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How many words to speak?

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 Message 129 of 309
14 September 2014 at 4:10pm | IP Logged 
Do you also think that one can pass the listening part of B1 with 300 words? Or at least reading? Wouldn't such a person speak better than they understand? ;)

Edited by Serpent on 14 September 2014 at 4:11pm

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 Message 130 of 309
14 September 2014 at 4:14pm | IP Logged 
If they had the right subset of 300 words for the task, sure. But that certainly isn't
going to equal the speaking task. But eventually you need to pass all four anyways :D
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 Message 131 of 309
14 September 2014 at 5:18pm | IP Logged 
s_allard wrote:
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.

Copying this post (minus the quotes) into a file:
awk '{ for (i=1;i<=NF;i++) print $i }' s_allard.txt | uniq -c | wc -l

shows you used 554 unique words in this post alone. So you wouldn't have been able to post this small (by HTLAL standards) comment in 300 words.

EDIT: Added Style results.

        2377 characters
        554 words, average length 4.29 characters = 1.38 syllables
        36 sentences, average length 15.4 words
        38% (14) short sentences (at most 10 words)
        19% (7) long sentences (at least 25 words)
        11 paragraphs, average length 3.3 sentences
        13% (5) questions
        41% (15) passive sentences
        longest sent 41 wds at sent 5; shortest sent 1 wds at sent 24
word usage:
        verb types:
        to be (18) auxiliary (12)
        types as % of total:
        conjunctions 5% (29) pronouns 12% (67) prepositions 13% (73)

Edited by rdearman on 14 September 2014 at 5:25pm

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 Message 132 of 309
14 September 2014 at 7:54pm | IP Logged 
s_allard wrote:
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.

I continue to believe that this is extremely implausible. CEFR B1 exams often involve drawing conversational subjects from bowls. B1 students are expected to handle a wide range of concrete, day-to-day topics. My vote is for a 2000 to 3000 word vocabulary, which isn't too far off most researchers' estimates. This large vocabulary is required precisely because you don't know what the exam will be about, except for the usual broad B1 parameters.

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

I think this strategy might work for people like Benny Lewis. As I understand it, he used to arrive in a country, and sort out his problems step by step:

Day 1: Buy food.
Day 2: Figure out public transportation (or whatever).
Day 3: Explain why I'm butchering your language so horribly.
Day 4: Fix the next biggest problem, etc.

At first he's basically just regurgitating things from phrase books and abusing grammar terribly. But looking at the vocabulary frequency charts, I think there's a tipping point somewhere around 300 words (not including nouns). At this point, he could have tolerable coverage of everything except:

1. Adjectives. Workaround: Use very simple adjectives: good, bad, expensive, blue, etc.
2. Verbs. Workaround: Use very simple verbs: be, have, like, want, must, go, give, take, etc.
3. Nouns. Workaround: Learn 20 critical nouns before undertaking each day's task.

If you wanted to try this approach, you'd need to use lots of substitutions. Instead of "buy", you might say, "give money for." And so on. Instead of "nice, excellent, kind, delicious, acceptable, OK", etc., you'd say "good."
Somewhere around 400 to 500 words (including nouns), I see how this might actually start coming together. You'd still be zillion miles off a real A2. But if you crammed vocabulary before each encounter, and you had the right social skills, you might be able to fake A2 conversations on single topics.

And it wouldn't take long to ramp up: It's entirely possible to learn 40 words per day with Anki for short bursts, which would get you near the threshold within a week. From there on, you could add 40 subject-specific words per day. This would obviously require hours of work per day: researching what to learn, carrying on conversations, creating Anki cards, reviewing Anki cards, and so on.

Personally? I'm not sure I'd actually enjoy learning this way. I like to assimilate a solid base before trying to speak. But it would be an interesting experiment, and if I were already in the country for another reason, it seems like it would be a better solution than either staying indoors, or building an English bubble around me.

Of course, I'm speaking hypothetically here. This is all just based on numbers and guesswork and other people's experiences and reading Benny's book. But I know how powerful it can be to focus on a few subjects at a time, even at higher levels. (TV series are awesome, for just this reason.) So I'm willing to believe you could speak very early by adding one survival topic a day.
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 Message 133 of 309
14 September 2014 at 8:16pm | IP Logged 
Let's compare apples to apples. In a previous post, I took a sample French B1 question for the speaking exam.
Readers will recall that the situation was an identity check by police in Paris. The examiner played the role of the
police officer. I created quite a detailed dialogue that I think was pretty realistic, and it took around 130 unique

Admittedly, there are a lot of subjects that we did not talk about. Maybe the officer wanted to chat about how a
heavy oil refinery works or how to sail a 19th century clipper ship. Those two topics would have required more
than 130 words, I agree. But we did what the exam question asked us to do.

In the discussion so far I'm the only one who has provided actual examples of conversations. I invite people to
find examples of real recordings of conversations. They would be surprised how few words are used.

