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How many words to speak?

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s_allard
Triglot
Senior Member
Canada
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Speaks: French*, English, Spanish
Studies: Polish

 
 Message 65 of 309
02 September 2014 at 4:38pm | IP Logged 
I'm not a big fan of counting words in general because I think the definition of a word is too difficult. The reason
this whole debate started, readers will recall, is that I observed this video of hyperpolyglot Emanuele Marini
speaking 15 languages very briefly and I remarked that it demonstrated that one could speak a language with a few
words. The debate has since morphed into a running battle between minimalists (myself) and maximalists (nearly
everybody else) over how many words one needs to speak a language. But the fact remains that we don't know how
many words Marini knows in 30 languages. And who cares?
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luke
Diglot
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United States
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 Message 66 of 309
02 September 2014 at 5:31pm | IP Logged 
s_allard wrote:
The reason this whole debate started, readers will recall, is that I observed this video of
hyperpolyglot Emanuele Marini speaking 15 languages very briefly and I remarked that it demonstrated that
one could speak a language with a few words.


I don't understand why you would have expected a lot of different words in a 13 minute video that covers 16
languages.
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s_allard
Triglot
Senior Member
Canada
Joined 3913 days ago

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Speaks: French*, English, Spanish
Studies: Polish

 
 Message 67 of 309
02 September 2014 at 6:22pm | IP Logged 
Since it would be unfair for everybody else for me to repeat much of the discussion just for people who have
come late to the party and don't know what we are talking about, I'll move on to a topic raised earlier about how
and why examiners are able to judge a candidates in just a few minutes. As a matter of fact, in the following
document from the University of Cambridge.

Examples
of speaking performance levels A2 to C2


there is an Appendix A: Global Oral Assessment Scale. At the bottom of the page, it is written:

"Use this scale in the first 2-3 minutes of a speaking sample to decide approximately what level you think the
speaker is.
Then change to Table 5.5 (CEF Table 3) and assess the performance in more detail in relation to the descriptors
for that level."

In other words, examiners are encouraged to make up their mind in 2-3 minutes and then use the rest of the
time to confirm their initial judgment. As I pointed out earlier, this works because there is a certain consistency
of speaking proficiency from beginning to end. Experienced examiners have seen everything and can easily
detect if a candidate knows their stuff or not.

Can one cheat on the speaking proficiency test? I know that cheating has another definition around here. I'm not
using it in the sense of preparing or studying for the test. Cheating is used in the more common sense of
receiving some illegal information about the test beforehand. Let's say you get a chance to read in advance the
articles one of which have to choose for a presentation and discussion. This is certainly an advantage for the
formal presentation but what happens when time comes to have a discussion with the two examiners.

Now, you're on your own. All those pretty phrases that you had rehearsed for the presentation go out the
window. You're asked a pretty sophisticated question about the topic. Maybe you don't really understand the
question. But you start anyway with a great sentence that you think will do. Not a good start. In fact, you don't
answer the question, and the examiner duly takes note. Another question comes, and you start stuttering as you
try to figure out the right verb conjugation. And it's downhill all the way.

This may be a bit exaggerated but the point is that it's very difficult to cheat in oral performance. You either
know your stuff or you don't, from the very beginning. This actually makes the examiner's job relatively easy.


Edited by s_allard on 03 September 2014 at 2:10am

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emk
Diglot
Moderator
United States
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Speaks: English*, FrenchB2
Studies: Spanish, Ancient Egyptian
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 Message 68 of 309
02 September 2014 at 7:03pm | IP Logged 
s_allard wrote:
This may be a bit exaggerated but the point is that it's very difficult to cheat in oral performance. You either
know your stuff or you don't, from the very beginning. This actually makes the examiner's job relatively easy.

My French improves dramatically within the first hour of speaking. Of course, that just means I make sure I'm heavily immersed for a few days before an exam.

