2000 most comon words

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2000 most comon words

Post by PhilHunt » Tue Mar 02, 2010 12:19 pm

I read this article on OneStopEnglish.com and found the reply quite amusing. It's especially interesting for any teachers or students of EFL who may frequent this site.
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I would like to ask about how to go about teaching the 2000 most common words in English, which are said to represent 80% of all that is written and spoken. There is a lot written on the benefits of teaching core vocabulary, particularly as it may lay the foundations for consequential ‘grammaring’ that takes place. Often I teach using dogme principles and while this generates a lot of language it is hard to know, other than obviously common language, if this language forms part of the 2000 words or not – of course I realize that often it does no harm to include other language outside the core words as well as other useful classroom language.

The other way I teach vocabulary is by using themes – I try not to use lexical sets too much in light of research showing ss can confuse words with one another, but often I have no choice than to use this method and help ss by pointing out differences between words by showing what they collocate with. I have a strong feeling that many of these words are not part of the core 2000 words and will therefore not be used on a regular basis in the ‘real world’ unless they are recycled, in which case ss might at least retain them during their course!. Do you have any suggestions for helping ss learn this core vocabulary as efficiently as possible?

Mathew

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Mathew, your question is one that has preoccupied me, ever since the appearance of those statistics (i.e. the value of the 2000, sometimes extended to 3000, or even 10,000, most common words). There are a number of problems, though, even before we get on to the practical approaches. First of all, 2000 most frequent what, exactly? Does this list include understand and understanding and misunderstanding as one word or two words or three? Probably one – on the assumption that 2000 means 2000 word families, i.e. a base word and its derivatives. But, even a list of two thousand words would not of course represent 2000 meanings, since many words – most words? – have more than one meaning. Take take, for example, which has 26 different entries in the Macmillan Dictionary for Advanced Learners (MDAL), for instance. So, if we’re going to set out to teach these 2000 words (or word families) which meanings will we assign them? And how many? And then what about common multi-word units, such as get up and in front of and by means of? Would they be itemized separately or somehow included under a head word like get or front or means. So, you see, there are problems with this putative word list. But they’re not insuperable.
More easily solved, and therefore more frustrating, is the fact that this word-list is nowhere to be found! Nowadays, learners dictionaries flag high frequency words as a matter of course, and the MDAL was the first to highlight these words in red, as well as (like some of its predecessors) adopting a grading system according to which frequency band the words are in. But what is the teacher who wants to focus on these words meant to do – go through the dictionary page by page and note down all the red words? For some reason, dictionary publishers seem reluctant to publish their high frequency words as a list. This is partly because of the problems I outlined above, but there may be other, less academic, reasons why they keep their lists secret.

The nearest thing to a published frequency list is the list of what are called “defining words”. These are the words that the dictionary writers used in compiling their definitions. In the MDAL you’ll find them at the back, and they are “the most common and basic words in English”. There are 2500 of them, and, try as I might, I can’t find one that is not also marked in red in the main body of the dictionary. But there are some discrepancies which suggest that the defining vocabulary is not exactly the same as the top 2500 words. For example, the words primary and principal are both “three-star” words in the dictionary, but they are not included in the defining vocabulary. But the two-starred princess and printer are in the defining list.

However, in the absence of any, more definitive, list, the defining list might do as well as any. So, what do you do with it?! Here I’m tempted to say: get the students to eat it – simply because there will be almost as many ways of putting it to use as there will be students, and eating it might be one of them. Some students will actually benefit from working through at the rate of ten words a night, memorizing the whole list from abbreviation to zero. (At ten words a night, with breaks at weekends and the main religious holidays, they would cover all 2,500 words in a year).

Elsewhere I have written that it might make a lot of sense to set this as a learning goal before students even think of joining a language class. I.e. “Go away and learn this list and don’t come back until you are ready to be tested on them”. A bit like learning the highway code before you’re allowed to drive.

