Sunday 10 January 2010

On the 800-word myth

A Sunday Times correspondent rang up last week to ask what I thought about the claim made by Jean Gross (described as the new UK 'communications czar') that 'the average teenager uses just 800 words in daily communication'. It was one of those waste-of-time interviews, where I spoke to the reporter for about 20 minutes, explaining how simplistic statements of that kind are rubbish, and what the linguistic realities are, and got one sentence in the report for my pains. Plus an ignoring of all the issues. The report was headed 'Youngsters are using just 800 words in everyday speech', as if this was a fact. I'm already receiving emails asking whether this is true, and I expect more as the week proceeds. So this post is to try to save a lot of time by summarizing the issues. In short: it isn't true, and I would call it the biggest load of chicken-droppings... except that I've already used that line in this blog [the post about the 'millionth word in English' claim - also, incidentally, listed as a fact in this Sunday Times report. Heigh ho... :( ]

Nobody has developed a satisfactory methodology for establishing the whole of someone's spoken lexicon. It isn't enough to take a sample of written material, such as counting words in blogs, as that is only going to be a partial reflection of speech. Few people have tried to record the whole of someone's spoken output in a day (e.g. by attaching a radio microphone to them and recording everything they say). When this was done - for example, in a study of young children in the Journal of Child Language some years ago - the word totals were in the thousands.

People always understimate vocabulary size. How many words do you know? Most people have no idea, or think it's just a few thousand. A few years ago, I read a report which said that the average size of a Sun reader's vocabulary was 500 words. I got hold of an electronic copy of the paper and counted the number of different words it contained (grouping inflectional variations, such as walk/walks/walking/walked, as a single item, or lexeme, as linguists call it). I found around 8000 - and that wasn't the complete total, as not everything in the paper was online. (Incidentally, how many different words are there in the King James Bible - excluding the names of people and places? Answer: about 8000.)

People know and use far more words than they (or communications czars) think they do. They forget about the whole year - about all the words to do with holidays, shopping, cars, animals, birthdays, Christmas... It's totally fallacious to think that the words you elicit from someone on a particular day or from a particular sample is an accurate index of all the words they know or use. The frequency stats on such networks as Google, Facebook, and Twitter show huge variations in the most popular words, day by day, depending on what's making the news. They're based on what people are talking about - or writing about. This week it's words about the weather. Next week...

It's even more difficult to make estimates when dealing with an unfamiliar world. Which is where teenagers come in. Few adults have any real idea about what teenagers talk about. When I've had the opportunity to listen in to such conversations, I've found it just as sophisticated as any adult area of vocabulary, for the topics which they find important. Listening to a group of kids rapping at each other recently, I heard them using a remarkable range of vocabulary, all with clever rhythms and rhymes. I certainly couldn't match their lexical range when they started to talk about pop music, clothes, favourite TV programmes, mobile phones and their applications - and I was aware I was only at the edge of their vocabulary when it came to some of the topics they would never dream of talking to adults like me about.

Moreover, in talking about these things, they weren't just using slang or text-messaging abbreviations or all the other things that adults imagine teenagers do. They were using a great deal of vocabulary of a general and useful kind, such as (to take a small extract from one list I compiled a few years ago): spoon, spot, spring, spy, squabble, square, squash, squeak, squeeze, squirrel, squirt, stain, stairs, stamp, stand, star, start, station, stay, steady... Find me a teenager that doesn't know any of these words.

I usually use a dictionary method when I want to get a rough idea of the size of a person's lexicon. I've reported it in several of my books over the years. Anybody can do it. You go through a sample of pages in a college-size dictionary (e.g. one containing around 100,000 entries) and mark the number of words you think you use (active vocabulary) or know (passive vocabulary), then scale up. I've rarely found estimates of adult active vocabulary falling below 40,000 words, and usually they are in excess of 50,000, with passive vocabulary being about a third larger again. In other words, most people expect at some point to have an opportunity to use about half the words in the dictionary. And when you look at the words they tick in such an exercise, like the ones above, it shouldn't be surprising. It doesn't take long to reach a total of several thousand. I've done this with mid-teenagers too, and I can't recall an estimate ever falling below 20,000. Some sixth-formers have a hugely impressive vocabulary, much higher than this.

So it's nonsense for anyone to suggest that teenagers have a lexicon of 800 words, which is how the media generally seem to have taken the comment. Nor is it very useful to say, as I've also seen in a couple of places, that 'the average daily vocabulary' of a teenager is 800 words. That's nonsense too, because (a) I don't know what an average lexical day is, either in content (weather today, something else tomorrow, Easter eggs soon...) or in quantity. I am writing this at the end of a day when I guess I have spoken for about an hour, in total. At the speed at which I speak, that means about 5000 words in all. The main subjects, insofar as I can recall them now, have been about the weather, the activities of my children, some points arising out of the papers, general mealtime chat, and holiday activities. I'd be very surprised if I used more than 800 different words today. (I read and heard tens of thousands of different words, of course, but that's a different matter.) Another day, involved in a discussion about linguistics or whatever, it would be very different. It's all a matter of subject-matter and motivation. Start an argument going amongst teenagers about the last episode of Dr Who, and you'll hear some fantastic vocabulary, from aliens to regeneration. Listen to one of the school debating competition contests, such as those organized by the English Speaking Union, and you'll be amazed at the lexical fluency of the participants.

