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How many words to speak?

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rdearman
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 Message 137 of 309
14 September 2014 at 10:35pm | IP Logged 
s_allard wrote:

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.


OK, publishers guidelines for audio books are 150-160 WPM. This means a 5 minute presentation would be around 750-800 words in length. So, can you please while only using a 300 word vocabulary (plus any in the paragraph below) give us a presentation on this subject? The presentation should run between 750-800 words. Oh and be prepared for questions, which must be answered using your 300 words.

I would like to mention if you ONLY had 300 words would your 300 words have overlapped with the article I've selected? A real student with only 300 words might not actually comprehend the question, let alone build an answer. You have a massive advantage here, because you get to select 300 words from thousands of known words in French, because you are a French speaker.

===
Top 10 des pires interprétations du Star-Spangled Banner, ces Américains qui ne respectent rien

Non, ce n'est pas "l'intention qui compte". Il ne suffit pas de crier son amour pour l'Amérique pour qu'elle en sorte grandie. A l'heure où on exige de nos sportifs, de nos écoliers et de toute personne candidate à "l'identité nationale" d'entonner à pleins poumons la Marseillaise, ces personnalités, ces nouveaux héros américains, nous le rappellent : il faut laisser la guerre aux soldats, l'Histoire aux historiens et les hymnes nationaux aux fanfares (et éventuellement à Jimi Hendrix). Chacun à sa place et les mouches seront bien gardées.


4 persons have voted this message useful



s_allard
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 Message 138 of 309
15 September 2014 at 12:20am | IP Logged 
Maecenas23 wrote:
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 B2
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.

(I wonder if people are mixing up again 300 different words with 300 words of all type)
I love challenges. I've already given a reference to this fantastic French website of recorded conversations with
transcriptions:

France Bienvenue

These are native speakers, not A2 - B2. Either in an earlier post or in a different thread, I counted the different
words in two of these dialogues. One was 224 words and the other 145. I'm going to display a third conversation
called Routine du matin. When I get a minute, I'll look at the word count. Now these are totally different
conversations, and they are not of my making.

If I had the time, I would certainly rise to the challenge of taking 300 words and making 10 different dialogues. I
already did one with the police officer. One down and 9 to go. I could expand the bakery example. And maybe
throw in a visit to the doctor. Unfortunately, I really don't have much time. But I might do one on buying a train
ticket in French because emk expressed interest in the topic.

I've included this conversation so that readers can see what a real spoken French conversation looks like.
Obviously, I'm not saying that all the conversations on this site use the same 300 words. If we look at all the
different conversations on the site, we will get a number of different words much higher than 300. No surprise
there.

What is true is that, in my observation, not one of these conversations uses more than 300 words, and some
much less. Now, tell these speakers that "..it's a fully absurd assumption that anybody can have a normal
conversation on a simple topic knowing 300 or even 1000 words. " If these people are not having a normal
conversation, what are they doing?

I should also mention that I'm working my way through a transcription of four hours of negotiations between a
French police officer and a holed-up bandit. I'm about one quarter the way through, and it's pretty evident that
I've seen nearly all the vocabulary in the entire recording. You can imagine how repetitive the whole thing is.

