How few words can you use to learn a language?

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How few words can you use to learn a language?

Postby Internetmeme » Mon Aug 10, 2009 12:30 pm UTC

I've always thought about this one:

What is the minimum number of words that you would need to know to be able to learn a language from a dictionary? Since a dictionary actively recurses on itself to define words by other words, there must be some set that you would need to know to be able to get anything out of it.
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Re: What is the minimum words required to learn a language?

Postby 6453893 » Mon Aug 10, 2009 12:50 pm UTC

I doubt you could ever learn a language from a dictionary alone. Even if you could memorize every single word and respective definition, the dictionary doesn't provide any real guidance to usage, expression, or conjugation. You might be able to survive by rattling off words related to what you want ("Me...coffee...payment...soy milk...credit card") but you'd probably be unable to say "Could I please get a coffee?" and even less able to differentiate between "I want a coffee", "Do you want a coffee?", &c, and even less able to appreciate the contextual subtleties between "I wanted a coffee", "I had wanted a coffee" and "I did want a coffee".

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Re: What is the minimum words required to learn a language?

Postby Roĝer » Mon Aug 10, 2009 1:33 pm UTC

So it's more than zero then. Actually, many languages have a lot of inflection that you won't find in a dictionary, and of course syntax will be different too. So while you may not actually need many words to learn at first, there are other more important things before a dictionary becomes useful to you.
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Re: What is the minimum words required to learn a language?

Postby gmalivuk » Mon Aug 10, 2009 3:42 pm UTC

Yeah, on a pretty basic level, languages are made up of words and rules, and the dictionary only tells you about words, and perhaps the rules to make inflections of those words. It doesn't tell you much about connotations, and it typically doesn't tell you anything at all about syntax.

Now, if your question is simply how many words you need to start with to have a sort of critical level of vocabulary, from which you can use a (monolingual) dictionary to learn the majority of commonly used words in that language, then I'd have to say unhelpfully that it depends very heavily on the language itself.
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Re: What is the minimum words required to learn a language?

Postby 6453893 » Mon Aug 10, 2009 3:51 pm UTC

When I see this
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I get a little surge of adrenaline. I don't know that will amuse you or piss you off. Sorry. Bobber is the other one.

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Re: What is the minimum words required to learn a language?

Postby aurumelectrum13 » Tue Aug 11, 2009 3:23 am UTC

It would be impossible to learn a language from a dictionary. All the dictionary can tell you is what the words mean. But, for a language like English, the words are probably the least important part. I fthe words were so important, we'd probably have less of them. English is all conotation.

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Re: What is the minimum words required to learn a language?

Postby Bobber » Tue Aug 11, 2009 11:25 am UTC

6453893 wrote:When I see this
Image
I get a little surge of adrenaline. I don't know [w?]hat will amuse you or piss you off. Sorry. Bobber is the other one.

It's funny, because I know exactly what you mean. I don't know what you mean by me being the "other one" though. Care to elaborate?
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Re: What is the minimum words required to learn a language?

Postby 6453893 » Tue Aug 11, 2009 12:27 pm UTC

I didn't mean to imply you were lesser than gmalivuk. You are both very talented (though the adjective implies some kind of game) thinkers. There are others but you two stand out enough to stick in my memory. When I see either of you my mental feathers ruffle in preparation for defending some (probably stupid and outrageous) claim I have made.

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Re: What is the minimum words required to learn a language?

Postby Bobber » Tue Aug 11, 2009 6:12 pm UTC

6453893 wrote:I didn't mean to imply you were lesser than gmalivuk. You are both very talented (though the adjective implies some kind of game) thinkers. There are others but you two stand out enough to stick in my memory. When I see either of you my mental feathers ruffle in preparation for defending some (probably stupid and outrageous) claim I have made.
And I didn't mean to imply that you had insulted me, so we're good ;)
Thanks for the compliment - it actually means a lot to me, considering that I'm not even a native speaker. I did, however, just spend forty days with some friends in Florida, during which communication was never an issue, so I'd say I'm almost on par with one.

