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How many words to speak?

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s_allard
Triglot
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Canada
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Speaks: French*, English, Spanish
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 Message 97 of 309
07 September 2014 at 3:20am | IP Logged 
Medulin wrote:
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''.

Since this is another example of the average vocabulary size argument, I want to look at it in some detail. Here
we here that 5K is the core vocabulary. It seems to be productive vocabulary, This is far from 1000 - 2000. And
5K is probably not enough if you have to explain complex topics.

I shouldn't have to do this, but I'll explain once again how these figures of recommended vocabulary sizes come
about. The researchers take a large enough sample of texts of various origins and sum the different lexical units.
Then they calculate the percentages of word-coverage. So, for example, to get 95% coverage of a large sample of
literary works published in the USA you may need 15,000 words.

This does not mean that every single book uses 15,000 words. It means that if you want to read all the authors
with at least 95% coverage you need 15,000 different words. Any one book can use a very different number of
words. Usually, the larger the sample the larger the number of words.

The problem with all this stuff is that few people even here at HTLAL ever look at their own personal statistics of
word usage. How many have even the foggiest idea of how many distinct words or word-families that they use in
their posts here at HTLAL? It makes me think that in some cases the average for some people, at least in threads
where I'm active, must be less than 10. But for a lot of people, their active or productive vocabulary is probably
less than 2,000 words.

That's still a very respectable number. A lot of people don't realize how large a number that is. They don't
understand the concept of word-families. And I think many people do not realize that we are talking about
distinct words. I'm convinced that some people have difficulty with the concept of distinct words and for them
that 300 words are plucked from a Word file at random. It's only normal that they can't follow the debate.

I wonder how many native speakers of English actually use 5,000 different word-families in a year. I think it's
very low.

I don't know what mental aerobics are. I listen to a lot of scientists being interviewed on the radio. As a matter of
fact, I recently recorded one of our local researchers talking about the state of Alzheimer's disease treatment. I
don't think he used more than 500 distinct words in the 20-minute interview. I didn't see any beating around the
bush either. He certainly didn't use 5,000 words.
Edit: a few minor corrections

Edited by s_allard on 07 September 2014 at 11:51am

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rdearman
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 Message 98 of 309
07 September 2014 at 11:46am | IP Logged 
s_allard wrote:
I listen to a lot of scientists being interviewed on the radio. As a matter of fact, I recently recorded one of our local researchers talking about the state of Alzheimer's disease treatment. I don't think he used more than 500 distinct words in the 20-minute interview. I didn't see any beating around the bush either. He certainly didn't use 5,000 words.


But if you only knew 300 words would you have know the words he was speaking? You would have been 200 words short even if your 300 overlapped completely with his 500. You still wouldn't have understood 40% of the show.
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s_allard
Triglot
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Canada
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 Message 99 of 309
07 September 2014 at 12:21pm | IP Logged 
rdearman wrote:
s_allard wrote:
I listen to a lot of scientists being interviewed on the radio. As a matter of
fact, I recently recorded one of our local researchers talking about the state of Alzheimer's disease treatment. I
don't think he used more than 500 distinct words in the 20-minute interview. I didn't see any beating around the
bush either. He certainly didn't use 5,000 words.


But if you only knew 300 words would you have know the words he was speaking? You would have been 200
words short even if your 300 overlapped completely with his 500. You still wouldn't have understood 40% of the
show.

This is a very valid point and goes to the heart of the debate. How many word-families do I need to know to
understand this researcher? 500. How many would I need to understand all 10 different researchers talking for
20 minutes each? Let's say 1,000 because it's a relatively narrow subject.

Since I don't know which researcher I'll get on the radio, I should know all 1,000 word-families. This is certainly
true. But it doesn't change the fact that I'll only need around 500 to understand a given researcher like the one I
heard. The real question is which ones.

I should point out here that the debate up to now has been on productive or active vocabulary not receptive or
passive vocabulary, which is usually much larger. If my receptive vocabulary is only 300 word-families, I will
certainly miss at least 200 word-families of that researcher's interview.

This is exactly what would happen if I attend a research conference on the latest developments in the treatment
of Alzheimer's where the researchers are talking to each other. I would be completely lost.

But an interesting point in rdearman's post is that we are always confronted with new vocabulary when we listen
to discussions in areas that are unfamiliar to us. Vocabulary is always changing, and to keep up-to-date one
must be constantly exposed to usage. For example, I've become aware that what I used to call a "nursing home"
is now being called a "assisted living residence". Correct me if I'm wrong. I've decided to drop "nursing home"
from my vocabulary because it is out of fashion.

Just yesterday, I saw for the first time in my life the term "suicide doors" when referring to an automobile. I knew
what suicide meant. I knew what door meant. But what in the world are suicide doors? The term refers to car
doors where the hinges to open the door are at the back of the door and not at the front. They are quite rare
nowadays but they do exist. The term is actually quite old, but I never had the occasion to use it.

Edited by s_allard on 07 September 2014 at 12:33pm

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s_allard
Triglot
Senior Member
Canada
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Speaks: French*, English, Spanish
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 Message 100 of 309
07 September 2014 at 1:25pm | IP Logged 
The main reason for my being so adamant about this whole issue is basically to bring attention to bear on how
words are put together rather than the simple number of words. Words are relatively easy to count, and even that
is very debatable. And since everybody, including myself, believes that more is better than less, there seems to
be no point arguing.

But wait a minute. I hardly have to tell people here that learning a language is a lot more complicated than
learning a list of words. If you could speak French or any language just by memorizing 2,000 ANKI cards, HTLAL
probably wouldn't exist. In fact, memorizing words is the easy part. The real challenge is putting them together
properly.

