Friday, February 24, 2006

The one hundred most common words and why you don't need to learn them

It is said that there are only one hundred words that make up 50% of all language. Great! All you have to do is learn these one hundred words and you will be half-way there in your ambition to learn a new language. Here are the top twelve words in the list: a, and, he, I, in, is, it, of, that, the, to, was. Now try making a sentence with these words. You can't? Nothing at all? What went wrong? These twelve words make up a quarter of all reading, so you should be able to say something with them, shouldn't you?
The problem with this brilliant idea is that the most common words are only words that don't carry any meaning in themselves, like articles, conjunctions and prepositions etc. And it gets worse - imagine that you decided to learn all these words in French in order to get a head start. The indefinite article, "a" in French could be "un" or "une". "At" could be "à", "au", "aux", but then the word "to" could be one of those words as well. How are you going to know? I can't imagine how difficult it would be in a language like Chinese.
By the way, if these words make up 50% of all language, what about the other 50%? Just another 100 would be easy. But the second 50% is actually tens of thousands of words, which are crucial if you want to say something useful! The one hundred word theory is extremely important when teaching children to read, but not at all helpful to language students. Don't forget that the best way to assimilate these words is to learn correct example sentences. You can read about how to do this using flashcards at bonnes astuces (in French) or learning vocabulary (in English)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

My brother and his family are moving to Wales so I have decided to learn Welsh, not because I think I will need it when I go visit but I think it could be interesting and a way to pass the evenings. The problem is I have no idea where to start! Welsh is not as widely spoke as languages such as French and German so I am having trouble locating a tutor. So I have decided that I am going to do it myself online. Does anyone have any experience of learning language online? Is it easy when there’s no one to speak to? Also what are the prices like?