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How many words to speak?

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s_allard
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 Message 201 of 309
19 September 2014 at 3:08pm | IP Logged 
I think that iversen has got it partially right. People are way too worked up about this idea of passing a CEFR
exam knowing only 300 words. I seriously don't think that anybody will learn 300 words and then head off to a
B1 exam.

At this point in the discussion, some people are jumping in, see this figure 300 and make all kinds of wild
statements. If I may take a step back a bit and try to put this discussion in perspective, I'll just mention how this
whole things started.

I've always been struck by how conversational language generally uses a very small range of words. When I see
two natives of Mexico meet for the first time and engage in a 10-minute conversation, I don't see 500 unique
words being used. It's more like 150, if that many. Now, I consider myself an advanced learner of Spanish, with
hundreds of hours of listening, reading, studying and even speaking under my belt. But there is no way that I can
interact anywhere close to native-like with any Spanish-speaking person.

By all standards I have a large vocabulary in Spanish from my extensive reading. I have a repertoire of all kinds of
idiomatic expressions, many interesting words and a ton of verbs. But when it comes to participating in a fast-
paced conversation with natives, I'm left in the dust.

But it's not complicated Spanish. No fancy literary words. Just plain everyday words of people chatting. What's
wrong? Not enough vocabulary? No. Not the right vocabulary? A bit of that, especially the informal language. The
real problem is how to bring it all together and quickly produce smooth, connected and error-free speech with
good pronunciation. What natives can do with 100 unique words is vastly different from what I can do with those
same words.

I see the same problem every day with people speaking French. It is extremely rare to meet adult learners who
come close to reproducing the quality of speech of native speakers. Is vocabulary the problem? It's part of the
problem. What I find striking is the presence of mistakes that a native would never make, the lack of idiomatic
expressions, awkward word usage and difficulties of pronunciation.

When I observe conversations in French and even in English, I see that the vocabulary used depends on the
nature of the subject and not on the length of the conversation. I will use a certain vocabulary set professionally
and another set when talking with a relative over the phone for an hour.

When I transpose all these observations to a discussion of language learning and the assessment of proficiency,
plus lots of reading in the field, I've come to the conclusion that good speaking performance is a matter of
quality over quantity. The quantity is all the words that we can use. The quality is in the binding of the words
together and the actual enunciation.

I don't have to tell people here that speaking a language is a lot more than learning 300 words. Or even 5000. I
wish it were that simple. That said, I believe - and this is what has gotten me into trouble here - is that around
the 300 word level, and with the right components, a learner can start building meaningful sentences in the
language. And I'm not the only one saying this.

What has really created a fuss is my statement that one could have a sophisticated discussion, i.e. of the level of
a CEFR exam with 300 words. Well, I might just have said that the world was flat and that the law of gravity did
not exist. s_allard has gone too far. Prove it. Show me what you can do with 300 words. You can only talk about
one thing, and in the simplest of terms with lots of pantomime and grunting. God forbid the topic should change.

But I observe that native speakers have all kinds of discussions with less that 300 words all the time. I've given a
number of examples here, particularly two doctors discussing salt intake research in 217 unique words. Of
course, I'm well aware of the fact that they are discussing one subject only. This is one corpus, as iversen puts it.
Speaking a language involves using a variety of corpora. That we all agree on but the fact remains that the
discussion required only 217 words.

How many of us could have such a discussion in our target languages with the same level of fluency and
accuracy as those two persons? We may not be interested in salt intake research. Pick any subject and imagine
that you are being interviewed for a popular science program. I imagine some readers here will feel comfortable
doing this in other languages. Congratulations.

I certainly don't think I could do this easily in Spanish. But it's only the equivalent of 217 words.

I also gave a series of examples of French conversations with tiny vocabularies. The conversations may be short
but how many learners of French could speak French at this level of proficiency even with such small
vocabularies?