In return, I must admit that the posts I see you make here are amongst the saner ones.
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Re: What is the minimum words required to learn a language?

Postby martinellison » Wed Aug 19, 2009 11:16 am UTC

30,000?

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Re: What is the minimum words required to learn a language?

Postby Bobber » Wed Aug 19, 2009 11:37 am UTC

martinellison wrote:30,000?
How do you figure?
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Re: What is the minimum words required to learn a language?

Postby arpgme » Wed Aug 19, 2009 7:34 pm UTC

learning the complete grammar + 100 words should get you by with simple sentences.

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Re: What is the minimum words required to learn a language?

Postby gmalivuk » Thu Aug 20, 2009 5:40 am UTC

Bobber wrote:
martinellison wrote:30,000?
How do you figure?

Especially since, for example, the Shakespearean corpus only totals about half that many words. And yet I daresay that someone who understands all of Shakespeare has a pretty good understanding of the English of the time...
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Re: What is the minimum words required to learn a language?

Postby Internetmeme » Wed Oct 21, 2009 6:05 pm UTC

I can't believe I forgot I made this thread.
I thought that I had thought about it, but never posted it!
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Re: What is the minimum words required to learn a language?

Postby Bobber » Wed Oct 21, 2009 6:55 pm UTC

That is quite humorous.

Are you a stoner?
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Re: What is the minimum words required to learn a language?

Postby section-8 » Wed Oct 21, 2009 10:18 pm UTC

arpgme wrote:learning the complete grammar + 100 words should get you by with simple sentences.

To completely transition to a single language dictionary? At least 1000. The first 100 words do not even cover things like 'building' and 'tree'.

But I'll agree...you'd need a good idea of the grammar...but you cant do that with only 100 words. Maybe not even 1000.

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Re: What is the minimum words required to learn a language?

Postby Vo2max » Fri Oct 23, 2009 12:32 pm UTC

'learn a language'? Well when I occasionally go to Spain I'll reacquaint myself with the words for beer, the bill/check, and the first few numbers and I'll get through everything I want to do for a week combined with some pointing at a menu. Maybe 10 words; does that count? :mrgreen:

At the other end of the scale, even in Germany or Austria, where I'm fairly fluent, there'll always be a point in a conversation where I wonder what on earth the other person is on about because of a word or words that I've just not come across before. I might have enough words to communicate what I want, but understanding someone else is a different issue.

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Re: What is the minimum words required to learn a language?

Postby eijkaibjck » Fri Oct 23, 2009 3:24 pm UTC

On first reading the subject I didn't think on the dictionary approach. That's a wildly interesting yet useless question.

My take on learning languages is learn grammar and vocabulary as fast as I can and then start reading actual, not watered down material from the language. Books and video content, mainly. Songs tend to be more difficult because sung music forces a different prosody upon the sentences too often, and is actually counterproductive to learn a language in my opinion.

I don't think that most of the people use more than 1000 words. But think of the combinations.
Ok, I take it back.

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Re: What is the minimum words required to learn a language?

Postby jrlon » Sat Oct 24, 2009 2:38 am UTC

Based on a website I can't link to because this is my first post and that would be against the forum rules, I would say 2000+ would give you a very good basis for communicating - there would still be falters but you could definitely find a way to express yourself. Of course, there is a lot more work involved than just memorising 2000 word-definition pairs. The rest of that website is also very good if you're interested in memory and language learning.
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Re: What is the minimum words required to learn a language?

Postby gmalivuk » Sat Oct 24, 2009 2:42 am UTC

jrlon wrote:Based on a website I can't link to because this is my first post and that would be against the forum rules

That said, the bit in question is here, which explains that 2000 words accounts for about 90% of English communication.
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Re: What is the minimum words required to learn a language?

Postby jrlon » Sat Oct 24, 2009 3:55 am UTC

Haha.. Oh dear. Thanks for linking it.

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Re: What is the minimum words required to learn a language?

Postby zkcow » Fri Oct 30, 2009 8:58 am UTC

i think learning a language from a dictionary alone would be nigh on impossible.

For starters, it's all written, so you get no verbal communication.

