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How many words to speak?

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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 57 of 309
02 September 2014 at 1:59pm | IP Logged 
robarb wrote:
s_allard wrote:

Measuring productive vocabulary size is very difficult. I invite people to try. It's a project I have for my retirement
years. What we do know is that, depending on profession and social activities, active vocabularies range around
500 to 3,000 words in English. For example, I estimate that my own productive vocabulary in English here at
HTLAL must be around 2,000 to 2,500 distinct words. I didn't count them; heavens no. I simply said that I must
come in somewhere under Iversen who is the only person I know around here who has done such a count.


While I agree with the sentiment of your post, your figures are simply off. Even if you count only the words a
person actually has used in the past five years, ignoring the ones they could use but haven't recently or haven't
yet, and not double-counting inflections, native speakers simply use far, far more than 500-3000 unique words.

Here is a link to a list of the 5000 most frequent word
stems in an English corpus. The corpus contains a lot of texts that aren't representative of a typical speaker
('federal' appears before 'thank'), but most of the 5000 are words most people use. Above the 3000 mark are
such commonplace words as 'store', 'meter', 'fifty', 'organic', 'cow', 'loud', 'helicopter', 'crash', 'awful', 'boyfriend',
'rip', 'mud', 'guitar', 'pork', and 'stereotype.'

Yes, people don't actively use all of the tens of thousands of words in their passive vocabularies. No, the range of
active vocabularies is not anywhere near as low as 500-3000. I do agree it's hard to measure, so I won't give a
speculative estimate of what I think it is. What's not as hard to do is provide a lower bound for a person's active
vocabulary- Just take a sample of their speech or writing and count the unique words. I guarantee you, it does
not take a large sample to get to 1000. And for every word used frequently enough to get in that sample, there
are many rare words.

...

The problem here is that once again we see people confusing an aggregate list of common words with what they
actually use. That list represents the sum of the most common words from a (large) sample of probably written
texts. The real question is: how many of those do you use in your daily life? Does every speaker of English use
regularly all those 5,000 words? If we were to record every word you spoke for a month, would all those words
show up? Do teenagers use all these words? Probably not.

When I look at the list, all the words are familiar but I can't remember the last time I used "doll", "plaintiff",
"bronze", "kneel", "nationwide". "hazard", "custody". "diary" because I have not had the occasion to use them.
Sure, we may be familiar with thousands of words, but how many do we actually use in our daily lives?

Many people do not write a lot in their daily lives because of the nature of their jobs. Others write a lot. Some
people work in word-heavy professions. Most people do not. Those people with young children will use children-
related words. Those without children might know the words but never use them. If you have an automobile, you
use automobile-related words. If you have a bicycle, you use bicycle-related words.

We never have the occasion to actually record and measure our word output. If you were to look at all your e-
mails of the last two years or all your posts at HTLAL, I'm not sure that you will get to over 3,000.

When I say that my own active vocabulary in English is around 2000-2500, I specified "here at HTLAL". It means
exactly that. If I look at that 5,000-word list, I would say that most never appeared in my posts because of the
nature of the subject matter.
1 person has voted this message useful



s_allard
Triglot
Senior Member
Canada
Joined 3825 days ago

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

 
 Message 58 of 309
02 September 2014 at 2:18pm | IP Logged 
robarb wrote:
...

From a language learner's perspective, 1000 words is simply not enough to say anything the normal way,
although you can get almost any idea across with much circumlocution.
3000 words is probably enough to sound
pretty normal. For most speakers, a little idiomatic variety and the occasional need to talk about something
unusual pushes it to somewhat more than that. For writers, professors, journalists, people who like to debate,
people who use technical language, or people like me who pepper their writing with the occasional word that's a
tad uppity, it's much, much more.


Where does this figure of 1,000 words not being enough to say anything the normal way come from? What I think
happens is people look at a list of words, take the first thousand and say "You can't do anything with that".

Let's take a different approach. Let's record a conversation and see how many different words are used. I think
people would be surprised.

Can you have a 30-minute conversation with less than 1,000 words? Of course you can. We do it all the time.
Much of our speech is very repetitive.

I have given two snippets of conversations in French where I estimate not more than 200 different words were
used in each conversation.

Because they are so obsessed with the number of words, people forget that it's what you do with the words that
counts not the number of words you have. In languages like French or Spanish mastering the very rich verb
conjugation systems is paramount. A hundred verbs well learned in French will take you a long way in daily
interactions with native speakers.

Instead of thinking of what you cannot do with a thousand words, you should be observing how people actually
use the language. You can go to a market and enjoy interacting with the vendors on a lot less than a thousand
words. The problem is that you have to know what you are doing.
2 persons have voted this message useful



eyðimörk
Triglot
Senior Member
France
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Joined 2494 days ago

490 posts - 1157 votes 
Speaks: Swedish*, English, French
Studies: Breton, Italian

 
 Message 59 of 309
02 September 2014 at 2:24pm | IP Logged 
s_allard wrote:
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.

