A person's vocabulary
is the set of word
In language, a word is the smallest free form that may be uttered in isolation with semantic or pragmatic content . This contrasts with a morpheme, which is the smallest unit of meaning but will not necessarily stand on its own...
s within a language
Language may refer either to the specifically human capacity for acquiring and using complex systems of communication, or to a specific instance of such a system of complex communication...
that are familiar to that person. A vocabulary usually develops with age, and serves as a useful and fundamental tool for communication
Communication is the activity of conveying meaningful information. Communication requires a sender, a message, and an intended recipient, although the receiver need not be present or aware of the sender's intent to communicate at the time of communication; thus communication can occur across vast...
and acquiring knowledge
Learning is acquiring new or modifying existing knowledge, behaviors, skills, values, or preferences and may involve synthesizing different types of information. The ability to learn is possessed by humans, animals and some machines. Progress over time tends to follow learning curves.Human learning...
. Acquiring an extensive vocabulary is one of the largest challenges in learning a second language
A second language or L2 is any language learned after the first language or mother tongue. Some languages, often called auxiliary languages, are used primarily as second languages or lingua francas ....
Knowing and using a word
Vocabulary is commonly defined as "all the words known and used by a particular person". Unfortunately, this definition does not take into account a range of issues involved in knowing
Productive and receptive
The first major distinction that must be made when evaluating word knowledge is whether the knowledge is productive (also called active) or receptive (also called passive) and even within those opposing categories, there is oftentimes no clear distinction. Words that are generally understood when heard or read or seen constitute a person's receptive vocabulary. These words may range from well-known to barely known (see degree of knowledge below). In most cases, a person's receptive vocabulary is the larger of the two. For example, although a young child may not yet be able to speak, write, or sign, he or she may be able to follow simple commands and appear to understand a good portion of the language to which he or she is exposed. In this case, the child's receptive vocabulary is likely tens, if not hundreds of words but his or her active vocabulary is zero. When that child learns to speak or sign, however, the child's active vocabulary begins to increase. It is possible for the productive vocabulary to be larger than the receptive vocabulary, for example in a second-language learner who has learned words through study rather than exposure, and can produce them, but has difficulty recognizing them in conversation.
Productive vocabulary, therefore, generally refers to words which can be produced within an appropriate context and match the intended meaning of the speaker or signer. As with receptive vocabulary, however, there are many degrees at which a particular word may be considered part of an active vocabulary. Knowing how to pronounce, sign, or write a word does not necessarily mean that the word has been used to correctly or accurately reflect the intended message of the utterance, but it does reflect a minimal amount of productive knowledge.
Degree of knowledge
Within the receptive / productive distinction lies a range of abilities which are often referred to as degree of knowledge
. This simply indicates that a word gradually enters a person's vocabulary over a period of time as more aspects of word knowledge are learnt. Roughly, these stages could be described as:
- Never encountered the word.
- Heard the word, but cannot define it.
- Recognize the word due to context or tone of voice.
- Able to use the word and understand the general and/or intended meaning, but cannot clearly explain it.
- Fluent with the word – its use and definition.
Depth of knowledge
The differing degrees of word knowledge imply a greater depth of knowledge
, but the process is more complex than that. There are many facets to knowing a word, some of which are not hierarchical so their acquisition does not necessarily follow a linear progression suggested by degree of knowledge
. Several frameworks of work knowledge have been proposed to better operationalise this concept. One such framework includes nine facets:
The orthography of a language specifies a standardized way of using a specific writing system to write the language. Where more than one writing system is used for a language, for example Kurdish, Uyghur, Serbian or Inuktitut, there can be more than one orthography...
- written form
Phonology is, broadly speaking, the subdiscipline of linguistics concerned with the sounds of language. That is, it is the systematic use of sound to encode meaning in any spoken human language, or the field of linguistics studying this use...
