood how it could possibly be put to good use unless someone already knows a couple thousand words.
Learning words in context takes take.It has to show up somewhere, you have to look it up,and so on. Doing this for every single word is a time consuming process and guess it's meaning can be dangerous at times.
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Iversen
Super Polyglot
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Denmark
berejst.dk
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 Message 18 of 32
18 September 2006 at 9:59am | IP Logged 
If you want to know your active vocabulary, in principle somebody has to write down everything you have ever said (in a certain language), take everything you have ever written, grind it through the lemmatization mechanism used by lexicographers and finally subtract everything that you have forgotten so effectively that you wouldn't be able to recall it by yourself.

Learned people have tried to quantify the written heritage of great men like Shakespeare, but I don't think anybody will do it for neither me nor the other honorable members of this forum. So we have to guess or use other methods.

I have just spent a couple of hours (unwisely, maybe) on collecting every single English utterance that I have ever put on this sprawling forum. I have not been discussing cooking, African wildlife, astronomy or gardening here, and I have only very briefly commented on music, history, law and modern electronic gizmos. Nevertheless I have during the last two months written quite a lot (28.000 words in English) about quite a lot of strange subjects, and I had suspected that it all in all would amount to thousands of 'lexicals entries'. And then I found that after applying all the tools of the trade I had only used about 1200 different English words!

Deep frustration!

At least it makes it more realistic that you could do quite well with a limited active vocabulary in even quite demanding surroundings. Add a couple of hundred birds, plants, industrial brand names, kitchen utensils, swearwords and other essential terms, then living happily on say 2500 words suddenly doesn't seem unrealistic.

By the way, my last estimation of my English vocabulary - based on a dictionary with approx. 75.000 entries - amounted to around 35.000 words, and I could probably boost it even more if I removed the taperecorder that is current standing on top of my fattest dictionary. But it doesn't matter, I think that this small exercise already has shown how little of my passive vocabulary I have use for in my daily life, and this in my opinion undermines the whole concept of active vocabulary. How can you prove that some part of your vocabulary is active, if you don't actually use it?



Edited by Iversen on 18 September 2006 at 10:17am

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lengua
Senior Member
United States
polyglottery.wordpre
Joined 4788 days ago

549 posts - 595 votes 
Studies: French, Italian, Spanish, German

 
 Message 19 of 32
18 September 2006 at 10:17am | IP Logged 
Iversen wrote:

I have just spent a couple of hours (unwisely, maybe) on collecting every single English utterance that I have ever put on this sprawling forum. I have not been discussing cooking, African wildlife, astronomy or gardening here, and I have only very briefly commented on music, history, law and modern electronic gizmos. Nevertheless I have during the last two months written quite a lot (28.000 words in English) about quite a lot of strange subjects, and I had suspected that it would all in would amount to thousands of 'lexicals entries'. And then I found that after applying all the tools of the trade I had only used about 1200 different English words!

Deep frustration!

At least it makes it more realistic that you could do quite well with a limited active vocabulary in even quite demanding surroundings. Add a couple of hundred birds, plants, industrial brand names, kitchen utensils, swearwords and other essential terms, then living happily on say 2500 words suddenly doesn't seem unrealistic.



Excellent :^)

I'm going to refer to your post the next time someone snorts at the idea that fluency in a language does not require 10,20,or 30,000 words. If national newspapers regularly only use about 600 different words, and you can comfortably express yourself with a handful over a thousand, I see no reason why a person who learned the grammar of a language like the back of his hand could not use a couple thousand words to become as proficient in a language as any native would need to be in day-to-day life.

We basically spend most of our time saying the same things over and over and over again. Us language learners should take advantage of this, instead of endlessly memorizing inane vocabulary lists we'll never have need for.

Edited by lengua on 18 September 2006 at 10:20am

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Iversen
Super Polyglot
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Denmark
berejst.dk
Joined 4807 days ago

9078 posts - 16470 votes 
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 Message 20 of 32
18 September 2006 at 11:43am | IP Logged 
OOPS!! sorry sorry sorry (especially for leading Lengua astray) !!

When I checked the final word list, I discovered I had forgotten page 2 and 3 of my postings. So now I have done it all again, and this time the word count ends up at 2400. This is more like the number I had originally expected, but it undermines my thesis, that you can live with just 2500 as proposed in the original question that started the thread. Now I have to upgrade my estimate to around 3500 lexical entries.



