Is the starting point for functional fluency a list of the right core words? Photo by acscom from freeImages.com

300 Words for Functional Fluency : Miss Swanson’s Elucidating Experiment

Decrepit, dusty old language learning books from bygone days are a guilty pleasure of mine. And sometimes, the most obscure, long-forgotten tomes throw up some shining treasures. Leafing through one such volume this week week, I stumbled across a fascinating gem of a tip that promises a helpful shortcut to functional fluency in a language.

The book in question – George McLennan’s “Scots Gaelic – A Brief Introduction – is not one of the oldest I’ve taken a ramble through, seeing its first impression in 1987. But it contains a curious factoid that served as the basis for a whole chapter on essential vocabulary. Let’s join Mr McLennan, and dive into the strange and curious world of the mysterious Miss Elaine Swanson.

Elaine Swanson and the 300 words

Swanson, explains McLennan, was “director of the New York Language Institute” around the 1930s. Now, her existence may well be apocryphal, as I am yet to find any modern reference to her – or the New York Language Institute – online or otherwise. But this mythical Miss Swanson is noted for one particular and exciting theory. She posited that a spoken vocabulary of just 300 words will suffice to get by in a language.

Being a thoroughly practical kind of person, and seeking empirical proof, she took it upon herself to attempt this feat in English for the duration of a whole three months. Apart from undoubtedly bemusing and irritating friends, relatives and colleagues, this exercise allowed her to compile a list of those core 300 words that represent a level of functional fluency.

Thanks to McLennan’s unearthing of her story, we too can benefit from the fruits of that hard work.

Functional fluency list

Here, arranged by the parts of speech. Clearly, a huge nod goes in George McLennan’s direction for printing this list with Gaelic translations in his book. Otherwise, Miss Swanson’s experiment might have been lost forever.

The final list actually comes in at a little under 300 words. Bear in mind that not every language will match up with these English terms exactly, so it will need a little adapting for other languages. McLennan notes that Gaelic, for example, has no single word for no – instead, this is paraphrased.

And one more note before we begin: some categories and inclusions might seem a little eccentric or unusual. Remember that this list was made in and for a very certain place and a very certain time. It manages to be fairly general, but will need some personalisation!

Miss Elaine Swanson’s Core Vocabulary

Prepositions

at, after, for, from, in, on, to, with

Conjunctions

and, or, if, but, so, that

Pronouns

I, he/she, you

Possessives

my, your, their

Interjections

hello, goodbye, oh!

Articles

the

Nature

fire, light, sun

Business

I assume that Mr McLennan has changed the currency words here for a British audience.

bank, pound, penny, money, office, manager, show, size, shop, trouble, way

Travel

boat, car, country, hotel, left, place, right, station, street, ticket, town, train

Objects

bag, book, letter, telephone, thing, story, word, picture, nothing

Days of the Week

Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday

Modifiers

The original list uses “modifiers” as a kind of catch-all for anything descriptive, making this a mixed bag!

again, all, any, big, clean, cold, correct, down, easy, every, expensive, good, happy, here, how?, little, long, many, more, married, much, new, nice, no, not, now, old, one, other, piece, ready, same, slow, some, sorry, that, there, this, too, also, up, warm, very, well, what?, when?, where?, who?, why?

Food

Miss Swanson could almost be the original author of Duolingo’s “Food” topics…

bread, butter, sweets, coffee, egg, fruit, meat, milk, salt, sugar, vegetables, water

Time

day, evening, hour, minute, month, morning, night, time, today, tonight, tomorrow, week, yesterday

House

bath, floor, house, key, room, table

People

boy, brother, doctor, father, friend, girl, man, men, Miss, mother, Mr, Mrs, name, policeman, sister, woman, women

Clothes

cloth, clothes, coat, dress, hat, shoes, stockings, trousers

Colours

black, blue, green, red, white

Were there no yellow things in Miss Swanson’s world?

Verbs (and auxiliaries)

will, won’t, ask, be (am, are, is, was, were), can/can’t/could, come/came, do/does/don’t/did, eat/ate, excuse, gain, get/got, give, go/went, have/has/had, help, know/knew, learn, like, make/made, must, please, put, read, say/said, see/saw, sent, sit/sat, sleep/slept, smoke, start, stop, take/took, thank, think/thought, understand/understood, use, want, work, write/wrote

A critical eye

Evaluating the list for its practicality, the omissions are often more noteworthy than the generally helpful inclusions. Indeed, I end up with more questions than answers. Why no we or they in the pronoun section, for example? One English word frequency list places we above both he and she, so this might seem like something that needs tweaking. And where is the handy it, which sits firmly in the top ten most common English words in the same frequency table?