- spoken form
- reference - meaning
Semantics is the study of meaning. It focuses on the relation between signifiers, such as words, phrases, signs and symbols, and what they stand for, their denotata....
- concept and reference
In linguistics, a register language, also known as a pitch-register language, is a language which combines tone and vowel phonation into a single phonological system. Burmese and the Chinese dialect Shanghainese are examples...
- appropriacy of use
In corpus linguistics, collocation defines a sequence of words or terms that co-occur more often than would be expected by chance. In phraseology, collocation is a sub-type of phraseme. An example of a phraseological collocation is the expression strong tea...
- lexical neighbours
- word associations
Word Association is a common word game involving an exchange of words that are associated together. The game is based on the noun phrase word association, meaning "stimulation of an associative pattern by a word" or "the connection and production of other words in response to a given word, done...
In linguistics, syntax is the study of the principles and rules for constructing phrases and sentences in natural languages....
- grammatical function
In linguistics, morphology is the identification, analysis and description, in a language, of the structure of morphemes and other linguistic units, such as words, affixes, parts of speech, intonation/stress, or implied context...
- word parts
A literate person's reading
Reading is a complex cognitive process of decoding symbols for the intention of constructing or deriving meaning . It is a means of language acquisition, of communication, and of sharing information and ideas...
vocabulary is all the words he or she can recognize when reading. This is generally the largest type of vocabulary simply because it includes the other three, though in some cases, notably Chinese character
Chinese characters are logograms used in the writing of Chinese and Japanese , less frequently Korean , formerly Vietnamese , or other languages...
s, as in Chinese
The Chinese language is a language or language family consisting of varieties which are mutually intelligible to varying degrees. Originally the indigenous languages spoken by the Han Chinese in China, it forms one of the branches of Sino-Tibetan family of languages...
is a language spoken by over 130 million people in Japan and in Japanese emigrant communities. It is a member of the Japonic language family, which has a number of proposed relationships with other languages, none of which has gained wide acceptance among historical linguists .Japanese is an...
, where the pronunciation is not transparent, some words may be part of the oral vocabulary but not the written. For example, a Japanese speaker may not recognize that 麒麟 is pronounced kirin.
A person's listening vocabulary is all the words he or she can recognize when listening to speech. This vocabulary is aided in size by context and tone of voice.
A person's writing vocabulary is all the words he or she can employ in writing
Writing is the representation of language in a textual medium through the use of a set of signs or symbols . It is distinguished from illustration, such as cave drawing and painting, and non-symbolic preservation of language via non-textual media, such as magnetic tape audio.Writing most likely...
. Contrary to the previous two vocabulary types, the writing vocabulary is stimulated by its user.
A person's speaking vocabulary is all the words he or she can use in speech
Speech is the human faculty of speaking.It may also refer to:* Public speaking, the process of speaking to a group of people* Manner of articulation, how the body parts involved in making speech are manipulated...
. Due to the spontaneous nature of the speaking vocabulary, words are often misused. This misuse – though slight and unintentional – may be compensated by facial expressions, tone of voice, or hand gesture
A gesture is a form of non-verbal communication in which visible bodily actions communicate particular messages, either in place of speech or together and in parallel with spoken words. Gestures include movement of the hands, face, or other parts of the body...
"Focal vocabulary" is a specialized set of terms and distinctions that is particularly important to a certain group; those with a particular focus of experience or activity. A lexicon, or vocabulary, is a language's dictionary, its set of names for things, events, and ideas. Some linguists believe that lexicon influences people's perception on things, the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis
The principle of linguistic relativity holds that the structure of a language affects the ways in which its speakers are able to conceptualize their world, i.e. their world view...
. For example, the Nuer of Sudan have an elaborate vocabulary to describe cattle. The Nuer have dozens of names for cattle because of the cattle's particular histories, economies, and environments. This kind of comparison has elicited some linguistic controversy, as with the number of "Eskimo words for snow
The "Eskimo words for snow" claim is a widespread misconception alleging that Eskimos have an unusually large number of words for snow. In fact, the Eskimo–Aleut languages have about the same number of distinct word roots referring to snow as English does...
