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How many words to speak?

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fiolmattias
Triglot
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 Message 33 of 309
01 September 2014 at 6:23am | IP Logged 
s_allard wrote:
I think of
all the frustrated people who are trying to learn 20,000 words in their target language.
Good luck.


Why would that be frustrating? It is just 20 words/day in three years. If that is
frustrating to think about, then you are doing it wrong. Of course some have more time
for language practice than others, but 20,000 is not an "frustrating" number in itself.

Edited by fiolmattias on 01 September 2014 at 6:25am

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Iversen
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 Message 34 of 309
01 September 2014 at 10:25am | IP Logged 
We have had similar discussions before, and as usual I have to say that s_allard has a point: you can survive on a surprisingly small number of words – but only if those you have conversations with are willing and able to cut down on their vocabulary level to match yours. And native materials are a no-go land, even though each source may use a limited number of words. The problem is that outside Basic English publications and a few other special cases you don't know which words you will be confronted with, except that there is a core of very common words (including grammar words) which are present in almost all texts. But the rest of the words are so rare that you can read whole books without seeing them. On the other hand there are words which will be repeated again and again and maybe even explained in any book about some specific topic (like gardening or cooking), but these words will be near the end of any published frequency list, if at all there.

So there is an immense gap between the minimal number of words you can survive on (or write books in, as demonstrated by the Basic English project) and the number of words you need to be comfortable with native written materials. And in between we have a number of tresholds. I spent some time yesterday rereading the article of Ho and Nation about Unknown vocabulary density and Reading Comprehension, which was mentioned in an earlier thread – y'know, the one where the researchers had replaced a certain percentage of the words in a text sample with nonsense, beginning with the rarest words. And it struck me that their illustrations on p. 417-8 showed that with their batch of test questions even 100% known words only resulted in something like a score around 80 out of 100, whereas 90-95% words gave scores in the neighbourhood of 60%. Which basically means that good guessers might be able to get something out of a text with 20% unknown words (and bad guessers can't even understand it when they know all the words). With just 80% known words the scores hovered around 20, which probably is too low to be taken seriously.

Well, what does 90% known words then means? Well, as a preparation for my speech in Novi Sad I have made a graph based on the wordFORM frequencies at kilgariff.uk.com, and it shows that you need less than 2000 wordforms to cover 80% - or maybe some 1500 actual headwords – and around 4000 wordforms to cover 90%.

Why then the fuzz about 95-98%? Because there is a lot of difference between being able to answer some questions about a text and being able to understand virtually everything in it. Ho and Nation at p. 405 gives a rough estimate to illustrate this: 1% unknown words in an ordinary book means around 1 unknown word per 10 lines. So 5% unknown words means an unknown word every two lines or so – and there is a good chance that the unknown words were used for a purpose so that you can't just ignore them. They may even be among the most important words in the text. And now the high vocabulary tresholds from 5-10.000 or so headwords and up become relevant, because you need such vocabularies to have a chance to know 95% or more of the words even in a standard novel.

So you may need 10.000 (passive) words or more to read a book without a dictionary. But you don't need 10.000 (active) words to buy it.


Edited by Iversen on 01 September 2014 at 12:12pm

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smallwhite
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 Message 35 of 309
01 September 2014 at 10:36am | IP Logged 
iguanamon wrote:

Thanks for the link, s_allard. I would love to see you come up with a challenge for the membership along the lines of what Christina has done with her super challenge.


Or maybe s_allard can start writing posts with just the 300 core words.


-

Edited by smallwhite on 01 September 2014 at 10:37am

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Elenia
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 Message 36 of 309
01 September 2014 at 10:42am | IP Logged 
s_allard wrote:

Another fine example of this myth of how many words one needs to be able to speak. No
high school student has
ever used 20,000 different words. I won't address the methodology behind this number
right now, but I think of
all the frustrated people who are trying to learn 20,000 words in their target
language. Good luck.


Well, these 20,000 words could mean passive vocabulary. While I won't try to estimate
how many words the average high schooler anywhere knows, I would guess that
they'd need a wide range of vocabulary just to function well in school. My weekly
timetable during secondary school had sixteen subjects, all of which were compulsory,
as well as an extra hour a week during our first year where we were expected to sit in
the library and read silently. Naturally, there is a huge overlap in basic vocabulary,
but there would also be subject-specific words that students would have to learn and
understand. And then if you add in the more colloquial speak of the playground, talking
to family and older family members, watching TV and (maybe even!) reading books, I'd
imagine the passive vocabulary of a student is actually quite impressive.