A : Alors Philippe, vous vous êtes levé à quelle heure ce matin ?
P : Donc ce matin, je me suis levé à six heures et quart, pour commencer à huit heures.
A : Oui. Donc ça veut dire quoi, là ? Vous partez à quelle heure de chez vous ?
P : Je pars vers 6h55 – 7h de chez moi.
A : Donc six heures et quart – 6:55, ça vous suffit pour vous préparer ? Qu’est-ce que vous faites alors ?
P : Donc…
A : Le réveil sonne.
P : Le réveil sonne. Je prends un petit déjeuner.
A : Vous vous levez tout de suite ? Ou vous restez cinq minutes, encore ?
P : Tout de suite, parce que après, sinon… la flemme (1) de se lever.
A : Oui. Vous rappuyez sur le réveil et vous repartez pour un tour (2)?
P : C’est ça. Donc je prends mon petit déjeuner.
A : Qu’est-ce qu’il y a au petit déjeuner ? C’est long ou pas ?
P : Du lait avec des céréales.
A : Oui. Ah, il est encore avec ses céréales ! Il a ses Kelloggs ?
P : Les Trésor. C’est très bon !
A : Qu’est-ce que c’est, les Trésor ?
P : Les Trésor, c’est des… c’est des céréales aux noisettes.
A : Oui. Et c’est celles-là qu’il faut…
P : Ça dépend. Je varie en fonction des… des périodes.
A : Oui.
P : Il y a les Trésor, les…
A : Ah là, là, il fait de la pub (3) !
P : … les Weetos, les… les Crunch.
A : D’accord. Et vous êtes toujours céréales (4) ? Pas de… pas de pain, pas de…
P : Si. Des fois, je peux prendre des gâteaux, ou alors, des… des pains au Nutella (5).
A : Oui.
P : Et… parfois du Yop (6).
A : Bon…
P : Pour démarrer la journée , c’est… c’est… c’est bien !
A : C’est comme dans la pub, effectivement ! (7)
P : C’est ça.
A : Donc, le petit déjeuner. Après, alors ?
P : Après, je vais me laver.
A : Oui.
P : Quoi ? Une douche ?
P : Je prends une douche, je m’habille. Il est vers 6:40. Je me coiffe.
A : C’est tout minuté (8) ?
P : Voilà.
A : Ah oui, vous vous coiffez alors. Pourquoi ?
P : Je dois mettre les lentilles… Pourquoi ? Bah…
A : Qu’est-ce qu’elle a, votre coiffure ? De spécial ?
P : Bah, j’ai fait le défrisant (9).
A : C’est quoi,ça ?
P : C’est… "made in…". Non, ça se dit pas… "made in… Algérie… marocain".
A : Oui. Pourquoi ?
P : Parce que j’ai les cheveux… les cheveux frisés.
A : Oui, et ça vous plaît pas ? (10)
P : Non.
A : Ah là, là ! Je croyais qu’il y avait que les filles qui parlaient de leurs cheveux et tout !
N : Je tiens à préciser que le défrisage n’a pas marché !
A : Ah bon ?
P : Il y a eu des petits soucis. A la base, le défrisant, c’était pour les personnes de couleur noire.
A : Ah ! Vous, vous êtes pas très noir.
P : C’est ça.
A : … ni les cheveux…
P : Ni la couleur, donc du coup…
A : Bon enfin bref (11) ! Donc vous êtes pas très satisfait de votre coiffure, alors ?
P : Pas trop. (12)
A : Bon. Ça va repousser ? Ça va…
P : Ça va couper ! (13)
A : D’accord. Bon, donc, vous passez du temps à votre coiffure. Pas de maquillage quand même ?
P : Non ! Je mets les lentilles aussi.
A : Oui. D’accord.
P : Je mets les lentilles.
A : Mais ça, ça prend pas très longtemps ?
P : Cinq minutes.
A : C’est vrai ?
P : Je mets du temps, je galère (14).
A : Ah bon ? Pourquoi ? Ça fait pas longtemps que vous les avez ?
P : Ça fait un an. C’est compliqué. Et après, je pars directement, avec ma voiture.
A : Oui. Et alors, après, donc ? Donc vous partez à 7h.
P : 7h.
A : … et vous arrivez ici…
P : Vers 7:45.
A : Trois quarts d’heure, oui. Bon, il y a des embouteillages (15) ?
P : Beaucoup.
A : Et après, quand vous arrivez, la voiture, c’est bien gentil (16), mais il faut la garer !
P : Je trouve toujours une place.
A : Comment vous faites ?
P : Je brave l’interdit. (17)
A : C’est-à-dire ?
P : Je me gare dans les endroits où il faut pas des fois.
A : Et vous n’avez jamais eu de problèmes ?
P : Non.
A : Non ? Vraiment ? Faites attention, parce que là, maintenant, ils sont déchaînés (18), hein !
P : Je sais mais… J’ai l’avocat qu’il faut (19) !
A : Oui. Ça veut dire quoi ? Vous la garez sur un trottoir ? Ou…
P : Oui, du côté de… Vers… vers le Merlan (20), juste avant ma salle de muscu.
A : D’accord. Et là, il y a pas de problème ?
P : Non.
A : Bon. Et alors après, vous marchez un petit peu quand même ?
P : Oui.
A : Pour venir ici.
P : … deux, trois minutes.
A : Oui. Bon, et le soir ? Même temps de trajet pour le retour ?
P : Quarante-cinq minutes aussi.
A : Oui. À n’importe quelle heure ? Enfin, je sais pas… des fois, vous finissez tôt ? À quelle heure vous finissez ?
P : Quand je finis vers trois heures et demie, je mets… je mets vingt minutes. Vingt… vingt minutes, trente
minutes.
A : Bon, on pensera à vous demain matin.
P : Merci.
A : En train de se coiffer et puis… en train de manger ses Trésor ! Allez, bonne journée !