I really don't understand why people believe that you can't do anything with 300 word-families when it is clearly
evident that in our own languages many ordinary situations do not require even that number. When I go to put
petrol or gas in my car, I use very few words. When I meet a neighbour with a dog in the elevator, I can chat and
enquire what kind of dog it is, all in a few words. I can go to that infamous bakery and buy two loaves of bread
with a few words.

A lot of people dismiss this as idle small-talk. Until they are confronted with these situations in a foreign
language. Then they stumble and sound awkward. It's not as easy as it looks to chat fluently and wittily in an
elevator for 30 seconds.

People argue that you need to know how to use so many words for each level of the CEFR speaking exam. For
example the Instiituto Cervantes publishes recommended vocabulary for each level and broken down by subject
(human body, animals, etc.). The list at the C2 level is staggering. Do people here believe that to prepare for the
speaking exam, you should only memorize this list by heart? Of course not. It's certainly good to know all those
words, but when you read how those exams are corrected and what the examiners are looking for, you should
spend more time on practicing how to put those words together properly.

I don't see the point of knowing a vast vocabulary and then stumbling and stuttering when actually using the
words.

This is the heart of this running debate. I look at how words are put together in order to communicate. I take
inspiration in real examples of people communicating. Is the medical terminology of Alzheimer's disease good to
know? Sure. Can someone talk in an interesting and compelling fashion about the ravages of Alzheimer's disease
without complex medical terminology? Certainly. We see it all the time.

I do not believe that 300 word-families is better than 2,000. In fact, i don't believe much in counting words at
all. When I read that you need a passive vocabulary of 30,000 words to read Spanish, I don't know what to make
of that. It's even kind of discouraging. But I take heart in the fact that to speak Spanish you only need a fraction
of that number.

What I say is show me what you can do with the words you know. If you feel you need 5,000 words to speak to
speak French, go for it. If you need 1,000, that's fine as well. I happen to think that you can get a nice bang out
of 300 to start with.

Edited by s_allard on 07 September 2014 at 1:27pm

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Serpent
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 Message 101 of 309
07 September 2014 at 1:42pm | IP Logged 
s_allard wrote:
In fact, memorizing words is the easy part. The real challenge is putting them together properly.

This depends on the person and language. Everyone struggles with something, but it's not always grammar or idiomatics.
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tarvos
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 Message 102 of 309
07 September 2014 at 1:45pm | IP Logged 
Serpent wrote:
s_allard wrote:
In fact, memorizing words is the easy part. The real
challenge is putting them together properly.

This depends on the person and language. Everyone struggles with something, but it's not
always grammar or idiomatics.


In fact, for me all that is easy. The real struggle with languages in my view is a
cultural one and has much less to do with any part of the grammar. Pronunciation can also
be tricky but I've gotten good at that over the years.
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emk
Diglot
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 Message 103 of 309
07 September 2014 at 4:34pm | IP Logged 
My number crunching continues over on the French frequency data thread. (Data geeks are invited to go play with the iPython notebook and GitHub repo.)

Out of curiosity, I broke things down by parts of speech, and tried to figure out the relative rations of nouns to verbs (and so on) needed to get good coverage of movie subtitles. Here's a chart:



And here's the same data in table form:



One thing leaps right out at us: We need far more nouns than anything else. In fact, 65% to 80% of the words for any given column are nouns. It appears that basically every new situation or topic of conversation requires a big pile of new nouns. For example, if you need to go to the train station and buy a ticket, you suddenly need "train" and "ticket" and "station." If you don't have them, you wind up saying something like, *"I want to go in the choo-choo. Where is the choo-choo place? I need to buy the thing for go in the choo-choo."

But since the nouns are awful, let's set them aside for now, and try to build a small but useful vocabulary using the other parts of speech. Here are some coverage numbers that seem pretty reasonable:

- 98% coverage of articles, conjunctions, prepositions and pronouns: 84 words.
- 90% coverage of adverbs: 42 words.
- 75% coverage of adjectives and verbs: 199 words. Holes can be worked around.
- Total, excluding nouns: 325 words.

I could almost believe that this is a workable active vocabulary. It's still missing 1 out of every 4 verbs and adjectives used by native speakers when they speak among themselves, but you could probably muddle through with enough pantomime, bad grammar and toddler-style circumlocutions.

But that leaves us with nouns. Sure, any given conversation will require maybe 30 workhorse nouns, and 20 subject-specific nouns. So if we totally control the topic of conversation, we can get by with about 400 words.

Situations when we can control the topic
1. When we're doing an exercise with a teacher or a tutor.
2. When we've left our native-language bubble to run a single, simple errand.
3. When somebody has stolen us a copy of the B1 exam in advance and we're engaged in the utterly dishonorable sort of cheating.

Situations where we can't control the topic
1. When we're wandering around town trying to handle very basic life tasks.
2. When the DELF B1 examiner pulls a conversation topic out of a bowl.

As soon as we lose control of the subject of conversation, we need 1,100+ nouns just to get 75% coverage of the nouns used by natives. And it goes up steeply after that. Fortunately, nouns only make up about 15% of a typical French text, and they're some of the easiest words to guess from context.

The key point: Students at B1 and up are expected to handle an enormous range of different tasks. It's the sheer variety of real-world situations that makes tiny vocabularies impractical. If you want to deal with the real world in all its glory, you've got to suck it up and learn at least 1,000 nouns.

Edited by emk on 07 September 2014 at 5:19pm

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Doitsujin
Diglot
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Germany
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 Message 104 of 309
07 September 2014 at 5:53pm | IP Logged 
I like your analyses, but one thing that they don't take into consideration is the relatively high number of true French-English cognates due to the history of English.
Numbers vary, but IMHO it's safe to assume that there are at least 1000 true English-French cognates that can be used in everyday situations.
For some examples, see this Wikipedia article.


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