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How many words to speak?

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Iversen
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 Message 41 of 309
01 September 2014 at 3:53pm | IP Logged 
When I visited Tbilisi in Georgia in the late 80s I certainly didn't know 300 Russian words - more likely around twenty or thirty. But I stayed in a hotel at the Northern outskirts of the town and took some kind of train or metro to the Rustaveli station, and I remember that I actually had a conversation with some people in the train using those few words I knew. So it can be done in a pinch. The funny thing is that it bothers me more to miss a word in a language I almost speak than in one where I know that I'm an absolute dunce.

Edited by Iversen on 01 September 2014 at 3:54pm

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s_allard
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 Message 42 of 309
01 September 2014 at 4:40pm | IP Logged 
I really don't want to rehash arguments that we've had before. My main observation was basically how well a
hyperpolyglot was able to get by in so many languages. How in the world could he do this?

Compare this to that character on Chilean television a few years back who was badly embarrassed when
confronted with speakers of various languages. I forget his name. The big mistake this individual made was to
tell people they could ask him any question. People will, of course, ask difficult or tricky questions.

Marini had it much easier. A sympathetic crowd and pretty simple questions. This is not to say that all this was
easy. I certainly couldn't do this.

The lesson in all this, in my opinion, is that if speaking is your priority --it isn't always--then you have to study
speaking. OK, it sounds banal but what I mean is that speaking, reading and writing are very different skills. If
you want to speak, you should concentrate on materials designed for that purpose. More movies, television,
recordings with transcripts and tutoring. Less reading of literature, especially older writers, newspapers and
printed materials.

And above all, work hard on the basic core of language components that you will be using over and over again.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              
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emk
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 Message 43 of 309
01 September 2014 at 4:55pm | 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.

According to the research being done at testyourvocab.com, the median native 18-year-old English speaker who reads "lots", including lots of fiction, has a passive vocabulary of about 25,000 words. Sure, a native 15-year-old English speaker who reads "not much" can apparently get by with a passive vocabulary of about 10,000 words. But personally, I aspire to have a better command of le registre soutenu than an illiterate 15-year-old French speaker. Have you seen the way they write online?

Of course you also need a solid command of grammar, a good ear for idiom, and (in French) a deeply-ingrained understanding of what all those pronouns are doing in front of the verb. I'm sure there's somebody, somewhere who doesn't realize this. But I'm one of the people who keep recommending millions of words of reading, at least for people who want to make it to the advanced levels.

s_allard wrote:
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.

This is a pretty typical A2 interaction, and it can certainly be managed with a limited vocabulary, assuming the baker is patient and there aren't too many people in line. From the usual checklist:

Quote:
A2 Spoken Interaction

I can make simple transactions in shops, post offices or banks.
I can use public transport : buses, trains, and taxis, ask for basic information and buy tickets.
I can get simple information about travel.
I can order something to eat or drink.
I can make simple purchases by stating what I want and asking the price.
I can ask for and give directions referring to a map or plan.
I can ask how people are and react to news.
I can make and respond to invitations.
I can make and accept apologies.
I can say what I like and dislike.
I can discuss with other people what to do, where to go and make arrangements to meet.
I can ask people questions about what they do at work and in free time, and answer such questions addressed to me.

According to Milton's study, the typical A2 French student knows about 1700 of the most frequent 5000 words. (This method breaks down for B2 and above, because Milton only tested against a 5000 word dictionary, so it's obviously impossible for him to conclude that anybody, learner or native, knows 5001 words. But it's good enough for A2, which is still well below the ceiling effect.)

So, yes, if all you want to do is social pleasantries and shopping, you can get by with about 1500 words of French, according to the best available research on the subject. Used fluently, this could be entirely adequate for social integration in the more bilingual parts of Montreal's community, because code switching can cover a lot of weaknesses.

But let's consider your example again:

s_allard wrote:
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.

The very first time I went into a bakery in Quebec, and tried to order a baguette in French, I was carrying a copy of Bernard Werber's L'Arbre des possibles. The young man behind the counter was really interested by the book, and so he asked me, "So how is Bernard Werber's science fiction, anyway?"

So yeah, I can walk into bakery, order a baguette, and have somebody ask what I think about French science fiction. This is a thing that happens.

Obviously there's a nice conversation to be had here. It would go something like this: "Hmm. Werber's OK, and of course he's the most famous science fiction author in France these days. But honestly? His stuff is totally clichéd by anglophone standards, like he's trying to recycle plots from the 1920s or something. Try Beauverger, whose stuff would win awards from anglophone readers if it ever got translated. Or even Barjavel or Boulle."

