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How many words to speak?

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emk
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 Message 73 of 309
05 September 2014 at 1:44pm | IP Logged 
To help provide some concrete data for this discussion, I have prepared a list of approximately 750 words, organized by parts of speech, that might be useful to anybody trying to construct a list of 300 essential French words. This is based on the very cool Lexique database with a bit a manual cleanup. And the list should be biased towards conversations, because I used Lexique's movie data.

As for the receptive vocabulary needed to understand arbitrary native input, here is graph showing what percentage of words would be known for any given vocabulary size:



Code:
Words    Film    Boo k
250    76.16% 68.56%
500    82.79% 75.53%
1000   88.39% 82.03%
2000   93.00% 88.16%
4000   96.41% 93.42%
8000   98.55% 97.30%
16000 99.67% 99.73%

As you can see, if you want to go watch a movie with a friend or read a book that everybody is talking about, you need a receptive vocabulary on the rough order of 8,000 words, assuming you want to understand 97 or 98 words out of every hundred. There are lots of ways to cheat this, including sticking to children's books, or to your favorite genres and subjects. But as the movie corpus shows, you actually need quite a bit of vocabulary to get high coverage of arbitrary movies.

Fortunately, one-on-one conversation is much easier—you can talk to a sympathetic and helpful native speaker with a passive vocabulary of less than 2,000 words, and an active vocabulary even smaller than that. But I do feel strongly that vocabulary is one of the major components of language learning: somewhere along the way, you need to learn a whole lot of words if you want to interact like a normal adult.
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montmorency
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 Message 74 of 309
05 September 2014 at 2:38pm | IP Logged 
s_allard wrote:

All of this is certainly true. But to read Harry Potter and the Philosophical Stone,
you may only need 4,000 words.
And if you really like this style, you could probably read all the Harry Potter books
with maybe 5,000 words
because the author tends to use certain vocabulary. But if you go from Harry Potter to
a 19th century novel like
Treasure Island, you will be in for a shock because the vocabulary is very different.


Not that much of a shock. I read Treasure Island in primary school, and I don't think I
was that unusual. It's a particularly accessible book for young people, young boys
especially, despite its age. It's full of non-standard English as well, which is good
to stretch a growing mind, capture the imagination, and teach that language is a
flexible living thing.
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s_allard
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Canada
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 Message 75 of 309
05 September 2014 at 3:07pm | IP Logged 
emk wrote:
...
As you can see, if you want to go watch a movie with a friend or read a book that everybody is talking about, you
need a receptive vocabulary on the rough order of 8,000 words, assuming you want to understand 97 or 98
words out of every hundred. There are lots of ways to cheat this, including sticking to children's books, or to your
favorite genres and subjects. But as the movie corpus shows, you actually need quite a bit of vocabulary to get
high coverage of arbitrary movies.

Fortunately, one-on-one conversation is much easier—you can talk to a sympathetic and helpful native speaker
with a passive vocabulary of less than 2,000 words, and an active vocabulary even smaller than that. But I do feel
strongly that vocabulary is one of the major components of language learning: somewhere along the way, you
need to learn a whole lot of words if you want to interact like a normal adult.


I totally agree with these figures. They are typical of all vocabulary studies by Paul Nation and other researchers.
You need a very large receptive vocabulary in order to cover a very wide set of different texts. As a matter of fact,
the more texts you put into your data set the higher the number of words needed for coverage. If you wanted
97% coverage of all the newspapers published in English yesterday around the world, you would probably need a
humungous vocabulary.

In the case of movies and television what may change things a bit is the fact that the spoken words are
accompanied by intonations of the voice, music and sound effects, and, above all, moving images. I would argue
that, unlike the printed word, movies do not require 97% coverage for one to understand and enjoy what is
happening. But this does not alter the fact the if you want to understand all the words, you need that huge
vocabulary.

There is absolutely no controversy about this. Nor is there any doubt that it is good to know more words than
less. What is more controversial is how many words does the language learner need to begin actually speaking
with native speakers. What would be a minimum number of the various building blocks needed to start making
meaning? As everyone knows I've put this threshold very low.

A variation of this theme of a very low threshold is what we see in the video of Emanuele Marini where we
observe him uttering probably less than 200 overall words and maybe around 50 - 60 different words, if that
many, in 15 languages, Nobody disputes the fact that he probably can use more than these words in each
language. Nobody disputes the fact that he speaks all those languages. We're also told that he can do this in a
total of 30 languages.

It's interesting that on the basis of a tiny snippet of actual performance, we can extrapolate an entire level of
capability. What we see is great fluency, good pronunciation and pretty good grammar. That's good enough for
most of us. The fact that maybe only 50 different words were used in each language is pretty irrelevant.

