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How many words to speak?

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rdearman
Senior Member
United Kingdom
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881 posts - 1812 votes 
Speaks: English*
Studies: Italian, French, Mandarin

 
 Message 81 of 309
06 September 2014 at 11:40am | IP Logged 
I'm sorry, but for me speaking is saying something and understanding the response or at least the gist of it. I don't think there is any way for you to understand what is being said to you with a basic 300 word vocabulary.

If you have a 300 word vocabulary then you can parrot some sentences, but you are speaking to someone. I've just started Mandarin and I looked through the transcripts I have of Pimsluer course. 300 words is 2 lessons into the second set of disks. At this point you can say things like "how much", you can count to 15-20, you can ask for food, time, or directions but not much else.

If I were to attempt to talk to someone outside of those limited situations I would be lost. For example:

- Meet someone walking their dog on a beach. You cannot discover simple things like:
-- what is the name of the beach (you don't know the word beach)
-- what breed of dog (you don't know breed or dog)
-- is the dog male or female (you might be able to get across by asking Miss? Miss? and pointing at the dog, maybe)

- Someone has parked their car illegally, the traffic warden is coming, the person is around the corner and can't see the traffic warden.
-- you can't warn them verbally because you don't know the words; illegal, car, traffic warden, fine, traffic ticket, or even "come with me"
-- you could drag them by the arm and drag them, but this might get you arrested or punched out.

- You want to purchase a international SIM to put into your phone, so you can make calls while on holiday in Taiwan.
-- you don't know international, SIM, phone, tariff, or even the word for currency in Taiwan, since pimsluer only shows you renminbi
-- again you can point, show your existing sim, and you might get a SIM, but will it be international? What are the rates? Can you text? Get data? you have no idea.

- You have lost the key to the rental car down a drain cover while filling up. You need to ask the attendant to help you lift the grate and recover the keys.
-- you don't know the words for; help, grate, keys, dropped, lost, recover, find, lift, carry, search


Sure you can jump around like a drunken monkey boy, thrashing your arms about and pointing in order to try and get your point across, but is that speaking? And what if people in the scenarios above were to ask you questions? You'd have no clue what they were asking or what was required of you.

300 words just isn't enough IMHO.

1 person has voted this message useful



Serpent
Octoglot
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Russian Federation
serpent-849.livejour
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 Message 82 of 309
06 September 2014 at 11:47am | IP Logged 
Well, monologue is a separate CEFR skill. So with 300 words you can speak better than you understand ;) But overall I agree with you, of course.
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s_allard
Triglot
Senior Member
Canada
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2704 posts - 5424 votes 
Speaks: French*, English, Spanish
Studies: Polish

 
 Message 83 of 309
06 September 2014 at 2:30pm | IP Logged 
rdearman wrote:
I'm sorry, but for me speaking is saying something and understanding the response or at
least the gist of it. I don't think there is any way for you to understand what is being said to you with a basic 300
word vocabulary.

If you have a 300 word vocabulary then you can parrot some sentences, but you are speaking to someone. I've
just started Mandarin and I looked through the transcripts I have of Pimsluer course. 300 words is 2 lessons into
the second set of disks. At this point you can say things like "how much", you can count to 15-20, you can ask
for food, time, or directions but not much else.

If I were to attempt to talk to someone outside of those limited situations I would be lost. For example:

- Meet someone walking their dog on a beach. You cannot discover simple things like:
-- what is the name of the beach (you don't know the word beach)
-- what breed of dog (you don't know breed or dog)
-- is the dog male or female (you might be able to get across by asking Miss? Miss? and pointing at the dog,
maybe)

- Someone has parked their car illegally, the traffic warden is coming, the person is around the corner and can't
see the traffic warden.
-- you can't warn them verbally because you don't know the words; illegal, car, traffic warden, fine, traffic ticket,
or even "come with me"
-- you could drag them by the arm and drag them, but this might get you arrested or punched out.

- You want to purchase a international SIM to put into your phone, so you can make calls while on holiday in
Taiwan.
-- you don't know international, SIM, phone, tariff, or even the word for currency in Taiwan, since pimsluer only
shows you renminbi
-- again you can point, show your existing sim, and you might get a SIM, but will it be international? What are the
rates? Can you text? Get data? you have no idea.

- You have lost the key to the rental car down a drain cover while filling up. You need to ask the attendant to
help you lift the grate and recover the keys.
-- you don't know the words for; help, grate, keys, dropped, lost, recover, find, lift, carry, search


Sure you can jump around like a drunken monkey boy, thrashing your arms about and pointing in order to try
and get your point across, but is that speaking? And what if people in the scenarios above were to ask you
questions? You'd have no clue what they were asking or what was required of you.

300 words just isn't enough IMHO.

I want to take a minute to respond to this post because this is classic example of what I call the doomsday
argument that comes up all the time when I talk about the 300-word threshold. Remember that I have used the
word threshold. I'll state my position again: In a language like French, a set of around 300 words broken down by
certain categories is enough for the learner to start making meaningful sentences and interacting with native
speakers in simple circumstances.

