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How many words to speak?

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s_allard
Triglot
Senior Member
Canada
Joined 3825 days ago

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

 
 Message 89 of 309
06 September 2014 at 10:48pm | IP Logged 
As funny as this might sound to many people, I actually agree with emk here. I don't think I could travel around a
country such as Italy (or Japan) and try to deal will ALL situations with a 300-word vocabulary. All sorts of things
could happen. I might get mistaken for a terrorist. I might end up in the intensive care unit in a hospital. My 300
words won't suffice. I agree.

Would I go to a B1 examination with only productive 300 words. Probably not. But I would argue that in the
exchange with a police officer, you wouldn't probably use more than 100 different words and probably much less.
When I get time, I'll write out such a dialogue to see how many different words are needed.

But are we talking about that? I'm talking about a simple conversation in a boulangerie where the salesperson
doesn't ask me a complicated question. I do this twice a week and I've never been asked any weird questions. I'm
talking about the minimum vocabulary need to get you speaking.

Edited by s_allard on 06 September 2014 at 10:49pm

1 person has voted this message useful





emk
Diglot
Moderator
United States
Joined 3927 days ago

2615 posts - 8805 votes 
Speaks: English*, FrenchB2
Studies: Spanish, Ancient Egyptian
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 Message 90 of 309
06 September 2014 at 11:29pm | IP Logged 
s_allard wrote:
Would I go to a B1 examination with only productive 300 words. Probably not. But I would argue that in the
exchange with a police officer, you wouldn't probably use more than 100 different words and probably much less.
When I get time, I'll write out such a dialogue to see how many different words are needed.

Isn't this absolutely, completely and utterly obvious? If we know exactly what's going to go wrong, we can memorize 100 words in advance and deal with the situation. Or, since we're assuming we can see the future, maybe we could just avoid the controle d'identité by taking another street?

But the entire point of my comment is you don't know what the police officer will be upset about, how you'll screw up your travel plans, or what else will go wrong. Sure, you'll never need to discuss quantum mechanics. But you need to be able to manage very basic communication about essential survival topics.

Working from a good list of 1500–2000 common words, I could easily deal with a huge range of situations:

- For the identity check: "My passport is at the hotel. It's not far. Can I go get it?" (14 words!)
- For the lost key: "My car key is in the hole over there. Help me, please."
- For the parking ticket: "Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't understand the sign. I feel bad."
- For the baker who gets excited about your book: "It's a good book. I like it."
- For the injury: "I did something bad to my arm. Where is a hospital? Do they speak English?"
- For the angry police officer: "I can't go that way in my car? I'm sorry."
- When lost: "I'm lost. I need my hotel. It is called ___. Please help."

…on so on. With enough back and forth, I'd eventually be able to understand some sort of response, too. Any one of these situations could be improved dramatically in two sentences, or less than 20 words. And for me, this is sort of the minimum bar for saying I "speak" a language in any sense at all: Can I establish rudimentary communication on a respectable range of concrete, very ordinary subjects?

Edited by emk on 07 September 2014 at 12:30am

6 persons have voted this message useful



Medulin
Tetraglot
Senior Member
Croatia
Joined 3063 days ago

1199 posts - 2192 votes 
Speaks: Croatian*, English, Spanish, Portuguese
Studies: Norwegian, Hindi, Nepali

 
 Message 91 of 309
07 September 2014 at 12:08am | IP Logged 
5K is considered ''basic vocabulary'' in lexicography.
That's why you see 5K frequency dictionaries advertised as ''core vocabulary for learners''.

Even with 5K words, you will need to make use of mental ''aerobics'' when you want to explain complex terms (not included in your 5k list).
It's tedious for both the speaker, and the listener having to use verbal aerobics, because, more then often than not, it includes the principle of ''beating around the bush''.

Edited by Medulin on 07 September 2014 at 12:15am

4 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 92 of 309
07 September 2014 at 12:29am | IP Logged 
I don't claim to be able to go through all of life's challenges with 300 words. I claim to be able to start making
sense and having meaningful conversations. What can you do with 300 words in French. In a related thread under
Specific Languages, I have two examples of conversations by native speakers of French with 145 and 224 distinct
words respectively. I didn't make up them up. People do have conversations with less than 300 words.