If frequency word lists were available (presumably Miss Swanson would have had access to these as director of a linguistic institute), why did she not use these to compile a core vocabulary? That said, this was a personal experiment, and – it is fair to say – probably not exactingly scientific. The aim of fluency was on the terms of the author’s everyday, not a one-size-fits-all average person.

Elsewhere, some of the collapsed categories seem tailored quite specifically to English. We can only assume that the inclusion of possessive their is the gender-neutral one to cover he/she more economically with a single word.

Window on a world

A particularly fascinating characteristic of the list is the choice of present/past verb pairs. Only certain past tenses are included (knew, slept etc.), while others verbs are given only in the present / infinitive form. Presumably the choice relates to the kind of polite, daily conversations the protagonist was trying to replicate during the experiment. Again, this fits with a definition of fluency as a working knowledge of language for the protagonist’s everyday – not everyone else’s. On a related note, it might be quite shocking to note the inclusion of the verb ‘smoke’ these days. Of course, such observations are part of the charm of finding personal vocabulary lists like these: their quirkily subjective nature.

Other initial observations relate to the economy of some of the lower-frequency type of vocabulary. You might wonder, like I did, why some terms are included when they might be creatively paraphrased using other items on the list. Personally, I question why “sun” is there, when “big light”, accompanied by pointing at the sky, would do. Slightly paleolithic, admittedly. Miss Swanson sounds much more civilised than that.

Pidgin English

As a guide to speaking a language, the list is clearly missing something. In particular, her conception of vocabulary is of a set of discrete, individual blocks, without any comprehensive reference to the glue holding them together in speech. There are no grammar rules implied in this list method beyond the few verb tense pairs, a couple of declined verb forms (was, does etc.) and the probably unnecessary inclusion of the definite article.

You can get away without grammar, of course, in effect using the vocabulary with your own logic to create a kind of pidgin. Will that make for ‘good’ French, German, Spanish and so on? No, go the purists. But will it be communicative if you need a basic core fast? Absolutely!

Verbs for lift-off

Miss Swanson does give a nod to a certain kind of sentence glue, however. One of the most striking things about this core vocabulary is the preponderance of verbs. They make up a considerable portion of the magic 300. And with good reason: this super-category of words does a colossal amount of heavy lifting in terms of intention and meaning in a sentence.

Now, I’ve always championed the verb as a key fluency factor. In fact, you can just call me the Verb Guy, since I can’t get enough of them (I write apps to drill them in my spare time!). Miss Swanson clearly spotted the communicative power of verbs, and focusing on verb tricks like employing modal sentence frames can really boost your conversational power, too.

A pinch of salt (and a spoonful of sugar)

So there you have it: a recipe for getting by on just a handful of words. Serve with a dollop of gloriously eccentric sugar and a medium-sized pinch of salt.

But even if the Magic 300 needs some tweaking to our individual circumstances, it strikes me that Miss Swanson was most definitely onto something. Her approach lights a pathway towards communicating – fast – in any language. Beyond that, the highly personal, practical nature of her list makes for a charming and intriguing window onto the world of someone in love with language and words. There is something  very familiar about Miss Swanson that is reflected in all of us linguaphiles.

This long-forgotten experiment attracts the extreme linguist in me, I must admit. If functional fluency can be acquired from a carefully selected core vocabulary, then maybe it is that simple to add a third, fourth, fifth language – and the rest!

What would your 300 look like? Could you get away with fewer than 300 words? What would you add or replace to Miss Swanson and Mr McLennan’s lists? And of the languages you know a little of, how many have you reached Swanson’s functional fluency in? Let us know in the comments!

Modal verbs can lend colour to your speech (image from freeimages.com)

À la modal : how these little nuancing verbs can fix your fluency

I have a nerdish love of verbs. For me, it’s where it all comes together in language. They are sentence glue. Conjugate them, and you can hang the rest of the sentence from them like on the branches of a tree. But there is a small group of verbs that always make me feel more expressive and fluent in a foreign language. They are the modal verbs.

You have likely already come across them in your studies. In English, they are words like canmustshould and so on. They are often irregular, and very high-frequency in the languages they belong to.

So why are they such a boost to fluency?

