How many words do you know?

I’ve been working on my Spanish lately, and people often tell me that building up your range of vocabulary is one of the main ways of improving your communication skills. Which is advice I cling onto, because of my natural aversion of thinking about grammar. I prefer grammar to somehow get into my brain by osmosis, and to be able to make grammatical choices without having to consciously think. I don’t mind having to consciously think to remember vocabulary. Anyway, curiosity got the better of me when I heard about these research projects that aim to estimate the percentage of words that a person knows, as a proportion of the total words available in the language.

Firstly, I tried it in English. I’ll admit that the first time I scored a modest 66%, but I’d like to hide behind the excuse of “getting distracted by flatmates chatting in the next room”. So, I let myself have a second go. My result came back as

“You said yes to 71% of the existing words. You said yes to 0% of the nonwords. This gives you a corrected score of 71% – 0% = 71%. This is a high level for a native speaker.”

Some of the words I had not been aware of until today included: railbird, arseniuret, linocut and hoer. I now know that a railbird is not, as I’d initially thought, a female version of a trainspotter, but is in fact a horseracing enthusiast. Arsenuiret is in some way related to Arsenide, but I can’t quite figure out in what way. Linocut is a design cut into linoleum. And a hoer is obviously a person that uses a hoe, but I felt somewhat reluctant to select is as a “real” word because the pronunciation sounds too much like the word whore when said with an Irish accent(!).

After my success with English, I thought I’d be brave and give the test a try in Spanish. I’ve been making serious efforts to learn Spanish for the last 2.5 years and I live in Spain. I would say I have intermediate level. I’m not a particularly confident writer of Spanish, but I can navigate with reasonable independence in social chit chat. So, I gave the Spanish version a go!

“Has respondido SÍ al 39% de las palabras correctas. Has respondido SÍ al 0% de las palabras inventadas. Este resultado te otorga una puntuación corregida de 39% – 0% = 39%.”

[You said yes to 39% of the existing words. You said yes to 0% of the nonwords. This gives you a corrected score of 39% – 0% = 39%.]

This was a welcome confidence boost as lately I’ve been a bit down on my Spanish. I have been feeling like my level has reached a plataeu and I’m lacking energy/motivation to really focus on improving my grammar in Spanish. So I certainly hadn’t expected to get over a third of Spanish words. Which got me thinking, perhaps Spanish is easier to recognise than English?

Spelling rules in Spanish are much more regular. There are fewer exceptions, fewer cases of combined consonants appearing in the written word but remaining silent in the spoken word. Also, the stressed/strong vowels are visually easier to spot, as Spanish highlights them using an accent sign (á, é, í, ó, ú). Additionally, there is a the issue of the total number of words. The Second Edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary says that there are 171,476 words in current use. In contrast, Spanish has, according to the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española, approximately 100,000 words. So, statistically, knowing 39% of English words, is a much bigger quantity of words knowing 39% of Spanish words.

It is said that the average active vocabulary of an adult English speaker is of around 20,000 words, with a passive one of around 40,000 words. A vocabulary of just 3000 words provides coverage for around 95% of common texts. Which is just 1.75% of the total number of words in use! So I’m feeling a bit smug about my 39% Spanish score 😉 although, there is still some work to do, poco a poco!

WWW Wednesdays

Inspired by Taking on a World of Words

  • What are you currently reading?
  • What did you recently finish reading?
  • What do you think you’ll read next?

I am currently reading Storm in a Teacup by Helen Czerski. It’s a book about the physics of everyday life. So far I’m on chapter three or four. But I’ve come to see popcorn with a fresh insight of just how miraculous an explosion it really is in terms of the science behind it. Also, I’ve learnt a lot about the complexity of the oceans (because that happens to be Helen’s specialist field). I think this honestly is a book for everybody. The writer does a great job of explaining scientific concepts in a chatty and accessible manner. If you’d like to see her in action you can check out her TED talk here.