You don't get any grammar pointers (and if you did, they could be written in the other language... which you don't understand). I know that with German, looking in the dictionary can be a messy exercise because of the subtleties in how the language is used versus how the words are written. The dictionary may tell you that the German word for go is gehen, but it doesn't give you really any clue how to use it. From just that, you don't know how to form a past tense sentence (for the third time tonight) eg I bin ins Kino gegangen.

I'm conversationally fluent in German, in that I can get my point across and communicate well with people my own age about common things. I don't know that many words - I have a good vocabulary, but not great. Probably less than a 1000 individual words. It's the grammar and syntax that count. All my vocab would be useless without it.

So, I think that it's not about knowing words, rather knowing how to use them. I.e. there is really no minimum to how many words you need to know to learn a language.

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Re: What is the minimum words required to learn a language?

Postby Eebster the Great » Sat Oct 31, 2009 10:40 pm UTC

How about a closely related but better-phrased question? Approximately how many words would somebody need to know beforehand in order to learn every word in the Oxford English Dictionary (chosen for its popularity) assuming English grammar and syntax are well understood, the OED contains no typos or other errors, this person has an infinite amount of patience and available time, and no definitions in the OED are circular?

The problem, I think, is that too many of these assumptions are completely unrealistic to give a reasonable answer. Even so, I would estimate 10,000, since many definitions will use very complicated words, and the definitions for these are often no simpler. Then again, I have no real way of knowing.

However, I would guess that to learn 90% of the words in the OED would require more like 250 words beforehand, since many of the basic words could be defined by these 250 initial ones, and with just a few thousand basic words, one can learn the vast majority of the words contained in the OED.

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Re: What is the minimum words required to learn a language?

Postby gmalivuk » Sun Nov 01, 2009 2:29 pm UTC

Eebster the Great wrote:However, I would guess that to learn 90% of the words in the OED would require more like 250 words beforehand

I suspect 250 words wouldn't be enough to get you straight to the 90%, but it would likely be enough to bootstrap your way up. (Use 250 to learn a couple thousand, use those to learn half the dictionary, and use those to learn the rest.) And then of course from 90% you could learn the other 10%.

So the real question becomes what the minimum number of words is before you can start this process. What's the tipping point?
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Re: What is the minimum words required to learn a language?

Postby Bobber » Sun Nov 01, 2009 4:24 pm UTC

I don't have a subscription to the OED, so I tried clicking around Wiktionary a bit, starting with the word "large":

Large: Of considerable or relatively great size or extent.

If we consider initial knowledge of propositions etc, the words I would need to understand in order to understand "Large" are these:

Considerable: Significant; worth considering.
Relatively: Proportionally, in relation to some larger scale thing.
Great: Very big, large scale.
Size: The dimensions or magnitude of a thing; how big something is.
Extent: A range of values or locations.

Now, to understand "Considerable" I would need to understand "Significant", "worth" and "consider" (as well as know to that considering is the gerund of consider), and to understand those words, I would need to understand even more.

The problem is that there are so many different words used to explain very simple concepts.
Another example, "Forest":

Forest: A dense collection of trees covering a relatively large area. Larger than woods.

I would need to know:
Dense
Collection
Tree
Cover
Relatively
Large
Area
Woods

That's a long list of words, some of which will need more "difficult" words to be defined by.

From this research I conclude that the answer to both the topic's title question as well as this* question is a number that, if ever calculated, will show to be much larger than that which was expected.

* v
Approximately how many words would somebody need to know beforehand in order to learn every word in the Oxford English Dictionary (chosen for its popularity) assuming English grammar and syntax are well understood, the OED contains no typos or other errors, this person has an infinite amount of patience and available time, and no definitions in the OED are circular?
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Re: What is the minimum words required to learn a language?

Postby Eebster the Great » Mon Nov 02, 2009 7:17 am UTC

gmalivuk wrote:
Eebster the Great wrote:However, I would guess that to learn 90% of the words in the OED would require more like 250 words beforehand

I suspect 250 words wouldn't be enough to get you straight to the 90%, but it would likely be enough to bootstrap your way up. (Use 250 to learn a couple thousand, use those to learn half the dictionary, and use those to learn the rest.) And then of course from 90% you could learn the other 10%.

