Simply put, the ‘core of the language’ is the ‘essential vocabulary and grammar rules fundamental to self-expression and understanding’. Once you’ve conquered this part you will begin to be greatly functional in a language. Let’s start with a statistical approach as we identify which vocabulary we should class as ‘essential’…
Identifying The Core Vocabulary
I find this piece of wisdom from one of the world’s most famous and respected linguists, Professor Alexander Arguelles, goes some way to explain just how many words we need to add to our repertoire to reach various levels of proficiency:-
The 250 most frequent words of a language are those without which you cannot construct any sentence.
The 750 most frequent words constitute those that are used every single day by every person who speaks the language.
The 2000 most frequent words constitute those that should enable you to express everything you could possibly want to say, albeit often by awkward circumlocutions.
The 5000 most frequent words constitute the active vocabulary of native speakers without higher education.
The 10,000 most frequent words constitute the active vocabulary of native speakers with higher education.
The 20,000 most frequent words constitute what you need to recognize passively in order to read, understand, and enjoy a work of literature such as a novel by a notable author.
(Nb. 1 Word =1 Head Word, conjugations not counted).
Furthermore, to give you an understanding of what learning the high frequency vocabulary of a language will unlock for you, I’ll refer you to a recent study of the Spanish language which revealed that:-
Studying the first 1000 most frequently used words in the language will familiarize you with 76.0% of all vocabulary in non-fiction literature, 79.6% of all vocabulary in fiction literature, and 87.8% of vocabulary in oral speech.
Studying the 2000 most frequently used words will familiarize you with 84% of vocabulary in non-fiction, 86.1% of vocabulary in fictional literature, and 92.7% of vocabulary in oral speech.
And studying the 3000 most frequently used words will familiarize you with 88.2% of vocabulary in non-fiction, 89.6% of vocabulary in fiction, and 94.0% of vocabulary in oral speech.
That’s right, studying the 2001-3000 most frequently used words will only allow you to be familiar with a further 1.3% of spoken language vocabulary! That’s not a (relatively) rewarding return on your investment of time in comparison to studying the first 2000 most frequent words.
So what we can learn from this is that learning to use those first 2000 most frequent words is extremely important in our journey towards fluency and hence must be prioritized. This is not to say that vocabulary in the lower 10% frequency isn’t important to becoming being fluent, it’s just best that we focus on the highest frequency first so that we will get further in a language faster.
One important point that I’d like to make absolutely clear before we go any further is that learning the core vocabulary of a language is not as simple as learning 2000 straight forward definitions. A major trait of the most commonly used words in any language is that a huge proportion of them will have multiple meanings depending on the context they’re being used in and belong to many commonly used collocations (strings of words such as idioms and phrases) which are essential to fluency. So our goal should be defined as learning the most essential uses of these 2000 words along with the important collocations that they belong to, which is obviously far more than 2000 pieces of information.
How Exactly Should We Go About Prioritizing These 2000 High Frequency Words?
The very best way to learn core vocabulary for most people is by learning in context (i.e seeing, hearing or constructing full sentences containing the target vocabulary). This is because as I previously mentioned a huge amount of the core 2000 words in a language will have multiple uses/meanings. By meeting these words in several different contexts and scenarios, it will allow us to distinguish between the multiple uses and give us a deeper understanding than if we just forcefully memorized dictionary style definitions. When we deeply understand all the functions of a word, and can actively demonstrate the use of it, the brain will retain the information more easily and for longer.
So what we really need are language resources that allows you to prioritize these 2000 most frequently spoken words (including multiple definitions and functions within phrases and idioms), not sidetracking you with the more obscure vocabulary which would be a waste your time. On top of this, the resources need to be extremely effective at cementing the information into your long term memory.
The problem however is that different types of language learning resources have different levels of effectiveness when used by different people.
Which Resources Will Work Best For You?
Research has shown that the best style of learning for each individual is dependent on neurological factors. That is is to say, being hard-wired to be a visual, auditory or kinaesthetic learner influences which education techniques are best for you. Maybe you’re strong in more than 1 of these areas.