Edit: Some preliminary counting gave me 34 verbs in this conversation. This is actually very much in line with the
other conversations (33 and 34 verbs respectively). What is interesting is that only 18 of the 34 verbs are not
shared by at least one of the other conversations. When I add all the unique verbs, I get 77 verbs that cover the
three conversations.

Edited by s_allard on 15 September 2014 at 1:49am

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s_allard
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 Message 139 of 309
15 September 2014 at 12:45am | IP Logged 
rdearman wrote:
s_allard wrote:

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.


OK, publishers guidelines for audio books are 150-160 WPM. This means a 5 minute presentation would be
around 750-800 words in length. So, can you please while only using a 300 word vocabulary (plus any in the
paragraph below) give us a presentation on this subject? The presentation should run between 750-800 words.
Oh and be prepared for questions, which must be answered using your 300 words.

I would like to mention if you ONLY had 300 words would your 300 words have overlapped with the article I've
selected? A real student with only 300 words might not actually comprehend the question, let alone build an
answer. You have a massive advantage here, because you get to select 300 words from thousands of known
words in French, because you are a French speaker.

===
Top 10 des pires interprétations du Star-Spangled Banner, ces Américains qui ne respectent rien

Non, ce n'est pas "l'intention qui compte". Il ne suffit pas de crier son amour pour l'Amérique pour qu'elle en
sorte grandie. A l'heure où on exige de nos sportifs, de nos écoliers et de toute personne candidate à "l'identité
nationale" d'entonner à pleins poumons la Marseillaise, ces personnalités, ces nouveaux héros américains, nous
le rappellent : il faut laisser la guerre aux soldats, l'Histoire aux historiens et les hymnes nationaux aux fanfares
(et éventuellement à Jimi Hendrix). Chacun à sa place et les mouches seront bien gardées.


I don't have time nor the inclination to write such a presentation using 300 words, considering that there's really
nothing in it for me. But I certainly think it's very doable although I don't find the subject very interesting.
However, here is how I would approach this topic. I'd certainly use the vocabulary given in the topic. Why would I
refuse it? I'd work the angle What is l'identité nationale and its various manifestations. The intersection with
nationalism, patriotism. Something on images of national culture. Mention the slogan Liberté, égalité, fraternité.
Talk about the origins of various national anthems. Certainly doable in less than 300 different words.

As was well pointed out, since I get to choose my words, I have an advantage. That's the whole point. The idea of
a 300-word vocabulary as a starting point is not to pick 300 words at random or the first 300 words from a
frequency list. That's silly. Those who have been following the debate know that I said every speaker has to
devise their own 300-word core vocabulary based on their own needs.

Edit: Addition: Since I'm assuming that this is part of an examination, I would make sure that I put in the right
number of idiomatic expressions, some fancy grammatical structures such as impersonal verb form with inverted
subject and a few hypothetical constructions and some advanced pronoun constructions. Note that these don't
require more words.

