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How many words to speak?

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tarvos
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 Message 121 of 309
13 September 2014 at 10:25pm | IP Logged 
Sure, we articulate a bit more quickly than we consciously think using the system. But
every word you utter is a choice, because you could just as easily not utter it. That
part about not being able to choose is nonsense - you have the choice to keep your mouth
closed. You have the choice to curse. To mince your words carefully. We're conscious
beings, we can do that now.

Of course meaning is always dependent on context, but doesn't that encourage picking and
choosing your words to suit the context even more? That's not really an argument against
picking and choosing, now is it?

One famous philosopher once said: "It doesn't matter how you say it, as long as they
understood it."

Edited by tarvos on 13 September 2014 at 10:29pm

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s_allard
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 Message 122 of 309
14 September 2014 at 2:55am | IP Logged 
Maecenas23 wrote:
s_allard wrote:
Maecenas23 wrote:
   I strongly dislike this reductionist approach
to the languages and language
acquisition. I am a seasoned language learner and your 300 words theory sounds at
least humiliating. Moreover I consider Benny Lewis 3 months challenges to C1 almost as
humiliating. Language is not a pile of words from which you can pick and speak. If it
was so - many people simply would find language learning boring and derived of it's
fascination. Language is a hugely complicated interconnected system and to implement it
to your brain and make it work takes thousands of hours of exposure. I don't believe
anyone who claims to be fluent at 30 languages unless he is 100 years old and has spent
every waking hour of his life acquiring those languages.
Some people can pretend to be fluent, given they are speaking about a 'comfortable'
topic, but when they do one step aside of that familiar territory you see them
stumbling in every single phrase - they are like trains who follow only a stict
directions in their languages and have limited abilities to turn away from certain
topics which lie in their comfort zone.

Please, when you come late to a discussion, it is a matter of basic courtesy to find
out what we have been talking
about.

Actually, I've read what you were talking about before I made a post. I thought
everybody here is free to write their opinions about the main topic regardless of the
current arguments in discussion. Can't see how it relates to what you call a "basic
courtesy".

Let me explain what basic courtesy means, at least to me. It means reading what the topic is about and what the
sense of the discussion is. That said, people are free to say whatever they want regardless how irrelevant it is to
the theme. If I may quote the OP:


s_allard wrote:
...I am sure that Marini has a larger vocabulary in the 30 languages he speaks than what is
shown in the video, but it doesn't take a lot to actually start speaking. I have argued that in French 300 words will
get you started and that around 1000 words well mastered is all you need to be able to converse well about
simple topics.

In order to talk about complex topics or technical subjects, you will need a larger vocabulary of course. But the
point is that for basic conversation along the lines of this video, a small number of words, good grammar and
pronunciation are all you need. You do not need to learn 10,000 words before starting to speak.


Let me attempt to summarize the main thrusts of the thread in the following questions:

1, In languages like French and English, is a vocabulary of around 300 word families structured in certain
categories enough to start making meaningful sentences and discussing simple topics? I say yes, some people
say no.

2. Can you have a sophisticated discussion about a topic with 300 word families or less? I say yes, some people
say no.

3. Can you talk about a large variety of topics with a the same 300 word families? Everybody, including myself,
says no.

4. How many words would you need in French to be able to talk about a relatively diverse range of topics? I say
1,000, some people 2,000 and more.

5. Has anyone said that one should learn only 300 word families in a language? Hell no.

That's pretty much the tenor of the discussion. I don't see what's humiliating about this. And I don't see what's
reductionist either.



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Maecenas23
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 Message 123 of 309
14 September 2014 at 5:29am | IP Logged 
   But the assumption of a discussion using 300 words is an utter nonsense. I assure
you it's fully impossible to have any kind of coherent impromptu discussion using 300
words, unless it's a written structured dialogue in a phrasebook designed for the
unique situation, like visting a GP,where you tell him that you have a sore throat.
Though it's possible to use 300 words in a telegraph-like communication with the help
of gesticulation in a very limited range of situations.That's not what can be called
"speaking",but rather signaling. This kind of experiment is easy to do. Give someone,
who doesn't know a word in English a list of 300 English words to memorise - then talk
with him.
   You wouldn't be able to speak using 300 word families, if by speaking you don't mean
a series of unconnected words in a very primitive conversation, because the list of the
300 most used English words doesn't include the most essential of them like e.g. half
of the numerals ( the word six is on 426 place, seven -736, nine -1164) almost all the
adjectives including colors (the word red is on 598 place, blue is on 845,green -
893,yellow - 1675) basic verbs, and verbs are the most important and frequent of all
words (learn -305, speak-336, read-338, walk - 359, buy -398,thank-498, eat- 544) and
nouns (body -314, door -344,computer - 590, window - 608).
   Some famous writers considered it to be a hard task to write a short story using
less than 300 words and you talk about the ability to speak? Dr. Seuss children's story
"Green Eggs and Ham" comes to mind, but the story is rather absurd and surrealistic and
50 words scrupulously chosen to write it is the main reason for that. No kind of
circumlocution would help you to speak with 300 or even 1000 words in an average
conversation.Even if you are a genius - it wouldn't help either.
   It seems that the primary goal of most words and synonyms, which aren't in a
frequency list is, broadly speaking, the economizing and optimizing of brain energy
spent on language processing, which, otherwise, could have been wasted on periphrases
aka circumlocution.