Here is a challenge: show me a French B1 question that cannot be answered in less than 300 different words.

But rather than counting words, let's look at the quality of the speaking. People who know French well enough
will notice that the dialogue contained some examples of very idiomatic French associated with high proficiency.
And there were no serious mistakes. Any examiner who hears this level of French would be very impressed by the
overall quality. No common B1 candidate speaks like this.

This is a very important point. I've said this before: speaking a language does not consist of reeling off a list of
words. Does anybody think that the C2 examiner wants to hear 2,000 words in alphabetical order from your Anki
stack? If you are going to have debate on climate change where the examiner takes the position that science has
not definitively proved that climate change is a product of human activity, are you going to make a list of 500
words that you must use and read them to the examiner? Just how many special words do you need to debate
this topic? I don't know. I'll let other people tell me.

The real question is what does it take to impress the examiner. Here it's very important to understand the fact
that you will be giving just a sample of your speaking capabilities. Your productive vocabulary in French may be
5,000 words, you won't have time to show them all off.

What does impress the examiner? We've been through this before:

1. Good control of grammatical complexity, especially advanced forms
2. Ability to render nuances of meaning
3. Ability to play with words
4, Lack of mistakes and the ability to recognize and correct any mistakes
5. Good speaking fluency

Your dialogue with the examiner is an example of your ability. What you do here illustrates what you can do
elsewhere. If, for example, you master the complexity of "la concordance des temps", this tells the examiner that
you know how to use your tenses well. Or maybe you make an advanced use of the subjunctive or maybe even
one of the surcomposé tenses or maybe it's an advanced pronominal verb form. The examiner will be blown away
because these uses reveal real mastery of the language.

The big problem here is that people believe that the way to master a language is to throw more words at it.
People can't get by with 300 words because they can't use them properly. The solution is to learn more words. If
only I knew 5,000 words, I would be "fluent" in French. That I find laughable. Stumbling and massacring the
language with 5,000 words is just as ugly as with 300 words.

Edited by s_allard on 14 September 2014 at 8:20pm

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 Message 134 of 309
14 September 2014 at 8:54pm | IP Logged 
Since there is so much talking about passing the French B1 oral production exams, I decided to have a look at
some sample questions. Here is a web site with sample questions right up to C2.

questions for DELF B1

The test is in three parts, as below:

ciep wrote:

􏰀Exercice 1 - Entretien dirigé
Présentation générale (2 à 3 minutes) Le candidat devra parler de lui, de ses activités, de ses centres d’intérêt, de
son passé, de son présent et de ses projets. Cet exercice est destiné à mettre le candidat à l’aise en parlant de
lui. Il se déroule en interaction sur le mode d’un entretien informel. Il vous appartient d’amorcer le dialogue par
une question du type : Bonjour ... Pouvez-vous vous présenter, me parler de vous, de votre famille... ?Vous
pouvez relancer l’entretien sur des thèmes tels que :

Où avez-vous passé vos dernières vacances ?
Qu’est-ce que vous êtes en train d’étudier ?
Que voulez-vous faire plus tard ?
Parlez-moi de vos passe-temps préférés ?

􏰀Exercice 2 - Exercice en interaction Au choix par tirage au sort :

Sujet n°1 (3 à 4 minutes)

Vous êtes arrivé(e) plusieurs fois en retard au cours de français. Aujourd’hui votre professeur n’est pas content.
Vous discutez avec lui après le cours et vous essayez de vous justifier. L’examinateur joue le rôle du professeur.

Sujet n°2 (3 à 4 minutes)
Vous souhaitez organiser chez vous une fête d’adieu pour un camarade de classe. Vous en discutez avec vos
parents (père ou mère). Mais vous n’êtes pas d’accord sur la date, l’heure, le type de menu, le nombre des
invités. L’examinateur joue le rôle du père ou de la mère.

􏰀Exercice 3 – expression d’un point de vue Préparation : 10 minutes Au choix par tirage au sort :
Consignes : Vous dégagerez le thème soulevé par le document ci-dessous et vous présenterez votre opinion
sous la forme d’un petit exposé de 3 min. environ. L’examinateur pourra vous poser quelques questions

Ils ont choisi de vivre SANS TÉLÉ
Ils ont 20, 40 ou 70 ans, habitent en ville, travaillent, sont étudiants ou retraités, parents ou célibataires. Bref, ils
sont comme vous et moi. Sauf qu’ils n’ont pas la télé. « Ça existe encore ? », s’étonnent en chœur les
téléphages... Eh oui ! Et ils font partie de ces 5 % de Français qui ne possèdent pas de poste fixe (ils étaient 14 %
en 1973). Pour cette minorité réfractaire, la télévision rime avec pollution mentale, passivité et perte de temps.
Télé Star, 20 septembre 2004