--

I find the point of your original post quite interesting. I think if I had gone on my
year abroad with a vocabulary of three to five hundred words that allowed me to chat
idly with people around me, I may have made more native friends and enjoyed myself
more. I would have been able to learn more words in conversations with friends and
random natives, as you point out.

However, my academic results would certainly have suffered, and I would have found it
harder to learn in classes because the range and quality of my vocabulary would have
been completely different to what a university setting requires. I also think that
having only the vocabulary required for small talk and light conversation would mean
that I wouldn't be able to hold in depth and varied conversation on any topic of
interest to people my age. I would have trouble talking about films, books, romance,
what they did on their night out... So while three hundred is a nice place to start, it
wouldn't make for very satisfying conversation.
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Cavesa
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 Message 37 of 309
01 September 2014 at 12:50pm | IP Logged 
Well, had I gone for my month long stay in Spain with just 300 words, I wouldn't speak at all because everyone would just switch to English despite the overall low level of English there (even among university students). 300 is enough for small talk but not for any useful purpose. I think we are now being part of the long struggle between people who primarily learn languages out of pure interest or want to prove themselves or others they can speak the language vs. people who learn primarily to use the language for their purposes. Neither point of view is wrong, they are just different.

I think I had untangled sallards's web of thoughs just fine and we are just seeing more and more straw men and dead horse beating. Really, there is no point. Everyone has already agreed, years before this thread, that you don't need that many words to start speaking but you need a lot more to function in the language.

One thing I have noticed over the years. What holds most learners back is not "not being idiomatical enough". Their first priority, at least when it comes to "mainstream" learners, is to get understood in the situations they encounter, not to fake being a native. Usually, it is the low command of grammar AND/OR too small vocabulary that is the underlying trouble and complicates everything (proficiency, fluency etc.). You can hardly focus on advanced skills like being idiomatical when you get stuck over basic vocabulary (or basic grammar such as conjugation as well). And basic vocabulary is much closer to the 2000 words than 300.

Iversen explained well how it works. Musculation is just one of those many words that could be among your first 300 if you are an excited sportsman learning from a relevant list (and you are actually not likely to find a list so precisely tailored to your needs). But anyone else may spend decades without encountering it. And a person with a different native language than English or another one high intelligibility will have trouble with the word. On the other hand, a person doing such an activity may need the word way before finding it in any learning source like a frequency list.

I think the English native perspective is as well fogging the issue. An English/Spanish/Italian native can not only recognize but as well form lots of French words on top of the 300. All they need are the words in their native languages coming from the same roots and some knowledge of word formation. Such a word formation may lead to mistakes but the success rate (=forming a correct word without having encountered it in the TL first) will be quite high. A Czech native learning French as their first foreign language won't have such a huge advantage and a Mandarin native will have none.

And we've been forgetting a few points about the polyglots:
-It is extremely common for polyglots, for exemple Benny, to have varied levels in their languages. So all those word counts of how many words summed up they'd have to learn are doomed to be far from reality.
-Another influence is the personality of the polyglots and their goals. While some make videos with awesome nativelike smalltalk, others focus more on reading (such as professor Arguelles) or on more practical skills than just smalltalk (Benny's living in the country for three months). Some are more of extroverts, others need to have a longer silent period etc. So, saying that everyone could speak otherwise perfectly with just 300 words just because some of the polyglots can, that's like saying everyone can become a great singer just because Freddie Mercury could.
-I highly doubt a polyglot showing such a great level of speaking skill knows only 300 words. Firstly, polyglots are usually people with the largest vocabulary learning discount from their previous languages (unless the polyglot learns several totally unrelated ones of course). Secondly, by the time they show us the results, they've been surely exposed to many more words than the 300. Or do you think they learn their 300, tell themselves "this is enough, I need to stop and work on my grammatical and idiomatical skills separately now"? :-D
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s_allard
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 Message 38 of 309
01 September 2014 at 1:10pm | IP Logged 
A lot of arguments to cover. Perhaps the most important is the one that you need somewhere between 10,000
and 20,000 words to read a book in a language. Another variation of this argument is that high school students
in North America have a vocabulary of 20,000 words and that should be our goal. I have seen figures that say
that cultivated speakers of French know around 30,000 words.