". English speakers can also elaborate their snow and cattle vocabularies when the need arises.
During his/her infancy, a child builds a vocabulary by instinct, with zero effort. Infant
A newborn or baby is the very young offspring of a human or other mammal. A newborn is an infant who is within hours, days, or up to a few weeks from birth. In medical contexts, newborn or neonate refers to an infant in the first 28 days after birth...
s imitate words that they hear and then associate those words with objects and actions. This is the listening vocabulary. The speaking vocabulary follows, as a child's thoughts become more reliant on his/her ability to self-express in a gesture-free and babble-free manner. Once the reading and writing vocabularies are attained – through questions and education
Education in its broadest, general sense is the means through which the aims and habits of a group of people lives on from one generation to the next. Generally, it occurs through any experience that has a formative effect on the way one thinks, feels, or acts...
– the anomalies and irregularities of language can be discovered.
In first grade
First grade is a year of primary education in schools in the United States and English-speaking provinces of Canada. It is the first school year after kindergarten...
, an advantaged student (i.e. a literate student) learns about twice as many words as a disadvantaged student. Generally, this gap does not tighten. This translates into a wide range of vocabulary size by age five or six, at which time an English-speaking child will have learned about 2,500–5,000 words. An average student learns some 3,000 words per year, or approximately eight words per day.
After leaving school, vocabulary growth reaches a plateau. People usually then expand their vocabularies by engaging in activities such as reading, playing word game
Word games and puzzles are spoken or board games often designed to test ability with language or to explore its properties.Word games are generally engaged as a source of entertainment, but have been found to serve an educational purpose as well...
s, and by participating in vocabulary-related programs.
The importance of a vocabulary
- An extensive vocabulary aids expressions and communication.
- Vocabulary size has been directly linked to reading comprehension.
- Linguistic vocabulary is synonymous with thinking vocabulary.
- A person may be judged by others based on his or her vocabulary.
Native speakers' vocabularies vary widely within a language, and are especially dependent on the level of the speaker's education. A 1995 study estimated the vocabulary size of college-educated speakers at about 17,000 word families, and that of first-year college students (high-school educated) at about 12,000.
The effects of vocabulary size on language comprehension
Francis and Kucera studied English texts totaling one million words and found that the learning of the most frequent words in an English text provides a comprehension of most of the words in those texts:
| Vocabulary Size
|| Written Text Coverage
| 1000 words
The knowledge of the 2000 most frequent English words provides a comprehension of 80% of English words. The figures look even better than this if we want to cover the words we come across in an informally spoken context. Then the 2000 most common words would cover 96% of the vocabulary. These numbers should be encouraging to beginning language learners, especially because the numbers in the table are for word lemmas and knowing that many word families would give even higher coverage. However, the number of words needed may differ substantially between different languages.
Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition
Learning vocabulary is one of the first steps of learning a second language, yet a learner never finishes vocabulary acquisition. Whether in one’s native language or a second language, the acquisition of new vocabulary is a continual process. Many methods can help one acquire new vocabulary.
Although memorization can be seen as tedious or boring, associating one word in the native language with the corresponding word in the second language until memorized is considered one of the best methods of vocabulary acquisition. By the time students reach adulthood, they generally have gathered a number of personalized memorization methods. Although many argue that memorization does not typically require the complex cognitive processing that increases retention (Sagarra & Alba, 2006), it does typically require a large amount of repetition, and spaced repetition
Spaced repetition is a learning technique that incorporates increasing intervals of time between subsequent review of previously learned material; this exploits the psychological spacing effect...