So the real question becomes what the minimum number of words is before you can start this process. What's the tipping point?


No, my point was that that 10% will consist of words which cannot be understood at any level without understanding at least one other word in that group. I'm beginning to think there may be tens of thousands of such circles.


As for how 250 words could get you so far, the key is that you generally do not need to know every word in a definition to understand that definition. As long as you know the key ones, you can work it out, because remember, you have perfect knowledge of the grammar and syntax. Furthermore, while it seems daunting since many definitions include many different words, you are forgetting just how MANY different paths you could take to learn that word. For example, any definition that gives multiple synonyms could be understood as long as you learn any one of those synonyms. This includes most definitions that use the word "or." Even if most definitions seem to require many words to understand, a large number of words are bound to require just a few, and it is not clear how many new words you could learn just from those.

Ultimately, I think all this speculation is pretty pointless, because there is no good way to determine even a reasonably accurate answer to this question. I'm just posting my musings on the subject.

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Re: What is the minimum words required to learn a language?

Postby gmalivuk » Mon Nov 02, 2009 1:21 pm UTC

Eebster the Great wrote:No, my point was that that 10% will consist of words which cannot be understood at any level without understanding at least one other word in that group.

I strongly doubt that. I definitely don't know 90% of the words in the OED, and no one else here does, either.

And yet I've never come across one I couldn't understand the definition for.
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Re: What is the minimum words required to learn a language?

Postby Eebster the Great » Wed Nov 04, 2009 12:10 am UTC

gmalivuk wrote:
Eebster the Great wrote:No, my point was that that 10% will consist of words which cannot be understood at any level without understanding at least one other word in that group.

I strongly doubt that. I definitely don't know 90% of the words in the OED, and no one else here does, either.

And yet I've never come across one I couldn't understand the definition for.


It is impossible to fully understand the definitions of quark, hadron, or strong force, without already understanding the other two. Examples like this are extremely common.

(Edited for typo)
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Re: What is the minimum words required to learn a language?

Postby modularblues » Mon Nov 09, 2009 3:15 am UTC

This is interesting from an AI perspective...

The dictionary does not provide information about the frequency of word usage, and it will only describe a partial subset of phrases and their meaning. Therefore one would ideally need to frequency sample the entire body of literature in that language - written and spoken. Might be a tad unrealistic.

Not to mention the layers upon layers of context in any language...

What I think is more promising is the approach proposed by Marvin Minsky, the OpenMind project. It is compiling a repository of knowledge bits that we consider to be common sense, but usually never give a second thought in our everyday conversation because they are so ingrained and taken for granted.

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Postby -.Mateo.- » Mon Nov 23, 2009 9:35 pm UTC

Im a native Spanish speaker, 2 years ago my English level was B2 (that's an European scale), but now that I don't study it anymore Im a bit rusty...This year I began studying French (I gave my first final exam a week ago)...For what my French teacher tells me, Ive learned about 2000 words (not all of which I remember, of course)...With my level, I can't really say that I "speak French", but I think I can survive in France, I can ask questions, talk about money, name most of the usual shops and public transport, etc...My point is, the amount of words you need to learn varies not only depending on the language but also on how you define "learn it", a few thousand words are okay to buy some stuff, get a room and ask directions but if you want to talk casually about a book, or give an opinion or something, etc, you'll need more than a few...30 000 might actually be about it, but no idea...

Also, there's the grammar issue. grammar changes a lot from language to language. Prepositions are bitches, as they don't actually have meanings but give meaning to a word (for example, in French, using "à" or "en" depends if the following name is a city, a "female" country, a "male" country, etc...

Also, verbs can be tricky,for example, in both English and French, "be" refers to both existence and location ("He was a good man"/"He is in Place X") while in spanish there are to different verbs (Ser/Estar), one for each meaning.
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Re: What is the minimum words required to learn a language?