But these are not language learners. They are native speakers who happen to have conversations with less than
300 words. That is certainly true, but the fact remains that one does not need 300 words to have a conversation
in French.

But what concerns us more here is our learner of French who has only 300 words. This is obviously not the same
kettle of fish as our native speakers with 300 words. If this learner is trying to learn French by memorizing the
first 300 words from a frequency list, there is no hope. If it's 300 words from Michel Thomas basic, there may be
something happening. I like to think that if this learner were my student, we would be cooking.

My approach is to look at what native speakers do. How come native speakers can have conversations with so few
words while the learner with the same words is struggling? Obviously, it's the way the words are used. I try to
reconcile the two worlds by looking at how the real-life examples can inform the learning process.

I seriously believe that a person with productive vocabulary of 300 words could ace a B1 spoken test. Could
every learner with a 300-word vocabulary do this. Of course not. How is this possible? First of all, it is not likely
that you will use 300 different words in the oral examination. Secondly, if you know how to use those words
really well, you can knock the pants off the examiner.

Let's take a concrete example. It seems that a regular theme in the B1 oral exams is this identity check in the
streets of Paris. You, the candidate, realize that you do not have the papers with you, and you try to convince the
police officer to not take you off to the commissariat.

How many different words would you need to do this? But before we get into the specifics we have to keep in
mind that the examiner is not a real police officer, probably does not know a lot of police jargon and is really
interested in how you use the language. The examiner is basically interested in two things: the level of
sophistication of your speaking and the kind of mistakes you make. If the examiner sees that you really know
your stuff, they will probably cut the test short or, if it's a lot of fun, go for the ride.

I can't pretend to be a B1 speaker, but here is what a sample dialogue between A (police officer) and B (me)

A - Police judiciaire. Vos papiers, s'il vous plaît.
B - Mais bien sûr. Je vous les donne tout de suite.
(I search for them all over in vain)
Mince alors, je ne les trouve pas. Écoutez, je suis vraiment désolé. Je les ai vus il y a peine quinze minutes à
l'hôtel.
A - Ils disent tous ça. Vous savez que vous être obligé d'être en mesure de vous identifier en tout temps à un
agent de police. Je pourrais vous emmener au commissariat sur le champ.
B - Je le sais. Vous avez tout à fait raison. Je connais la loi. Mais zut alors, je me souviens maintenant. En me
changeant tout à l'heure, j'ai dû laisser mon passeport dans l'autre veston à l'hôtel.
A - Vous êtes à quel hôtel ?
B - L'hôtel de la paix, rue de Lille, à deux pas d'ici. Vous pouvez appeler l'hôtel si vous voulez.
A - Ça va. Votre nom et nationalité ?
B - Peter Smith, de nationalité américaine. Ma femme et moi sommes à vacances à Paris pour deux semaines.
D'ailleurs nous allons au concert ce soir. C'est moi qui ai les places. Deux fauteuils au parterre du théâtre de
l'Hôtel de Ville. Ç'a coûté les yeux de la tête. Ma femme m'attend la-bas. J'allais la rejoindre.
A - Est-ce que je peux voir les billets?
B - Mais certainement. Voilà.
A - En effet, deux places pour le Théâtre de l'Hôtel de Ville. Je vois que vous aimez la musique classique. Et
Mozart en plus. C'est bien ça.
B - On adore la musique, ma femme et moi. Surtout Mozart. Je joue du piano à mes heures libres. Je vois que
vous vous y connaissez aussi. Vous n'êtes pas musicien, par hasard?
A - Musicien non, mais j'aime bien la musique classique. De là à m'y connaître...
B - D'accord, on n'est pas obligé d'être musicien pour aimer la musique. En passant, je vous recommande ce
pianiste. C'est un jeune québécois, un prodige remarquable.
A - Écoutez, Monsieur Smith, je crois que tout est en ordre. Mais rappelez-vous qu'il faut toujours avoir les
papiers sur soi. Allez, bonne soirée et bon concert.
B - Merci infiniment et bonne soirée à vous.

I counted in the largest categories: 28 verbs, 38 nouns and 16 adjectives. . The numbers may be slightly off
because of questions of putting certain words in the right categories. I didn't do all the math, but I guess that
there are about 130 different words here, a lot less than 300. There is room for a couple more topics with
different words.