A flashcard or flash card is a set of cards bearing information, as words or numbers, on either or both sides, used in classroom drills or in private study. One writes a question on a card and an answer overleaf. Flashcards can bear vocabulary, historical dates, formulas or any subject matter that...
s is an established method for memorization, particularly used for vocabulary acquisition in computer-assisted language learning
Computer-assisted language learning is succinctly defined in a seminal work by Levy as "the search for and study of applications of the computer in language teaching and learning"...
. Other methods typically require more time and longer to recall.
Some words cannot be easily linked through association or other methods. When a word in the second language is phonologically or visually similar to a word in the native language, one often assumes they also share similar meanings. Though this is frequently the case, it is not always true. When faced with a false cognate, memorization and repetition are the keys to mastery. If a second language learner relies solely on word associations to learn new vocabulary, that person will have a very difficult time mastering false cognates. When large amounts of vocabulary must be acquired in a limited amount of time, when the learner needs to recall information quickly, when words represent abstract concepts or are difficult to picture in a mental image, or when discriminating between false cognates, rote memorization is the method to use. A neural network model of novel word learning across orthographies, accounting for L1-specific memorization abilities of L2-learners has recently been introduced (Hadzibeganovic & Cannas, 2009).
The Keyword Method
One useful method to build vocabulary in a second language is the keyword method. When additional time is available or one wants to emphasize a few key words, one can create mnemonic devices or word associations. Although these strategies tend to take longer to implement and may take longer in recollection, they create new or unusual connections that can increase retention. The keyword method requires deeper cognitive processing, thus increasing the likelihood of retention (Sagarra & Alba, 2006). This method uses fits within Paivio’s (1986)
dual coding theory because it uses both two verbal and image memory systems. However, this method should be used only with words that represent concrete and imageable things. Abstract concepts or words that do not bring a distinct image to mind are difficult to associate. In addition, studies have shown that associative vocabulary learning is more successful with younger aged students (Sagarra & Alba, 2006). As students advance and age, they tend to rely less on creating word associations to remember vocabulary.
Basic English vocabulary
Several word lists have been developed to provide people with a limited vocabulary either quick language proficiency or an effective means of communication. In 1930, Charles Kay Ogden created Basic English
Basic English, also known as Simple English, is an English-based controlled language created by linguist and philosopher Charles Kay Ogden as an international auxiliary language, and as an aid for teaching English as a Second Language...
(850 words). Other lists include Simplified English
Simplified English is the original name of a controlled language historically developed for aerospace industry maintenance manuals. It offers a carefully limited and standardized subset of English. It is now officially known under its trademarked name as Simplified Technical English...
(1000 words) and Special English
Special English is a controlled version of the English language first used on October 19, 1959, and still presented daily by the United States broadcasting service Voice of America. World news and other programs are read one-third slower than regular VOA English. Reporters avoid idioms and use a...
(1500 words). The General Service List, 2000 high frequency words compiled by Michael West
Dr. Michael Philip West was an English language teacher and researcher who worked extensively in India in the mid 1900s. He produced the reading scheme The New Modern Reader and A General Service List of English Words .-References:*...
from a 5,000,000 word corpus, has been used to create a number of adapted reading texts for English language learners. The knowledge of 2,000 English words provides a comprehension of most of the English language, enough to render one literate.
Vocabulary differences between social classes in the U.S.A.
James Flynn reports the remarkable differences in vocabulary exposure of pre-schoolers between different classes in the U.S.A. Apparently, pre-schoolers of professional families are typically exposed to 2,150 different words, pre-schoolers from working class families to 1,250 words, while those from households on welfare just 620.
- Differences between American and British English (vocabulary)
There is noticeable variation in the vocabularies of American English and British English. Definitive analysis is problematic, but thorough research can reveal useful data and evidence of the differences...
- Language proficiency
Language proficiency or linguistic proficiency is the ability of an individual to speak or perform in an acquired language. As theories vary among pedagogues as to what constitutes proficiency, there is little consistency as to how different organizations classify it...
(Linguistic proficiency) The ability of an individual to speak or perform in an acquired language).