Edited by s_allard on 15 September 2014 at 12:51am

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robarb
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 Message 140 of 309
15 September 2014 at 8:33pm | IP Logged 
The quoted French conversation indeed uses few unique words. However, this is mainly because it is so short. For
example, in the last three sentences the speakers use "on," "penser," "demain," "merci," "train," "puis," "manger,"
and "journée" which hadn't been used previously in the dialogue. So at this stage in the dialogue something like
1/3 (in a small sample) of words are still new, suggesting that the speakers aren't anywhere close to plateauing.
Perhaps in a situation like a police officer negotiating a person who's been arrested, the language used is very
repetitive. In that case, you'll need few words. Likewise, if you limit yourself to a few topics, you can pick and
choose a vocabulary that'll go far.

A : Bon, on pensera à vous demain matin.
P : Merci.
A : En train de se coiffer et puis… en train de manger ses Trésor ! Allez, bonne journée !

s_allard wrote:

What is true is that, in my observation, not one of these conversations uses more than 300 words, and some
much less. Now, tell these speakers that "..it's a fully absurd assumption that anybody can have a normal
conversation on a simple topic knowing 300 or even 1000 words. " If these people are not having a normal
conversation, what are they doing?


These people are having a normal conversation, but it's not true that they know 300 words. Two-year-old
children know 300 words. What they're doing is using ~200 of their words on this particular occasion. If you
recorded everything they said over the course of six months they would of course use a lot of other words.
Luckily, since they know all those other words, they end up with 100% coverage of the words they ended up
needing in this conversation. If they only knew 300 words, there might be only something on the order of 80%
overlap with the words they need in that conversation.

A well-chosen 1000 can probably indeed get you by in a limited set of topics of interest, e.g. for an examination
in which you know you'll only need a particular style of speech. No single set of 1000 words can give you 100%
coverage for all your needs (unless you have limited language needs, like a five-year-old or a person who only
uses the language at work or while traveling). The set you choose to prepare for an examination will leave you
without the words you'd need to talk about, say, fruit: "Strawberry" would definitely not make the list for
language examinations, but you'd be instantly exposed as having a limited vocabulary if you were forced in a
different situation to call them "little red fruits" or "big red berries."

Of course none of this means you can't talk, even impressively, with a small set of words. But the comparisons to
tiny samples of native speakers' speech are unfair. (yes, even a four-hour transcript is a tiny sample if it's one
single episode. Four hours sampled in little chunks over multiple days is more reasonable but still small)

s_allard wrote:

Edit: Addition: Since I'm assuming that this is part of an examination, I would make sure that I put in the right
number of idiomatic expressions, some fancy grammatical structures such as impersonal verb form with inverted
subject and a few hypothetical constructions and some advanced pronoun constructions. Note that these don't
require more words.


What technique do you use to learn appropriate idiomatic expressions and advanced grammatical structure
without
also learning words?

Edited by robarb on 15 September 2014 at 9:09pm

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Iversen
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 Message 141 of 309
16 September 2014 at 12:34am | IP Logged 
This discussion hinges on one single question, namely the degree to which you can direct a CEFR test in the direction of one of your language islands (with a reference to Mr. Shekhtman's terminology). If you can't do that then it is irrelevant that you could survive on 300 words in a discussion about any one theme.

But why this focus on language tests? If you really want to show the virtues of a microscopic, but well chosen vocabulary, then go for small talk with random persons or shopping where you can point to the goods you want to buy (and ask for a written price). If those examinators are worth their salt then they would smell the rat and check the range of your vocabulary - and as it already has been pointed out this could be done with a few probing questions.    

Edited by Iversen on 16 September 2014 at 12:55am

7 persons have voted this message useful



s_allard
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 Message 142 of 309
16 September 2014 at 6:55am | IP Logged 
robarb wrote:
The quoted French conversation indeed uses few unique words. However, this is mainly
because it is so short. For
example, in the last three sentences the speakers use "on," "penser," "demain," "merci," "train," "puis," "manger,"
and "journée" which hadn't been used previously in the dialogue. So at this stage in the dialogue something like
1/3 (in a small sample) of words are still new, suggesting that the speakers aren't anywhere close to plateauing.
Perhaps in a situation like a police officer negotiating a person who's been arrested, the language used is very
repetitive. In that case, you'll need few words. Likewise, if you limit yourself to a few topics, you can pick and
choose a vocabulary that'll go far.

