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How many words to speak?

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s_allard
Triglot
Senior Member
Canada
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2704 posts - 5424 votes 
Speaks: French*, English, Spanish
Studies: Polish

 
 Message 185 of 309
19 September 2014 at 12:13am | IP Logged 
tarvos wrote:
It's not the only criterion. People aren't just judged on how well they use vocabulary,
but also what kind of vocabulary they use. The fact that you are only ever going to use a
subset of your vocabulary during any type of exam setting (as if the exam determined that
we spoke a language?) doesn't really matter. Yes, you only need a couple hundred words
for a good dialogue, but you need to be prepared to deal with a VARIETY of tests at an
exam using relatvely idiomatic French.

Nous voilà.

This is a very valid point and is the number one objection to this idea of a small vocabulary for a test. I have
never said that 300 words is all you need for all tests. But with reference specifically to the very general nature of
the speaking test at the B1 level, I suggest that a vocabulary of around 300 words is sufficient. I'm not talking
about reading, writing, etc.

As I tried to show in my last post, talking about any of the likely topics at the B1 level does not require a large
vocabulary and even if the topics in the three parts of the test are different, there is enough common verbs plus
specific vocabulary for each topic within a 300-word limit.



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emk
Diglot
Moderator
United States
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2615 posts - 8805 votes 
Speaks: English*, FrenchB2
Studies: Spanish, Ancient Egyptian
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 Message 186 of 309
19 September 2014 at 12:15am | IP Logged 
s_allard wrote:
What is quite striking is how small numbers can give rather large coverage. I see for example that 500 words
provide 83% coverage of native French films. That's not bad. In fact, I find that very good. Some people might say
that you still don't understand 17 out of 100 unique words. Therefore you won't understand anything. That's not
true. 17 of 100 unique words is not the same at 17 out of every 100 words on the page. It's much less.

All of the numbers in my last post are based on coverage, not unique words. So, for example, if we assume that there are 300 words on a page, that's an average of 51 unknown words per page. Personally, I would find it very difficult to answer reading comprehension questions under such circumstances.

If we follow my favorite suggestion, and start with a moderately repetitive and obvious TV series, we could do better. Alas, accurate numbers will have to wait until I write more software.

s_allard wrote:
emk and others keep asking for a list of 300 words. I don't think there is a unique list. One could take the words
for the conversation below and others that I've given as a starting point. I'm not sure what that will prove. Should
we compare such a list to the dataset of French film subtitles? And conclude that the coverage is only 43,5% What
does that prove?

That you can't watch movies with only 300 words?

s_allard wrote:
This is the major difference between emk and myself. emk says you need between 1,100 to 7,000 words to pass
the test. Not a word about the quality of the French.

I'm actually rather fond of fluidity and grammatical accuracy. The only reason I discuss vocabulary with you is that you make radical claims about vocabulary, straying far outside the 1,100 to 7,000 word range that earlier researchers have claimed for B1 students (not all of whom have passed a B1 exam). Your claims about fluidity and grammatical accuracy, on the other hand, are quite plausible.

Generally speaking, if somebody claims, "I can do X with 300 words," my first reaction is to ask for a word list and see what I can do with it—I want to know what clever tricks can be used to stretch it as far as possible, and what limitations are unavoidable. But I have no list, and I'm frustrated by that fact, because it means that I have no way to test the claims.

Edited by emk on 19 September 2014 at 12:16am

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s_allard
Triglot
Senior Member
Canada
Joined 3825 days ago

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

 
 Message 187 of 309
19 September 2014 at 12:48am | IP Logged 
Although I sometimes feel that I'm all alone defending this idea of a highly-functional core vocabulary, I take
solace in the statistics of actual conversations. I earlier gave a transcription of a four-minute conversation
between two doctors talking about salt intake research. I took some time to count the unique words by category:

Nouns: 60
Verbs: 49
Adjectives: 60
Adverbs: 11
Pronouns: 10
Connecting words: 27

Total: 217

I'm amazed that a four-minute conversation used only 217 unique words. It's not even 300 that so many people
are frothing at the mouth about. Actually, it was pretty much in line with what I expected.

This is a conversation on a specific topic. The real question that everyone around here is dying to ask is: What
can you do with these 217 words other than talk about salt intake research? Aren't you limited to that one topic.
Doesn't 217 words give you a coverage of only 40% or less of some dataset of English vocabulary? And 40% is
pretty useless, isn't?