p.s. The term "word family" is much broader than the term "word". Here is the
definition from the Wikipedia "A word family is the base form of a word plus its
inflected forms and derived forms made from affixes (Hirsh & Nation 1992, p. 692). In
English language, inflections include third person -s, -ed, -ing, plural -s, possessive
-s, comparative -er and superlative -est. Affixes includes -able, -er, -ish, -less, -
ly, -ness, -th, -y, non-, un-, -al, -ation, -ess, -ful, -ism, -ist, -ity, -ize, -ment,
in- (Hirsh & Nation 1992, p. 692). The idea is that a base word and its inflected forms
support the same core meaning, and can be considered learned words if a learner knows
both the base word and the affix. Bauer and Nation (Bauer & Nation 1993) proposed seven
levels of affixes." In terms of memorization it changes everything. By changing the
term "word" to the term "word family" you speak about about the amount of information
many times bigger than 300 words.

Edited by Maecenas23 on 14 September 2014 at 5:08pm

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Serpent
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 Message 124 of 309
14 September 2014 at 9:09am | IP Logged 
s_allard wrote:
1, In languages like French and English, is a vocabulary of around 300 word families structured in certain categories enough to start making meaningful sentences and discussing simple topics? I say yes, some people say no.

2. Can you have a sophisticated discussion about a topic with 300 word families or less? I say yes, some people say no.

1. it's not only about the target language, but also your native one. At best this means that you have a great discount, at worst that you are actually speaking a mixture of the two languages. People can definitely speak portunhol with less than 300 words from the "other" language, but this says little about their L2 skills.
2. Is it possible to use 300 different words or less in a sophisticated discussion? Sure. Is it possible to pick the right words in advance and learn them? No, even in our native language we tend to be completely wrong when we plan out conversations in our minds.
3. Also, does the conversation lose a lot of its depth if you're hitting the limits of your vocabulary/guessing a lot/miss out on many subtleties and precise distinctions? For me it definitely does.

Do these make your proposed strategies less relevant for many HTLAL'ers, including those that do want to speak their L2 sooner or later? That seems likely, yes.
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s_allard
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 Message 125 of 309
14 September 2014 at 12:17pm | IP Logged 
Maecenas23 wrote:
    But the assumption of a discussion using 300 words is an utter nonsense. I assure
you it's fully impossible to have any kind of coherent impromptu discussion using 300
words, unless it's a written structured dialogue in a phrasebook designed for the
unique situation, like visting a GP,where you tell him that you have a sore throat.
Though it's possible to use 300 words in a telegraph-like communication with the help
of gesticulation in a very limited range of situations.That's not what can be called
"speaking",but rather signaling. This kind of experiment is easy to do. Give someone,
who doesn't know a word in English a list of 300 English words to memorise - then talk
with him.
   You wouldn't be able to speak using 300 word families, if by speaking you don't mean
a series of unconnected words in a very primitive conversation, because the list of the
300 most used English words doesn't include the most essential of them like e.g. half
of the numerals ( the word six is on 426 place, seven -736, nine -1164) almost all the
colors (the word red is on 598 place, blue is on 845,green - 893,yellow - 1675) basic
verbs, and verbs are the most important and frequent of all words (learn -305,
speak-336, read-338, walk - 359, buy -398,thank-498, eat- 544) and nouns (body -314,
door -344,computer - 590, window - 608).
   Some famous writers considered it to be a hard task to write a short story using
less than 300 words and you talk about the ability to speak? Dr. Seuss children's story
"Green Eggs and Ham" comes to mind, but the story is rather absurd and surrealistic and
50 words scrupulously chosen to write it is the main reason for that. No kind of
circumlocution would help you to speak with 300 or even 1000 words in an average
conversation.Even if you are a genius - it wouldn't help either.
   It seems that the primary goal of most words and synonyms, which aren't in a
frequency list is, broadly speaking, the economizing and optimizing of brain energy
spent on language processing, which, otherwise, could have been wasted on periphrases
aka circumlocution.

