Language Learning: How many words?

Recently, Benny Lewis tackled the question “How many words do you need before you speak a language ‘fluently’?” And by tackled I mean tackled. To the ground. As if it had looked at him in an insulting manner. Benny approaches at language learning as a motivator, rather than taking a scientific approach. I’m not going to argue with that. I enjoy reading his blog, though his style of language learning is not for me. On the other hand, it is science that leads to the development of better teaching methods, better learning materials, and understanding how we go about learning a language. Without claiming to be an expert on the subject (I am not) I would like to look at the question of “how many words”, because it is something I have done a little bit of reading about recently.

Firstly I don’t think the question “How many words do I need to know to be fluent” is answerable. I would say fluency is not just about how many words you know, as such. Fluency is about the ease with which you speak. Knowing words is part of that. If you don’t know many words, of course you can’t speak fluently.  But simply knowing the words doesn’t necessarily make you fluent. I wouldn’t discount the possibility that many of the processes that go into learning a lot of words might also contribute towards fluency – such as extensive reading and listening. But fluency and knowing a certain number of words are not the same thing.

When do the numbers matter?

So what is a better question to ask about numbers of words? Reading. Reading research, for example, focuses on how many words you know. I believe in the power of reading to increase vocabulary. I think reading a lot as a child improved my English vocabulary, and that the same is true of additional languages. Extensive reading is supposed to be good for developing reading fluency, and becoming more comfortable with the language.

The term extensive reading refers to reading a lot, at a level where you understand most of it – so you can just get on with reading – while presenting a bit of a challenge. The idea is that if you understand most of the vocabulary (the optimal number now seems to be 95-98% of the words) of a text, this is the best situation for incidental vocabulary acquisition. This means that you can probably get a sense of what the new words mean from context. So you don’t sit with a dictionary the whole time just to figure out what you are reading. It also means that the few new words you pick up are more likely to stick in your memory – if they are repeated, so much the better. You learn new words incidentally to what you are doing for your own enjoyment. I believe  Steve Kaufmann of LingQ is right when he says “content is king”. It’s all about motivation. Unlike Steve Kaufmann, most people would not have the motivation to slog through a text that is really way above their level. So 95-98% coverage is optimal.

This article describes a study of students taking English for Academic Purposes.  It suggests knowledge of 6000-8000 word families is recommended for reading authentic academic texts. The numbers may differ depending on what kind of text you want to read, but whatever it is, a few thousand word families will cover, say, 90% of the text. The rest of the words will be specialized to the topic. There are a lot more specialized words because of the number of different fields of knowledge and interest. That is why you can get to that 80-90% coverage quite quickly, and you may spend the rest of your life learning the rest of the language (which will only constitute about 10% or less of any given text).

What to do?

These numbers are useful for people designing language courses, especially a reading course intended to increase vocabulary and ‘reading fluency’. What can the self-taught student do with it? I don’t know. Probably not much. Extensive research exists on learning English, for obvious reasons, but for many languages, nobody has even determined high frequency word lists. It’s a pretty big undertaking.

What I read.

I mostly read news articles online in German, French, Italian and Spanish. I find news articles fit into my life easily. A news article is not a long commitment, you can slot it in anywhere. The style of newspaper writing is usually not too complicated – another bonus. With Google News and Google Alerts, you can always look for news about topics that interest you. For news alerts in other languages,  just change the URL from “.com” to whatever is appropriate for the country: “.it” for Italy, “.fr” for France, “.de” for Germany, etc..

If you are interested in foreign language reading from a scientific perspective,  Reading in a Foreign Language is a journal you can read for free online… Some very interesting stuff.


Bilingual benefit

Is there a benefit to bilingualism? I would say yes, of course, wishing I could call myself at least bilingual. But the question refers to cognitive abilities. Apparently the common opinion used to be ‘no’. But today science is taking a serious look at the question.

First, here is an article about a study that showed a cognitive advantage for bilingual toddlers: And why not? Codeswitching is mental exercise…

This next study was fascinating, suggesting that bilingualism could delay dementia in old age.

This third one is not so much related to cognitive abilities, and it’s the first negative one. This study found bilingual children more likely to stutter.

Looks like bilingualism is today seen as a benefit to your brain. Like chess. Excuse me, I need to go get talking…

The Janus Post: Language learning past and future

As the year comes to an end, I am sure we are all taking stock of the year past and starting to think about the year ahead. The past year has been a busy one for me. Work has been quite hectic at times, but fulfilling. And I am now half way to completing my BA Honours in applied languages.

This has left not a lot of time for language learning. Most of my language activity has been keeping my hand in with my German, French and Italian by reading news articles online. A bit of Spanish too – my Spanish is not really at newspaper-reading level but it is not as difficult because of the similarities to Italian.

I have particularly been enjoying recently. It is a European culture online magazine. They have articles in English, the four languages I’m maintaining (above) as well as Polish (which I don’t know at all).

Next year I will be tackling a small research project as part of the completion of my Honours. I will probably take a language class for part of the year, as I have come to believe that the classroom situation is a good place for introvert to get speaking practice – it is a controlled environment, everyone is there for the same reason as you, and at least you know it will only last about two hours.

Apart from that, I hesitate to make new language-learning goals for this year, as I think I may disappoint myself. I think maintenance is going to be the way to go for now.  No pressure, I do it because I want to, I don’t want to make a chore of it.

If you are into reading the news for your language practice, I find it quite quick and easy to go to Google News and then change the country. Since I mostly use my Blackberry for foreign-language news-reading, and I’m usually doing it when I have a free moment in between things, Google news is great because it’s quick (no long loading times), and then I can just pick a story I want to read.

Do you have a New Years resolution?

