With estimates of the size of the English language running to between 1 and 2 million word forms, where do teachers begin identifying the vocabulary that is worth focussing on with their students?
Many textbook writers and publishers have focussed on the 2,000 and 3,000 words that, according to corpora, are the most frequent. Research, however, suggests that fluent speech can require up to 7,000 words – and between 8,000 and 9,000 word forms are needed to understand authentic written texts. How do we bridge this gap to ensure that our learners become effective users of English?
The search for a "survival" bank of vocabulary is valid, but extracting lists frequent words from dictionary corpora is questionable because these corpora are based on native speakers communicating with other native speakers. If we could do a frequency analysis of of non-native speaker English, this would provide a more useful bank of survival vocabulary. A corpus of non-native speaker English would not only reflect non-native speaker language but also the non-native speaker's communicative needs in English.
That being said, I have found the 2,000 words of the Longman Dictionaries' Defining Vocabulary immensely useful. When working with an early Acorn BBC B computer, I had a simple word processor which contained no "SPELL CHECK" programme. I managed to find a spell check programme which had no reference dictionary, so I input all 2,000 words of the Longman Defining Vocabulary. After a year of writing, mainly for non-native speaker readers, I had added only about 180 words to this number! What better proof of the validity of those 2,000 most frequent words!
Research seems to suggest that knowing about 2000 words will enable you to understand about 80% of a written text, providing it's not too specialised or obscure. Fabio Capello, manager of the England football team, was recently in the news for saying he only needed a hundred words to talk to his football players, and I think there is something in that. When both speaker and listener are au fait with the subject you can, indeed, get away with a limited vocabulary, as the other person 'knows what you mean'.
Textbooks can only be standardised and generic - they won't satisfy everyone, as we all need different vocabulary depending on our work, lifestyle, personal circumstances etc. Even the same person needs a different lexicon at different stages of her or his life. There was a time when my conversation revolved around nappies, potties etc, but I haven't used those words in years now!
To help people become effective users of English, we need to teach them function words, grammar and syntax using fairly common (to most people) vocabulary. Then we need to give them the skills to look up unknown words in a dictionary, and/or to make intelligent guesses based on context, word root etc.
Your mention of Don Fabio: cue a snigger about footballers only posessing a hundred-word vocabulary.
I read somewhere that native English speaking graduates have a vocabulary of 29,000. So if we need 8,000 to understand authentic texts then where do all those other words go? Amazing to think.
On a slight aside - I often feel we don't exploit the English vocabulary enough - certainly as native speakers. There are so many wonderful words which give such a precision and subtlety to our expression but are derided for being elitist. It's perhaps a modern media thing that we can't use 'big' words and everything is dumbed down. I once worked in communications for an arts charity and there was a list of banned words. A shame I thought. I'd love to think it would be possible and practical to expose learners to all these seemingly pretentious words. Unrealistic though I fear.
An interesting way to examine this question is consider which are the ten most useful words in English. If a non-English speaker was coming to Britain, but only had time to learn ten words, what should these words be? My choice would be PLEASE, THANK YOU, SORRY, EXCUSE ME, DON'T UNDERSTAND, THIS and (the name of your country). With these ten words, pointing and a nice smile, you can survive anywhere.
Any other suggestions for the ten most useful words?
Thanks to JJ, Diane, Norbert, Averil and Paul for their great session yesterday on this. Some really interesting ideas looking at not just hitting a set number of words, but it's the repetition and repeated exposure of the words in a variety of different contexts that is important too. We had a few questions via Twitter during the session yesterday but unfortunately ran out of time, so i'll post them here and please do post your comments and thoughts!
- When you say 3000 words for normal discourse, which 3000 words? How do we know which 3000 they need?
- Is it really about recycling and repeated exposure, or just about a good memory?
- Do you need the same 3000 to read as you do to speak at a certain level?
I liked your observation. Do you still remember any of those banned elite words? Would be fun to share the info with colleagues. Anyway, thanks for your contribution. Gives food for thought