A : Bon, on pensera à vous demain matin.
P : Merci.
A : En train de se coiffer et puis… en train de manger ses Trésor ! Allez, bonne journée !

s_allard wrote:

What is true is that, in my observation, not one of these conversations uses more than 300 words, and some
much less. Now, tell these speakers that "..it's a fully absurd assumption that anybody can have a normal
conversation on a simple topic knowing 300 or even 1000 words. " If these people are not having a normal
conversation, what are they doing?


These people are having a normal conversation, but it's not true that they know 300 words. Two-year-old
children know 300 words. What they're doing is using ~200 of their words on this particular occasion. If you
recorded everything they said over the course of six months they would of course use a lot of other words.
Luckily, since they know all those other words, they end up with 100% coverage of the words they ended up
needing in this conversation. If they only knew 300 words, there might be only something on the order of 80%
overlap with the words they need in that conversation.

A well-chosen 1000 can probably indeed get you by in a limited set of topics of interest, e.g. for an examination
in which you know you'll only need a particular style of speech. No single set of 1000 words can give you 100%
coverage for all your needs (unless you have limited language needs, like a five-year-old or a person who only
uses the language at work or while traveling). The set you choose to prepare for an examination will leave you
without the words you'd need to talk about, say, fruit: "Strawberry" would definitely not make the list for
language examinations, but you'd be instantly exposed as having a limited vocabulary if you were forced in a
different situation to call them "little red fruits" or "big red berries."

Of course none of this means you can't talk, even impressively, with a small set of words. But the comparisons to
tiny samples of native speakers' speech are unfair. (yes, even a four-hour transcript is a tiny sample if it's one
single episode. Four hours sampled in little chunks over multiple days is more reasonable but still small)

s_allard wrote:

Edit: Addition: Since I'm assuming that this is part of an examination, I would make sure that I put in the right
number of idiomatic expressions, some fancy grammatical structures such as impersonal verb form with inverted
subject and a few hypothetical constructions and some advanced pronoun constructions. Note that these don't
require more words.


What technique do you use to learn appropriate idiomatic expressions and advanced grammatical structure
without
also learning words?

Finally, some interesting and insightful observations instead of the usual fluff about you can't do anything with
300 words. I have to commend the poster for actually looking at the conversation that I posted. Let's look at
some of the objections:

1. The vocabulary is limited because the conversation is short.

I think this is true to some extent because you will inevitably talk about more things, but remember that the key
point here is that we are looking at the number of words needed to talk about a topic. The topic here is what the
person does in the morning before going to work. If we were to record the person for a week, we would get
more words, but that is besides the point.

I keep coming back to the same question: how many words do you need to talk about a topic? Not multiple
topics.

2. These speakers know more than 300 words. They selected the words for this conversation from their stock.
They were lucky to know the words for this conversation.

This is of course true. Again, I need hardly mention that I'm not advocating limiting one's vocabulary to 300
words. I am simply saying that one can have a serious and even sophisticated conversation with 300 different
words.

The key observation made here and by others is that with 300 words one is limited to one or very few topics. I
actually agree. Even if I have to say it again, I am not claiming that 300 words will allow you talk about a wide
range of diverse topics. This is the point that emk has hammered home with lots of statistics and graphs. If you
want to understand all the subtitles of a large sample of French films, you need a large vocabulary.

But what happens if you want to look at just one film? Again, the reasoning is that since you don't know what film
you will choose, you need to learn all the words just in case.

3. "A well-chosen 1000 can probably indeed get you by in a limited set of topics of interest, e.g. for an
examination in which you know you'll only need a particular style of speech. No single set of 1000 words can give
you 100% coverage for all your needs (unless you have limited language needs..."

