Endless Vocabulary Expansion – Week 32

I recently decided to keep a daily word list for my Mandarin project. When watching videos, I attempt to decipher vocabulary, and pay special attention to those that are either new or not well consolidated. I add an average of one term per day to my list. My hope is that this approach will guarantee a bare minimum pace of vocabulary acquisition. My word-list goals and method are explained in detail in my Week 30 post.

This simple and unoriginal project-within-a-project got me thinking. Why do we essentially stop expanding our vocabulary in our native language, or at least slow down dramatically? Would it be feasible to use a similar method to continually acquire new words and over time become armed with an outsized lexicon? Could I employ a similar approach to the four languages I already speak as a way to ensure that my skills continue to improve?

These are not entirely new questions for me or for many of my readers. For the sake of brevity, I will not endeavor to answer all of them in this post, though I find the topic fascinatingly complex.

In my case, I know a total of four languages, two of them as a native speaker, and am now endeavoring to learn a fifth. Research suggests that the average university-educated adult has a receptive vocabulary in his or her native language of about 17,000 to 20,000 word families*. Let’s assume I’m at the higher end and have a 20,000-word vocabulary in English. In Portuguese—though I consider myself a native speaker—my vocabulary is somewhat smaller because I have studied and read much less than in English, so a reasonable estimate would be 15,000 words. In Spanish, which I use professionally in written and spoken form, I would guess 10,000. And my French, which is very rusty and quite poor in terms of productive vocabulary, nonetheless probably has something like 4,000 receptive words. In Mandarin, I’m guessing about 150 (listening only) at this point.

So what would happen over time if I were able to add one word per day to my receptive vocabulary in each language?

Estimate of Word Families in My Receptive Vocabulary

Current 40 years old 50 years old 60 years old 71 years old
English 20,000 21,825 25,475 29,125 33,000
Portuguese 15,000 16,825 20,475 24,125 28,000
Spanish 10,000 11,825 15,475 19,125 23,000
French 4,000 5,825 9,475 13,125 17,000
Mandarin 150 1,975 5,625 9,275 13,000

I am currently 35 years old. By the time I’m 71, I would have a remarkably large lexicon in my native languages; a vocabulary comparable to an average educated native speaker of French and above average in Spanish; and a vocabulary akin in size to a native speaker of Mandarin without a college education. That would be amazing. Of course, there are many other components to language mastery, but I believe vocabulary is the single most important factor.

Receptive vocabulary is very different and far less impressive than productive vocabulary, but undoubtedly many words, by some estimates up to half, make their way into our productive vocabulary.

There are a variety of problems with this theoretical undertaking. Without elaborating, I would contend that the two main ones are time constraints and long-term retention.

Nevertheless, for a linguaphile, the prospects are tantalizing. Who knows? This could mark the beginning of a brand new experiment.

*

1. http://iteslj.org/Articles/Cervatiuc-VocabularyAcquisition.html

2. E.B. Zechmeister, A.M. Chronis, W.L. Cull, C.A. D’Anna and N.A. Healy, Growth of a functionally important lexicon, Journal of Reading Behavior, 1995, 27(2), 201-212

One thought on “Endless Vocabulary Expansion – Week 32

  1. Greta Browne says:

    It takes a certain kind of person to want to build up such an amazing vocabulary. I haven’t any idea about the size of my vocabulary – in the five languages I speak at least some: English, Portuguese, French, Spanish and Italian – and I doubt that I’ll increase much more. But it’s true that when I read I’m always finding new words and I do enjoy looking them up and sometimes even remembering to use them. In any case, I hope you’re very successful in your efforts, both in Mandarin and in your other languages.

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