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Fluency versus Erudition

February 19, 2012

In a rather fruitful and interesting exchange around last Thursday’s post about the Goldlist method, its originator seemed surprised that I denied his contention that fluency in a language requires at least 10,000 words. I still do, but I certainly take his point that to be an interesting and apparently well-educated user of the language does require a large vocabulary. I do continue to maintain that one can be fluent (at least in particular fields) with far fewer expressions known, and that one could be able to recite back 20,000 or more words and still be a stilted, stumbling speaker, if not completely familiar with the grammar of the language.

To my way of thinking, then, the erudite speaker is both fluent and of a broad and productive vocabulary which is capably used within flowing, precise, grammatical discourse.

The question is, of course, is this the kind of speaker one is aiming to be. In principle I would opine that the majority of us would like to speak our second and further languages as well as we do our first, but it may have to be acknowledged that this means different things for each of us. Those of us who anticipate being erudite speakers of our native tongues will likely wish to be likewise in our second and further languages also.

I must admit, then, that as someone who has always been told she has an unusually extensive vocabulary in English (yes, the picture is a screenshot from a few minutes ago, from the first site I found that claimed to test one’s vocabulary – I got the maximum score, although with a quiz of just ten questions I am unconvinced by the accuracy of the test) I was surprised to realise just how much lower I’m setting my sights  in my other languages.

This site, where a study of the topic is being undertaken, seems probably more accurate, credits me with knowing 37,100 words, slightly above the 20,000-35,000 they have mostly been finding for adult native-English speakers among their respondents. They do state, however, that their respondents appear to be more verbal than the American average. Interestingly, their non-native-English speaking respondents mostly fall in the range of knowing 2,500-9,000 words, although again the participants are self-selecting, and in this case know enough English to understand the test instructions. I also found an interesting article comparing the expected vocabulary sizes of average college-educated native speakers (up to 20,000 words) with what an intelligent and determined ESL student might accomplish.

I have not so far come across a reasonably accurate such test for French, Hebrew or German, to see where I am currently at. If anyone knows of some I’d be happy to try them out for comparison purposes. It should be noted however, that French and English share a lot of their vocabulary, particularly as one approaches the more recondite terminology, and German will also benefit from some of this overlap. This applies to Hebrew to a somewhat lesser extent, but one should always find that learning a second language increases one’s vocabulary the others. (I can still be fairly accurate about my vocabulary in Russian, which is 100+ words and steadily rising.) While FreeRice, which is a great site for challenging one’s English vocabulary, does offer other subjects as well, its French and German offerings are only for learners at a fairly basic level.

Reading widely is, in my opinion, likely to remain the best way to enhance one’s passive vocabulary, and making use of that wordbank in one’s speech and writing the best way to make it active, but upon further consideration I do now see far more point than I did just a few days ago in making a specific effort to learn words and phrases even beyond the beginning stages. How one should make this effort may still be in question for me personally, but the goal is certainly a start.

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  1. Grammar and the Goldlist « Huliganov TV

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