Does this mean you learn the words in the first two chapters of Pimsleur Mandarin and head out to buy a SIM
card in Taiwan? Probably not. That said, I don't know anything about Mandarin but I believe that with a tiny core
of elements, you can start making sense.

Will your equivalent 300-word core let you deal fluently with a situation like losing the keys from a rental car
down the drain? Probably not.

What's the alternative to starting to speak with 300 words? Not opening your mouth until you have learned 2,000
or 3,000 words? Waiting until you learn the words for ticket, illegal, traffic warden before going out? The
problem with this is that you might be in for a long wait.

Since I don't want to be kicked off the thread for rudeness, I won't say what I think of the idea that all you can do
with 300 words is thrash around like a drunken monkey boy.
2 persons have voted this message useful



s_allard
Triglot
Senior Member
Canada
Joined 3825 days ago

2704 posts - 5424 votes 
Speaks: French*, English, Spanish
Studies: Polish

 
 Message 84 of 309
06 September 2014 at 3:25pm | IP Logged 
I try to practice what I preach. Some years ago I went to Japan for a convention. Like any language maven, I
decided to learn a bit of Japanese before going. I borrowed some elementary Japanese textbooks but quickly
decided that I wasn't going to put a lot of time into learning such a complicated language.

In Japan, it was a different story. Since the language was everywhere, I decided that I might as well try to learn
something. With my books and the help of Japanese colleagues, I started to get a tiny sense of how the language
worked. Very quickly I could get by in stores, in the train station, in restaurants, at the bank and the hotel where
I was staying. On one memorable occasion, a group of us from the convention were going to a tea ceremony. I
asked a Japanese colleague to teach me how to say, Where is the tea ceremony? and Right around the corner? I
practiced a bit and then I went over to an innocent hostess and asked the questions in my fluent Japanese. I
didn't understand a single word the woman said to me, but I bowed and thanked her politely. I still remember the
feeling of excitement because I was able to have this tiny little dialogue. Sure, I didn't understand what was said
to me; that's the next step. But at least I was speaking.

2 persons have voted this message useful



rdearman
Senior Member
United Kingdom
rdearman.orgRegistered users can see my Skype Name
Joined 3631 days ago

881 posts - 1812 votes 
Speaks: English*
Studies: Italian, French, Mandarin

 
 Message 85 of 309
06 September 2014 at 4:22pm | IP Logged 
s_allard wrote:
I didn't understand a single word the woman said to me, but I bowed and thanked her politely. I still remember the feeling of excitement because I was able to have this tiny little dialogue. Sure, I didn't understand what was said to me; that's the next step. But at least I was speaking.


I think is the core problem here, our definitions of "speakings" are incongruent. Your definition of "speaking" is doing what I would call "Talking at someone". But my definition of "speaking" is to have a two-way exchange of verbal information. I "talk at you", you "talk back at me" and we both understand each other. This is what I mean when I say speaking.

So I'm not arguing that you can't speak at someone with 300 words, but you cannot speak with someone, at least for a reasonable amount of time.

Quote:
Speaking is an interactive process of constructing meaning that involves producing and receiving and processing information (Brown, 1994; Burns & Joyce, 1997).

[sic] my emphasis.

So I'm happy to concede you can speak at someone with as little as two words or 300. And I'll concede you can have a limited conversation on fixed topics in a constrained manner with 300 words. But I argue a sustained conversation on a variety of independent and variable topics requires a vocabulary which contains words numbering in the thousands.


2 persons have voted this message useful



s_allard
Triglot
Senior Member
Canada
Joined 3825 days ago

2704 posts - 5424 votes 
Speaks: French*, English, Spanish
Studies: Polish

 
 Message 86 of 309
06 September 2014 at 5:18pm | IP Logged 
rdearman wrote:
s_allard wrote:
I didn't understand a single word the woman said to me, but I bowed and
thanked her politely. I still remember the feeling of excitement because I was able to have this tiny little dialogue.
Sure, I didn't understand what was said to me; that's the next step. But at least I was speaking.


I think is the core problem here, our definitions of "speakings" are incongruent. Your definition of "speaking" is
doing what I would call "Talking at someone". But my definition of "speaking" is to have a two-way exchange of
verbal information. I "talk at you", you "talk back at me" and we both understand each other. This is what I mean
when I say speaking.

So I'm not arguing that you can't speak at someone with 300 words, but you cannot speak with
someone, at least for a reasonable amount of time.

Quote:
Speaking is an interactive process of constructing meaning that involves producing and receiving and
processing information (Brown, 1994; Burns & Joyce, 1997).

[sic] my emphasis.

So I'm happy to concede you can speak at someone with as little as two words or 300. And I'll concede you can
have a limited conversation on fixed topics in a constrained manner with 300 words. But I argue a sustained
conversation on a variety of independent and variable topics requires a vocabulary which contains words
numbering in the thousands.