À la modal verbs

The magic of modals is that they nuance what you say. They decorate your sentence tree with colourful subtexts. Technically speaking, they layer your speech with modality – the ability to express situations which may not be real.

Concretely, modals are verbs that imply intention, possibility, obligation and probability. These are all complex nuances, but very quick and easy to apply succinctly with modals. And they fix a common frustration of beginners: boring conversation syndrome.

It is a common beginner language learner experience to feel limited by straightforward, indicative tenses. You quickly frustrate yourself in speaking if all you can do is make statements of fact. I am a studentI went to a concertwe have a dog, we travelled to Spain. Hmm – boring!

Modal verbs change that up. They colour the story. Suddenly, I could be a studentI wanted to go to a concertwe should have a dogwe might go to Spain. Beyond bare statements of fact, you are now expressing hopes, wishes, dreams, judgements, assessments and more. From dull zero to language learning hero through the addition of just a few words.

Letting you off lightly

Modal verbs can actually make your language easier to speak, as well. Since they usually connect to the bare infinitive – or most basic form – of another verb, they give you a wee respite from conjugating it.

For example, let’s take the Spanish verb phrase:

ir al colegio (to go to school)

Ir is a notoriously irregular verb. If you are fumbling for its past form when trying to say I went to school, then there is a simpler way: modal verbs and constructions. If you have memorised the simple past of ‘had to’ in Spanish, it becomes easy:

tuve que ir al colegio (I had to go to school)

That tuve que construction just saved you if you had forgotten the form fui (I went). Fair enough, the meaning is subtly different – you are expressing obligation here instead. But it is close enough to express the original indicative sense that you went to school too. A neat trick.

The great thing with this tactic is that just learning a couple of conjugated forms of modal verbs can go a long way. You need only learn a few key forms at first. Perhaps the first person present and past forms (I mustI had toI canI could and so on) are the most immediately useful for conversation. Then, simply clip on whole verb phrases to the end – no conjugation required. An instance fluency boost!

To continue the metaphor of the verb as the trunk of a tree, modal verbs are big, sturdy branches that can comfortably take the weight of even more verbs.

More bang for your buck

Let’s face it – some words are more useful than others.

For a start, modal verbs are common, high-frequency words that you will regularly come across. A good benchmark is where a word appears on a frequency list of words in the target language. Anything in the top hundred suggests that you will be exposed to the word all the time. Spanish puede (can) features in its top sixty, as does its French counterpart peut and German kann.

But something makes them even more useful that just being frequent. They are often semantically overloaded, too, meaning that they have multiple meanings depending on context.

Just take must in English. It can be a bare indicator of obligation, as in we must go. But it can also express the speaker’s assessment of high probability, as in they must be the new students. Many languages mirror this usage, such as the Spanish debe de estar cansado (he must be tired).

Consulting any good reference on your target language should throw up scores of examples. This Wiktionary page on the Spanish deber (must) gives a good overview of that word, for instance. After checking out constructions there, you can then hunt down sample sentences containing them on a service like Tatoeba.

Overloaded words are excellent news for squeezing lots of language out of a little learning. You get even greater mileage than normal out of each modal verb mastered.

Modal Verbs : fast-tracking fluency

Convinced by these little nuancing fluency helpers? The facts speak for themselves. Modal verbs are high frequency words. There are just a few to learn. They have dense, multiple meanings. And they make speaking easier when you are still grappling with general verb conjugation. They are the perfect fodder for a bit of language hacking towards fast fluency.

Could it be magic? It just might. Say yes we can and enjoy pumping up your fluency with modal verbs!

Islands can be language lifesavers (Freeimages.com)

Land ahoy! Islands, how they can help your language learning, and why you’re probably already using them

Sometimes we get excited about a new big idea in language learning, only to get a pleasant surprise. It’s only something we’ve been doing all along anyway! And so it is with islands, a language technique a polyglot friend introduced to me recently. But why is it so effective? And are you already doing it too, without realising it?

Islands : sink or swim?

The islands technique is developed and elaborated by Boris Shekhtman in How to Improve Your Foreign Language Immediately, a classic language hacking text now over a decade old. Personally, I have my wonder-tutor Marcel to thank for bringing it to my attention (as with so many other cool language learning ideas). It’s no exaggeration to say that he is a huge fan of the technique.

It builds on the concept of swimming as a metaphor for the beginner’s language proficiency. When navigating free, open conversation, the sheer unpredictability can leave you floundering. However, you can give yourself some dry land by setting up a number of islands as refuges.