A more benign – and less mechanical approach – might be to keep a running record, yourself, as to which words occur in the course of your day-to-day teaching. After all, if these are the most frequent words, and if you are using lots of authentic materials, there’s a good chance that a lot of these words will come up a lot of the time. You should then try to draw attention to these words, recycle them, and perhaps create a class “word box” into which cards with the high frequency words on them, along with their translation on the reverse, are stored, to be taken out frequently for review, games, peer-testing, and so on.

Another approach is to train the learners themselves to take some responsibility for noting high frequency words when they occur. One way of doing this might be to get them to predict which words in a text are in the high frequency “red” bands, and then to check these against the dictionary. It’s slightly laborious, but the very effort of selecting the words, looking them up, and either accepting or rejecting them, will improve the chances of their being stored in memory, high frequency or not.

However, even if you use a lot of texts in class, there is no way that you can guarantee coverage of all 2500 in the limited time you are likely to have. Students who read a lot will get a lot of these words “for free”, as it were, but I mean read a LOT. To up the ante, you might want to choose words from the list to teach in class. Let’s say you are preparing for a course book unit on the subject of computing. You decide to pre-teach some high-frequency words that are relevant to the topic. You might go first to a reference book that has words organized into thematic groups, select from this, and then check the words against the frequency list in the dictionary. Here are a few I found simply by scanning the defining list in the MALD: calculation, computer, CD, document, electronic, email, file, game, information, key, keyboard, load, memory, menu, message, mouse, operate, organize, page, print, printer, program, save, software, store, switch on/off, system, and technology. Not an exhaustive list, but quite a lot to be getting on with. (Another suggestion to dictionary publishers: that they produce thematically organized lists of the top words).

One final point: unless you are teaching absolute beginners, many of the words in the high frequency list will already be known by the students. This suggests some kind of task, whereby they comb the list for a) words they are sure they know well enough to use productively; b) words they know the meaning of, but are unsure about using productively; and c) words they know not at all. They can then set themselves the long-term target of moving category (c) words into category (b), and category (b) words into category (a). Meanwhile, they can do such things as compare lists, teach and test one another, and report regularly on how successful they are managing to reduce the list of completely unknown words.
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Re: 2000 most comon words

Post by hsargent » Fri Mar 05, 2010 4:26 pm

I am not the academic to speak to your query. But since you haven't gotten any responses, I will comment on an item from the 2009 December National Geographic.

These five words are the oldest of 200 listed and changed the least over time. Apparently this was a study of 87 European, Middle Eastern, and Indian subcontinent languages. The chart which I assume I can not attach, shows the various parts of speech and their tendency to have changed.

Okay the five words...

I, two, five, who, three
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Re: 2000 most comon words

Post by Wizard of Oz » Sat Mar 06, 2010 2:27 am

.. PhilH just a note on the writer's statement ..
More easily solved, and therefore more frustrating, is the fact that this word-list is nowhere to be found!

and

But what is the teacher who wants to focus on these words meant to do – go through the dictionary page by page and note down all the red words? For some reason, dictionary publishers seem reluctant to publish their high frequency words as a list. This is partly because of the problems I outlined above, but there may be other, less academic, reasons why they keep their lists secret.
.. now the writer may just be trying to be academically pedantic or maybe just a plain wanker but it didn't take long to google heaps of lists .. but maybe as a start he should go to Wiktionary frequency lists to find lists and links to list and even some answers to his pedantry ..

.. of course no list will ever be definitive and exact as it will always rely on the search crtiteria that is applied by the writer of the list .. the various lists start to diverge within the top 10 words let alone the top 2 000 ..

. as for the teaching i was under the impression that modern language teaching had moved away from rote learned lists of words and the conjugating of verbs in favour of practical usage directed towards the learners reasons for wanting to learn the language and supplemented by conversation and dictionaries ..

WoZ qui parlez le francais like an Aussie
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Re: 2000 most comon words

Post by Erik_Kowal » Sat Mar 06, 2010 8:07 am

In line with WoZ's points, I question the notion that compiling a list of the 2000, 10,000 or 20,000 (or whatever) most common words can ever result in a list that is anything other than 1) arbitrary and 2) of negligible utility.