The introverted language learner

I love to learn languages, but not in order to talk to people. I don’t learn languages, like many people do, in order to meet new people, interact with different cultures and do so in the other person’s mother-tongue. I just don’t.

I am an introvert. I can also be quite shy. But these are two different things. When I am at a social gathering and I’m not introducing myself to new people, it’s usually because I don’t particularly want to. I like being around people and enjoy the company of a good friends, but return to introspection and solitary activities. As an indication, I have on many occasions been asked that ridiculous question, “Why are you so quiet?”

While I’m not going to lump all introverts together, there is a certain difficulty in being introverted and wanting to learn foreign languages. When people say I’m quiet, this is even in my mother-tongue, English.

The self-taught polyglots who are vocal on the internet may have different methods, but mostly seem to have the goal of speaking to new people in their language, in some cases giving the advice to get out there and start speaking.

Where does that leave me? And surely I cannot be the only abberant introvert who is passionate about foreign languages…

Well, I would suggest that if you are self-teaching, lots of input is the only thing to do, really. Read and listen and watch, wherever and whenever you can. Always situate your language learning in something enjoyable to you – read things you are interested in. That is standard.

But now I would also suggest that possibly, for an introvert, a class, particularly a small class, may be the way to go. A class is kind of like a social gathering that is controlled. You know you won’t be there for more than, say, two hours. You get practice actually speaking with less pressure. Of course, teaching methods may differ, so it may depend.

These are just my thoughts lately. I have been reading so much from the perspective of extroverts, who insist you have to go and find people to speak to, and becoming more critical of myself. But now I want to forge a new way forward to pursue my passion without beating myself up.

Word of the Week: Hlonipa

This is the first of a new series of blog posts from me, which I am rather ambitiously calling “Word of the Week”. I intend for it to be something interesting, a word or a phrase, representing some cultural information, or colloquial speech. I don’t intend to present myself as an expert in anyway. These will just be snippets that I pick up on my language learning journey.

Hlonipa is a Xhosa word, a verb. The ‘hl’ is pronounced as the welsh ‘ll’ (according to Teach Yourself Xhosa, I know nothing about Welsh myself). The only way I can describe it is like a combination of the ‘ch’ from loch, and ‘l’.

I had never heard of hlonipa before I read about it recently, and I don’t know how widely it is practised. It refers to a Nguni practice of avoidance of saying certain words because of taboo. For example, when a woman marries, she has to avoid saying the names of her husband’s male family members. As Xhosa names have meaning, this means avoiding saying those words. I belive there is a set of replacement words for this.

The power of words seems to be quite a big aspect of Nguni culture. See this link for some interesting info on the issue of taboo as it relates to HIV/AIDS –

2 factors that affect success in second language learning (and a comforting thought)

Okay, so we all learned our first language no problem. But amongst people who start learning a second language later in life, there is such a wide range of success levels. According to David Birdsong, age remains the ‘strongest predictor of ultimate attainment’ in learning a second language’. But here’s the thing: this is not necessarily because we are getting older and our brains are not structured the same as when we were younger, etc.
Many late learners seem to ‘fail’ at language learning. But the fact is that there are plenty of success stories; people who could pass as native speakers, even though they started as adults.
So, what affects our success as second language learners? The myriad factors that come into play as we get older and our ‘selves’ develop…

1. Input

Are you immersed in the second language environment? What kind of input are you getting? Obviously the more the better. If you are teaching yourself, as I am, remember the L + 1 idea: your input at any given time should not be too much beyond your current level. For example, it is said, by such people as Paul Nation, that to maximise ‘incidental vocabulary acquisition’ from extensive reading, you need to understand 98% of it. Then it is likely that you will be able to figure out what the additional words mean from context. On the other hand, if you have to look up 50% of the words, you won’t remember them, and probably won’t understand very well what you are reading.

2. Motivation

Motivation is important. And sad to say (for me), being immersed in the second language environment is probably a pretty motivating factor.. I also find from a self-instructional perspective, finding the right materials that work for me, interest me and/or aren’t so much work I get tired, is quite important. If I don’t WANT to, I probably won’t.

A comforting thought

Another academic in the field, Vivian Cook, has pointed out that it makes more sense to compare a second language learner to a bilingual than a monolingual native speaker. Bilinguals’ languages affect each other. Think of any bilingual you know; they don’t sound like monolingual speakers of their less dominant language. I find that a rather comforting thought: unless you’re training to become a spy, don’t worry that you don’t sound exactly ‘right’.

Rather, understand that the mistakes you make are part of your ‘interlanguage’ on your way to being a successful polyglot. In partially understanding another language, you are already more than a monolingual!

Knowing when to pause

I am nearing the end of Teach Yourself Russian. Well, I have pretty much skipped over all the exercises, but my main goal is understanding. I have been spending a lot of time over the past couple of weeks focusing on Russian, and it can tell my vocabulary has increased a lot more recently than previously. And now that I am nearing the end of the book, I feel myself already trying to decide what language to move on to next. I keep making a start on various languages, but then I don’t get very far with them.

I think it’s time to stop. Or at least to pause. I have enough languages begun to keep me busy for a long time improving my understanding of them. The only other language I definitely want to make a start on first is Portuguese. It should be fairly easy, since I have a bit of a grounding in French, Italian and (very little, self-taught) Spanish. Portuguese is a pretty widespread language and I would like to include it in the group I go forward with.

So there, a new resolution, to improve on the languages I’ve made a start on until they are as good as my German (B1 level). And, of course, I wouldn’t want to neglect German. Try my best to forget, for now, about Chinese, Korean, Hindi, Swedish, Polish…. oh let me not even continue.  “Jack of all trades, master of none” – much as I hate to admit it (I want absolutely everything, is that too much to ask?).