Active vocabulary and passive vocabulary.

What do we mean by knowing a word. Here is a video on the subject.


Can we learn 100 words a day?

In a comment to a previous post, Stefan asked me how many words I thought I could learn in a day. We had quite a discussion on this, and I have given it some more thought.

If I take my own Czech studies, I have been at it about 6 months.?? It is all part time, one hour a day most of the time, some days much more, and for stretches of time, nothing. The main activity is listening, then comes reading, and saving words at LingQ, (LingQing). A smaller amount of time is spent on reviewing words in flash cards, and just recently I have started talking to a tutor online at LingQ.

So if we call this period of time 180 days, and if we use the statistics generated by LingQ, the numbers look like this.

“Known words” by this I mean only my ability to recognise the meaning, or a meaning: 25,260.

This includes non-words, numbers, names etc. How many I don’t know but let’s say 10%. So the number is really?? probably 23,000

Stefan made the point that Czech is very inflected and therefore this inflates this number compared to English. At first I agreed that this is relevant but now I am not so convinced. In fact we need to learn the different forms of the words, for tenses or cases, or person, whether in Czech or French, so each of these words does count, in my view.

“LingQs created” or saved in the system: 20,600

??of which 7,425 have been moved up in status towards varying degrees of”known”. Note that I do not do a lot of flash carding and only move words up in status sporadically.

When I look at lists of these words in the vocab section, I know most of them, but certainly not all.This number includes 1725 phrases. So perhaps I should count this as 5,000 words. Even among the other so-called status “1” words, roughly 13,000 or so, there will be words that I know. but never mind.

So maybe I know, albeit passively, 28,000 words.Maybe. And I have been at it, although not every day, for 180 days. This means that I may have learned words at the rate of 155 words a day. Who knows? Maybe it is a lower number, but I believe it is at least 100 words a day. Most words are learned incidentally through reading, and especially through seeing the yellow saved LingQs highlighted in our texts at LingQ.

Note that I have read over 250,000 words at LingQ in Czech, often more than once. This is the equivalent of 3 average length novels.

I can read the newspaper fairly well.

Apparently Czech shares 40% vocabulary with Russian,(which I have studied, also in the same way at LingQ). By that I mean this is the number of words that are the same or recognizable, like zitra/ zavtra for tomorrow. English has 60% Latin based words, so I think that an English person who put the same effort into French or Spanish, could learn the same number of words in those languages.

100 words a day, if you are willing to put in the time.


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.

Linking texts-in response to Autumnsky

For beginner and low intermediate learners it is beneficial to repeatedly listen and read the same content. This helps to train the mind to process a new language. The familiarity of the content helps to ingrain the flow and intonation of the new language. This kind of practice will improve the learner’s reading skill and speed.

However, for the higher intermediate and more advanced learners, acquiring more vocabulary becomes the main task. In this case it is important to read more extensively. In fact, in The Linguist system, if the learners want to maintain their target number of saved words and phrases, they need to cover a lot of material.

Doing as Autumnsky suggests in the note below, that is concentrating on a specific area of interest, is an excellent strategy. This will ensure that new words and phrases reoccur often, facilitating learning. This is another form of linking, so important in language learning. Using the Internet, it is easy to find articles in newspapers or elsewhere that are about a narrow subject. It might be international finance, or soccer, or cooking. If learners stay focused on that subject for a while, the articles are linked together, so to speak. As a result the vocabulary used will be “linked” because similar words and expressions occur often. This will make them easier to learn.

I nevertheless recommend that when advanced learners find texts where the content and voice are pleasing and interesting, they occasionally go back to repetitively listening to these, if they want to work on developing more natural phrasing and pronunciation.

The distinctions between the intensive strategy of the lower intermediate learner and the extensive strategy of the advanced learner are not hard and fast. The lower intermediate learner can, from time to time, do some extensive study, and the advanced learner benefits from occasional intensive or repetitive study. Variety is the spice of life, as they say.