I don't think anybody disputes the fact that a sustained conversation on a variety of independent and variable
topics requires more than 300 words. I question the word thousands but that's a minor point. But we're not
talking about that. I keep repeating, but not everybody seems to read properly, that I believe there is somewhere
around 300 words in French a point, a sweet spot, at which a learner can start making sense and start speaking
(and understanding) with native speakers. What is difficult to understand here?

Other people disagree and say that this threshold is more like 1,000 or maybe 2,000. At least we can have a
rational discussion about the contents of these figures. I didn't pick the figure three hundred out of a hat or just
grab the first 300 words from a frequency list. In a related thread, I said that with those words you could
probably go to a bakery and buy a loaf of bread and understand the whole transaction. Now, as people like to
point out, what if the person behind the counter asks you the about the latest advances in proton-beam therapy
you'll look foolish and have to hang your head in shame because of your 300 words. What a silly objection.

What's the alternative? Don't go to the bakery?

If I wanted to speak Mandarin as quickly as possible, as part of my basic strategy, I would ask myself, What do I
want to know to start getting by? Besides all the basic pleasantries, I should know how to ask questions,
including the all-important "What do you call that?" and "Where is the bathroom?" How to introduce oneself. The
basics of ordering food. Etc. And while doing all the good things such as classes, a tutor, watching movies with
subtitles, extensive reading, etc. I can start spoeking as soon as possible.

Edited by s_allard on 06 September 2014 at 5:22pm

1 person has voted this message useful





emk
Diglot
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United States
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 Message 87 of 309
06 September 2014 at 6:44pm | IP Logged 
Back in the early 90s, I did a fair bit of travel in Italy and Ticino with an Italian vocabulary of about 200 words. Some of this travel was entirely solo. Other times, I was in the same town as a group, but otherwise alone. Back in these days, you certainly couldn't count on the Italian tourist industry knowing any English, especially not in small towns.

To a certain extent, this sort of thing can be fun. But sooner or later, something goes wrong:

- Oh, hello Mr. Angry Police Officer! Why are you so upset? No, sorry, I don't understand a word you're saying. Oh, dear.
- Huh, why is there an extra $10 charge on our lunch bill? What was this for?
- OK, I thought I knew how to get from the train station to the hostel, but I guess not. Umm. What now?
- That tendon in my arm must have torn halfway through. I cannot believe how much this hurts. How can I get help?

All of these things really happened to me, in various countries over the years. Now, I have the privilege of being a fluent native speaker of the international language of tourism, business, technology, music and Hollywood, so in a bad enough emergency, there's an excellent chance that I'll eventually find somebody with at least A2 English. Oh, and I'm a white-skinned man with a US accent and a US passport, so Mr Angry Police Officer is probably going to give me the benefit of the doubt in most countries.

Travel with a couple hundred words can be fun, if you're into that sort of thing. But if something goes wrong, and you can't fall back to English, things can get rather ugly.

Now, once you're B1, all this gets much easier. In fact, dealing with annoyed police officers is actually a popular DELF B1 topic, as you can see from this sample exam:

Quote:
Sujet n°1 ( 3 à 4 mn )

Vous faites l’objet d’un contrôle d’identité dans la rue mais vous n’avez pas
vos papiers sur vous. Le policier veut vous emmener au commissariat mais vous
essayer de le convaincre qu’il vous autorise à aller les chercher chez vous.

L’examinateur joue le rôle du policier.


Subject 1 (3 to 4 minutes)

You are the object of an identity check in the street, but you don't have your papers on you. The police officer wants to take you to the police station, but you try to convince him to allow you to go look for them at your house.

The examiner plays the role of the police officer.

This is the second time I've seen police interactions on a DELF B1 sample exam. Apparently it's a thing.

OK, sure, it's fun to learn a couple dozen phrases and pantomime your way through a trip. But if you want to be able to cope with life's challenges, then it really helps to be at least A2, with a passive vocabulary on the order of 1500 words. And life becomes almost reasonable by the time you reach a solid B1—you might not be able to call the cable company's tech support, or survive a job interview, but at least you can function independently in most normal situations.

Honestly, if I can't fall back to English, I have no real desire to travel without A2 or preferably B1 speaking skills.

Of course, none of this prevents you from picking up a phrase book for a new language, pouring over it for four hours, and trying to hold a target-language conversation on Skype. Benny Lewis has a whole chapter on that in his book. But that kind of jury-rigged, limited conversation shouldn't be mistaken for speaking the language in any general sort of way. Not even for speaking at an A2 level.

Edited by emk on 06 September 2014 at 10:52pm

5 persons have voted this message useful



Juаn
Senior Member
Colombia
Joined 3740 days ago

727 posts - 1830 votes 
Speaks: Spanish*

 
 Message 88 of 309
06 September 2014 at 7:13pm | IP Logged 
Quote:
How many words to speak?


To speak about what? That is the question really.


5 persons have voted this message useful



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