These islands are short sections of text about key areas of your life and interests, committed to memory. You use them as ready-to-hand frameworks to plump out your conversation, or steer the conversation towards them to gain some purchase with your partner. They serve as familiar ground when you are on the high seas of target language speaking.

Sounds familiar?

The simplicity of this technique is its strength. But it’s also the reason that it probably sounds a little familiar already. After all, the preparation of short texts is a mainstay of traditional language learning. It is strikingly similar to the scripts technique popularised by more contemporary polyglot pundits. And I soon began to realise that I’ve been doing a form of it for some time already.

With several iTalki teachers, I’ve done some version of a prose-writing homework that mirrors the islands technique. It goes like this: at the end of a lesson, the teacher would give me a topic. I would have to write a paragraph or two on that topic for the next lesson, when we’d look through it, correct it together and talk in the target language about what I wrote.

These topics have centred on aspects of my own life – family, hobbies and so on – or general topics of conversation – social media, current affairs, travel and such like. After each one, I ended up with a ‘potted monologue’ that was corrected by a native speaker and well rehearsed through practice and discussion with the teacher. If future, real-world conversation throws these topics my way, I have raft of relevant things to regurgitate (or, as proficiency grows, adapt).

In short, I had been using islands for ages without realising it. And in your own language learning, I would bet that you can pick out similar elements. The best thing is thus eureka! moment, that realisation that I was already on the right track. Yes – islands can work for me, because the system fits so neatly into my current learning regime!

From habit to general approach

Of course, what I was doing roughly equates to the islands technique, but wasn’t particularly rigid or formalised. Like anyone doing weekly prose exercises like this, we can’t claim to have accidentally invented the islands technique independently. Certainly, lots of elements are there; but with no underpinning philosophy of learning, it’s not quite a language revolution in itself.

By contrast, the author synthesises these elements and more, usefully packaging them as a general approach. This more abstract overview acts as a more systematic scaffold to your learning. Rather than chancing across the magic that the technique can work, you begin to apply it regularly, to much more sustained effect. Not only that, but knowing the metaphor behind the theory – the idea of conversational safety and familiar fallbacks – prepares you for actually using the technique in the wild.

It is well worth reading up on what  Shekhtman has to say on the subject in his book. The rest of the short, sage volume is also packed with other practical advice beyond the islands method. It is no surprise that it continues to resurface amongst successive waves of polyglots.

Do you recognise elements of the technique in your own learning? Let us know in the comments!

Notebook for note-taking

Conversation turbo-boosting with speaking bingo sheets

I’ve been having something of an iTalki renaissance lately. iTalki, if you haven’t come across it already, is a website that connects language learners with teachers all over the world for online lessons. There are few easier ways to get some face-to-face tuition from a native speaker. And it is perfect for getting some conversation practice in.

Conversation is king

If you’re working on languages beyond entry / A1 level, general conversation is an important part of any lesson. For me, the best kind of iTalki lesson is one split between general chat in the target language, and structured learning. The latter can be organised through a grammar or textbook agreed with the tutor. But conversation is vital, being a safe space to practise the end goal of language learning: real-world communication. However, it’s daunting, and one of the biggest leaps of faith (in your own ability) to make.

Although lesson prices can be very reasonable on iTalki, they do mount up. But, somehow, I felt wasn’t getting the best value out of my lessons. It was nothing to do with the actual teaching. Rather, it felt like I was lacking a bit of dynamism on my part. And it was all to do with those conversations.

This is getting awkward…

I’d arrive in the Skype chat like a blank slate, ready to be instructed; a passive but eager student. But an hour is a lot of time to fill, one-to-one. Often, gaps would open up. Teacher and student would both be stumped for what to say next.

A bit of panic would sometimes fill these gaps, as I’d mentally grasp about, frantically thinking of something to say. A counter-productive instinct kicks in; the need to say something interesting, along with the realisation that the vocabulary for it is simply not there yet. In my floundering, something pops into my head in the target language, but I realise I already said it two minutes ago. I think of something else, but it won’t come out intelligibly as I lack the vocab or structures for it. Agh!

This kind of thing, if you’ve experienced it, can be really disruptive. It can trigger that spiral of confidence-eroding self-doubt, too. I hope I’m not a boring student… Am I really good enough to be trying to converse in X/Y/Z? The teacher must be reconsidering my actual level right now…

Just wanna be loved

First things first: it doesn’t mean you’re a bad linguist. Wanting to converse interestingly and fluently is a perfectly normal goal as a human being. It is connected to our basic need to be liked – which, when it all gets too much, can tip into neurosis. Psychology Karen Horney, for example, theorises it as one of the ten ‘neurotic needs’ that can be problematic when they get out of control.