If I look at speaking exam situations, I see basically the same phenomenon. Despite the vast range of possible
subjects that one may be confronted with, actual speaking performance only requires a small vocabulary. That's
how natives use the language. In fact, vocabulary size counts for less than 20% of the mark at the B2 level.

Please, I hope nobody believes that I'm suggesting you should prepare for the B-level speaking exams by
learning 300 unique words. What I am saying however is that in the actual test, you might or probably use only
300 unique words. How well you put those words together is the real challenge.

The objection we see all the time is that you never know what subject might come up. Therefore you need more
than 300 words. Indeed, the 300 most common words of a language will only give you a low X% coverage of all
the subjects in the language. You would best prepare by having a very large vocabulary.

This is very true, but the plain fact remains that you will probably only use around 300 words in the test
situation. It's just that you don't have foreknowledge of which words.

In a sense we all agree. Learn an many words as you can. Where I disagree with some people here is that I
believe that the key to success is mastering the core, be it 300 or 600 components. This is the foundation of
that speaking proficiency that natives have in their everyday conversations. And since we often disregard this
core in pursuit of more vocabulary, we end up not being able to speak fluently and correctly.

Edited by s_allard on 19 September 2014 at 3:14pm

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Bao
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 Message 202 of 309
19 September 2014 at 3:39pm | IP Logged 
s_allard wrote:
This is very true, but the plain fact remains that you will probably only use around 300 words in the test
situation. It's just that you don't have foreknowledge of which words.

But isn't that what makes this part of the discussion rather ... pointless?
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Maecenas23
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 Message 203 of 309
19 September 2014 at 4:29pm | IP Logged 
To be laconic and precise in your speech - the first requirement you'll need is a big
vocabulary. You can't state to know the word unless you have a sophisticated
unarticulated knowledge of its relatedness to hundreds of other words. Language is like
Munchhausen - it pulls itself by its own hair out of meaninglessness of its single
parts by intertwining them with other meaningless parts and somewhere on this way the
meaning is created.Look at any dictionary entry.What you'll find there is
circumlocution - every word definition sends you to another definition and so on ad
infinitum. Word can function only through its vastly complicated connections in the
huge web of other words. There is no starting point in the language - it's not a
straight line, it's an ever expanding sphere. You'd achieve no fluence unless
sufficient number of word connections is established. You need, so to say, to know the
ways the words interact among themselves in different contexts, it makes you more
precise and efficient in their usage.
Also have you ever heard about the dialectical law of transition of quantity into
quality? I think it can be applied to the language learning in the first place. Quality
comes as a byproduct of quantity and you can't cheat on this law by studying 300 most
frequent words or in any similar way - it would be almost to no avail for your
understanding, not to mention, for your speaking.
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tarvos
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 Message 204 of 309
19 September 2014 at 4:33pm | IP Logged 
Jeffers wrote:
Iversen wrote:
I do think this is a misrepresentation of s_allard's
position. You can definitely survive as a tourist in an exotic country with just 300
words (trust me, I have been to places like China whee I couldn't even read the street
signs, and to places in the Arabic world where I couldn't even read the numbers). The
point where this discussion veered off into Absurdistan was when it was suggested that
you also could survive a CEFR test on 300 words. If that were true then nobody could
take the CEFR system seriously.


I don't think the problem is that people have misrepresented s_allard, I think the
problem is he is using his argument too widely. He makes the excellent point that you
can "speak" a language well with a small vocabulary. Someone else then legitimately
asks, "But could you pass a B1 exam?" and all hell breaks out. It would be cleared up
if s_allard would say something like, "no I'm talking about getting by, not passing an
exam," but he's trying too hard to accommodate the "can you pass an exam" objection.
In the end, I and others really don't know whether he really thinks that a student
could pass a B1 exam going in with 300 words.

I don't think anyone here disagrees with s_allard's two main points: 1. you can do
a lot with a small amount of words, and 2. speaking proficiency and accuracy are as
important (maybe more important) than vocabulary size.
The objection isn't to
this point; the objection is that most of us who are learning a foreign language want
to do more with it.

