There was some discussion of “the most important phrases to learn” in a new language (as there always is) recently on some “how to learn languages” blog, and the list — no need to link to it, it was quite ordinary and predictable — provided a great many questions and absolutely no way for the learner who’d memorized the list to engage with anyone, pretty much as is usual for these quick-start lists. Oh, and let’s not forget the ubër-useful “You’re an idiot” for the Novice learner who wants to practice output through bar fights.
The author of that blog post referenced but did not use the General Service List of English vocabulary (http://www.newgeneralservicelist.org) which is now available in a “new” updated version. It’s a much larger list that is supposed to be key to reading texts given the coverage of the words contained on it. Since the ESL people are a pretty busy bunch in terms of thinking about these things, and since ESL/EFL in general enjoys a substantial group of teachers and theorists, I popped over to have a look.
Ugh. A word list.
I’m not sure what else I expected it to be. I’d hoped to see a list of — well, not words, but concepts. Pretty much like the Super Seven idea, but running down by frequency through 2,000 or more on an Excel spreadsheet, so that I could simply mix and match, and pick two or three concepts from the list more or less in order and be assured that I was acquiring the language to take care of the conceptual needs that would be the most pressing in any new language I chose.
Except of course, it was just a word list.
When you list the word “the” as a word — not that it’s not a word, mind you — but when you list it as the most frequent (which it is) and figure it’s the first word to memorize as a new speaker of English, never mind whether it has an easily definable concrete meaning or not — ugh. You can just imagine what that English class is like.
From a TPRS/CI perspective, I would mark six of the top 10 words as “freebies” — words that our students simply “get” through massive comprehensible input. I didn’t need to be taught “dek4” in Cantonese — the most frequent word in written texts — which is a weird kind of subordinating particle. I acquired it, and acquired it pretty rapidly, BECAUSE it was so frequent, and BECAUSE someone told me what the whole enchilada meant when it appeared in the middle of something.
Is there a place for word lists?
Sure. After you’re already fluent. After you already have the basic structure of the language acquired, for the most part, and can fall back on that structure to cement new words. Words, not structures. But you need to have the structure there for words to be of any use, unless you particularly like the ACTFL Novice level.