How is that even a useful measure for anything, though?

My husband and I have a Swedish debit card that we use when we visit Sweden and while driving through Europe, because unlike our French cards spending money abroad does not incur any fees on this card. This card is in my name. This is relevant, because German autobahn petrol stations are the only ones that even occasionally check your ID, meaning that I am often forced to go inside, say hello, tell them the number of our pump, pay, and leave.

I do not speak German. In the car, I have my husband prep me with sufficient phrases to get me through the experience. How many words does it take to buy petrol? Let's say that I am fairly polite.

Guten
Morgen
Pumpe
nummer
#
bitte
Danke
Auf
Wiedersehen

That's eight words, plus the numbers one through ten. Eighteen words. Maybe nineteen with ID/Identifizierung (or whatever the right word it).

Ah, yes, but what if they say something back? Sometimes they do. Nine times out of ten I don't need to understand a thing they say in return, because I can guess from their gestures what they want from me ("Go ahead and put your card in", "No, that's the wrong way to put your card in"). Sometimes they are being pleasant and I have no clue what they're chatting at me about, but they seem perfectly content that I just smile... and those are situations I had having just moved to France at a B1-ish level.

So, is it even useful to talk about needing a certain number of words for these situations?
7 persons have voted this message useful



s_allard
Triglot
Senior Member
Canada
Joined 3825 days ago

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

 
 Message 60 of 309
02 September 2014 at 2:44pm | IP Logged 
In my last post about using 1,000 words, I hope I did not give the impression that I believe that 1,000 words is all
you should learn, This is something I keep hearing all the time.

But this raises the fundamental question of what I call quantity vs quality, especially within the context of the
CEFR exams. The common myth is that you need a huge active vocabulary to attempt something like the C2 level
test in French.

I have already pointed out that vocabulary size is not even one of the five assessment criteria for oral proficiency.
If you come into the exam with the idea that you'll be able to show off that 15,000 word list that you've
memorized you are doomed.

One important criterion is accuracy. This basically means absence of mistakes. First of all, this means getting all
those pesky verbs forms perfect, or, if you make a mistake, recognizing and knowing how to correcting it. This is
very impressive.

Accuracy means getting the grammatical gender agreements right. This is extremely important because this is a
key feature of French.

Accuracy also means avoiding distorsions introduced by the influence of your first language. Watch out
particularly for those faux amis or false friends. You want to demonstrate that you speak French the way the
French speak it and not as a foreigner does.

How does vocabulary size enter into all this? There's nothing wrong with lots of vocabulary, but size is not a
factor at all here, Quality beats quantity all the time.

Edited by s_allard on 02 September 2014 at 2:56pm

1 person has voted this message useful



s_allard
Triglot
Senior Member
Canada
Joined 3825 days ago

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

 
 Message 61 of 309
02 September 2014 at 2:55pm | IP Logged 
eyðimörk wrote:
s_allard wrote:
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.

How is that even a useful measure for anything, though?

My husband and I have a Swedish debit card that we use when we visit Sweden and while driving through Europe,
because unlike our French cards spending money abroad does not incur any fees on this card. This card is in my
name. This is relevant, because German autobahn petrol stations are the only ones that even occasionally check
your ID, meaning that I am often forced to go inside, say hello, tell them the number of our pump, pay, and
leave.

I do not speak German. In the car, I have my husband prep me with sufficient phrases to get me through the
experience. How many words does it take to buy petrol? Let's say that I am fairly polite.

Guten
Morgen
Pumpe
nummer
#
bitte
Danke
Auf
Wiedersehen

That's eight words, plus the numbers one through ten. Eighteen words. Maybe nineteen with ID/Identifizierung
(or whatever the right word it).

Ah, yes, but what if they say something back? Sometimes they do. Nine times out of ten I don't need to
understand a thing they say in return, because I can guess from their gestures what they want from me ("Go
ahead and put your card in", "No, that's the wrong way to put your card in"). Sometimes they are being pleasant
and I have no clue what they're chatting at me about, but they seem perfectly content that I just smile... and
those are situations I had having just moved to France at a B1-ish level.

So, is it even useful to talk about needing a certain number of words for these situations?

I can't agree even more. That fact that you can buy petrol with 19 words of German and lots of smiles
underscores my point that 300 words will get you a long way.

Similarly, you probably don't need more than 20 words to buy a baguette in a French boulangerie, unless of
course a really chatty salesperson decides to start a conversation on the latest developments in the field of
lithium-ion batteries.
1 person has voted this message useful



rdearman
Senior Member
United Kingdom
rdearman.orgRegistered users can see my Skype Name
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881 posts - 1812 votes 
Speaks: English*
Studies: Italian, French, Mandarin

 
 Message 62 of 309
02 September 2014 at 2:57pm | IP Logged 
robarb wrote:

Here is a link to a list of the 5000 most frequent word stems in an English corpus. The corpus contains a lot of texts that aren't representative of a typical speaker ('federal' appears before 'thank'), but most of the 5000 are words most people use. Above the 3000 mark are such commonplace words as 'store', 'meter', 'fifty', 'organic', 'cow', 'loud', 'helicopter', 'crash', 'awful', 'boyfriend', 'rip', 'mud', 'guitar', 'pork', and 'stereotype.'


