Learning words, word frequency, graded readers and more.

To me the major task in language learning is the acquisition of vocabulary. If this is done through massive listening and reading, it will naturally bring with it a constantly improving familiarity with the language, making it easier and easier to understand grammar explanations, and eventually making it possible to learn to express oneself in writing or orally. Vocabulary is the key, in my view. The more vocabulary we learn, the more we can acquire. In vocabulary, the rich get richer and the poor stay poor.

Michael Lewis, with his ???lexical approach??? was one of the early proponents of the primacy of vocabulary. Here is a good summary of this approach by David Overton. Lewis stresses the importance of chunks of language, groupings of words, collocations, that the native speaker naturally throws together. Lewis proposes increasing the learner???s awareness of these using exercises.

This is about the only place I disagree with Lewis. I prefer to read and listen, without any exercises. In my experience, when I start learning a language, I am more interested in individual words. I need them to make any sense of what I am reading. I need lots of words. I live with the fact that the combination of the words does not always make sense, that I do not always understand the colloquial phrases or chunks. I just keep reading and listening, until my overall familiarity with the vocabulary and the language reaches a point when I am able to start focusing on chunks, collocations, etc., culling or mining them from my reading and listening. At LingQ this means that I start saving more phrases. I am at that phase now in Czech. The saving or learning of chunks and collocations is particularly important in the transition to output from input, to active use from passive knowledge.

Another popular area of study relating to vocabulary acquisition is the issue of word frequency. It is often stated that we should focus on learning the most common 2,000 or so words of a language (English is usually the example used) since these account for 80% or so of most contexts. This is where graded readers are usually recommended.

Specialists in vocabulary acquisition like Paul Nation and Batia Laufer have calculated that you need 3,000 word families to feel even somewhat comfortable reading, and 5,000 to be comfortable in most situations. This is based on the assumption that you should be reading texts with 98% known words. Many learners like to read graded readers which use simplified language with a low percentage of uncommon words.

I am not a proponent of this approach past the very first month or so. I feel that in whatever I read I will encounter the most common words often enough to learn them. However, if I stick to only 2% new words I will take forever to build the vocabulary I need.

With online dictionaries, and other programs that assist with the acquisition of vocabulary, and with the availability of audio to help the struggling reader, I recommend that learners attack difficult texts as soon as possible. This was the approach of famous Hungarian polyglot Kato Lomb and I heartily agree.

When I import a text into LingQ from a Czech newspaper today, I usually find only about 15-20% new words. It was 60% when I started two months ago. I am reading and listening to Karel Capek???s delightful notes on a visit to England, and there are about 30% new words. But in both cases this includes a lot of names, so the actual number of new words is quite a bit less. I don???t know what my true vocabulary is in Czech but I would imagine it is 6-7000 words if not more. The LingQ system tells me that I know just under 16,000 words and have saved just under 13,000 words (LingQs). This is after two and a half months. If I were using graded readers I would have far fewer words at this point. I would probably be closer to being able to take part in a simple dialogue, however. But I am not motivated to do that. I will start talking in a few months when I am better able to understand the normal conversation of a native speaker, and for that I will need lots of words.

One last point is the distinction between word families and individual words. The words find, finds, finding, findings etc. are counted as four words at LingQ. According to Nation and Laufer, 3,000 word families is equivalent to 5,000 individual words in English, 5,000 equates to 8,000 and so on. In English a LingQ word count should be divided by 1.6. In other more inflected languages the LingQ count needs to be divided by more.

One more thing, if you would like to test your word level in English try this website.

Good intentions for language learning in the UK.

Kids in Britain should learn languages from the age of 5, according to the Minister of Education. Given the attitude towards languages in Britain, and how languages are usually taught, this propsal, if implemented, would lead to more job opportunities for language teachers, but probably not much of an increase in the number of people who speak foreign languages in that country.

Holistic language learning.

A language needs to be learned as a whole and should not be analyzed or compartmentalized.?? I will expore this in a video which I will publish here later.