- Are you someone that finds it an absolute strain to read a book, but can hang to every word to a speech? Then perhaps you’re an auditory learner. If so, perhaps audio-only courses, tutoring or instructional Youtube videos are best ways of facilitating your learning.
- Are you someone that couldn’t focus on what the teacher was saying in class, but then later used some quiet time to read the same information in a book and it all made sense? Then perhaps you’re a visual learner. If so, then maybe reading textual information, using spaced-repetition systems or using illustrated dictionaries are the best ways of facilitating your learning.
- Did the whole education system really pass you by, but you can quite comfortably reassemble an engine, perform a dance recital or bake a cake by learning from physical engagement? Then perhaps you’re a kinaesthetic learner. If so, then perhaps interactive games, physical flash cards and hands on practice are the best way of facilitating your learning.
“But I don’t know which type of learner I am! What am I supposed to do?”
For many people it won’t be immediately obvious which type of learner they are, it’s even possible you respond well to multiple styles. For me personally, I wouldn’t label myself solely as any of those types of learners. Through experimenting, I’ve come to find that I’m terrible at retaining information from audio and video sources, pretty good at retaining information from text resources, but fantastic at learning through ‘doing’. Where I really excel in language retention is where I am challenged to engage with the language and form my own sentences.
I’m taking an educated guess here that most of you reading this page aren’t entirely certain which type of learner you are at this point. No problem! We can get around that for now by using mixed-modality language learning resources. That’s to say using language courses/resources which use multiple formats to teach you the same content.
A good example would be a course that:-
- Demonstrates how to use a word as part of a sentence in writing.
- Demonstrates how to use the word as part of a sentence on the accompanying audio track.
- Challenges you to build an alternative sentence with your own initiative, speaking out aloud (activating your vocabulary).
- And then finishes with a challenging game/activity.
That’s 4 different ways of teaching you 1 piece of information.
NB. Also remember that we’re looking for resources that mostly focuses on the top 2000 most frequent vocabulary.
Over time experiment with these resources and you should discover which aspect (or aspects) of the system is helping you to remember information the best and hence be able to adapt your future studies.
Examples of Good Mixed-Modality Language Resources
The Michel Thomas Method My absolute favorite language learning resource!
- +Focuses well on the all important high frequency vocabulary, introducing them gradually in a very logical steps.
- +Makes the grammatical aspect of language learning seem very simple.
- +Prompts you to create sentences with all the new vocabulary, great for deepening your understanding of their function and activating passive knowledge.
- -Sometimes criticized for speaking both English and the target language with a poor accent.
- +Generally focuses on realistic high frequency conversational vocabulary.
- +Exposes you to vast array of native accents.
- +Tests you at the end of each chapter.
- +Each book provides you will a vast amount of learning material which will keep you busy for a long time.
- +Exposes you to many common idioms and slangs that you won’t find in other courses.
- -Can sometimes stray away from high frequency vocabulary.
- -Some Assimil courses being sold are several decades old and use out-dated vocabulary.
The Teach Yourself Series
- +Useful exercises at the end of each chapter.
- +Focuses on realistic high frequency conversational vocabulary.
- -Too much white-space and too many illustrations. Not enough audio content either, less than 20 conversations per book. Overall less content than you would expect for the size of the book and the price.
- +/-Grammar explanation is thorough but sometimes over-complicated.
Language Resources To Avoid
I strongly recommend you avoid the following popular resources if your focus is reaching conversational fluency fast:-
Duolingo It’s mixed-modality but extremely flawed.
- -Does not focus on useful high frequency conversational vocabulary.
- -The voice in the audio is robotic and unrealistic.
- -Does not encourage you to create your own sentences or speak aloud.
- -The focus is on winning the game rather than deepening your understanding.
- -The explanation of Grammar is lacking and when present, very poor.
- +Will make you very good at reading the language.
- -The course runs at an extremely slow pace, you won’t be getting anywhere fast.