I don't like small talk, I don't like to ask people about the weather, and I overuse
the subjunctive in my native language because I like subtlety. I don't want to be
able to buy tickets and bread or hold a 3 minute conversation in French. I want to be
able to have a wide-ranging discussion which might start from a single topic but which
will soon veer off into any and all directions including science, religion,
literature, philosophy or Batman comics. That kind of freedom requires a lot of
proficiency, a lot of speaking and listening practice, and.... a lot of vocabulary.


So do I, but don't put the cart before the horse. One step at a time.
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Serpent
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 Message 205 of 309
19 September 2014 at 8:44pm | IP Logged 
s_allard wrote:
But it's not complicated Spanish. No fancy literary words. Just plain everyday words of people chatting. What's wrong? Not enough vocabulary? No. Not the right vocabulary? A bit of that, especially the informal language. The real problem is how to bring it all together and quickly produce smooth, connected and error-free speech with good pronunciation. What natives can do with 100 unique words is vastly different from what I can do with those same words.

I see the same problem every day with people speaking French. It is extremely rare to meet adult learners who come close to reproducing the quality of speech of native speakers. Is vocabulary the problem? It's part of the problem. What I find striking is the presence of mistakes that a native would never make, the lack of idiomatic
expressions, awkward word usage and difficulties of pronunciation.

When I observe conversations in French and even in English, I see that the vocabulary used depends on the nature of the subject and not on the length of the conversation. I will use a certain vocabulary set professionally and another set when talking with a relative over the phone for an hour.

When I transpose all these observations to a discussion of language learning and the assessment of proficiency, plus lots of reading in the field, I've come to the conclusion that good speaking performance is a matter of quality over quantity. The quantity is all the words that we can use. The quality is in the binding of the words
together and the actual enunciation.

...

In a sense we all agree. Learn an many words as you can. Where I disagree with some people here is that I believe that the key to success is mastering the core, be it 300 or 600 components. This is the foundation of that speaking proficiency that natives have in their everyday conversations. And since we often disregard this core in pursuit of more vocabulary, we end up not being able to speak fluently and correctly.

I'd say it's less about a core and more about a comfort zone: words&grammar that you are confident about, that you can use without worrying whether you're incorrectly using a word from a related language (I have this problem with Italian, Spanish, Polish..). But it's also hard to be confident if you literally only know 300 words, although as I've pointed out, you're unlikely to actually work with such learners.

But I perhaps disagree most when you draw the conclusion that if native speakers tend to use basic vocabulary in complicated ways, beginning learners should focus on that too. But why? It's much easier for a beginner to learn one more word than to learn a phrasal verb or idiom consisting out of words they already know, unless it's something trivial that they come across all the time (such as "get up"). It's often easier to learn more words than to really master the simple ones.

But I agree that we shouldn't ignore the power of the basic words either - I just think that for most learners, it makes more sense to learn it later on, just like it's already done. Speaking of that, you haven't addressed the point about your method requiring a teacher - and convincing said teacher that you really need the most multifunctional words first.

Also reminds me on the AJATT post saying language is like peeing. In the comments, someone also said that speaking from day 1, single-word cards etc are like diuretics. They can make you pee even when you're dehydrated, but that's harmful in the long run. I'd say the same applies to focusing on 300 words.
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s_allard
Triglot
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 Message 206 of 309
19 September 2014 at 9:59pm | IP Logged 
Jeffers wrote:
...

I don't think anyone here disagrees with s_allard's two main points: 1. you can do a lot with a small amount of
words, and 2. speaking proficiency and accuracy are as important (maybe more important) than vocabulary size.
The objection isn't to this point; the objection is that most of us who are learning a foreign language want to
do more with it.