Now, as some people will rush to point out, this is not a typical B1 level speaker stuttering and searching for
words. This is certainly true. The examiner realizes immediately after two lines that this is not your run of the
mill B1 candidate.

The issue then isn't the number of words. It's the skill of the user. What would a B1 speaker sound like? There
would be lots of hemming and hawing, stuttering, scratching of the chin, searching for words, wrong word
usage, probably even fewer different words and plenty of grammatical mistakes. The idiomatic expressions
would not probably not be present. And some of the verb usage would not be as sophisticated.

The reason most people can't do much with three hundred words is that they don't know how to use them well. I
maintain that 300 words well used can take you very far.



Edited by s_allard on 07 September 2014 at 12:32am

2 persons have voted this message useful



Juаn
Senior Member
Colombia
Joined 3740 days ago

727 posts - 1830 votes 
Speaks: Spanish*

 
 Message 93 of 309
07 September 2014 at 12:49am | IP Logged 
Even if it was conceded that 300 words were enough for communication (which I wouldn't), how would someone gain the kind of mastery in grammar and syntax that is necessary to milk those 300 words so profitably without being exposed to a much greater chunk of the language in the process?

You'd have to devote a great amount of energy and dedication not to acquire a more representative portion of the language while you develop the required grasp of its structures that would enable you to get by on 300 words.
5 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 94 of 309
07 September 2014 at 1:41am | IP Logged 
emk wrote:
s_allard wrote:
Would I go to a B1 examination with only productive 300 words. Probably not.
But I would argue that in the
exchange with a police officer, you wouldn't probably use more than 100 different words and probably much
less.
When I get time, I'll write out such a dialogue to see how many different words are needed.

Isn't this absolutely, completely and utterly obvious? If we know exactly what's going to go wrong, we can
memorize 100 words in advance and deal with the situation. Or, since we're assuming we can see the future,
maybe we could just avoid the controle d'identité by taking another street?

But the entire point of my comment is you don't know what the police officer will be upset about, how you'll
screw up your travel plans, or what else will go wrong. Sure, you'll never need to discuss quantum mechanics. But
you need to be able to manage very basic communication about essential survival topics.

Working from a good list of 1500–2000 common words, I could easily deal with a huge range of situations:

- For the identity check: "My passport is at the hotel. It's not far. Can I go get it?" (14 words!)
- For the lost key: "My car key is in the hole over there. Help me, please."
- For the parking ticket: "Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't understand the sign. I feel bad."
- For the baker who gets excited about your book: "It's a good book. I like it."
- For the injury: "I did something bad to my arm. Where is a hospital? Do they speak English?"
- For the angry police officer: "I can't go that way in my car? I'm sorry."
- When lost: "I'm lost. I need my hotel. It is called ___. Please help."

…on so on. With enough back and forth, I'd eventually be able to understand some sort of response, too. Any one
of these situations could be improved dramatically in two sentences, or less than 20 words. And for me, this is
sort of the minimum bar for saying I "speak" a language in any sense at all: Can I establish rudimentary
communication on a respectable range of concrete, very ordinary subjects?


Let's all keep in perspective that I'm saying that 300 distinct words or word-families in French is the threshold,
I'm not saying that 300 is all you should learn and that 300 will suffice for all occasions all the time. I'm not
suggesting that you try to pass any CEFR exam with 300 words. All I'm saying that 300 words will get you off the
ground. Is 1500 words better than 300, Yes. Can we all agree to that?

What I object to is this disdain for 300 words. All you can do with that is idle small-talk of no value, we are told. I
used to think like that until I started studying real conversations. To my great surprise I saw lots of conversations
with less than 300 words. Even entire newspaper articles with less than 300 words.

When I look at all the objections, I see hypothetical situations. Suppose this, suppose that. We've been down this
road many times. I'm not looking at those hypothetical situations where the baker likes my book or where I've
lost the keys of my rental car. I know very well that if I want to talk about all the possible subjects in the world
and all the possible things that could happen to me, I'll certainly need more than 300 words.