p.s. The term "word family" is much broader than the term "word". Here is the
definition from the Wikipedia "A word family is the base form of a word plus its
inflected forms and derived forms made from affixes (Hirsh & Nation 1992, p. 692). In
English language, inflections include third person -s, -ed, -ing, plural -s, possessive
-s, comparative -er and superlative -est. Affixes includes -able, -er, -ish, -less, -
ly, -ness, -th, -y, non-, un-, -al, -ation, -ess, -ful, -ism, -ist, -ity, -ize, -ment,
in- (Hirsh & Nation 1992, p. 692). The idea is that a base word and its inflected forms
support the same core meaning, and can be considered learned words if a learner knows
both the base word and the affix. Bauer and Nation (Bauer & Nation 1993) proposed seven
levels of affixes." In terms of memorization it changes everything. By changing the
term "word" to the term "word family" you speak about about the amount of information
many times bigger than 300 words.

This is another example of coming later to the thread and not knowing what we are talking about. We've been
through this debate many times, and I find it tiresome to have to repeat something that was discussed many
pages ago. So, I'll just quote an earlier example of a discussion with less than 300 different words.

s_allard wrote:

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.


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emk
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 Message 126 of 309
14 September 2014 at 1:49pm | IP Logged 
s_allard wrote:
Maecenas23 wrote:
But the assumption of a discussion using 300 words is an utter nonsense. I assure
you it's fully impossible to have any kind of coherent impromptu discussion using 300
words, unless it's a written structured dialogue in a phrasebook designed for the
unique situation, like visting a GP,where you tell him that you have a sore throat.



So, I'll just quote an earlier example of a discussion with less than 300 different words.

I just wanted to mention that under very limited and specific circumstances, I agree with s_allard: If you tightly control the subject of conversation, and you're willing to use simplified vocabulary and workarounds, you can actually get a lot further than I thought with about 400 to 450 words.

Note that this only works when you know the subject of a conversation in advance, and you can learn the necessary subject specific vocabulary. And of course your conversational partner will need to keep their responses very simple. But if you're pursuing some kind of "Speak from Day 1" strategy, if you're working with a tutor, or if you're trying to carry out a single shopping errand, you may very well be able to create the necessary conditions.

To support this claim, I feel obligated to produce an actual list of vocabulary. First, let's start with spoken-language frequency tables:

emk wrote:
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…

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.

With 325 words, we get very good coverage of all the "closed class" parts of speech, and limited coverage of adverbs. We get also get some coverage of the most basic adverbs and verbs. If we have a 450-word budget, that leaves us with our choice of 125 words, from which we will draw all of our nouns plus any special-purpose additions we need to make in the other categories.

Personally, I do not believe this vocabulary would be remotely adequate for an A2 exam. It's far too tuned for a single subject, and too utterly hopeless outside that subject. But if you want to have a basic conversation on a single subject, with some pantomime and workarounds, I actually believe this is possible. A change of topic would destroy you utterly. But if your language learning strategy was to start with a single topic, and add new topics as needed, I really do suspect you could get started with 450 words.

As for the merits of this approach, I don't have an opinion yet. It would be a fun experiment, certainly, and I think Benny Lewis must use a technique much like this.
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rdearman
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 Message 127 of 309
14 September 2014 at 3:14pm | IP Logged 
I've just read EMK's figures again, and I don't think I'm straying to far from the subject of this thread. But given these figures, if I wanted to write a course for French learners, I don't think I could go far wrong if I just created a course which covered the 95% of common French which are not nouns.

Using the figures above I removed the nouns from the 95% language cover and came up with 2082 words. If I were to drill into my head (or a students) these 2082 words and a small selection of nouns to use with them then my course, in theory, would give a huge lift up to the average french learner.

Although EMK says and I agree that you need an inordinate amount of nouns to have a conversation, nouns are probably the easiest thing to obtain. Iverson made a comment (which I'm paraphrasing/mutilating) in regard to "conversations with oneself" that they tend to degrade into learning nouns, because if you're walking around saying things to yourself such as: "I see a tree. I am driving a car. I am in a train. That is a dog." very simple verbs, but lots of nouns.

Previously I asked EMK for the top 5000 headwords from this list, but after a little thought I should have asked only for the 2082 non-noun headwords for my anki deck. In a conversation at a bakery, even in English, if I don't know the name of the thing I want to eat I can normally just point at it. This is true for the majority of nouns, you can just point at them.

This is great in theory. But in practice you'd have to know the "spread" of the words over an average sentence. But if we take English for examples then I figure a sentence consists of only 2-3 nouns and the majority of the sentence is these "other" words, my 2082. I did a quick scan with the "style" command on a text file of questions I had lying about and came up with this.

