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Posted 23rd August, 2017 by Sue Partridge

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A study in 2016 found that the average 20-year-old recognises about 42000 words. After that age people typically learn 1 – 2 words each day. 65 year olds have vocabulary levels bigger than university students.  Explain and evaluate the research:

Brysbaert et al. (2016) How Many Words Do We Know? Practical Estimates of Vocabulary Size Dependent on Word Definition, the Degree of Language Input and the Participant’s Age

Summarised in

Summary and Notes by Yvonne Gateley 

Language experts have always struggled to estimate the size of people’s vocabulary. But now researchers have been dipping into a huge pool of information collected through social media in a bid to settle a piece of the debate.

The psychologists from Ghent University in Belgium found that an average 20-year-old native English-speaking American knows 42,000 dictionary words. Their findings were recently published in Frontiers in Psychology.

Around one million participants took part in the test, which was widely distributed and shared through Facebook and Twitter. Who knows, you might have been a part of the study. It was intentionally kept simple and could be done in just four minutes. You can take the test yourself here.

It asked participants if the word on the screen was a word in the English dictionary, with the data using a pick of 62,000 words. In the test, the participants were shown 70 actual words and 30 fake words. It then asked some basic information about the participants like age, gender, education, and native language.

Using this information, they could then create an estimate of how many words that person knows. According to the researchers, their data also showed that we learn around one new word every two days. So our vocabulary grows to around 48,000 words by the time we’re 60 years old.

“This work is part of the big data movement in research, where big data sets are collected to be mined.” lead author Professor Marc Brysbaert of Ghent University said in a press release.

“It also gives us a snapshot of English word knowledge at the beginning of the 21st century. I can imagine future language researchers will be interested in this database to see how English has evolved over 100 years, 1,000 years and maybe even longer”.

YG: The research itself was based on a very straightforward test. The test simply measures recognising words and equates familiarity with knowing a word. I did the test myself, I couldn’t have defined each and every word I recognised and would have made spelling errors if they were being dictated.  I scored 69% that was down graded to 66% because I thought I recognised one non-word. This rated me as fairly high for a native speaker. Some of the words I didn’t recognise were very obscure, but my biggest problem was me considering words as non- words, e.g. miter, because it didn’t say mitre and e.g. pauperize, to make someone a pauper and backwatered, because I considered it only valid as a noun. Given that most of the paper is given over to defining what is a word, I struggled with the validity of using derivatives that may be technically allowable but that may never have been seen, heard or used by a native English speaker of my age and background. You can attempt the test as many times as you like, it brings up different words. If you make multiple attempts it only includes your first 3 entries in the results. Just for interest I did it again.  When I was less particular about suffixes and whether I was 100% sure of whether I ‘knew’ a word my score increased to 81%, in the top band (even though this was downgraded from 91%, for ‘recognising’ 3 non-words.  How reliable does this make the overall results?

In a nutshell, this study firmly establishes that age plays a significant role in acquiring vocabulary…it really is lifelong learning. But given our SpLD perspective, it says little more about the mechanisms involved – except that if you learn exclusively from social interaction or TV, one is exposed to significantly fewer words than a reader. Nobody fits their criteria of belonging to one of those 3 groups; so it simply boils down to common sense…varied reading exposes one to more new words. But I still think it’s too simplistic. For example, I’ve noticed that after 3 years in a professional consultancy environment Simon has acquired and uses a whole new lexicon of words. He has been exposed in meetings, through emails and reading reports. I would guess he has tested them informally and then developed the confidence to use them in his own written and spoken communication.  I’m the same with rugby. I listen; gradually develop understanding and then use.  The first time you hear a word you don’t know it’s a word. Is it simply time on earth that extends your vocabulary or time in different worlds?


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