Postby silvermace » Tue Nov 24, 2009 2:31 pm UTC

I remember it being 1,500+ characters in chinese to be considered literate

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Re: What is the minimum words required to learn a language?

Postby Blarpityblorp » Sun Nov 29, 2009 6:19 pm UTC

gmalivuk wrote:Yeah, on a pretty basic level, languages are made up of words and rules, and the dictionary only tells you about words, and perhaps the rules to make inflections of those words. It doesn't tell you much about connotations, and it typically doesn't tell you anything at all about syntax.


I think what he/she's saying is that the definitions provided in dictionaries define words in terms of others, which ARE used in context, and from which syntax can be gleaned. Of course, to learn a language this way, words would need to fall into convenient little self-contained loops--if the ends of a chain of words were "disconnected," so to speak, if would be impossible. If the dictionary were written perfectly for this purpose, you would be fluent by reading the whole thing and knowing at least one "key" word. If it were only written "well," you might need numerous key words. (I wanted to do this when I was six to teach my pet hamster English--the thought was that even if he couldn't talk to me, I could have one-way conversations with him. :) ) The only catch is that you'd have to be obscenely intelligent to remember each connection of each word to each other and suddenly unlock their meanings once a few words are given meaning. And of course, you'd probably need a specially designed dictionary for this purpose. It's a cool idea, though.

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Re: What is the minimum words required to learn a language?

Postby ianf » Wed Dec 23, 2009 1:56 pm UTC

It seems to me that there are two types of definition commonly found in (English) dictionaries. One sort is the type we really need for this sort of thing ... defining a complex word in terms of simpler ideas. An example of this might be "forest", defined as "a large area where trees grow close together". Someone with a fairly small vocabulary should be able to understand this definition.

However, there is a second type of definition, which seems to be a complex definition of a simple concept. For example "tree" could be defined as "a woody perennial plant with one main stem or trunk which develops many branches, usually at some height above the ground". I can't imagine anyone who does not know what a tree is finding it easy to learn from that definition.

So, it seems to me that the minimum set of words you need would be the type of extremely basic concept (like tree) where the definition adds complexity rather than removing it.

If someone was really interested in that question, they could take a sample of 1,000 definitions (or whatever) from the dictionary and see how they break down between the first type of definition and the second type.

I also think that this would vary greatly between languages. In English, words are pretty much simple to identify - if I wanted to understand what "give me" means, I can look up "give" in the dictionary. Consider Spanish though. If I wanted to understand what "dame" meant (i.e. "give me" not "woman"), I would first need to understand that "dame" actually consists of "da" and "me", then I would need to understand that "da" comes from "dar" which I could then look up. This seems more complex (although this might be because I'm a native English speaker and don't really speak Spanish).

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Re: What is the minimum words required to learn a language?

Postby levantis » Sun Apr 04, 2010 9:38 pm UTC

If you take a completely non-flective language, you can actually count the minimum number required (as long as you`re OK with the fact that the dictionary wasn`t made to make this number as small as possible).
For example, chinese would do great.

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Re: What is the minimum words required to learn a language?

Postby Monika » Mon Apr 05, 2010 6:00 pm UTC

Internetmeme wrote:I've always thought about this one:

What is the minimum number of words that you would need to know to be able to learn a language from a dictionary? Since a dictionary actively recurses on itself to define words by other words, there must be some set that you would need to know to be able to get anything out of it.

Let's redefine the question to how many English words one needs to know to start using an English-English dictionary instead of an English-native language dictionary or read let's say Shakespeare in English with only English explanations of all the strange words instead of translations of them.

There seems to be some agreement that about 1500-3000 words are needed.
* E.g. the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English uses "about 2000" (so they say) base words / defining words to explain their 230'000 dictionary entries. It is used in the years 11-13 of German schools, i.e. after learning English for six years from school books and with English-German dictionaries (not counting English classes in primary school i.e. years 1-4, which are mostly about singing songs and stuff).
* We read MacBeth in 12th grade in English, the explanations printed in the booklet used a 3000-word base / defining vocabulary IIRC. It was targeted at British pupils, I think.
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