This a frequency list for American English. Because I found it hard to believe the word Federal comes before Thanks in the UK, Australia, or New Zealand. So after a quick search for words typically misspelt by Americans I found a large number of them; colour, tyre, centre, and others were all spelt incorrectly. So this isn't a corpus of English, but rather a dialect of English.

:D

1 person has voted this message useful



Serpent
Octoglot
Senior Member
Russian Federation
serpent-849.livejour
Joined 4992 days ago

9753 posts - 15777 votes 
4 sounds
Speaks: Russian*, English, FinnishC1, Latin, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese
Studies: Danish, Romanian, Polish, Belarusian, Ukrainian, Croatian, Slovenian, Catalan, Czech, Galician, Dutch, Swedish

 
 Message 63 of 309
02 September 2014 at 3:15pm | IP Logged 
s_allard wrote:
This is important in terms of your preparation strategy. How do you best use your time? Do you spend four hours a day flipping through your 10,000-card deck Anki deck? Do you read newspapers and books six hours a day? Or do you spend two hours a day with a tutor going over sample questions? I have nothing against Anki, maybe not fours a day. Maybe more like one hour a day. Lots of reading of course.

1. reach the level in question
2. become familiar with the format

C1 can definitely be passed without any special preparation, although maybe not in the "diploma" kind of exams. I also tend to think that for C2 living in the country is more important than tutors, although for the big languages you can "fake" that with the help of a tutor.

Quote:
Above all, you want to practice talking with and getting correction from a professional tutor. You know what the assessment criteria are. So you work along those lines. You know that idiomatic expressions are important, so you work on that.

Honestly, if a CEFR exam above B1 can be passed by someone who only knows 1000-2000 words actively, that's a flaw of the exam, not an argument for discarding the less common words.

Also, the assessment criteria are not a divine gift. Even those who want to pass an exam also want to fit ordinary native speakers' assessment. There are very few HTLAL'ers who care more about passing exams than actually interacting with native speakers. I suppose many don't even care about impressing natives, they just want to communicate. And while the various tricks can make your speech more neat and pleasant, they generally do little for making communication effective.

And honestly, even at an exam, do you think it's possible to do pass B2 or higher without knowing the words you mentioned? You don't need to know all of them, but if you don't use ANY words of this kind, you're going to sound like a diligent beginner. In fact, unless you "show your stuff" (Shekhtman) an examiner will probably drive you into a situation where you just have to use an advanced word, to give you a chance to show that you know it and to expose a hole in your vocabulary if you don't.
4 persons have voted this message useful



eyðimörk
Triglot
Senior Member
France
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Joined 2494 days ago

490 posts - 1157 votes 
Speaks: Swedish*, English, French
Studies: Breton, Italian

 
 Message 64 of 309
02 September 2014 at 3:57pm | IP Logged 
s_allard wrote:
Similarly, you probably don't need more than 20 words to buy a baguette in a French boulangerie, unless of course a really chatty salesperson decides to start a conversation on the latest developments in the field of lithium-ion batteries.

You don't need that many. When I was eight my parents gave me 10 francs and taught me to say

Bonjour
Une
baguette
s'
il
vous
plaît
Merci
Au
revoir

10 words. Off I went to the bakery on my own. If I didn't want a baguette, I picked a bread that wasn't behind the counter.

But how useful is it really to count how many words you need to get through a particular situation?

I can with some practice evidently handle some German situations but I don't speak German and it's not even a start towards speaking German. There is no composition whatsoever involved, only parroting. There is no, or next to no, comprehension necessary. In many of these cases, the words are just there out of politeness. You might as well have mostly pointed. In fact, I have neighbours who've gotten by with "Bonjour" and pointing for almost 20 years.

So, aside from illustrating that it's easy to get by on next to nothing, what do we achieve by counting/estimating very specific situations? Even if we add them up later? Being able to produce a certain number of words, even in an appropriate situation, does not necessarily a speaker make. A survivor, yes. Someone who makes do, yes. A possible starting point, yes. Speaker? I'm very hesitant to say that.

I don't know if it's even useful to discuss how many words people "need" in general because the words people need vary immensely. A tourist in Paris can get by fine without knowing the word "boue" (mud) I suspect, but if you're driving in Brittany in the autumn you'll have warning signs everywhere. Would your base vocabulary contain words like "chaussée", "déformée" and "deviaion" because those are essentially daily words as well and you get by fine without knowing them, until one day you don't. NB! I'm not trying to imply that you don't speak French if you don't know the words "chaussée déformée" by heart, just that what words are useful and necessary to get by and function in society is highly individual.

Edited by eyðimörk on 02 September 2014 at 3:58pm



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