Lexically mature

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dr Piotr Steinbrich

Vocabulary has always assumed a central position in foreign language pedagogy irrespective of the adopted method or approach. In order to understand and produce language, one simply has to have internalised a range of words, phrases and expressions. Stephen Krashens famous quote 'When students travel, they dont carry grammar books, they carry dictionaries' illustrates the importance of vocabulary from the learner angle.


Along similar lines, Dave Wilkins' statement 'Without grammar very little can be conveyed, without vocabulary nothing can be conveyed' shows the primacy of lexis over other aspects of foreign language learning, in this case, grammar. It is not only linguists, researchers and practitioners working in the fields of applied linguistics, second language acquisition or language teaching methodology who have highlighted the leading role of lexis in language. Quotes on vocabulary can be found elsewhere in various, often unrelated fields and disciplines, such as philosophy or literature. For example, an Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said that 'All I know is what I have words for', showing a relationship between words and the mind. English writer Evelyn Waugh, on the other hand, pointed to what is now referred to as the recycling of vocabulary. He claimed that 'One forgets words as one forgets names. Ones vocabulary needs constant fertilizing or it will die'.

     If vocabulary is critical, then probably the first question that may arise concerns its size. Obviously, the numbers will vary depending whether we are referring to native speakers or language learners. An average native speaker of English knows approximately 15,000 to 20,000 word families. These are words which share the same root, so the words like go, going, gone, and went constitute one word family. Although the number may seem impressive, 15,000 word families is a mere five per cent of the total number of words in the English language, obviously not counting the ones which are invented on a daily basis and have not yet found their way into dictionaries. Learnerslexical stock, on the other hand, depends on the level of language attainment and even within the same proficiency level it will vary from learner to learner. 


A typical B1 learner knows 2,000 to 2,500 word families. This allows them to understand and produce basic texts in speech and writing covering the required 14 thematic domains. 2,000 to 2,500 word families is also what constitutes the so-called defining vocabulary, i.e. the words used to define all the words in learnersdictionaries. Interestingly enough, the list of B1 words based on extensive research in lexical profiling has been made available and is freely accessible at https://www.cambridgeenglish.org/images/506887-b1-preliminary-2020-vocabulary-list.pdf (accessed 20 January 2023) as reference for both teachers and learners.