Alongside the definitional problems mentioned in the article cited by Phil H concerning exactly what constitutes a word for this purpose, is the knotty fact that our individual linguistic priorities are partly dependent on our local cultures and individual circumstances.

To give one example: a child growing up in a rural society that does not revolve around computers, cellphones and television (assuming there is still such a society) inhabits a very different space, in every sense, to the city child that must daily negotiate a multitude of complex interactions and technologies. A generic frequency list could therefore only notionally apply to the situation of a given individual. To reflect the respective social and technological realities and experiences of the two children in my example, one would somehow have to compile separate frequency lists for each of them. Even this level of detail would not allow for individual preoccupations and interests, including those involving children that had grown up in what might appear to be identical circumstances, such as siblings living in the same household.

In addition, word frequency lists could be compiled either descriptively (recording the de facto acquisition of basic vocabulary by a given population) or prescriptively (reflecting the compiler's notion of an ideal basic vocabulary). The first approach could be criticized on the basis that a list compiled for rural children, say, would contain disproportionately few of those words (and therefore concepts) that are relevant or necessary for succeeding in a modern technological society. The second approach could be criticized for embodying whatever cultural bias the compiler of the list was perceived to be displaying.

But even if we did assume that the 'perfect' list could be compiled, I cannot think of a situation in which the availability of such a list could significantly benefit a general language learner, especially in the case of a child learner.

An adult non-native racecar mechanic doing a crash course in English might find it useful if their course included an arbitrary list of the 250 most important automotive terms. But then we would no longer be concerned with the XXX most common words in the language, but specialized job-related vocabulary.

For the general learner, what would be the practical use of a list of the most common words in the language, whether or not it was tailored to reflect their individual circumstances or perceived needs? Certainly, it might help a teacher to feel they were structuring their learners' efforts in the most efficient possible way, but any language course designed to systematically work through such a list would leave little room for spontaneous linguistic exploration or any manifestation of curiosity on the part of the learners -- in fact, it would probably bore them silly. As any teacher knows, tedium is not conducive to sustaining motivation and eagerness to learn.

If we consider the actual manner in which a young child learns to speak, we would observe that it does so as a by-product of interacting with its physical and social environment in a context that is meaningful for other reasons besides the acquisition of speech per se -- for instance, when eating, playing with siblings, exploring the properties of objects, moving around in a space or being cuddled by a parent. If the child is not alone when doing any of these activities, each of them will generate a certain amount of language use (by both the child and its interlocutor(s)) that centres on a set of context-dependent words and expressions. The child thus automatically becomes familiar with, and sooner or later assimilates, the concepts and associated linguistic experiences that have the greatest relevance in those situations.

It seems to me that similar principles apply to EFL learners. The expansion of the learners' familiarity with a growing variety of different situations will lead to an expansion in their vocabularies through which they will inevitably become familiar with the most important situations and the associated most common vocabulary ahead of less important situations and hence less frequently encountered vocabulary. Provided it is not constrained by an overly rigid and artificially restricted syllabus that prevents the learners from being exposed to linguistic situations that are relevant to them, this learning mode will therefore automatically adapt to the learners' needs.

In sum: the obsession with lists of most common words represents an attempt to solve a problem that doesn't exist except in the minds of micromanaging pedagogical theorists and practitioners. It also smacks of pedagogical or academic make-work that is designed more to justify paying the salaries of teachers and academics than to be of practical benefit to language learners.
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Re: 2000 most comon words

Post by PhilHunt » Mon Mar 08, 2010 12:58 pm

Thanks for your intelligent response to this article Erik. In defence of the writer, who was in fact responding to a question posted on a EFL language site, I never felt that the writer was suggesting to use lists in teaching, far from it. He gives a very clear argument against such practise. However, in response to Woz who said "I was under the impression that modern language teaching had moved away from rote learned lists of words", it depends on which method you are following. From my understanding, the Berlitz method follows exactly such a method. In addition, don't forget that ESL teaching doesn't only take place in private language schools but also in state schools around the world where such 'parrot fashion' methods are frequently used. The lists which you directed me to Woz date back to around 2005 and may have been put on the internet after this article was written (it is an archived article).