But in general, there are lots of ways to bamboozle examiners. Sfuqua mentions a few based on his experience with trainee FSI examiners:

sfuqua wrote:
During my time as a Peace Corps volunteer, I set my self up to be a test subject for new FSI testers, so I did a lot of FSI tests. In a conversational test, there is a lot more to it than just raw grammar and vocabulary. One strategy I used was, "control the conversation," or "get talking about something I know how/want to talk about," or "I don't know much about outrigger canoes; but I do think that the Mt. Vaea club is a great place to go after a day of working on a canoe, or a day of teaching junior high school. During happy hour..." These strategies are similar to those used my US politicians (all politicians?) during debates or press conferences.

Language testing interviews are a battlefield.

If I can cram a chunk of fluent discourse into a language test, it is bound to make me look better, even with testers who know what I am doing. The same thing goes for conversations with native speakers.

If you can control the topic of the conversation, you can fudge at least half a CEFR level and maybe more. If you watch me interacting with young children, my French is really solid, because I've listened to a French speaker do that for over half a decade. So of course, on a test, if I can change the subject to children and child-rearing, my French will get better.

Of course, good exams go to a lot of trouble to defeat these tricks. The DELF B2 and DALF exams pick random topics out of a hat (mine was congestion charges for drivers in Paris), and if you change the subject, you're going to get hammered on points. The best strategy for managing this is to link the official subject to another subject you can discuss more easily—"Well, I think that congestion charges are good for the environment" or "They're bad for the working class." And anybody who walks into a European B2 exam without being able talk about the environment for 5 minutes is being very foolish. Other useful subjects: language learning, school and problems of adolescents.

Oh, and thank you for the list of 600 words. I'll get back to you on that.

Edited by emk on 02 September 2014 at 7:04pm

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Serpent
Octoglot
Senior Member
Russian Federation
serpent-849.livejour
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 Message 69 of 309
02 September 2014 at 7:40pm | IP Logged 
s_allard wrote:
Experienced examiners have seen everything and can easily detect if a candidate knows their stuff or not.

Doesn't it include detecting whether the candidate has a sufficient vocabulary for the level in question? I know it's not in the guidelines, but obviously if you're offered to choose a topic from the list, you're supposed to know the thematic vocabulary for at least one of the topics. (I was to choose two topics at my Finnish exam)

And let me note again that CEFR exams vary greatly. In Finland, the teachers only work as conversation partners, the interview is filmed on video and the grade is given by a completely different person who doesn't interact with you, nor with the examiners. There's also a task where you need to speak into the microphone, which is obviously also recorded and evaluated - for the A1/A2 and B1/B2 exams, that's the only speaking task, in fact, in order to make them cheaper and more accessible, I suppose.

Edited by Serpent on 02 September 2014 at 7:41pm

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s_allard
Triglot
Senior Member
Canada
Joined 3913 days ago

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

 
 Message 70 of 309
02 September 2014 at 11:25pm | IP Logged 
I think the strategy of taking control of the conversation is a good one for dealing with these CEFR exams
because you will be dealing with a more familiar topic. But let's look at the assessment criteria again: Range,
Accuracy, Fluency, Interaction, Coherence. I don't see how changing the topic really makes a big difference when
interacting with the examiners. Note that the reference to FSI examiners spoke of FSI trainee examiners.

As I mentioned, we're looking at the top of the line C2 exam level. A more familiar topic might make certain
elements of vocabulary easier but I don't see any major overall effect. Will your French become more idiomatic?
Maybe a bit. If your grammar is weak, I don't see how changing to a more familiar subject will make your
grammar suddenly improve. Will your fluency improve because of the topic? Will the interaction with the
examiners be very different?