Edited by Iversen on 18 September 2006 at 11:49am

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joekane
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United Kingdom
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4 posts - 5 votes
Speaks: English*

 
 Message 21 of 32
18 September 2006 at 12:44pm | IP Logged 
Perhaps we are getting a little confused. The number of words you need to know in order to communicate in a foreign language; the number to understand almost all responses from the native speaker; the number needed to understand a newspaper, or to read literature, or to write a letter - calculate these figures using your chosen method, and you would get five very different numbers.

On frequent visits to foreign countries, I've found that I can communicate almost any idea with a very small vocabulary. It might be only 500. It's definitely less than a thousand.

Most of them are verbs, adverbs, prepositions and conjunctions - not nouns. You don't need to know the name of everything, when you can use the words "it" or "that" or "something" and rely on context to complete the meaning. If I don't know a word that's spoken to me, it's hardly fatal since I can ask for clarification.

This is not an argument for stopping study after learning the first 500 words. I am a firm believer in the benefits of possessing a large vocabulary. If anyone has found that, in their travels, a small vocabulary is useless, perhaps they could reply here.
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Iversen
Super Polyglot
Moderator
Denmark
berejst.dk
Joined 4807 days ago

9078 posts - 16470 votes 
Speaks: Danish*, French, English, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Swedish, Esperanto, Romanian, Catalan
Studies: Afrikaans, Greek, Norwegian, Russian, Serbian, Icelandic, Latin, Irish, Lowland Scots, Indonesian, Polish, Croatian
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 Message 22 of 32
18 September 2006 at 2:04pm | IP Logged 
I really don't feel confused. You are speaking about how little a traveller needs to get by in a foreign country, when you can use finger language to fill out the holes in your language. But I had another agenda: I have counted the number of words I have in fact used on this forum where everybody expects a certain level of fluency, - and I added the last 1000 words to compensate for the fact that this forum has a limited focus. I mainly did this to establish the proportion of a person's passive language that is actually used. However the method also gives an idea of how many words you need to discuss with on a par with native speakers (the implicite assumption is that you don't need more words when speaking than you need when you write in a forum like this one). And just to avoid misunderstandings: a large number of words do not garantee any level of fluency, - you can know a dictionary by heart and yet be unable to ask for a cup of coffee.




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lengua
Senior Member
United States
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Studies: French, Italian, Spanish, German

 
 Message 23 of 32
18 September 2006 at 4:33pm | IP Logged 
Iversen wrote:
OOPS!! sorry sorry sorry (especially for leading Lengua astray) !!

When I checked the final word list, I discovered I had forgotten page 2 and 3 of my postings. So now I have done it all again, and this time the word count ends up at 2400. This is more like the number I had originally expected, but it undermines my thesis, that you can live with just 2500 as proposed in the original question that started the thread. Now I have to upgrade my estimate to around 3500 lexical entries.



Ah, this still works wonderfully. It reminds me of something I read on the Ziad thread, where he (might have) said that he knew a total of 100,000 words in his languages (if that). If you divide 100,000 words by approximately 50 languages, you get 2,000 words per language. If you take into account how languages in families share the majority of their words with each other, then the numbers become even more favorable. This suggests - to me at least - you don't need a ton of words to be fluent. You just need to know how the language is put together (structurally), and from there, it's just a matter of knowing what the things you use, talk about, and come in contact with every day are called.
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Ishikawa Minoru
Diglot
Newbie
Portugal
Joined 4865 days ago

31 posts - 33 votes
Speaks: Portuguese*, EnglishC2
Studies: Japanese

 
 Message 24 of 32
18 September 2006 at 4:48pm | IP Logged 
lengua wrote:


Ah, this still works wonderfully. It reminds me of something I read on the Ziad thread, where he (might have) said that he knew a total of 100,000 words in his languages (if that). If you divide 100,000 words by approximately 50 languages, you get 2,000 words per language. If you take into account how languages in families share the majority of their words with each other, then the numbers become even more favorable. This suggests - to me at least - you don't need a ton of words to be fluent. You just need to know how the language is put together (structurally), and from there, it's just a matter of knowing what the things you use, talk about, and come in contact with every day are called.

I read an article about how Ziad used to learn 35 words a day and managed to learn a foreign language in less than three months.This information coadunates with your theory.
I still don't think it's enough though,because there's a myriad of subjects I want to get myself involved in that require many technical words.Take biology and medicine,for example.
5000 words for basic fluency and 10000 for advanced,near native proficiency.


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