I’m an avid language learner, and sometimes people ask me: “how many languages do you speak?” If we’re counting all the languages in which I can have at least a basic conversation, then I can speak five languages — but can I really claim fluency in a language if I can barely read children’s books? Despite being a seemingly innocuous question, it’s not so simple to answer. In this article, I’ll try to explain why.
Let’s say you’re just starting to study Japanese. You might picture yourself being able to do the following things, after a few months or years of study:
- Have a conversation with a Japanese person who doesn’t speak any English
- Watch the latest episode of some anime in Japanese before the English subtitles come out
- Overhear a conversation between two Japanese people in an elevator
After learning several languages, I discovered that the first task is a lot easier than the other two, by an order of magnitude. Whether in French or in Japanese, I would quickly learn enough of the language to talk to people, but the ability to understand movies and radio remains elusive even after years of study.
There is a fundamental difference in how language is used in one-on-one conversation versus the other two tasks. When conversing with a native speaker, it is possible for him to avoid colloquialisms, speak slower, and repeat things you didn’t understand using simpler words. On the other hand, when listening to native-level speech without the speaker adjusting for your language level, you need to be near native-level yourself to understand what’s going on.
We can justify this concept using statistics. By looking at how frequencies of English words are distributed, we show that after an initial period of rapid progress, it soon becomes exponentially harder to get better at a language. Conversely, even a small decrease in language complexity can drastically increase comprehension by non-native listeners.
Reaching conversational level is easy
For the rest of this article, I’ll avoid using the word “fluent”, which is rather vague and misleading. Instead, I will call a “conversational” speaker someone who can conduct some level of conversation in a language, and a “near-native” speaker someone who can readily understand speech and media intended for native speakers.
It’s surprising how little of a language you actually need to know to have a decent conversation with someone. Basically, you need to know:
- A set of about 1000-2000 very basic words (eg: person, happy, cat, slow, etc).
- Enough grammar to form sentences (eg: present / future / past tenses; connecting words like “then”, “because”; conditionals, comparisons, etc). Grammar doesn’t need to be perfect, just close enough for the listener to understand what you’re trying to say.
- When you want to say something but don’t know the word for it, be flexible enough to work around the issue and express it with words you do know.
For an example of English using only basic words, look at the Simple English Wikipedia. It shows that you can explain complex things using a vocabulary of only about 1000 words.
For another example, imagine that Bob, a native English speaker, is talking to Jing, an international student from China. Their conversation might go like this:
Bob: I read in the news that a baby got abducted by wolves yesterday…
Jing: Abducted? What do you mean?
Bob: He got taken away by wolves while the family was out camping.
Jing: Wow, that’s terrible! Is he okay now?
In this conversation, Jing indicates that she doesn’t understand a complex word, “abducted”, and Bob rephrases the idea using simpler words, and the conversation goes on. This pattern happens a lot when I’m conversing with native Japanese speakers.
After some time, Bob gets an intuitive feeling for what level of words Jing can understand, and naturally simplifies his speech to accommodate. This way, the two can converse without Jing explicitly interrupting and asking Bob to repeat what he said.
Consequently, reaching conversational level in a language is not very hard. Some people claim you can achieve “fluency” in 3 months for a language. I think this is a reasonable amount of time for reaching conversational level.
What if you don’t have the luxury of the speaker simplifying his level of speech for you? We shall see that the task becomes much harder.
The curse of the Power Law
Initially, I was inspired to write this article after an experience with a group of French speakers. I could talk to any of them individually in French, which is hardly remarkable given that I studied the language since grade 4 and minored in it in university. However, when they talked between themselves, I was completely lost, and could only get a vague sense of what they were talking about.
Feeling slightly embarrassed, I sought an explanation for this phenomenon. Why was it that I could produce 20-page essays for university French classes, but struggled to understand dialogue in French movies and everyday conversations between French people?
The answer lies in the distribution of word frequencies in language. It doesn’t matter if you’re looking at English or French or Japanese — every natural language follows a power law distribution, which means that the frequency of every word is inversely proportional to its rank in the frequency table. In other words, the 1000th most common word appears twice as often as the 2000th most common word, and four times as often as the 4000th most common word, and so on.