This isn't an ultra-technical conversation. But if you want to say it fast and idiomatically, it's actually pretty demanding in terms of both grammar and vocabulary. (The expression décrocher un prix, for example, would be handy, if only because it doesn't sound like a literal translation from English.) It's actually harder if I haven't planned my answer in advance, because I wind up relying more heavily on nuanced vocabulary while I try to organize my thoughts.

Talking about books in any kind of detail quickly gets us up near the C1 range:

Quote:
C1 Spoken Interaction

I can keep up with an animated conversation between native speakers.
I can use the language fluently, accurately and effectively on a wide range of general, professional or academic topics.
I can use language flexibly and effectively for social purposes, including emotional, allusive and joking usage.
I can express my ideas and opinions clearly and precisely, and can present and respond to complex lines of reasoning convincingly.

I've never actually seen believable vocabulary estimates for C1, because Miller's study runs into that pesky ceiling effect. My personal guesstimate is that strong C1 passive vocabulary runs 10,000 to 15,000 headwords, or about the passive vocabulary of weak-to-middling native high school student.

Of course, it's perfectly possible to function in a language without reaching those more advanced levels—I think B1 is a terrific level—but sooner or later, if you carry on big parts of your life in your target language and you can't code switch, A2 eventually becomes unbearable.

But perhaps you disagree that a 1500-word vocabulary is really necessary for A2, despite Miller's survey's of typical A2 students. You keep mentioning 300 and 500 words. If 300 words will take you so far, why don't you actually pick them out, write down a list, and post it here? If you made an Anki deck with lots of example sentences, this would be a really valuable resource.

For example, I've been arguing for a while that students of Egyptian only need to know 150 to 200 signs to get started, so I went ahead and created an Anki deck with 165 signs. Anybody who doubts my claim can take my Anki deck and an Egyptian text, and they can quickly determine whether or not my claim makes sense. And as a bonus, people can use the deck to study.

If you create a list of 300–500 essential words in either English or French, I volunteer to find some simple, real-world conversations, and figure out how far such a limited vocabulary would take a student.
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outcast
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 Message 44 of 309
01 September 2014 at 5:06pm | IP Logged 
I'm a word and large vocabulary junkie so there is no hope for me.

But I agree you can speak a language reliably with only a couple thousand preponderant words, albeit sound a bit childish. That could prove a bit of a catch-22, since people that are polyglots by nature tend to be of an intellectual sort, and gravitate towards like intellectual people that speak their target languages (but not necessarily be polyglots themselves). You then wish to colloquy on matters with substance and (sometimes), the other party may dismiss you slightly due to your over-simplified speech. Or you cannot articulate with the precision and accuracy your points due to the low-frequency/technical vocabulary/jargon gap.
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Serpent
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 Message 45 of 309
01 September 2014 at 6:07pm | IP Logged 
s_allard wrote:
Compare this to that character on Chilean television a few years back who was badly embarrassed when confronted with speakers of various languages. I forget his name. The big mistake this individual made was to tell people they could ask him any question. People will, of course, ask difficult or tricky questions.

...

The lesson in all this, in my opinion, is that if speaking is your priority --it isn't always--then you have to study speaking. OK, it sounds banal but what I mean is that speaking, reading and writing are very different skills. If you want to speak, you should concentrate on materials designed for that purpose. More movies, television,
recordings with transcripts and tutoring. Less reading of literature, especially older writers, newspapers and printed materials.

And above all, work hard on the basic core of language components that you will be using over and over again.

He actually got a very simple question in Russian - which day of the week is it today? It's not a case of picking out a rare word, asking someone to translate it and declaring them a fraud if they can't, or even if they produce a translation different from the one in the dictionary.

That aside, let me just point out that priorities aren't set in stone. And "speaking" is too vague to be a priority for beginner. There are people for whom any speaking is NOT a priority, but this doesn't mean that it IS a priority for everyone else. For me, small talk isn't a priority. I hate it in my native language too, at least with people I barely know. Others might not consider anything BEYOND small talk a priority, if they know that deep conversations will happen in a different language anyway. There are endless possibilities and conditions, and you can't lump them together like that.

For me it's a priority to be able to have a conversation that is comfortable for both sides - no need to slow down or explain things using common vocabulary. Even this only becomes a priority when I travel, and if my level isn't enough, I just prefer the interactions/transactions to be simple and to the point. Basically, I don't consider mastering small talk a necessary step before having real conversations. I'm not even good at it in my native language and I have no interest in sounding native-like in superficial interactions.

I also think that one issue with aiming for sounding idiomatic is that the native wording often doesn't make sense until you've read some books and/or watched series/movies. You need to come across the wording many times before it feels natural and you can truly internalize it, and paradoxically, getting a larger vocabulary tends to help with that. Of course you need to use this large vocabulary at least receptively, but really, even monolingual dictionaries tend to use the longer/sophisticated equivalents to explain the idiomatic usage of common words.