First a definition of holism, from Wikipedia

Holism (from ????????? holos, a Greek word meaning all, whole, entire, total) is the idea that all the properties of a given system (physical, biological, chemical, social, economic, mental, linguistic, etc.) cannot be determined or explained by its component parts alone. Instead, the system as a whole determines in an important way how the parts behave.

The term holism was coined in 1926 by Jan Smuts. Reductionism is sometimes seen as the opposite of holism. Reductionism in science says that a complex system can be explained by reduction to its fundamental parts. For example, the processes of biology are reducible to chemistry and the laws of chemistry are explained by physics.

Social scientist and physician Nicholas A. Christakis explains that “for the last few centuries, the Cartesian project in science has been to break matter down into ever smaller bits, in the pursuit of understanding. And this works, to some extent…but putting things back together in order to understand them is harder, and typically comes later in the development of a scientist or in the development of science.”[1]



Why do teachers like to tell you what to read?

Motivation is at the heart of language learning and literacy. The interest we have in the subject we are reading is a major motivator for reading, enabling us to struggle with difficult texts and as a result, learn.

Here we are told to read the New Yorker to improve our SAT scores.Why the New Yorker?I have never had any interest in reading the New Yorker.

I was searching the Internet for Czech resources and discovered the Czech program offered at Oxford. It featured a reading list heavy to poetry. I don’t like poetry.

Why not encourage people to read what they like, but just push themselves a little in terms of the difficulty level.

Timing and language learning effectiveness.

Language learning effectiveness depends to a large degree on timing. There are times when we are prepared to learn certain things, and other times when we are not. If confronted with information at a time when we are not ready, or not interested, or do not see the relevance, we will have trouble learning it.

It is largely up to us find the right moment and to follow our interests and instincts in choosing learning activities. The teacher cannot decide these things for us. Here is a video on the importance of timing in language learning.

Common Core State Standards for English. Who benefits?

Who benefits from the regular revamping of educational standards? Does educational achievement go up or go down? I suspect these activities have little effect on educational outcomes.

Stanford University researchers?? are going to help English Language Learners (ELLs) in the school system meet the Common Core State Standards in language arts and mathematics according to this article.

There is funding from Bill Gates and and the following is going to happen.

“To foster awareness and a national dialogue among key actors in standards-based education reform about the need to leverage common core standards for English language proficiency development, the initiative will sponsor meetings, webinars, and commissioned papers on key topics. Partners will include local, state, and federal educational agencies; experts in Common-Core State Standards in English language arts and mathematics; developers of the next-generation science standards; and developers of new English language proficiency standards, as well as advocacy groups, publishers, and test makers.

Organizers will also collaborate with local school districts and their teachers to create clear specifications and exemplars of how teachers can foster English language proficiency as part of subject matter instruction, above and beyond any English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction that English language learners might already receive. This work will be widely shared and is expected to help shape how the new Common Core standards are used by educators to develop English language proficiency of their students.”:

I must say that I do not understand all of this. ELL’s largely cannot keep up with the minimal English language requirements that they face today, and as a result they do poorly at school. The main reason, in my view, is that they don’t read enough.

If they could be induced, encouraged, persuaded or forced to read more in English, much more, their language skills would improve.?? I really fail to see what this initiative will achieve, other than a lot of educators, administrators and teachers will spend a lot of time and money in committee meetings and publish lots of reports and recommendations.

It is not a matter of standards. It is matter of how to motivate the students to explore the world of the written language, through reading.


Anthony Robbins and language learning.

Motivation is the key element in the language learning tripod. (Attitude, Time, and Attentiveness.)

Anthony Robbins is a motivational speaker who talks about how to make money, but his ideas apply at least as much to language learning. This video of mine, about 16 months old,?? was brought to my attention by one of my viewers at my youtube channel. I think it is relevant to the discussion about LingQ, and why some people have trouble taking advantage of it.

Many learners say they want structure, or that they want the learning made easier.?? They tell me that LingQ works for me only because I am a good language learner. I don’t agree. I believe it comes down to attitude.