We don't hear French in the video, and I don't know if it is one of Marini's languages but it shouldn't be more
difficult for him than the other languages, many of which are way more complicated.

I believe that the only way to explain such a high level of polyglottery is a learning and speaking strategy that
focuses on mastering the core of each language. I believe this core to be in the 300 - 1,000 word range.




Edited by s_allard on 05 September 2014 at 3:09pm

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s_allard
Triglot
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Canada
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 Message 76 of 309
05 September 2014 at 3:17pm | IP Logged 
montmorency wrote:
s_allard wrote:

All of this is certainly true. But to read Harry Potter and the Philosophical Stone,
you may only need 4,000 words.
And if you really like this style, you could probably read all the Harry Potter books
with maybe 5,000 words
because the author tends to use certain vocabulary. But if you go from Harry Potter to
a 19th century novel like
Treasure Island, you will be in for a shock because the vocabulary is very different.


Not that much of a shock. I read Treasure Island in primary school, and I don't think I
was that unusual. It's a particularly accessible book for young people, young boys
especially, despite its age. It's full of non-standard English as well, which is good
to stretch a growing mind, capture the imagination, and teach that language is a
flexible living thing.


I was thinking of the learner of English going from Harry Potter to Treasure Island. Maybe the word shock is too
strong, but I'm not sure that all that non-standard English is that easy for many students of English. Just for fun,
I've included the first two paragraphs of Treasure Island for people to see how this compares to Harry Potter.

SQUIRE TRELAWNEY, Dr. Livesey, and the rest of these gentlemen having asked me to write down the whole
particulars about Treasure Island, from the beginning to the end, keeping nothing back but the bearings of the
island, and that only because there is still treasure not yet lifted, I take up my pen in the year of grace 17 and go
back to the time when my father kept the Admiral Benbow inn and the brown old seaman with the sabre cut first
took up his lodging under our roof.

I remember him as if it were yesterday, as he came plodding to the inn door, his sea-chest following behind him
in a hand-barrow—a tall, strong, heavy, nut-brown man, his tarry pigtail falling over the shoulder of his soiled
blue coat, his hands ragged and scarred, with black, broken nails, and the sabre cut across one cheek, a dirty,
livid white. I remember him looking round the cover and whistling to himself as he did so, and then breaking out
in that old sea-song that he sang so often afterwards: ‘Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest—
Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum"
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Serpent
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 Message 77 of 309
05 September 2014 at 3:27pm | IP Logged 
s_allard wrote:
What is more controversial is how many words does the language learner need to begin actually speaking with native speakers. What would be a minimum number of the various building blocks needed to start making meaning? As everyone knows I've put this threshold very low.

I think the real controversy here is whether mastering small talk is an important skill for most learners (outside Montreal) and whether it's an obligatory step on the way to fluency/proficiency. Basically, just because it's possible to speak when you know only 100 words, doesn't mean everyone should aim for that, even those who do care about speaking in the long run. In addition to that, another controversial topic is whether it's even practical to focus on the advanced usage of the basic words so early on, especially for those that don't get the comprehension skills for free. And of course your most controversial claim is the CEFR level one can achieve with a small vocabulary, especially as for you it's often synonymous with passing the respective exam.
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tarvos
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 Message 78 of 309
05 September 2014 at 3:46pm | IP Logged 
I think the real issue is how you target your vocabulary learning to your personal goals.
I certainly could do without knowing the word "screwdriver" in Russian, because I barely
use it. On the other hand, the variants for "I don't give a flying dingo's kidney" in
French are very useful to me.
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s_allard
Triglot
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Canada
Joined 3825 days ago

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Speaks: French*, English, Spanish
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 Message 79 of 309
06 September 2014 at 2:44am | IP Logged 
tarvos wrote:
I think the real issue is how you target your vocabulary learning to your personal goals.
I certainly could do without knowing the word "screwdriver" in Russian, because I barely
use it. On the other hand, the variants for "I don't give a flying dingo's kidney" in
French are very useful to me.

I couldn't agree more.
1 person has voted this message useful



Serpent
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Russian Federation
serpent-849.livejour
Joined 4992 days ago

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Speaks: Russian*, English, FinnishC1, Latin, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese
Studies: Danish, Romanian, Polish, Belarusian, Ukrainian, Croatian, Slovenian, Catalan, Czech, Galician, Dutch, Swedish

 
 Message 80 of 309
06 September 2014 at 3:57am | IP Logged 
Then just accept that people have different priorities (both short and long-term), and they aren't necessarily afraid of speaking, not interested in speaking, or bad learners or whatever. They're just different from the learners you meet offline.

Edited by Serpent on 06 September 2014 at 3:58am



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