Frequently-used words

One piece of language learning advice that is quite widely preached is that you should concentrate on learning the most frequently -used words in a language at first, before learning less common words. By doing so you should have enough words to be able to understand and talk about everyday kinds of things. The advice on how to learn the words varies. I tend to absorb them through extensive reading and listening, but others like to use flash cards.

I was thinking about this today and realised that the words and phrases that I use most frequently might not be the same as the ones you use. We will probably have a shared core of words, but beyond that the list for each of us is likely to be different. Lists of frequently-used words are available for a variety of languages and are useful, but it might also be useful to think about what you as an individual most often talk about and to learn how to say those things in the language(s) you’re learning.

One way of finding out which particularly words and expressions you use most often would be to record your conversations for several days or even a week, and then to analyse the recordings. If you have a recording function on your phone, or a small recording device, this could be done discretely. As well as finding out which words and expressions you tend to use, you would also find out the typical topics you talk about. Once this has been done once, the results can be used for any language you’re learning.

Have you ever tried anything like this?

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This entry was posted in English, Language, Language learning.

5 Responses to Frequently-used words

  1. This is an interesting concept, and a rather unusual one. I never heard anyone else suggesting to record yourself in your daily conversations and think about what you talk about usually. This can be useful in some sense, but what do you propose doing after that? Finding translations for these words and expressions that you usually use and then learning these?
    On the one hand, this can be quite useful if you wish to express yourself the same way as you would in your native language. On the other hand, however, I am afraid that while core words will be easily converted, searching for the translation of the less common ones, you will be in a position where you will have to choose between two or three different words that are different only by a small nuance. To give an example, the word “different” when translated into German, gives you “anders”, “verschieden”, “unterschiedlich”, “ungleich” and others through Google Translate. Supposing you don’t know any German yet, how do you distinguish which to adopt? This is just one small problem I can think of from the top of my head regarding choosing your own words to study independently – you don’t know if a direct translation would bring you the correct words that you wish for.

    On another non-related note, I believe that there shouldn’t be a problem in learning both common and less common words together. As far as I believe, there are no objective levels or “experience points” to vocabulary, so you are as much capable to learn the word for “airplane” as you are for “processor” (a word that appears early on in Assimil Spanish, as far as I hear from a friend) in a different language, so it’s not a problem learning them together.
    Also, thinking of Steve Kaufman’s view that you should learn what interests you, the faster you get to touch content that you are interested in, the better. If you are, for example, interested in cars and engines, the faster you learn these words, the more fun you will have with the language.

    Sorry for the long post :)

  2. Simon says:

    I just thought that some of the words on standard lists of frequently-used words might not be useful or relevant to everyone, Some words that I use frequently, for example, might not be used by others, or used only infrequently. By recording yourself you can discover exactly which words and phrases you use most often in your native language. Then you can find out how to say these things in languages you’re learning, which is useful, unless you want to talk about completely different things in the new language.

    When looking words up in a dictionary or translation program, you might find several equivalents, so you need to know which are the ones you want – a native speaker can help with this.

  3. I find actually that when I speak Japanese for example, I act somewhat differently then when I speak in English or Hebrew. I wouldn’t dare say that I “become Japanese” or anything weird like that, but I speak to speak more quietly and politely when I meet someone for the first time, then if I did for example with Chinese or some other language.
    Just a thought about changing how you talk based on language.
    Does something like this happen to you?

  4. Mike says:

    Thanks for that Simon! Although I agree with some points Alexander has highlighted, I think overall the idea of recording your daily conversations is an interesting one. For a language such as Chinese, which is tonal you could use it to understand your problem areas. Especially if you review the recordings with a native speaker. I’ll ask my teacher at BRIC Language Systems what she thinks about this in our lessons.

    To answer your question Alexander, although I don’t speak Chinese fluently yet, I do notice a small change in the way I talk. But I think that’s because I’m more or less trying to carbon copy my teacher. What I’ve noticed more is the change in body language.

  5. Simon says:

    Alexander – I do sometimes find myself behaving somewhat differently when speaking different languages, especially in languages like Japanese.