Similarly, we see figures saying that in order to understand a novel you need a vocabulary of at least 10,000
words because that is what will give you the coverage of 98% that is required for good comprehension.

Before I look at how these figures are calculated, I want to return briefly to the observation in my original post.
Emanuele Marini, our hyperpolyglot, speaks in 15 different languages to different people. Does Marini know
10,000 words in each of those languages? Maybe he does, maybe he doesn't. But I don't see him stumbling, I
don't see him searching for words. I don't see him asking people to repeat their questions.

Of course, somebody could ask Marini in Russian about deep brain stimulation in the treatment of Parkinson's
disease and Marini might get stuck. Does that prove that Marini can't speak Russian? Maybe he is just a charlatan
and has just memorized a couple hundred phrases. It doesn't look like that to me. All I'm saying is that Marini
seems to be getting along fine in all his languages.

Let me remind people --and Iversen knows this very well-- how all these vocabulary size studies work,
particularly the ones conducted by Paul Nation and colleagues. If you take a sample of texts, either novels, non-
fiction, academic articles, films, cartoons, etc., each one will have an individual range of vocabulary. If you look at
the aggregate vocabulary of the sample, the range becomes large.

When Nation says you need 10,000 words to read novels in English, he is not saying that every book contains
10,000 different words. He is saying that to read all the books you need all those words. Any individual book
contains much less. On the other hand, since you don't know in advance what book or text you will be reading,
you would be best prepared by knowing 10,000 words.

All of this is certainly true. But to read Harry Potter and the Philosophical Stone, you may only need 4,000 words.
And if you really like this style, you could probably read all the Harry Potter books with maybe 5,000 words
because the author tends to use certain vocabulary. But if you go from Harry Potter to a 19th century novel like
Treasure Island, you will be in for a shock because the vocabulary is very different.

That's fine for literature. The big question now is how many words do readers use in their writing? How many
posters here at HTLAL have ever measured how many different words they use, especially when s_allard gets
them all riled up? Iversen knows a thing or two about this, but I would be surprised if most people used more
than 2,500 different words. That high school student may have 25,000 words swimming around in their head,
they will most likely use closer to 3,000 different words in their writing, if that many.

Now let's look at the spoken language. We have fewer studies of spoken language but we can apply the same
logic. If we take a sample of conversations of people in similar situations - let's say people ordering at a
MacDonald's restaurant - the aggregate sample will show relatively large variation but a given speaker only uses
a small number of words. The person working at MacDonald's hears all these variations but you the individual
speaker only needs to know your small individual subset. You shouldn't worry that the person behind the counter
might ask you if you need a CAT scan with your big Mac.

And since people seem to get this wrong, I will repeat it: I'm not saying that a small vocabulary should be one's
goal when learning a language. I don't know where this idea comes from. I think 10,000 words is great to know;
20,000 would be even better. The sky's the limit. I'm only saying that in French, 300 will get you started, and
you can enjoy yourself with 500 to 1,000 on your way up to whatever goal you may have.

On the other hand, if you are waiting to learn 20,000 words at the rate of 20 words a day before speaking
French, frankly you are in for a long and frustrating ride. By the same token, if you take a 6-week intensive
French class at Middlebury College, Vermont, USA, you will sign on to the Middlebury Language Pledge that says
you must use your target language exclusively on campus. In other words, you will start speaking French
immediately, more or less. At the end of six weeks, you will actually be able to speak around an A-2 level, if not
better. Not bad.

I'll also repeat that common observation: a huge vocabulary does not guarantee that you can have a fluent
conversation about mundane subjects.

To come back to Mr Marini who may be wondering what the fuss is all about, here we have a superb example of
how all this works. I do not believe that Marini knows 20,000 words in 30 languages or even 15. So what? He
doesn't claim to. What I believe he has done is master the core components of each language and how to
leverage this knowledge in many situations. I'm sure that Marini knows his limits and is certainly not afraid of
asking his interlocutors for help. Iguanamon alluded to this. One of the first things you should learn in a
language is how do ask for words.