You may not care about the passive vocabulary, but I insist that the "300 words claim" is incomplete. You can speak idiomatically and sound native-like in small talk if you master 300 words actively AND can understand at least 3000 words. That's what I'd agree with.

Edited by Serpent on 01 September 2014 at 6:14pm

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s_allard
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 Message 46 of 309
01 September 2014 at 7:33pm | IP Logged 
How much vocabulary do you need to speak French? I say that if you go into a bakery such Première Moisson in
Montréal or Poilâne, rue Cherche-Midi in Paris, you can get by with way less than 300 words. Now, of course, if
the person behind the counter asks you about existentialism because you have a book by Jean-Paul Sartre, all
bets are off. But I'm not talking about that. I'm talking about what it takes to buy a baguette in a boulangerie.

The argument I keep hearing is that the reason you need to have a huge vocabulary is that you never know when
it might come in handy. Sure, it would be good to know the all the parts of an automobile in French just in case
you end up in a garage, or all the names of flowers in case you find yourself on a farm, etc. But do you need to
know them to speak French? No.

Since some people are interested in French vocabulary and like to throw around wild figures, it might be
interesting to know how French schools deal with this vocabulary question. The French school system uses
something called l'échelle Dubois-Buyse that specifies according to a series of steps or échelons what words a
student should know starting from l'école primaire (échelons 1 à 7) right up to the lycée (échelons 40 à 42).

Here is a very interesting web page that looks at these questions:

Les 600 mots français les
plus utilisés


Here is what the author has to say about French vocabulary in use:

"D’après l’interprétation de l’échelle Dubois-Buyse [1], le vocabulaire fondamental du français écrit est, en fin de
3e, de 3 725 mots.

Certaines distinctions sont particulièrement intéressantes, et permettent de tenter un dernier bilan :

Vocabulaire quotidien et pratique : de 300 à 3 000 mots environ, selon l’individu.
Vocabulaire « de base » ou fondamental (vocabulaire actif) : 800 à 1 600 mots pour un élève de collège ou de
lycée et quelques 3 000 mots pour l’individu moyen.
Vocabulaire « passif » ou dit « de culture générale » : entre 2 500 et 6 000 mots pour un élève de lycée et
quelques 30 000 mots pour un public cultivé. "

Note that they are talking about 3,000 active words for the average person (l'individu moyen).

Also on this web page is a list of the 600 most useful words in written French divided up into three categories:
adjectives, nouns and verbs. I have had many requests for such a list. This is the one I recommend. What is
missing is a list of grammar connecting words but that's a pretty limited list.

Anybody who masters those 600 words well has an excellent foundation in French.

The fundamental point of disagreement between myself and word-counters is that I do not believe that speaking
performance is determined in a linear fashion by vocabulary size. Is it better to know 1,000 words than 500? Yes.
Does the person with 1,000 words speak twice as well than the person with only 500? No. Does the person with a
vocabulary of 10,000 words speak ten times better than the person with 1,000? No.

If vocabulary were so important in language performance, why does the CEFR not specify vocabulary size? There
is no recommended or necessary vocabulary size for the C2 test. If vocabulary were such a good indicator of
overall proficiency, then language testing would be very easy.

My argument is quality trumps quantity. It's not how many words you know - the more the better for sure - it's
what you do with them. For example, there are only 160 verbs on the list above. Out of a total of around 13,000
verbs in French. What is more useful, aiming for 5,000 verbs or really mastering the nuances of those 160
frequently used verbs? I believe that one should really have those 160 verbs down and then add to them. The
same for those nouns and adjectives. Have all this with a good solid grounding in grammar and you have a power
speaker in French who can say pretty much anything they want in French.

But wait a minute, people say, how can I talk about the technical differences between the Intel celeron and the
Intel I7 microprocessor chip families with only 600 words? It's not easy. You'll need more than 600 words. Will it
be easier with 10,000 words? Maybe yes, maybe no. Find the words you need. That's what the Internet and
dictionaries are for.

Let's take our top of the line C2 test candidate in French. What's their passive vocabulary size? Probably quite
high because of all their reading. Let's say 15,000 words. For the C2 speaking proficiency test, they are expected
to read a 1000-word text, give a 15-minute oral presentation on the contents and then have a discussion with
one or two examiners for 20 minutes.

What are the examiners looking for? Complexity of speaking, Fluency, Precision (lack of mistakes), and the abiliity
to engage native speakers.   Nowhere is it said that the examiners are looking for a specific number of different
words. How will the examiners know that you have an active vocabulary of 5,000 words when most of the words
you will use come from the 600-word list above?