I don't like small talk, I don't like to ask people about the weather, and I overuse the subjunctive in my native
language because I like subtlety. I don't want to be able to buy tickets and bread or hold a 3 minute conversation
in French. I want to be able to have a wide-ranging discussion which might start from a single topic but which
will soon veer off into any and all directions including science, religion, literature, philosophy or Batman comics.
That kind of freedom requires a lot of proficiency, a lot of speaking and listening practice, and.... a lot of
vocabulary.

I don't disagree with the idea of a wide-ranging discussion requiring lots of vocabulary. If your subjects demand
more vocabulary, you get it. My objection here is with the idea that a small vocabulary is only good for small talk.
We mustn't confuse a limited range of topics with a limited depth within a topic. You are not limited to a 3-
minute conversation in French by 300 words.

In fact here is an 8-minute discussion called How the Body Recognizes Viruses on medical crystallography from
the same great Australian radio station as the previous. When I have a minute, I'll do some preliminary analysis of
the vocabulary size. An interesting feature of this recording is the fact that Stèphanie Gras is from France and
makes quite a few mistakes in her Engligh. The recording can be heard here:

How the body recognizes viruses

ABC wrote:
Robyn Williams: And now we combine some of those last thoughts; lawyers, France and Melbourne.
Though Monash this time. Meet Stephanie Gras, whose field is X-ray crystallography, and whose hero is one
Lawrence Bragg.

I was telling you that a roomful of lawyers had never heard of Lawrence Bragg, do you find that surprising?

Stephanie Gras: It's a shame. It's not surprising, I don't think so, unfortunately, but it is a shame. He was one of
our great scientists for crystallography, but most importantly he is Australian. He was born in Adelaide and went
to the University in Adelaide, and with his dad they were working on X-ray diffraction and they won the Nobel
Prize in 1915.

Robyn Williams: In other words the anniversary is coming up next year.

Stephanie Gras: Yes, next year, and this year is the anniversary of the discovery of the X-ray that could be used
through crystals and that was by Laue in the same time.

Robyn Williams: How many people in France know about Bragg?

Stephanie Gras: Well, probably the crystallography community, which is quite big in France, but yes, I don't think
it is known by the public unfortunately.

Robyn Williams: Quel dommage!

Stephanie Gras: Très dommage!

Robyn Williams: And you've come here especially to continue this work on X-ray crystallography. What aspect?

Stephanie Gras: Medical crystallography. So I'm working on immunology and trying to understand a bit better the
immune system, and some of the greatest scientists in immunology are actually based in Melbourne, so…

Robyn Williams: Like Peter Doherty.

Stephanie Gras: Like Peter Doherty and Jamie Rossjohn who I work for. And so during my PhD in France I actually
read some articles and they were a very high level of science, and I thought why not sending them an email and
say that I actually came to Australia for my honeymoon with my husband and I was looking for a job after my
PhD. And three months later, here we are. I've been living in Australia since a bit more than seven years now.

Robyn Williams: And it wasn't disappointing?

Stephanie Gras: Not at all! No, the first time we came in Australia, after a week we just fall in love with the
country, it's just so beautiful. And in terms of work and of science it's so exciting, so it's a fantastic place to live
in.

Robyn Williams: What work specifically are you doing?

Stephanie Gras: I look at how our immune system is actually able to see viruses and very, very small particles of
the viruses, and how upon presentation of those small particles our immune system is able to detect them and to
kill them. My work is actually looking at the atomic level, so it's very, very tiny scales, and looking at how those
molecules interact together to produce a good immune response.

Robyn Williams: When you think you can have 100,000 viruses in a small drop of water, and when you think of all
the different kinds of virus, isn't our body clever to be able to spot them so quickly and deal with them usually.

Stephanie Gras: Yes, most of the time our body is doing a great job at actually seeing them and recognising what
is a virus and what is actually a healthy cell and making the difference between them. But viruses are trying to be
a bit more clever and trying to escape unfortunately, because that's kind of a little play of mouse and cat, and it's
which one is going to actually survive and go on with its life. So it's a real challenge that our immune system is
actually facing.