Well, are you really limited to one topic, outside of which you are totally dumbfounded? Not really. If you take
topics that are relatively related, there may be a large amount of shared vocabulary. So, for example, if the two
persons were talking about sugar, meat or fibre intake research, there would only be some small adjustments of
vocabulary.

On the other hand, as the domains move further and further apart, the common vocabulary will shrink as new
content-specific vocabulary is needed. So, the above set of 217 words will not be adequate for talking about the
development of the modern piano from its origins to the present day. No surprise.

This means that to talk about a wide variety of topics one needs a wide vocabulary. This is not surprising. What
we should keep in mind is that native speakers, just like language learners, do not know all the vocabulary for all
purposes. Our vocabulary reflects our centres of interest and our occupations. Most people going into a French
pastry shop could not probably name more than 10 pieces of pastry whereas the salesperson could name all 40
on display. How many people know all the different cuts of beef? Many vegetarians probably know none at all.

This does not prevent people from being native speakers of the language. They share a common knowledge of
the workings of the language, depending generally on their level of education. When they need more vocabulary
they get more. Start with 300 and expand from there.

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Serpent
Octoglot
Senior Member
Russian Federation
serpent-849.livejour
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Speaks: Russian*, English, FinnishC1, Latin, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese
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 Message 188 of 309
19 September 2014 at 1:24am | IP Logged 
Now try to write a few more conversations with the same 217 words and even 83 extra words total. Quite difficult even when writing in your native language, isn't it? Now how is a learner supposed to go about that? BTW, it's much easier to think in words than to keep stumbling (mentally) and using circumlocutions for pretty basic things. Do you expect the learner with 300 words to be able to think directly in the language?
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s_allard
Triglot
Senior Member
Canada
Joined 3825 days ago

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

 
 Message 189 of 309
19 September 2014 at 1:28am | IP Logged 
emk wrote:
...

s_allard wrote:
emk and others keep asking for a list of 300 words. I don't think there is a unique list. One
could take the words
for the conversation below and others that I've given as a starting point. I'm not sure what that will prove. Should
we compare such a list to the dataset of French film subtitles? And conclude that the coverage is only 43,5% What
does that prove?

That you can't watch movies with only 300 words?

...

I'll just modify this statement slightly. "That you can't watch all French movies with only 300 words." I agree
totally. I've had said this all along. Could you understand one French movie with 300 words? Probably not. But we
are not even talking about understanding French movies. We are talking about having conversations with 300
words or less. We have plenty of examples of that. I just gave one above.

Can you have an English conversation with 217 words? Yes you can, as I have shown above. Could you watch an
movie chosen at random in English with just those 217 words? Probably not.

I don't see how one can test what can be done with a given number of words other than by seeing how people
use them. Here, for example, is the list of the adverbs from the English conversation above:

quite, basically, too, pretty, whole, spot, forward, most, clearly, probably, hopefully

How do you go about testing what can be done with these eleven adverbs? I imagine one compares them to a
dataset of English adverbs and sees what kind of coverage one gets. Whatever that figure is, it doesn't change the
fact that this conversation used only these 11 adverbs.

Edited by s_allard on 19 September 2014 at 1:32am

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luke
Diglot
Senior Member
United States
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Studies: Esperanto, French

 
 Message 190 of 309
19 September 2014 at 1:40am | IP Logged 
s_allard wrote:
But the real elephant in the room here is the quality of the language in the conversation. This is not B1 level conversation. The speakers are not stuttering. There are no mistakes. Excellent fluency. Many examples of idiomatic French. How many HTLAL speakers of French as a second language can speak like this?

This is the major difference between emk and myself. emk says you need between 1,100 to 7,000 words to pass the test. Not a word about the quality of the French. I say you need to demonstrate quality and mastery with whatever vocabulary you can muster. Maybe it will be 150 or 300 or 500. The real issue is can you speak well.

We see in fact what native speakers can do a lot with less than 150 words. This is the real deal.


Back to the UFC analogy. You seems to suggest you can put an MMA amateur (B1 candidate)in the octagon with Georges St. Pierre, the champion, (native speaker), and the amateur will win the title (B1 exam) if he just fights like Georges. You ignore the world of difference between a native speaker and a B1 candidate when it comes to foreign language proficiency.