What impresses examiners? As an examiner myself - not for the CEFR - I can say that it's nuances and shades of
meaning; the ability to play with words and a meta-awareness of language; the mastery of idioms; lack of
hesitation and, very importantly, lack of mistakes. Nothing irritates more than bad form: the wrong preposition,
verb form or poor choice of words.

Sure, vocabulary is important but you don't get more points for complicated terms. What counts is appropriate
vocabulary. And this vocabulary is given to you. Plus, if you know the language well, you can immediately
understand or derive from what you see. You don't have to come to the exam with your head full of all possible
words that can be used.

I can tell from experience that examiners determine the speaking level of a candidate after about a couple of
minutes because there is a basic consistency of proficiency. A candidate's grammar doesn't improve after five
minutes. The subjunctives missing in the beginning don't appear after later on. The searching for word doesn't
disappear. A great speaker is great from beginning to the end. A poor speaker is consistently poor.


Edited by s_allard on 01 September 2014 at 9:22pm

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s_allard
Triglot
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Canada
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 Message 47 of 309
01 September 2014 at 8:25pm | IP Logged 
I like facts and data. I know that many people believe you can't do anything with 300 or 500 words. At best you
must be a bumbling A2 and certainly not at C2 level with only 600 words under your belt. I won't say that you
should learn 600 words and then register for a C2 French test, but I'm always curious to see how native speakers
talk. Since emk and Cavesa read French, I've copied here another excerpt from that great site France bienvenue
that provides recordings of real conversation between native speakers and transcriptions.

In this particular excerpt, they are talking about Philippe starting to wear contact lenses. Two words a bit
technical are myope (myopic) and astigmate (astigmatic) that are easily understood. Then there is reference to
the CP or Cours Préparatoire of the elementary school system. Otherwise, nearly every single word in this
conversation
can be found in the 600-word list above. Most would even be in the 300-word list but I'm not as sure.

There is nothing here that anybody who has taken a class in French cannot understand or figure out. It's simple.
This what most French conversations sound and look like. Now, if you had two French nuclear physicists talking
informally about their work, would the conversation be very different? Of course, there would be differences of
vocabulary but I'm convinced that much of words would be nearly the same and certainly from that 600-word
list.

If this French is all so simple, how many speakers of French here at HTLAL can converse like the people here? Is
this A-2 level French grammar and vocabulary? If I listen to the recordings, would I rate these speakers as A-2?

A: Bon, Philippe, vous nous avez parlé l’autre jour, là, de ce que vous faisiez le matin et vous avez dit entre
autres (1) que le matin, il fallait mettre ses lentilles ! Donc vous portez des lentilles.
P: C’est ça, je les porte depuis cette année.
A: Oui. C’est tout récent, alors ?
P: C’est tout récent parce que j’arrivais pas* à les mettre dès l’année dernière (2).
A: C’est-à-dire les mettre, les en[...], les… les poser sur les yeux, quoi ?
P: Oui, et donc c’est parce que (3) en fait, je les… je porte des lunettes depuis le CP (4).
A: Ah oui ! Pourquoi ? Vous êtes quoi ? Vous êtes myope ? Vous êtes… ?
P: Je suis myope. Myope. Et…
A: Donc vous voyez pas* au loin.
P: C’est ça. Et je suis un peu astigmate aussi. Donc du coup, du CP jusqu’à… jusqu’à l’année dernière, je portais
des lunettes.
A: Oui.
P: Et…
A: Vous en avez eu marre (5)!
P: Bah… Ma… ma vue, elle s’est aggravée en fait. Je… Au début, c’était des lunettes de repos et au fur et à
mesure des années, ben ma vue, elle s’est aggravée donc j’ai préféré porter des lentilles. Comme ça, c’est moins
gênant.

Edited by s_allard on 01 September 2014 at 8:58pm

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Serpent
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 Message 48 of 309
01 September 2014 at 8:32pm | IP Logged 
And again you bring up CEFR and impressing an examiner.

If it's clear after one minute, then why are the interviews or presentations often 15 minutes long? Sure, the grammar won't improve magically, but if someone is nervous at first, they may well speak better as they get used to the situation and the examiner gets them to speak.

And once more: 1) it's not necessarily a quality over quantity debate 2) quantity goes a long way when there's no risk of switching to English. I'm not saying we should ignore all grammar and hoard more and more vocabulary, but there are tons of situations where knowing more words is more important than speaking idiomatically, accurately and fluently (ie with fluency).

Quote:
A poor speaker is consistently poor

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. - Leo Tolstoy


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