I find this very admirable and awe-inspiring but it's neither magic nor miraculous. It's a lot of hard work and
smart thinking.

Edit: This was written before Cavesa's last post.



Edited by s_allard on 01 September 2014 at 1:53pm

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s_allard
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 Message 39 of 309
01 September 2014 at 1:49pm | IP Logged 
Cavesa wrote:
...
And we've been forgetting a few points about the polyglots:
-It is extremely common for polyglots, for exemple Benny, to have varied levels in their languages. So all those
word counts of how many words summed up they'd have to learn are doomed to be far from reality.
-Another influence is the personality of the polyglots and their goals. While some make videos with awesome
nativelike smalltalk, others focus more on reading (such as professor Arguelles) or on more practical skills than
just smalltalk (Benny's living in the country for three months). Some are more of extroverts, others need to have a
longer silent period etc. So, saying that everyone could speak otherwise perfectly with just 300 words just
because some of the polyglots can, that's like saying everyone can become a great singer just because Freddie
Mercury could.
-I highly doubt a polyglot showing such a great level of speaking skill knows only 300 words. Firstly, polyglots
are usually people with the largest vocabulary learning discount from their previous languages (unless the
polyglot learns several totally unrelated ones of course). Secondly, by the time they show us the results, they've
been surely exposed to many more words than the 300. Or do you think they learn their 300, tell themselves
"this is enough, I need to stop and work on my grammatical and idiomatical skills separately now"? :-D


Sometimes I think that people deliberately try to not understand what I write. I love this quote:

"Or do you think they learn their 300, tell themselves "this is enough, I need to stop and work on my grammatical
and idiomatical skills separately now"?"

This is why some people get into such a huff for nothing. Who in the world said this? Sometimes I believe that if I
say the sun rises in the morning, somebody will say that s_allard claims that the sun does not exist.

Do I really need to repeat that I have always said that 300 is a threshold to begin speaking French? And I didn't
pick that figure out of my backside. It's from a group of teachers of French. And if people take the time to
actually read what I write, they will see that I believe that great grammar and good pronunciation are a must to
working with a small vocabulary.

The funny thing about all this is that most people around here know exactly what I'm talking about because they
have experienced it. You can go into a bakery with a small vocabulary in your target language and be properly
served. The person behind the counter will ask you something along the lines of "What would you like?", "What
can I get you?", "Have you been served?" For heaven's sake, the person will not ask you about the molecular
structure of the Ebola virus. As part of your 300-word repertoire you should know how to say "I would like" or
"Give me". Maybe the person will say "Anything else?" or "Will that be all?" and so on.

There are all sorts of possible complications, but that's the basic interaction. How complicated is that?

What I do see, on the other hand, is people who have literally studied French for years and are unable to order a
bottle of juice in a café. At the same time, I recently met a young woman from China who had been studying
French for just a month and could get by quite well indeed. What was her secret? She knew how to actually use
what she had learned.

I have no doubt that most polyglots know more than 300 words in their various languages. Well, I'm not so sure
about that. Maybe language 29 or 30 is limited to 300 words. But the interesting thing is that those polyglots can
probably do more with 300 words than most people with 3,000 words.

Edited by s_allard on 01 September 2014 at 4:04pm

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Serpent
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 Message 40 of 309
01 September 2014 at 3:39pm | IP Logged 
s_allard wrote:
But the interesting thing is that those polyglots can probably do more with 300 words than most people with 3,000 words.

Not most HTLAL'ers. Again, wrong target audience. Many here love learning grammar. And those who don't generally admit it's a necessary evil for them/find creative ways to learn it.

Also, expanding on what Cavesa mentioned, a polyglot who already speaks Spanish and learns Portuguese can of course do great with 300 words. But in a language where they didn't get a discount on comprehension, it makes far less sense to basically run into a battle unarmed. For most of us who are not learning English/French in Canada, comprehension doesn't take care of itself. Otherwise there would be no Super Challenge or Tadoku. And if you need to work on your comprehension, your active vocabulary will be more than 300 words too.

Edited by Serpent on 01 September 2014 at 3:40pm



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