Robyn Williams: How do you get down to the atomic level to look at this?

Stephanie Gras: So we are actually making crystals, like for example if you look on your dinner table you would
have salt, those tiny shiny little particles are actually crystals of salt. So I do the same thing but with protein from
the immune system, so they are becoming those tiny shiny crystals of protein from the immune system. From
Monash, we are very fortunate that in Australia we have the Australian Synchrotron, so I just have to cross the
road from our laboratory. The Synchrotron is pretty much like a giant microscope. So with the regular microscope
you will see something big like a cell, and what I'm looking at, it is composing the cells, so it's really, really tiny,
tiny, and we need something very powerful like a synchrotron to do this.

Robyn Williams: With its X-rays.

Stephanie Gras: Yes.

Robyn Williams: So you've got these pictures, and…well, what do you find? Do you find that there are so many
different kinds of viruses, all different shapes?

Stephanie Gras: Yes, they are pretty much different shapes. So what we're looking at is actually tiny particles of
the virus because when the viruses enter inside our cells it got degredated into very small fragments, and those
fragments are presented to all our cells and actually presented to what we call T-cells, so the lymphocyte, and
those lymphocytes, they are actually the ones that will recognise the virus, and will say, well, this cell has been
infected and I need to destroy it. So what I look at is the complex between the receptor of those lymphocytes,
and peptide antigen from the viruses and the protein that is about to present those peptides.

So what we are looking at, for example, in the case of influenza or HIV is actually looking when the virus starts
mutating, how sometimes those mutations make that our T-cell won't see those new variants anymore, so they
will escape our immune system. And so we try to understand how they escape, not why they escape because
that's the primary role of the virus, trying to survive, but if we can actually challenge our immune system a bit
differently to make them respond to the variant.

Robyn Williams: So in other words, if you can imagine this invader coming in and the white blood cell, the T-cell
comes and takes a sniff and gets an idea of the shape and reports back to headquarters saying, yes, we've got
one of those, we know about those, bring out the troops. And of course then the virus mutates, as you said, and
changes, and so you've got to work out perhaps what that change might look like.

Stephanie Gras: Yes. So if we can predict those changes, because the T-cells, they need some time to actually be
very efficient and start dividing so there is more of them, so you've got this bigger army of cells ready to attack
those infected cells. And so to try to optimise our chance of getting those T-cells in place and very early on
during infection, we need to understand how they actually interact and how sometimes they fail to interact with
those variants of peptides.

Robyn Williams: Well, you mentioned HIV, and of course after the great big 2014 HIV AIDS conference, people
bemoaned the fact that there was still no vaccine, and with Ebola, which we are worried about at the moment,
still no vaccine. What do you have to do to crack it?

Stephanie Gras: Well, the work on HIV, even though a lot of people have been involved in the research on HIV, it
has been only 30 years of research, and in the research field that's not as many years as what we have on other
viruses. So even if the field is very active, there is still a lot of things we still don't understand about HIV. One
thing which is quite amazing is the rapid mutation of this virus. HIV can change 100,000 times faster than the
flu, and we need a new vaccine for the flu every single year.

Robyn Williams: 100 times faster?

Stephanie Gras: 100,000 times faster.

Robyn Williams: 100,000 times faster!

Stephanie Gras: In a day the number of new viruses HIV is able to produce in the human body is absolutely
staggering, and that's the real challenge because if we are to make vaccines, between the moment someone gets
infected and someone gets sick, the virus has already evolved. It evolves very, very rapidly. It's a virus that has an
enzyme that makes a lot of mistakes while replicating, and that makes a lot of new viruses. So it's a real
challenge to actually try to get a vaccine. There's a lot of work done on a neutralising antibodies at the moment
that is very promising, and the community and scientific community is so actively working on it. But it's a very,
very challenging virus.

Robyn Williams: Of course one of the nasty things that some of these viruses do is invade our DNA so that our
DNA actually makes them the viruses themselves.