The way I look at a test at this level is that the examiners are basically expecting a level of performance that
approximates that of a native speaker. At this skill level, you are somewhat close to the level of the examiner.
This is what you have to demonstrate. I don't think it would be wise to come with a whole subject prepared with a
list of idiomatic expressions that you want to squeeze in, some pithy lines all well rehearsed and some really
sophisticated questions to ask. I don't think this will work. If your French sucks, it will show. I don't think
changing to a more familiar subject will turn bad French into good French.

Edited by s_allard on 02 September 2014 at 11:34pm

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s_allard
Triglot
Senior Member
Canada
Joined 3913 days ago

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

 
 Message 71 of 309
03 September 2014 at 2:57am | IP Logged 
Poor Marini. His ears must be ringing. But just to get back to his video, I think it's interesting that we can form
some judgment of his proficiency after listening to him speaking for around 50 seconds in each language. I
didn't count how many words he spoke in each language. Maybe 100 to 150, if that many. After hearing so few
words, can we truly say that he speaks all those languages?

This is a bit of a trick question. We don't really expect him to speak all 29 languages just as well as his native
Italian, but we are told that he works in these languages in some sort of customer service job. So, he uses the
languages regularly. We only hear a short snippet of him speaking, but, like our oral proficiency examiners, we
are able to quickly form an opinion of Marini's overall ability because we believe there is a general consistency in
speaking ability.

It all looks very good to me. I think that there are probably some limitations with technical vocabulary or
specialized topics, but there's no reason to doubt that Marini can do his job in all those languages.
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robarb
Nonaglot
Senior Member
United States
languagenpluson
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 Message 72 of 309
05 September 2014 at 8:11am | IP Logged 
s_allard wrote:

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.


I don't use all those words in my daily life, and certainly not regularly. The claim, however, was not that everyone
uses all of these words each month, but rather, that over the course of multiple years, taking all situations
together, most people use at least a few thousand words. People in word-heavy professions might use most of
the Common 5000, plus thousands more rare words. So 3000 is unreasonably small as an upper limit. Similarly,
500 is unreasonably small as a lower limit. Even people in word-light professions use a decent chunk (i.e. more
than 10%) of the words on the Common 5000 list, plus some rare words depending on their
automobile/bicycle/job/hobby/children/diet status.

s_allard wrote:

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.


2000-2500 is a reasonable off-hand estimate for your active vocabulary in the context of HTLAL. If English is
your primary everyday language, then the number will just grow as you add all the other contexts you use it in.

s_allard wrote:
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.


We are counting in two different ways. 1000 words is not enough in the sense that, if you have to pre-select
1000 words to have in your active vocabulary, then try to use just those words to talk about various things, you'll
find it insufficient. There is no list of 1000 words that will cover everyday adult English conversation without
resorting to paraphrasing the words for less common things like 'grapefruit' or 'spokes' or 'cardigan.' Yes, I'm
aware you may not use the words 'grapefruit', 'spokes', or 'cardigan.' But according to the topic, it's necessary to
use hundreds of similarly uncommon words. Each time you use a new topic, you introduce more such words. You
can't get by in a year's worth of 30-minute conversations about different topics with just a
single set of 1000 words.

With few words, you can use the language. You can buy gasoline, no problem. It turns out developmental
psychologists measured that a 500-word used vocabulary is typical of 2.5 year old children (Source: Bates, E. et
al. (1994) Developmental and stylistic variation in the composition of early vocabulary. Journal of Child Language
21 p.85-123). So it turns out that you can in fact communicate with so few words.

In conclusion, we should not worry too much about counting words and trying to build a sufficient vocabulary.
We can be resourceful and communicate with the words we have. There's no need to be afraid of trying to speak
early. If you learn to interact fluently, you can probably get your message across. However, we should not delude
ourselves into thinking we can sound like a typical native speaker in all aspects of our lives with nothing but 500
or 1000 basic words.

Anyway, sorry for being confrontational and long-winded. I think it's great to show people how they can
communicate with few words. If you do it well you might even be mistaken for a heritage speaker, but I think it's
clear it won't match the expressive range of a typical native speaker.


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