Edited by luke on 19 September 2014 at 1:41am

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s_allard
Triglot
Senior Member
Canada
Joined 3825 days ago

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

 
 Message 191 of 309
19 September 2014 at 2:15am | IP Logged 
When we look at vocabulary purely in terms of countable words, it is very hard to imagine how they can be used
in many different ways. Meaning and use are irrelevant. The only consideration is the statistical representation in
the sample. From this perspective, it is nearly impossible to imagine what can be done with a small number of
words. Here, for example, is a set of 31 unique words. Each one would be an Anki card. I've even cheated and
put them into categories.

way, paper,factor, lifestyle, pressure, salt, week, New England Journal of Medicine
speak, change, be, go
lifestyle, blood, your, obsessed, three, this, either
quite, rightly, kind of
you
so, of, and, with, there, in, the, on

What can you do with these words? If you look at a dataset of English words, you'll be discouraged. Some people
will say you can't do anything with 31 words because they hardly register in terms of text coverage. But here is
what someone did with those words.

"So speaking of lifestyle factors and changing your lifestyle and blood pressure, you are obsessed with salt, quite
rightly, and there are three papers this week in the New England Journal of Medicine on salt which kind of go
either way."

The reason people are obsessed with large vocabularies is because this seems like a quick fix to a more
fundamental problem of weaknesses in the other components of speaking performance. "If I only new more
words, my French or English would be better" is the mantra. The same words in the mouth of a A2 speaker and a
C2 speaker give different results because the skill level is higher. This is why two native speakers can easily
have a conversation with 217 words whereas two B1 speakers will be stuttering along.
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s_allard
Triglot
Senior Member
Canada
Joined 3825 days ago

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

 
 Message 192 of 309
19 September 2014 at 2:24am | IP Logged 
iguanamon wrote:
Surprised that no one has mentioned Benny Lewis' latest guest post on Fi3M by someone
named Frank Fradella who runs a commercial language course site called "lingvo interactive":
What You Can Do With The Most Common
300 Words In A Foreign Language?
. The post has little practical depth and the comments reflect that.

The post links to a kickstarter campaign the poster is running to promote this method with the audacious and
disingenuously hyped name of just-60-days-0">Learn a new language in just 60 days. Interestingly, if you donate at the $65 level you get
access to the course for a year. I thought you only needed 60 days! Here's what Mr. Fradella promises:

Frank Fradella wrote:
...LINGO 300 will not make you fluent. The road to true fluency can take months or
years, and we're not promising that you'll be able to fool natives with your new Jason Bourne-like abilities in two
months. You will, however, be able to hold up your end of basic conversations if you follow the program....Back
in 2007, I started working in the language industry as a blogger for a popular Chinese podcast. Two years later I
was living in China and working as the host and co-executive producer for what would soon become the #1 rated
educational podcast in the world.

I had spent nearly three years on my own listening to podcasts to teach myself Chinese, but I learned more in the
first two months living there than I did all that other time combined. Some people will call that obvious.
"Immersion learning trumps everything," they say. And yet I met a slew of expats in China who had been there for
years who still didn't speak Chinese. So what was the difference?

The difference was that I finally focused on just the words I needed. Looking back over the things I had studied
for the past three years, I found a program that took a long view to language learning (as they all do). They
assume that you're in it for the long haul, so they take their time giving you the good stuff.

LINGO 300 was born out of my experiences living in another language in a country where that language was
spoken. I know what those 300 words are because I used them nearly every single day. ...


The ultimate question is, will buying and doing this course leave a learner feeling satisfied and with a good, solid
base upon which to build, or dissatisfied with, and hobbled by, the artificiality of circumlocutions?

I've been on the forum long enough to see a few logs of people who decided to "learn" languages through
Swadesh lists who failed miserably, because that's all they did. They didn't learn how to use the words. It sure
looks tempting- learn the most common 300 words and gain 2/3 of the language, but is this "fool's gold"? Mr.
Fradella makes some good, legitimate points. Most courses do wait to (or never bother to) "give you the good
stuff". The question remains, is the "good stuff" he promises useful or just snake oil? I'm always open to a new
way of doing things, but I am not open to spending my hard earned money to try something unproven. Time will
tell if this start up will be successful and become the next "beloved" language-learning program. As President
Harry Truman said "I'm from Missouri. You have to show me".

Thanks to iguamon for the interesting link. I also thought the article was a little light on substance but I certainly
agree with the basic principle. I wonder if he got the 300-word idea from me, since I've been getting beat up here
at HTLAL for years on this issue. Just kidding.

The big difference, I think, between his approach and mine is probably the fact that I don't adhere rigidly to the
idea of the most frequent words. I would go with the most relevant words.


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