        3188 characters
        733 words, average length 4.35 characters = 1.32 syllables
        63 sentences, average length 11.6 words
        41% (26) short sentences (at most 7 words)
        9% (6) long sentences (at least 22 words)
        types as % of total:
        conjunctions 5% (37) pronouns 16% (116) prepositions 11% (78)

So of my small sample the average length of sentence was 12 words rounded up. There are 1-3 nouns per sentence. Unfortunately the majority of nouns in this file were not concrete nouns like car, hat, dog but rather they were nouns like a thought, the feeling, etc.

Is this selection of words better for me as a French learner than the 5000 most frequent headwords? Certainly it is 1/2 the size of the 5k anki deck and presumably easier to learn. I suspect this would only be of use to intermediate learners B1/B2 level. However for 75% coverage this is only 247 after deduction of nouns. What are these magic words? If we built a beginners course with these 247 and a few basic nouns would this be better or worse than Assimil or Pimsleur?

Would knowledge of these 247 non-nouns get you speaking faster, better? Would it allow you to construct sentences using a few nouns?

I would be interested to know if we selected a random passage from say a film script, or wikipedia page, then blanked out any word not in the 2082 non-noun list, and left 10 nouns "unblanked" if you gave this passage to a French speaker could they understand it?



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s_allard
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 Message 128 of 309
14 September 2014 at 3:18pm | IP Logged 
emk wrote:
...
With 325 words, we get very good coverage of all the "closed class" parts of speech, and limited coverage of
adverbs. We get also get some coverage of the most basic adverbs and verbs. If we have a 450-word budget, that
leaves us with our choice of 125 words, from which we will draw all of our nouns plus any special-purpose
additions we need to make in the other categories.

Personally, I do not believe this vocabulary would be remotely adequate for an A2 exam. It's far too tuned for a
single subject, and too utterly hopeless outside that subject. But if you want to have a basic conversation on a
single subject, with some pantomime and workarounds, I actually believe this is possible. A change of topic
would destroy you utterly. But if your language learning strategy was to start with a single topic, and add new
topics as needed, I really do suspect you could get started with 450 words.

As for the merits of this approach, I don't have an opinion yet. It would be a fun experiment, certainly, and I think
Benny Lewis must use a technique much like this.

I think that emk has done a very good job of showing how vocabulary coverage by category of words works over
a large set of sample texts, e.g. the subtitles of a many French films.

Let me say again, for the umpteenth time, that 300 words represents for me a threshold for starting to speak in
French. But that's not the key issue here.

Where emk and I disagree fundamentally - and I won't say irreconcilably - is this emk's statement that a small
vocabulary, be it 300 or 450 words, limits one to a single topic and that "a change of topic would destroy you."

I believe that this is totally wrong. The limitation is not in the size of the vocabulary; it is in the skill of the user.

If we step back a bit and look at issues of methodology, we see that emk approaches vocabulary size by looking
at vocabulary coverage of a large universe of samples. While he admits that a small of words other than nouns
can give decent coverage, nouns are a different matter and require much bigger numbers to get decent coverage.
As I have said many times, the math is impeccable and I agree with these findings.

My approach is different. I'm not interested initially in being able to talk about all the possible subjects. I'm
interested in a small number of subjects because I'm starting with a small vocabulary that will increase as
necessary. I believe in going according to need. This is a bottom up approach. I start with what I need to speak
and spread out from there. emk's approach is top down. Let's see what you need to speak about everything to
everybody and drill down to the minimum.

But, and this is the crux of the matter, does a small vocabulary limit you to a single subject, outside of which you
are totally lost and unable to speak? I say no.

My methodology is to look at actual conversations. How many different words do people actually use? In another
thread, I presented cases of actual conversations in French that used very small numbers of different words.
When you change topics, do you change all the words you use? No. We know that nouns are most likely to change
by their nature, but does that mean that all the nouns change because a topic changes? It depends.

We also know that words can have multiple meanings and there can be many ways of saying things. So, one can
work around holes in one's vocabulary and even acquire vocabulary on the spot.

I believe that when one looks at specific examples, even in one's native tongue, one sees that a small vocabulary
can be a powerful when used by a skilled speaker. Within limitations of course.

I have said before, and I stand by the statement, that a skilled user could easily ace the B1 speaking exam in
French with a vocabulary of 300 words. This sounds outlandish or like "utter nonsense", to quote another poster,
What i say is let's look at the potential topics before rushing to judgment. Do you discuss a topic by reeling off a
list of words? No. You shape and connect them in a certain order. Let's see what we can do with what we have
before declaring that nothing can be done.

Edited by s_allard on 14 September 2014 at 3:21pm



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