I decided after living in Montreal for a year, I should learn some French. I guess it’s more like a year and a half. Plus 7 days.
I took a class called Corpus Linguistics (machine readable, easily searchable language databases) last year in which the professor, Dr. Marlise Horst, had impressed upon us that when learning a new language, people are often taught very little vocabulary and quite a lot of grammar. It’s such a weird idea that somebody would be learning complicated grammatical principles before they know the most frequently used language, isn’t it? I mean, I think so. Maybe you don’t. It’s a free country.
This focus on grammar could be because of a number of reasons such as students wanting to learn grammar early on, curmudgeony teachers stuck in their old curmudgeony ways, or, my personal belief, teachers really don’t want to teach vocabulary heavy courses because it might be boring.
Well, let’s forget about them for now. I’m teaching myself, and I’ll decide how I want to learn because I said so, and I’m a big boy now. Learning the most frequently used words in a language can be a great way for a new language student to move up from beginner to intermediate in a short period of time. In English, the average native speaker knows 20,000 words which is an aggressive goal for any non-native speaker. In fact, high level non-native speakers of English might know 12,000 words. However, the 2000 most common words in English comprise 80% of written English or 90% of spoken English. So if a new learner acquires 1/10 of the vocabulary of a native speaker, they know 90% of the words they might encounter on any given day. Being a personal fan of minimum effort for maximum gain (that’s just the way I role), I have started studying French vocabulary daily now without any support from a text book (yet).
For memorizing French vocabulary, I have been using my favourite learning program, ANKI. This was the program that helped me learn literally thousands of Chinese characters, so I am willing to once again put my faith in it. There is even a pre-made deck of the 5000 most common words in French which introduces each new vocabulary item in order of frequency. My goal is to reach 2000 in 200 days, and right now I’m sitting at about 100.
When I learned Mandarin, the order of the vocabulary was determined by my textbooks. I would add new flashcards whenever I found new vocabulary, and after starting to learn French using frequency to determine learning order, I have come to realize that neither method is superior. Mandarin textbooks are hit or miss, and I learned a ton of crap that I would never use in daily conversation. At what point in your learning should you learn the vocabulary associated with ancient poetry? Never. That’s when.
Still, at least it meant that there was a lot of variety: a few new nouns, a few new grammatical items, etc. However, when you learn using frequency only, almost all of the first 100 words are grammatical items. I knew this intellectually, but trying to remember the difference between a dozen prepositions on your first day is rough. Trying to remember the difference between 50 prepositions, conjunctions, and pronouns in your first week just plain sucks. Luckily, I have moved heavily into the most frequently used verbs and nouns and have starting having way more fun. When somebody speaks really slowly to me like I’m an idiot, I can even understand that they’re telling me to stop blocking the metro door!
One estimate I read said that the 100 most frequent words of English accounts for almost 50% of all words used in writing, and I imagine French is similar. So I currently can recognize 50% of all the words in a newspaper! I have no chance of understanding anything, but that’s cool. Baby steps, right?
Guy on the metro: <<Get out of my way! Why don’t you speak French?!>> Tabarnak!
Me: Yes! I know one of those words!