wordlists and core vocab

from this thread on HTLAL

In French something like 25 verbs make up over 50% of the verb forms in ordinary spoken speech. My statistics may be off, but the point is clear. Instead of trying to learn 500 French verbs, master the 25 first and then progressively work your work through the others as they come up. For these very reasons I believe that with a vocabulary of 1000 words well learned one could get by very well in French and probably fool a lot of people.

The problem with these percentages is that even if you know those 25 words, and they come up in every sentence, you still won’t understand those sentences as they are spoken to you. Also, once you add in some more specific (but less frequent) words that help you in a couple of everyday situations, then the number starts to shoot upwards. Having a low limit like 1000 is a difficult task.

In principle, though, I mostly agree. There is really a core of the language that you need to master and have it always ready. If you can fluidly produce the basic things from that core, then it becomes an easy task to learn another 20 – 100 new words in a short time period in order to deal with a new potential situation.

I think it’s possible to go the other way around, though. Taking what Iverson said earlier about learning many many more words right at the start, I’m starting to imagine that one should actually do this backwards. Instead of learning the core really well and then expanding your vocab later, you could learn tons of vocab as fast as you can and then use your extensive vocabulary superpowers to read and listen to tons of native material that would help you cement the core parts.

I think this relates well to the idea of having a good balance of “intensive” and “extensive” reading, but I’ll have to think more about just concentrating on massive vocab, which is a slightly different path than intensive reading (which is more well-rounded, not focusing entirely on vocab).

This relates to my current Swedish project quite well, because I have a wonderful frequency-based wordlist of 2000 common words that each have an example sentence. I keep thinking that I’m not using this list to its full potential, since I’ve only made flashcards for the “A” up to the “E” words so far. It’s just much easier to stay interested if I’m reading a real book instead of playing with a wordlist. It does look like my ability to read would be greatly increased if I spent more time on the list first, though. Maybe I just need more hours in the day 😉

Overall, the importance should rest on finding something fun, but if you can manage short bursts of interest in something like a wordlist, then perhaps it would be worth it if it then enhanced your enjoyment of the really fun stuff. Don’t overdo it though, or else it’ll start to seem too much like a chore instead of your super-fun hobby!


3 Responses to wordlists and core vocab

  1. WC says:

    As I’ve learned Japanese and Esperanto, I’ve found myself wishing for the list of words that truly are most commonly used. I’ve seen a lot of info from newspapers, but that isn’t every-day stuff. I’ve even thought about picking a few books I know I want to read and creating the list from that.

    But in the end, the amount of time I’d spend making that list doesn’t seem to be worthwhile. Instead, I could actually be studying and learning something. The little boost that it would give doesn’t outweigh the benefit.

  2. Olle Kjellin says:

    This is a thread in my interest. For all practical purposes, whichever book you may happen to read in any language, it will contain that list WC wishes for. Because the most common words, inevitably, will be the most frequent ones in that book. In general, regardless of language, and roughly speaking, the 15 most frequent words will account for some 25% of the entire text mass, the 50 most freq for about 40%, the 100 most freq for about 50%. These are mainly function words, i.e., you will get the grammar this way. The 4000 most freq words will account for some 80% of the text. So go on and read books, and read and read… Calculate: If you read an ordinary 100,000 word novel, you will get *all* the grammar words repeated, on an average, 500 times each… Or the core 15 words almost 1,700 times each. In natural contexts with idiomatic word order and all. You can’t forget them after that. Whatever content words you will get is up to chance. Your interests will then decide which of them you will like, and thus remember. It is said that if we understand >90% of the content words, we will understand virtually all of the text. If we miss >10% of the meaning, we won’t grasp the full content.
    — For those of you who understand Swedish, you may want to read more of this in chapter 12 “Färdigt på en halv sida” (‘Completed in half a page’) in my (sorry for the spam…) book “Uttalet, språket och hjärnan; Teori och metodik för språkundervisningen” (‘Pronunciation, Language and the Brain; Theory and Methods for Language Education’).
    Lycka till!/Good luck!

  3. doviende says:

    Actually, ya, when thought of that way, it makes much more sense why it seems so helpful to me to try to read books even when I barely get any of it. I can usually puzzle out some minor part of the meaning, but I’m also getting massive repetitions of the important words. There’s really no need to worry about all the infrequent words that I miss, because I’m getting so much help on the common ones.

    I find that certain words “jump out at me” as words that need to be looked up, mainly because I’ve already seen them 10 times and decided that they were important to previous sentences, but I haven’t quite figured out the full meaning. Once I look these troublesome (but important) words, then everything falls into place and they really stick. There’s no better way to find these “important” words than to read a lot.

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