And so, finally, on to the third strand in the report, that 800 words isn't enough 'to get a job', as Jean Gross put it. Well, we're agreed on that (for most jobs, anyway), but if most teenagers have a much larger vocabulary, then this argument is beside the point. So if she feels there is a problem here, the diagnosis must lie elsewhere. There are two possibilities. The teenagers she is thinking about may not have the right kind of vocabulary for the job she imagines they have in mind. Or they aren't able to use their vocabulary within the formal style of communication which is required in, say, an interview. I think there's some truth in both these observations. Acquiring the lexicon of areas outside your immediate situation is an important index of educational achievement. 'It pays to increase your word power', as Reader's Digest used to say, and this maxim is as true today as it ever was. And acquiring a mastery of diffent styles of English, so that one can switch confidently from everyday colloquial to formal discursive, is also critical. This is one of the aims of the National Curriculum in English, to develop that kind of language awareness in teenagers. And it was also the thrust of the research the Sunday Times reported by Professor McEnery, who has pointed out that teenagers are still developing their oral communication skills, and that oracy needs to be an educational focus alongside literacy. This is where Jean Gross needs to direct her energies: to supporting the need for more systematic language work in the school classroom. Promulgating myths about limited vocabulary and stereotyping youngsters as Vicky Pollards won't help.

It's such a shame. There was a great deal of importance in the interview with Jean Gross, drawing attention to the problems which affect early language learning in many children, the importance of speech and language therapy, and so on. These areas need the higher profile which she could help to provide. But all of this was overlooked because media attention focussed on one silly claim.


  1. "Oracy" increases the size of my vocabulary by one. Thanks!

  2. I guess this is more evidence of the assumptions people make about teenagers. Thanks for the interesting discussion on it, which I will ask them about at school and see what they think! On another topic, if you'll forgive me, I note that you use the American-influenced -ize spelling for that suffix. I've still been correcting this in the pupils' books. Do you think I'm fighting a losing (lozing?) battle?

  3. Just to say that there's an account of the -ise/-ize issue already on this blog, in March 2007.

  4. media attention focussed on one silly claim.

    No surprise there.

    I teach English in Spain, mainly to advanced students. I use newspaper articles to stimulate discussion. Sometimes I show them copies of the Sun, but as a sociological/anthropological phenomenon not as a language teaching exercise. I know that much of the language of the Sun is beyond even advanced learners of English.

    It is interesting to see simplistic ideas expressed in (for foreigners) obscure language, but I am not at all sure that that is a sensible way of using the language.

  5. A blast of informed comment of the kind we’d expect, David. Why don’t newspapers print things like this, rather than the half-truths or worse cobbled together by know-nothings?

  6. David,

    Great thoughts and you hit the nail on the head of "the diamond oft lost in the grains of sand". I think much more focus must be paid to HOW we learn a language (and if I may even be so bold as to suggest that most language learners are "disabled" and we should start there).

    However, about vocabulary size. I totally agree, we are often so far off the mark. Have you ever read George Steiner's "Demographics of Discourse"? A great extension of your idea into the realm of "internal speech" as he calls it. You'd love it and its online on google books.


  7. Thanks for this. We need people who actually know what they are talking about to comment on issues as they are reported in the mainstream media. We are in a fortunate position nowadays, in that we can read an article in the paper and then go and check what David Crystal ACTUALLY said!

    I'm sure you are familiar with Ben Goldacre's work, trying to bust the bad science in the papers....

  8. Read Flat Earth News by Nick Davies for more incidents of fabricated/exagerrated media reporting - this book exposes the current state of the British media and makes you question some of the things you see published.

    By the way I have no other interest in this book except as a reader. I heard Nick Davies on BBC World Service after the London G20 riots when police information (which turned out to be erroneous) was used as the basis on news reports without the facts being checked. So I ordered the book.

  9. David: yes, an excellent essay, Steiner's. People will find it in his collection On Difficulty and other essays, though it's also been reprinted in a Steiner Reader. Note that the actual title is: 'The distribution of discourse'.

  10. I'm getting old! It's a challenge to remember anything....

    I found a link to it on google.
    <a href=">Distribution of Discourse</a>

  11. Thank you DC, this blog post was needed! The comments teenagers themselves are posting below the "800 word" article should be used for a follow up article!

    I teach and develop materials for teens in Italy where the "800" words have become "20" in Italian newspapers.

    Bad incorrect news travels fast!

  12. I appreciate the work of all people who share information with others.

  13. As a retired medical doc I have always found the subject of language of great interest. It is what makes us cognizant beings. To me, the questions of how we acquire it in the first place, how we use it, and how extensive our own personal lexicon is...this is my focus. So, attempts to marginalize the younger generation by the size of their store of words can be questioned. What kind of people ARE they? Have they learned to treasure the virtues of life, family, and independence? Are they becoming educated in the essentials of a productive life? They will make their mark in society...for better or for worse. From the degradation of many of society's value by mass media, I fear for the future.

  14. In this context, I find it interesting that Esperanto is said to be based on just 900 core words. Even when that's multiplied by the number of lexemes, I can't help feeling that Esperanto speakers must grow accustomed to rather long conversational silences... ;-)