Here we see again that same objection: a 1000 words means a limited set of topics of interest, certainly not
enough for all your needs. I totally agree. But, the real question is what can you do with 300 or 400 or 600? How
do you get 1000?

What I like in this poster's comments is the grudging acknowledgment that one can talk well with 300 words.
This is my most important argument. 300 words does not mean grunting, pointing and jumping around like a
drunken monkey. You can talk seriously about a topic with 300 words.

Why do I say so? If you don't believe me, look at the native conversations. These people are actually having
conversations of 125 to 250 words. I invite people to look at the many conversations on the web site. These
people know many more words that what they are using here. This allows them to talk about many different
topics but the topics can be sometimes treated in less than 300 words.

Let's see how this applies to the idea of passing the B1 oral examination with a 300-word vocabulary. This
sounds like the ultimate heresy to many people. I am not, of course, suggesting that one should learn only this
number of words for the entire test, but I would like to address the major objections.

Many readers have probably started to scream that you don't know what topics may come up on the oral
examination. Suppose you get a topic that's not part of you tiny vocabulary; you are screwed. Therefore you need
at least 2000 words if you want to have any hope and answering all the possible questions.

Obviously, I disagree. I think this is very simplistic thinking and reveals ignorance of how the tests work. Do I
need to say that there is no mention of vocabulary size in the assessment criteria for oral proficiency? Vocabulary
is certainly important but only as part of a general view of the ability to communicate. So let's say you don't know
the word for "strawberry" in your target language, will you automatically lose points because you say "little red
fruit"? I say it depends on how you use the rest of the language. If your French is otherwise great, I don't think
the examiner will even think about your not knowing the word for "strawberry".

When we look at some sample B1 test questions, the situation is not that bad. There is no vast array of diverse
technical topics. We see that you asked to talk about yourself such as your family, hobbies and vacation. The
point of this is to get you chatting and to see what you can do. How many words do you need to do this?

All the other questions are very general and designed to get you talking and interacting with the examiner. Can
you talk about all these various topics with only 300 different words? I say yes because these topics are so
general and vague that a lot of the vocabulary can overlap. I won't repeat the actual questions here, but there is
nothing that a very general vocabulary can't handle.

I know that people are obsessed with vocabulary size because they think this is the key to language success. If
you know 10,000 words, you will surely pass that B1 test. Nothing could be further from the truth.

If there is one think I hope this debate accomplishes is to shift the spotlight away from vocabulary size towards
general speaking competence, of which vocabulary is, in my opinion, only one component. Fluency, grammatical
accuracy, idiomaticity, rendering of nuances are not easily quantified but these are the very things that examiners
are looking for.

The reason I keep coming back to those native conversations is that we see real conversations at work, not
artificial film dialogues. People who read French will have noticed how quite simple they are. That's how people
speak. Can you imagine if a B1 oral candidate spoke like one of these people. The examiner would probably say
"Fine, it's enough" and give a perfect score.

Is the main difference between the regular B1 candidate and our native speaker is difference of vocabulary for the
topic? No, actually our B1 candidate may try to use as many words as possible in order to impress the judges.
Let's give our B1 candidate 2000 words. Will the candidate sound better than the native speaker?





Edited by s_allard on 16 September 2014 at 6:59am

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tarvos
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Speaks: Dutch*, English, Swedish, French, Russian, German, Italian, Norwegian, Mandarin, Romanian, Afrikaans
Studies: Greek, Modern Hebrew, Spanish, Portuguese, Czech, Korean, Esperanto, Finnish

 
 Message 143 of 309
16 September 2014 at 8:51am | IP Logged 
Quote:
Is the main difference between the regular B1 candidate and our native speaker is
difference of vocabulary for the
topic? No, actually our B1 candidate may try to use as many words as possible in order to
impress the judges.
Let's give our B1 candidate 2000 words. Will the candidate sound better than the native
speaker?


Rhetorical and silly question. Of course he is not going to be as good. That's why they
are a B1 candidate sitting the B1 exam.