But, unlike everybody else here, I like to look at real usage by real people. I look at entire conversations by native
speakers where fewer than 300 different words were used. I created a very realistic answer to a B1 exam
question where around 130 words were used. As I noted, we still have some words left over. Maybe the police
officer thinks I'm an affiliate of Al-Quaida. Can I deal with that in 170 words? Maybe yes, maybe no. I happen to
think yes.

I earlier gave an example of a simple dialogue in a bakery that required probably about 30 different words. Do
you need 1000 words to do this? What was the only objection to the contents of the dialogue? One reader said
that they don't use the word cuit/e. Well, take it out.

The other objection is basically "suppose" something might happen when you are in the bakery. The possibilities
are unlimited. Therefore we need a huge vocabulary because we should be prepared for a everything.

It's that same old objection. If you need to read a book of English literature, you need a vocabulary of at least
25,000 words because that is the combined vocabulary of all the majors works of English fiction. But I only want
to read a piece of chick-lit with a vocabulary of 3,000 words. Ah, but, you never know, it's chick-lit today and
Shakespeare tomorrow. You need 25,000 words regardless.

Unlike everybody else, I'm not imagining worst-case scenarios. I'm looking at real conversations. As a matter of
fact, I'm now examining the transcript of four hours of dialogs in French between a police officer and a suspect,

Transcription Mohamed Merah

I've been counting the verbs the different verbs and after around 30 minutes, I'm up to 101 verbs. I'm seeing
more and more repetition, so I suspect that there probably will not be more than 150-175 verbs in 240 minutes
of speaking.

I suggest that people should bring more concrete examples to the debate. All the examples that I have seen so
far are saying that you could deal with any B1 level speaking question with 300 words or less. Need I repeat, the
problem isn't lack of words, it's lack of skill.

Edited by s_allard on 07 September 2014 at 1:45am

3 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 95 of 309
07 September 2014 at 2:12am | IP Logged 
Juаn wrote:
Even if it was conceded that 300 words were enough for communication (which I wouldn't), how
would someone gain the kind of mastery in grammar and syntax that is necessary to milk those 300 words so
profitably without being exposed to a much greater chunk of the language in the process?

You'd have to devote a great amount of energy and dedication not to acquire a more representative portion
of the language while you develop the required grasp of its structures that would enable you to get by on 300
words.

This, in my opinion, is the most serious objection to this idea of using only a 300-word vocabulary. Again, I see
this idea that 300 words can't be enough, but that's OK. Juan is totally right. The examples of entire
conversations with relatively few words are of native speakers using the words skillfully. These native speakers
have larger vocabularies and high grammar skills. They are not beginners struggling with only 300 words.

This is totally true and I have said exactly that. 300 words is the threshold for one to start making sense and
speaking. I'm not saying that a beginner can learn 300 words and start talking like native speaker with 300
words.

The problem isn't the number of words. It's how you use them. It seems paradoxical, but it would appear that the
more proficient you get, the fewer words you need. It's not really true. But the idea is that you can squeeze more
out of the words you already know.

The real question is what is the best learning strategy. Do I go for more words or do I go for getting more out of
the words I already know? I actually believe in both. Of course, you need more words. The more the better. But
you must not neglect learning how to use them. And at a certain point, it may be more beneficial to concentrate
on mastering the words you know.

Right now, I've been gearing up perpetually for the C2 Dele Spanish exam. Not with 300 words. On the Instituto
Cervantes website, there are tables of vocabulary for each of the levels. The C2 set is pretty extensive. I actually
think know most of it, but it's not the words that bother me the most, it's how to use them correctly and fluently.
But instead of being discouraged, I believe that focusing on the basics -the 300 - so that I have a rock-solid
foundation on which to build.

Edited by s_allard on 07 September 2014 at 2:13am

1 person has voted this message useful



luke
Diglot
Senior Member
United States
Joined 5600 days ago

3133 posts - 4350 votes 
Speaks: English*, Spanish
Studies: Esperanto, French

 
 Message 96 of 309
07 September 2014 at 2:19am | IP Logged 
s_allard wrote:
I seriously believe that a person with productive vocabulary of 300 words could ace a B1
spoken test.


Are you drunk again?

Edited by luke on 07 September 2014 at 7:02pm



2 persons have voted this message useful



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