- -Very biased towards visual learners’ needs.
- -No explanations of grammar.
- -The price is astronomical, and there isn’t enough content to justify it.
- -Exposes you to a tonne of useless vocabulary that is real waste of time learning.
- -Encourages you to learn 1:1 definitions of each word.
- -Does not encourage you to create your own sentences or speak aloud.
- +The audio tracks actually make for good listening practice.
- +Will make you very good at reading the language.
- -Very biased towards auditory learners’ needs.
- -Many of the courses are not accompanied by booklets.
- -Course is very slow.
- +Encourages you to activate your vocabulary.
- +Great for improving your listening and pronunciation skills
- +Sticks to high frequency conversational vocabulary.
How To Make Use Of High Frequency Vocabulary Lists
Although I will advise you not to learn these top 2000 words individually from lists, such lists are still very useful resources in the language learning process. Perhaps contrary to your first instinct, the information more useful to us is not a list of high frequency words in the language that you are learning, in fact we need to use a list of high frequency words in either your native language or a language that you speak very well already. The reason why a list of words in your native language is so useful is that we can use it to test our active memory (words that we can recall on the spot) rather than our passive memory (words that we only recognize upon seeing or hearing them, a far less useful skill if our aim is to speak fluently).
The best English resource for this matter that I have found is this list of just over 2000 high-frequency headwords (basic form of a lexeme) produced by Dr. Charles Browne, Dr. Brent Culligan and Joseph Phillips of www.newgeneralservicelist.org (an updated list of Michael West’s 1953 original general service list) deemed essential for fluency. Click here to download as as a spreadsheet.
This is the way I have used the general service list to test myself:-
- Go down each word one by one
- Note down all the high frequency contexts in which the word can be used in the English language (I used a Collins English Dictionary to help me here). Ignore the obscure uses.
- Construct sentences which convey the same meaning in the target language.
Let’s be realistic, the top 2000 words in one language is not going to perfectly line up with the top 2000 words on another language, but for our purposes of testing they will be similar enough. If you can comfortably convey meaning of and understand almost all of these words in the target language, consider yourself a master of the core of the language. Your next step is to focus on specialist vocabulary relevant to your life, interests, hobbies and personality.
At some point you may be interested in how many words you passively understand, and a great resource to use is this Wikipedia page here containing various lists of high frequency words for 43 languages. Ideally, you should use the lists derived from TV and movie scripts/subtitles as they are most relevant to the spoken language form we are trying to conquer.
A Word On Grammar
Being meticulous or even obsessive about learning grammar is the downfall of many language learners. Most successful polyglots take a more relaxed approach to it, only paying attention to the most essential grammar rules and focusing more on learning phrases and vocabulary. The most important grammar can usually be easily picked up by learning many phrases and spotting the patterns naturally, just as a child does when it learns its first language. Of course it does help to read an explanation of grammatical rules sometimes if it’s not obvious to you what the rule is. The fundamental grammatical aspects you need for speaking fluently and writing vary from language to language, but are generally along the lines of: syntax (word order), basic conjugations (especially tenses) and punctuation.
You can still speak fluently and be well understood without having perfect grammar, you just have to lose your fear of making mistakes and guess if you’re not entirely certain. All languages have many ridiculous and sparsely used grammar ‘exceptions’ that are the bane of a language learner’s studies. Trying to memorize them is not worth it at this point. It’s best to revisit them when you’re trying to perfect the language.
This is the second post of the series in the guide “How To Learn A Language Fast: The 4 Steps To Fluency”. A strategy that aims to make the path to fluency more time efficient.
Here are the 4 parts:-
- Step 1. Learning Pronunciation & Script (The Mechanics).
- Step 2. Learning The Most Important Vocabulary and Grammar (The Core of The Language). (Current Page)
- Step 3. Learning The Vocabulary Relevant To Your Life and Personality. (Coming Soon)
- Step 4: Step Away From The Books And Communicate. (Coming Soon)
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