We’ve all experienced it in our day-to-day conversations in our native languages – awkward pauses and strange silences with people we want to impress.

But I needed to stop this from making my lessons less effective. I needed a crutch. What I needed was a crib sheet of vocab and phrases to use in my classes.

Speaking bingo sheets

Now, crib sheets on themselves can be rather dull. To spruce up the concept, I decided to add an element of gamification.

First, I sketch out the words and phrases I want to focus on this week in conversation. They could be items that I’ve come across in my reading, or listening to podcasts. They might also consist of vocabulary I’ve looked up to describe things I’ve been up to that week, or topical items from the news.

Then, crucially, I’ll put a tick box next to each of them. 

During the lesson, I have my speaking bingo sheet in front of me. As I converse with the teacher, I make an active effort to use my words and phrases, and tick them off as I do. Obviously, conversation is organic, and I won’t have chance to use them all. But the unused ones can go onto the next lesson’s sheet, and the process continues.

A speaking bingo sheet for supporting conversation lessons

A speaking bingo sheet for supporting conversation lessons

 

Don’t overscript it

Speaking bingo sheets shouldn’t be rigid, like a script. The aim is to support more natural speech through a set of cues. For instance, you might note down a central theme – I used ‘Remembrance Day’ in a recent Polish example (above) – and spider off some related words like ‘war’, ‘army’, ‘parade’ and so on.

In terms of phrases and language patterns, a frame or scaffold approach works best. This kind of technique is very popular for literacy in schools, but it works a treat for speaking lessons too. One example might be to have the phrases ‘I went to…’, or ‘I am going to…’ ready on your sheet to use several times with different vocab slotted in.

I also find it useful in the early stages to have a list of general opinion phrases that you can slot in anywhere. Just simple reactions like ‘great’, ‘terrible’ and so on. Also, ‘I (don’t) agree’ is a good conversation keeper-upper!

Why it works

We reinforce linguistic memories through usage, and through positive and negative associations that give them salience. To capitalise on that, you should fill your bingo sheets with favourite turns of phrase and interesting vocab you really want to ‘stick’. It sounds trivial, but if I feel proud of myself for working in a lovely, colloquial phrase like mér finnst það gott! (I like it!) into an Icelandic lesson, I’ve reinforced that vocab item with a positive emotional association.

Give them a go!

Speaking bingo sheets have really helped me to get the most out of my iTalki lessons. It’s part of being a well-prepared student (and a well-prepared teacher certainly deserves that!). Now, if I don’t use them for whatever reason, I really notice a difference.

Give them a go – and enjoy the flow!

Parrots chatting

Conversation fillers

A common frustration when you’re moving from beginner to intermediate level in a language (A1/A2 to B1/B2 using the CEFR scale) is the stilted nature of the language you produce – short, functional, clipped and often isolated sentences that make for pretty boring conversations.

One way round this is to work on ‘conversation fillers’ – common little phrases or language snippets that instantly lend a bit of colour and flow to what you’re saying. Think about how you speak your native language; it’s rarely a sequence of straightforward, affirmative sentences, but peppered with padding like “well”, “I see”, “actually”, “anyway” and such like. They give what we’re saying flow and hue, and make us sound less like automata and more like the interesting, messy and complicated human beings we are.

A lot has been written on the topic already, not least this excellent article by polyglot Benny Lewis. I’ve returned to the topic myself as I’m on a language-improving trip to Norway this weekend, and have been digging all my old vocab lists out to brush up on them.

From my experience learning Norwegian and other languages, these are my top tips for reusable padding / flow phrases in your target language. I’ve deliberately limited them to just a few, as it’s important not to overload yourself, and focus on getting a manageable amount of them under your belt. Look them up / get a native speaker to translate them for you, and try and ease them into future conversations. It’ll be a little parrot-fashion at first, but after a while, they’ll become part of your natural repertoire. A great way to sound a little less stilted and more natural, even if you’re still managing that transition from beginner to intermediate.

  • Well…
  • In fact…
  • I see / understand
  • True / definitely / probably
  • I get the impression that…
  • I can imagine that…
  • It seems that…
  • I agree / you’re right
  • You know?
  • …isn’t it?
  • On the other hand…
  • Interesting!