A book I’ve recently finished reading… A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. I fell in love with this book. It’s possibly my favourite book of the year. Perhaps influenced by my previous encounters with meditation and buddhism, but I was enchanted by the grandmother figure in this novel. I have a tendency to enjoy stories that span across the years and form a connection between different generations of the same family, so this was a great book for me. I’d recommend it if you like coming of age stories and you enjoy books that are at times slightly surreal, for example in the style of Haruki Murakami.

Hmmm, what to read next? Well, my to-read list is seemingly forever lengthening. But a book I heard about during the summer is probably next on my list. It’s called When Breath Becomes Air. It’s about a doctor that was diagnosed with terminal cancer at the age of 36. It doesn’t sound like a cheerful read, but I think it would be fascinating to hear his opinions about life and how they might have been transformed by his diagnosis. We live in a culture of “knowledge = power” and “knowledge = informed consent”, but I sometimes wonder if knowing so much about disease and illness in some ways makes it more terrifying. Have you read it? Let me know your thoughts!

This book has changed my life.

I can only suppose that the book was initially advertised to me because the writer is from Japan. And my laptop probably betrays my enthusiasm for all things Japanese and my reading history of being addicted to Murakami.

In any case, I stood firm for many months. Seeing the advert and ignoring it or shutting off my e-reader. But I was curious about the title. It seemed like a very strong claim, almost arrogant.

Finally I downloaded the book and read it in just four days. But the speed at which I read it is not the important bit. Something in the book really inspired me, the author is so compelling, that I felt I had to give it a try. That was three weeks ago.

I can only conclude that the title, however seemingly improbable, was factually accurate, not some false advertising. I loved the author’s philosophy.

I’ve been busily reorganising the small stuff in my life. And the bigger stuff has somehow become clearer. I don’t often think of myself as being materialistic as such, though I had accumulated a fair amount of clutter over the years. I prided myself on being able to move flats with just a (packed-to-bursting) car as opposed to getting a removal van. I moved to my current city with one large suitcase, one small suitcase, one backpack and one handbag. Two years on, and well I’d certainly added to my collection of items. So it’s been a useful step, actually almost therapeutic, to reassess where I am now. What my priorities are.

Now I just need to find a way of giving this book to people that are important to me in my life, in a way that they feel open to reading it, and not offending or insulted by the title! (Which is proving to be almost impossible…)

XII: Denmark

In preparation for my Copenhagen trip I thought it’d be a good excuse to read a book from Denmark. The Little Book of Hygge by Meik Wiking had caught my eye a year or so ago. So, I thought I’d give it a try.

Hygge roughly translates as cosiness in English. Though perhaps there is an extra emotional layer of significance in the Danish word. As it happens, I am enormously fond of the English word cosy. I have been known to repeat it like some form of mantra (“cosy cosy cosy”) when trying to warm up with a cup of tea and a blanket during cold winter nights. Almost with the belief behind my words that somehow just saying cosy so many times will enable me to change my body temperature.

I suppose I had especially high hopes with this book because I was very impressed that the author is CEO of The Happiness Research Institute. During my postgraduate year I spent a lot of time reading about health economics and became fascinated by the concept of comparing happiness levels. When I first heard that there was a Happiness Research Institute in existence, my immediate thought was, “I want to work there some day!”.

Whilst The Little Book of Hygge was an easy read and a good excuse to get a few candles out when reading curled up on the sofa, I don’t think I learnt much new information. I think I’d been expecting to get to know more about Danish culture specifically. Despite the claim that hygge is a uniquely Danish tradition, I can’t help but conclude that for me, hygge exists in various forms around the world. Perhaps the word hygge or the equivalent is just used with higher frequency in the Danish language.

I’m hoping that my trip to Denmark will be more inspiring to my hygge-habits than this book was.

XI: Iceland

For some reason Jar City (by Arnaldur Indriðason) caught my eye precisely because it wasn’t the type of book I’d normally really. I hadn’t read any Icelandic books before. And I don’t generally read murder mysteries.

But I was really impressed. It was an extra bonus that the translator (Icelandic > English) very helpfully provided extra information to clarify Icelandic naming customs. This was relevant to the plot. I’m not generally keen on endless descriptive paragraphs in novels but this book had just the right amount for me to actually feel like I was in Iceland whilst reading it.