Stephanie Gras: Yes, so the virus will actually get into our cells and use all our system to actually replicate itself,
create new viruses and go infect other cells.

Robyn Williams: It's like a science fiction horror story, isn't it.

Stephanie Gras: It is a bit, unfortunately, but the good side is that viruses are smart but I believe we are smarter
and we should definitely one day be able to crack it.

Robyn Williams: Well, I'm terribly pleased you came from France, thank you.

Stephanie Gras: Thank you very much.

Robyn Williams:100,000 times faster, that HIV mutation, faster than the flu virus, and that's bad enough, as you
can hear from my voice. Stephanie Gras is an ARC Future Fellow at Monash University.


Edited by s_allard on 19 September 2014 at 10:08pm

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luke
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 Message 207 of 309
19 September 2014 at 10:40pm | IP Logged 
s_allard wrote:
How the body recognizes viruses


A quick back of the envelope count is 453 unique "words".

tr -d '[:punct:]' transcript | tr '[:upper:]' '[:lower:]' | tr ' ' '\n' |sort -u|wc -l
453

This all reminds of why I use an SRS. My dad used to tell me, "Never wrestle with a pig, you'll both get dirty and the pig will enjoy it." We didn't live on a farm, so I never learned that lesson.

Edited by luke on 19 September 2014 at 10:53pm

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robarb
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 Message 208 of 309
19 September 2014 at 11:58pm | IP Logged 
s_allard wrote:

The
real problem is how to bring it all together and quickly produce smooth, connected and error-free speech with
good pronunciation. What natives can do with 100 unique words is vastly different from what I can do with those
same words.

I see the same problem every day with people speaking French. It is extremely rare to meet adult learners who
come close to reproducing the quality of speech of native speakers. Is vocabulary the problem? It's part of the
problem. What I find striking is the presence of mistakes that a native would never make, the lack of idiomatic
expressions, awkward word usage and difficulties of pronunciation.

...

When I transpose all these observations to a discussion of language learning and the assessment of proficiency,
plus lots of reading in the field, I've come to the conclusion that good speaking performance is a matter of
quality over quantity. The quantity is all the words that we can use. The quality is in the binding of the words
together and the actual enunciation.


But this is basically the holy grail of language learning. Most people can move to a foreign country, use the local
language as their primary language every day for decades, acquire thousands upon thousands of words during
massive exposure of all types to the language, and they still can't quite manage to get the "quality" skills quite
right. This is the real hard problem of language learning.

As far as I know there's no way to obtain those skills without massive exposure and use of the language. With
systematic study, you could get the grammar correct, but you won't interact in a fluent natural way. With
speaking practice you could get fluency, but the rest of quality wouldn't come until you'd listened to other people
talk for hundreds or thousands of hours, if ever. By learning words, you can get decent comprehension, but your
output will be poor. Pronunciation can be achieved by people skilled in vocal imitation, but obviously won't get
you very far on its own. The whole set of intangible skills simply can't be reached without massive training until
most parts of the language system become second nature (barring some claims that certain "geniuses" partially
circumvent this long process).

In all this, vocabulary is the easy part. It's basically the only part of language (well, maybe alongside writing
"properly" in which anyone, with enough hard work, can surpass a native speaker. Most language learners see
vocabulary as an integral part of their goal, since it's necessary to comprehend advanced speech/text in multiple
topics, and in certain situations it's necessary to use a rare word to get the effect just right. As for acquiring the
hard skills, you only need enough vocabulary to engage with the language over a prolonged period; the number
of words required depends on the type of situations in which you'll engage with the language. However, this
doesn't help us figure out how to get better at learning the hard skills.

P.S. The HSK level 3, which is rather generously equated with CEFR B1, holds the examinee responsible for 600
words. You can pass the exam without knowing all the words. At this level, the test materials are still significantly
simplified relative to normal conversational speech.

Edited by robarb on 20 September 2014 at 2:39am



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