And as if sitting exams was the purpose of all our language learning...shock-horror, it
isn't.
3 persons have voted this message useful



robarb
Nonaglot
Senior Member
United States
languagenpluson
Joined 3454 days ago

361 posts - 921 votes 
Speaks: Portuguese, English*, German, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Swedish, Esperanto, French
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 Message 144 of 309
16 September 2014 at 9:02am | IP Logged 
Let me just say how much I appreciate the fact that we can have an antagonistic debate without it degenerating
into a shouting match. I think I now agree with most of what s_allard is now defending, if not the original
statements which I and others have rebutted.

s_allard wrote:

Let's see how this applies to the idea of passing the B1 oral examination with a 300-word vocabulary. This
sounds like the ultimate heresy to many people. I am not, of course, suggesting that one should learn only this
number of words for the entire test, but I would like to address the major objections.

Many readers have probably started to scream that you don't know what topics may come up on the oral
examination. Suppose you get a topic that's not part of you tiny vocabulary; you are screwed. Therefore you need
at least 2000 words if you want to have any hope and answering all the possible questions.

Obviously, I disagree. I think this is very simplistic thinking and reveals ignorance of how the tests work. Do I
need to say that there is no mention of vocabulary size in the assessment criteria for oral proficiency? Vocabulary
is certainly important but only as part of a general view of the ability to communicate. So let's say you don't know
the word for "strawberry" in your target language, will you automatically lose points because you say "little red
fruit"? I say it depends on how you use the rest of the language. If your French is otherwise great, I don't think
the examiner will even think about your not knowing the word for "strawberry".

When we look at some sample B1 test questions, the situation is not that bad. There is no vast array of diverse
technical topics. We see that you asked to talk about yourself such as your family, hobbies and vacation. The
point of this is to get you chatting and to see what you can do. How many words do you need to do this?

All the other questions are very general and designed to get you talking and interacting with the examiner. Can
you talk about all these various topics with only 300 different words? I say yes because these topics are so
general and vague that a lot of the vocabulary can overlap. I won't repeat the actual questions here, but there is
nothing that a very general vocabulary can't handle.


Another reason why the examinee is at advantage is that you don't have to say what you mean. In most
situations, you have a specific message you want to convey, and unless you have the words to convey that
message you have a failure of communication. But in an exam this open-ended, you can say anything that would
be a plausible answer to the question, according to what your vocabulary allows. Forget how to say "no siblings?"
No problem, just say "one older brother" instead! Of course if you're good you won't need to use tricks like this,
but if we're going to discuss minimum requirements for passing an exam, this sort of thing is fair game.

s_allard wrote:

I know that people are obsessed with vocabulary size because they think this is the key to language success. If
you know 10,000 words, you will surely pass that B1 test. Nothing could be further from the truth.

If there is one think I hope this debate accomplishes is to shift the spotlight away from vocabulary size towards
general speaking competence, of which vocabulary is, in my opinion, only one component. Fluency, grammatical
accuracy, idiomaticity, rendering of nuances are not easily quantified but these are the very things that examiners
are looking for.


Yes (although that seems somewhat of a straw-man argument, as the usual claim is that a large vocabulary is
necessary, not sufficient). To be an effective speaker, the vocabulary size is not as important as some people
would say. For limited topics the minimum number is small and even for general topics it's not that huge. Equally
important are all those other skills, without which increasing your vocabulary will not make you a better speaker.
Of course if you want to read books and be a well-rounded language user, you need a lot of words--we all know
that. But if your main goal is to speak well, then you can do so about limited topics with a small number of
words, then increase your range of topics as you add more words by talking with people.

However, if you want to do this in practice, it seems you need a way to learn the nuances of speaking that
doesn't involve a lot of input, since the amount of input you'd need to figure out the nuances would also give you
a big vocabulary. I always had the impression that most people who advocate speaking early and often
also do lots of input; speaking early would still be useful in that case, but there wouldn't be a stage with
excellent speaking and a small vocabulary. Anyone have personal experience, or know of someone who achieved
basic fluency with little input?

Edited by robarb on 16 September 2014 at 9:10am



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