I echo Erik’s views of arbitrary lists of negligible utility. An example of this, which many learners of foreign languages will probably be familiar with: Why is it that a learner of English will often read about the British or US government and learn heaps of vocabulary on the subject but not about their own. After all, when you go travelling and get into a political discussion with someone, which would be more useful? In your experience do you spend your time talking about the French governmental system to a French man, or your own? The answer to this is that the people who produce books often wish to teach something of the culture of the country in conjunction with the language, as well as the practical problem that you cannot cover all systems of government for all cultures in one book. However, a teacher of ESL in a monolingual and monocultural class would be doing the students a grave injustice of they did not attempt to adapt the material accordingly.
I also find it bizarre that many secondary/high school teachers in Italy use novels such as Oscar Wilde or Henry James to teach their students English. Again, you are giving the students a wonderful introduction to the British/US culture, but for many who are struggling with understanding modern English, how beneficial is it to teach them dated language? This again falls under Erik’s second point about negligible utility. Last week I had a student who came to me asking for help with reading Charles Dickens as her teacher had set this as homework. The poor girl was grappling with terms such as ‘a frowsy pasturage’ and ‘streets of stern houses, moodily frowning at each other’. Consider that this girl was 15 years old. I would guess that most British 15 year olds would struggle.

I’ve started to veer from the original argument, so I would just like to say that I find the idea of teaching lists of ‘most frequent words’ (most frequent in which context) a folly.
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Re: 2000 most comon words

Post by Shelley » Fri Mar 19, 2010 6:43 pm

Erik, . . . a racecar mechanic doing a crash course . . . heh, heh.
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Re: 2000 most comon words

Post by Erik_Kowal » Fri Mar 19, 2010 8:04 pm

I'm glad you enjoyed my little joke, Shelley. :-)
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Re: 2000 most comon words

Post by Shelley » Fri Mar 19, 2010 8:52 pm

:^) to you, too.
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Re: 2000 most comon words

Post by jeanlerymc » Sat May 15, 2010 6:03 am

I believe there are more than 2000 common words being used by people in their daily lives. Each word has a prospective meaning which is important to every sentence especially when you are about to teach those words on vocabulary with all its fundamentals. You need to be consistent in learning those 2000 common words in English which are properly categorized with different definitions.
Last edited by jeanlerymc on Mon May 17, 2010 5:00 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: 2000 most comon words

Post by Erik_Kowal » Sat May 15, 2010 6:55 am

Yeah. You know, I believe that you believe that. Whatever 'that' is.
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Re: 2000 most comon words

Post by Edwin F Ashworth » Sat May 15, 2010 11:07 am

All words are infinitely polysemous.
Except mirbane.
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Re: 2000 most comon words

Post by Erik_Kowal » Sat May 15, 2010 11:53 am

... remarked Edwin insegreviously.
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Re: 2000 most comon words

Post by zmjezhd » Sat May 15, 2010 2:25 pm

I, two, five, who, three

In Old English: ic, twá, fíf, hwá, þríe. (The numbers also have different forms depending on their case, e.g., twá, twegen, tú, twégea, twégra, etc., and the same situation holds for the two pronouns.) I do not understand what is meant by five oldest words in any language. Each word that can be traced back to a reconstructed proto-language root?

I think any list of "common" words would change drastically depending on how the student is expected to be using the language. I am currently learning Japanese, and I work for a Japanese software company. A lot of the vocabulary I am learning is business oriented.
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Re: 2000 most comon words

Post by christinecornwall » Sat May 15, 2010 7:55 pm

ok I found 'polysemous' (and prefer the stress on the second syllable btw) but Merriam does not list mirbane or insegreviously.
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Re: 2000 most comon words

Post by Edwin F Ashworth » Sun May 16, 2010 10:53 am

Use the in-house Search function above, Christine. You will probably find the first occurrence most illuminating. Though I'm not sure that's not slandering illuminating.
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