(Aside: this phenomenon is sometimes called Zipf’s Law, but refers to the same thing. It’s unclear why this occurs, but the law holds in every natural language)
Above: Power law distribution in natural languages
The power law distribution exhibits the long tail property, meaning that as you advance further to the right of the distribution (by learning more vocabulary), the words become less and less common, but never drops off completely. Furthermore, rare words like “constitution” or “fallacy” convey disproportionately more meaning than common words like “the” or “you”.
This is bad news for language learners. Even if you understand 90% of the words of a text, the remaining 10% are the most important words in the passage, so you actually understand much less than 90% of the meaning. Moreover, it takes exponentially more vocabulary and effort to understand 95% or 98% or 99% of the words in the text.
I set out to experimentally test this phenomenon in English. I took the Brown Corpus, containing a million words of various English text, and computed the size of vocabulary you would need to understand 50%, 80%, 90%, 95%, 98%, 99%, and 99.5% of the words in the corpus.
By knowing 75 words, you already understand half of the words in a text! Of course, just knowing words like “the” and “it” doesn’t get you very far. Learning 2000 words is enough to have a decent conversation and understand 80% of the words in a text. However, it gets exponentially harder after that: to get from 80% to 98% comprehension, you need to learn more than 10 times as many words!
(Aside: in this analysis I’m considering conjugations like “swim” and “swimming” to be different words; if you count only the stems, you end up with lower word counts but they still follow a similar distribution)
How many words can you miss and still be able to figure out the meaning by inference? In a typical English novel, I encounter about one word per page that I’m unsure of, and a page contains about 200-250 words, so I estimate 99.5% comprehension is native level. When there are more than 5 words per page that I don’t know, then reading becomes very slow and difficult — this is about 98% comprehension.
Therefore I will consider 98% comprehension “near-native”: above this level, you can generally infer the remaining words from context. Below this level, say between 90% to 98% comprehension, you may understand generally what’s going on, but miss a lot of crucial details.
Above: Perceived learning curve for a foreign language
This explains the difficulty of language learning. In the beginning, progress is fast, and in a short period of time you learn enough words to have conversations. After that, you reach a long intermediate-stage plateau where you’re learning more words, but don’t know enough to understand native-level speech, and anybody speaking to you must use a reduced vocabulary in order for you to understand. Eventually, you will know enough words to infer the rest from context, but you need a lot of work to reach this stage.
Implications for language learners
The good news is that if you want to converse with people in a language, it’s perfectly doable in 3 to 6 months. On the other hand, to watch TV shows in the language without subtitles or understand people speaking naturally is going to take a lot more work — probably living for a few years in a country where the language is spoken.
For most of us, living abroad for several years is not an option. Fortunately, there are lots of material on the Internet in any language imaginable. I built a tool called LevelText to help you find things to read in your target language (currently works for French and Spanish). It’s basically a search engine optimized for finding web and news articles of your reading level, and it can turn web articles into mini language lessons.
Is there any shortcut instead of slowly learning thousands of words? I can’t say for sure, but somehow I doubt it. By nature, words are arbitrary clusters of sounds, so no amount of cleverness can help you deduce the meaning of words you’ve never seen before. And when the proportion of unknown words is above a certain threshold, it quickly becomes infeasible to try to infer meaning from context. We’ve reached the barrier imposed by the power law distribution.
Now I will briefly engage in some sociological speculation.
My university has a lot of international students. I’ve always noticed that these students tend to form social groups speaking their native non-English languages, and rarely assimilate into English-speaking social groups. At first I thought maybe this was because their English was bad — but I talked to a lot of international students in English and their English seemed okay: noticeably non-native but I didn’t feel there was a language barrier. After all, all our lectures are in English, and they get by.
However, I noticed that when I talked to international students, I subconsciously matched their rate of speaking, speaking just a little bit slower and clearer than normal. I would also avoid the usage of colloquialisms and cultural references that they might not understand.
If the same international student went out to a bar with a group of native English speakers, everyone else would be speaking at normal native speed. Even though she understands more than 90% of the words being spoken, it’s not quite enough to follow the discussion, and she doesn’t want to interrupt the conversation to clarify a word. As everything builds on what was previously said in the conversation, missing a word here and there means she is totally lost.
It’s not that immigrants don’t want to assimilate into our culture, but rather, we don’t realize how hard it is to master a language. On the surface, going from 90% to 98% comprehension looks like a small increase, but in reality, it takes an immense amount of work.
Read further discussion of this article on /r/languagelearning!