I believe I can learn any language. I am willing to take the necessary actions for success, find the resources I need,?? and commit to learning. I therefore achieve good results. These good results reinforce my confidence and on it goes. If we attend a traditional classroom, we surrender our independence, our?? decision making, to the teacher. We are given textbooks and a curriculum. We follow them. We are not required to take any deliberate actions, beyond what the teacher or textbook tells us to do.

LingQ is a resource. It need not be the only resource, nor even the main resource. There are many resources out there. If we expect LingQ to take over like a teacher, we will be disppointed. We are in charge of our own language learning journey, not LingQ.

Learning Czech using guerilla tactics

I do not think we learn languages in a straight line. I do not think we learn best by starting with the basics and proceeding in an orderly fashion. I think we learn best by bouncing around, attacking and retreating, following our interests. At least that is what I am doing.

I mix in some beginner and intermediate content at LingQ,?? all provided by our members, audio and text, consuming it as fast as they produce it. Then I imort content from Radio Praha. I have 15 articles in one collection, complete with text and the link to the MP3 file. I read them, save LingQs, listen to the audio while reading online, and then download the audio to my MP3 player for later.

I also have imported the first 5 chapters of The Good Soldier Svejk into LingQ and have studied the first two and a half, and listened many times.

I?? found a copy of?? Teach Yourself Czech, with CD which I read and listen to, as well as a book I bought in Russia called “?????????????? ???????? ???? ???????? ??????????”.

I also use the bookmarklet to import a few articles every day from the Czech online newspaper http://www.ceskenoviny.cz/ to read and study at LingQ.

I bounce around from easy to difficult to easy, following my interests. Slowly I am understanding more.Speaking is still at least a month away. I wish I had more time. Between my trip to Nelson last week, and on going obligations here, and continuing my Russian, I really don’t have as much time as I would like.

Tomorrow my son from London comes to visit for a week, and that will leave even less time. Maybe I should just go off to the Czech Republic for a month or so.


The psychological benefits of reading fiction.

On Fiction is a fascinating website that describes iteself as follows;

“OnFiction is a magazine with the aim of developing the psychology of fiction. Using theoretical and empirical perspectives, we endeavour to understand how fiction is created, and how readers and audience members engage in it.”

To me reading has always seemed a powerful way to learn, and to improve language abilities, in our own and other languages. We take advantage of our own imagination and curiosity, and the narrative skills of others. Apparently reading can also have many psychological benefits. This is especially true for narrative fiction according to this recent news article.

“Reading narrative fiction (and potentially narrative non-fiction such as memoirs as well) is like a form of meditation, Oatley says, because it opens you up to emptying your mind of real-life concerns in favour of focusing on a fictional world.”


Don’t learn English, it is too easy.

I think the hot summer and the paprika is affecting the thought processes of Hungarian educators. The government there wants to stop teaching English as the first foreign language, and instead impose some other foreign languages with more structure, which they think will be harder to learn, and therefore help Hungarians become more multilingual.

According to this article in the Wall Street Journal,

“The initial, very quick and spectacular successes of English learning may evoke the false image in students that learning any foreign language is that simple,??? reads a draft bill obtained by news website Origo.hu that would amend Hungary???s education laws.

Instead, the ministry department in charge of education would prefer if students ???chose languages with a fixed, structured grammatical system, the learning of which presents a balanced workload, such as neo-Latin languages.???

In my view, a language is only hard to learn if we are not interested in learning it. If most people want to learn English, why not let them. Once they have one foreign language under their belt, the next one, if they are motivated, will be easier.

As the article points out, “A Eurostat survey from 2009 found that 74.8% of Hungarians aged 25 to 64 don???t speak any foreign languages whatsoever. Only 6% of respondents said they speak a second language fluently, which places Hungary at the bottom ranks of the European Union table. In comparison, only 5% of Swedes speak no other language but their native tongue.”

With thinking like this from the education ministry, these dismal numbers are not surprising. The key to success in language learning is motivation, not coercion, everywhere else, and probably in Hungary too.