Les jeunes en quête de règles justes
Étonnant. En février dernier, le magazine Okapi publiait un sondage du Centre de recherche pour l’étude et
l’observation des conditions de vie (Credoc) auprès de collégiens : « 83 % des collégiens interrogés pensent que
l’autorité est une qualité pour un prof»! En 2000, une enquête menée par le même Credoc concluait que 57% des
adolescents de 11 à 15 ans disaient attendre d’un adulte de «l’autorité»... Incontestablement, en quatre ans, la
demande d’autorité émanant des jeunes adolescents a progressé. L’heure n’est plus à la révolte, ni au
chahut,mais au retour de la discipline et de la règle. (...)
Le Monde de l’Education, Philippe Jacqué, septembre 2003

If I look at Exercise 1, the candidate is asked to to talk for 3-4 minutes freely about subjects concerning future
plans, vacation, hobbies, etc. How many words are required to do this? What is the examiner looking for?

In Exercise no. 2, the candidate must choose between two interactive subjects. In the first one, the candidate is a
student who often arrives late to class. The teacher is upset. The candidate meets with the teacher after class and
tries to justify their behaviour. The examiner plays the role of the teacher.

What is very technical about this topic that requires a vast vocabulary? If enough people make the request, I
could write out a sample dialogue. Unfortunately, it would not be from a strictly B1 level.

In Exercise no 3, the candidate reads a paragraph, has 10 minutes to prepare and then makes a 3-4 minute
presentation with questions from the examiner. Note that the document to be read contains all the technical
vocabulary one is likely to need.

How many words does a candidate need to do all this? What is so complicated about the themes here? The real
issue is can you handle the language, not whether you have enough words. If you want to talk about cycling as a
hobby, do you really have to explain all the parts of a bicycle? Is the examiner going to ask you to name all the
parts of the wheel?

Let's be real here. The examiner is not keeping count of the words you know. The examiner is interested in your
control of gender agreement, tenses, choice of right prepositions, fluency and choice of right words. With 300
words, this is a piece of cake if you know what you are doing.

Edited by s_allard on 14 September 2014 at 9:02pm

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 Message 135 of 309
14 September 2014 at 9:46pm | IP Logged 
The most common objection to the idea of a small productive vocabulary is the fact that the candidate does not
know what subjects will come up. Therefore they need a large enough vocabulary just in case. Let's say 2,000
words for the B1 level and up for other levels. We're not talking about reading or listening comprehension, we're
talking about oral production.

The justification for this figure is always in terms of vocabulary coverage of a large universe of samples, for
example French film subtitles. 2,000 words is sort of the bare minimum to give decent coverage.

It's important to remember that the candidate will not use 2,000 words. It's just in case. How many will the
candidate likely use? We don't really know. To my knowledge we do not have any studies of a collection of
actual French answers. This would be an interesting research project.

What we do know by looking at real conversations is that, individually, conversations do not require large
vocabularies. None of the sample French B1 conversations that I have seen require vocabularies larger than 150 -
200 word families.

So the question is what about all that infinite variety of topics that might come up? How much vocabulary is
common and how much topic-specific?

My own viewpoint is that when we look at how the exams are worded in sample or real exams and what the
examiners are looking for, the emphasis is more on use of the language rather than vocabulary size. In fact, the
topics are not particularly technical. Therefore much of the vocabulary is transferable from one topic to the

For example, when I look at the two topics of exercise 3 of the sample questions above, I question how much
vocabulary is specific to each topic. Are there 10 terms, 20, 30 terms for each topic? I'm not sure myself. But if I
look at the wording of the task, I don't see any emphasis on precise technical content. You are simple asked to
talk about the topic in an intelligent manner. I believe that most of the vocabulary will be shared.

As I have said many times, vocabulary is not the problem that B1 candidates have. Speaking correctly and fluently
is the real problem.

Edited by s_allard on 14 September 2014 at 9:48pm

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 Message 136 of 309
14 September 2014 at 10:28pm | IP Logged 
s allard - you don't need to overcomplicate this problem. The easy answer to this
question would be if you'd be able to show us here 10 or more dialogues on different
topics, each around 500 words or more, which correspond to the requirements of A2 or B1
levels, using the same 300 words for each. It's hard if not impossible task to do in a
written form, not to say, when you need to have a spontaneous dialogue.
I think it's a fully absurd assumption that anybody can have a normal conversation
on a simple topic knowing 300 or even 1000 words. The skillful usage of language about
which you are talking so much is created by a long exposure to the language, which
gives you the skill to use words properly in different contexts. Knowing words without
contexts is useless.
What's also wrong with that argument is the assumption that you are in a full control
of the words you use, but even if you'd ask a native speaker to involve in a
discussion, using 300 words only, it would be exteremely hard for him to do so.
Btw, the vocabulary of an average 2 year old child is 300-450 words, children at
4 years of age have on average the passive vocabulary of 2500 words.

Edited by Maecenas23 on 15 September 2014 at 1:17am

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