How marvellous are you?

words

The sophistication of your brain!

 

Have you ever thought about the sophistication of your brain – especially when we’re referring to language?

I was looking at a blog on the economist.com from 2013. The blog pointed people to http://testyourvocab.com/ to see how large a range of words (or lexicon if you’re feeling posh) the average test-taker had.

Average lexicon size

 

What size lexicon would you think an adult native English speaker has?

2,000 – 8,000 words? 10,000 – 18,000 words? Or 20,000 – 35,000 words?

It would appear we have quite a few. After analysis of more than 2 million testees (careful how you say that), they came up with the following results:

Most adult native test-takers had between 20,000 – 35,000 words

Average native test-takers of age 4 already knew 5,000 words

Foreign test-takers tended to reach over 10,000 words by living abroad

Foreign test-takers learned 2.5 new words a day while living in an English-speaking country

So that’s the first gob-smacker. We’ve amassed all these words, often passively or experientially learning the difference between the subtleties. Did anyone ever teach you the difference between a squeeze and a hug? Ever sat down to study and then assimilate the nuances between tell, inform and explain?

The second gob-smacker

 

Then we’ve got the second bit. And whoof, this is ace. We seem to know how to manipulate the language without giving it too much thought. For example we use collocations instinctively. Collocations are those words that go together ‘naturally’. It feels right to say ‘I strenuously deny’, but ‘I thoroughly disapprove’ – turn them round and they just don’t work. And just because you’ve got the correct 2 words, it doesn’t mean you’re home and dry:

There’s the question of irreversible binomials. Now that’s not a medical condition, it’s this: It somehow feels right to say bow and arrow, short and sweet or hammer and sickle. Say them the other way round – does that sit comfortably with you? They’re also known as Siamese twins – but it’s probably not so politically correct.
And while we’re on the subject of word order: let’s look at adjectives.

The adjective game

 

Try this out: Describe some candlesticks using these words: silver, fireside large, French, lovely.

Yesterday I bought some…. candlesticks.

You probably (but not neccessarily) came up with

Some lovely, large, silver, French, fireside candlesticks.

Any other option may not feel right. Now this is not a hard and fast (an example of which grammatical concept, dear friends?) rule, more of a tendency.

You probably had to try out different orders before it felt right, but I imagine nobody’s ever sat down with you and said the order works like this:

subjective opinion (lovely), size (large), material (silver) origin (French) purpose (fireside)

You see you’re brilliant! Or at least your brain is. It honestly staggers me just how sophisticated in English we’ve all become. Without really trying.

Our job at Dialogue is to help our foreign learners become as familiar with these kinds of subtleties as they can be. Unfortunately, where we had 20 or so years to hone our English skills, our students who are undertaking language training may only have 20 hours. We have to make each minute in the classroom count and make sure that at the end of every session, every student leaves with a new tool in the linguistic belt – whether it’s a fancy binomial, collocation or good ol’ fashioned word order.

If you think we might be able to help one of your colleagues, give us a call on 01793 513 321.

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