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Learning vocabulary in a foreign language can at times seem an insurmountable task. Estimates differ as to the actual number of words in English, but a recent one suggested there are at least 600,000 word families. Research shows that most native speakers make do with just 20 to 30,000 of these words, and life itself teaches us which words are important. However, for language learners with time constraints and possible work or study deadlines looming, learning even 20 to 30,000 is too much. It is therefore crucial for them to focus on the words that really matter.
Corpus research has been around for a few decades now, but one of the most innovative and influential corpora of recent years is the Cambridge English Corpus. Comprised of over 2 billion words of spoken and written American and British English, this corpus has been the driving force behind a lot of recent change in published materials for learning English. Sophisticated software allows researchers to delve deep into language, studying usage patterns, real grammar rules, differences between spoken and written English, and changes over time. If we add to this sub-corpora, such as business, engineering, and medicine, industry-specific features of language come to light. It is precisely this kind of research that tells us categorically (and quantitatively) which words are needed and in which contexts. Looking at the same issue from a different perspective, we can not only answer the question, “How many words do I need to know to understand 50 percent, 75 percent, 90 percent or 95 percent of a typical essay, report, lecture, or conversation?”, we can even find out which words are needed and their rough order of importance.
What are the key words?
Two commonly referenced word lists have helped shape our understanding of key vocabulary; Michael West’s General Service List (GSL), created in 1953 to specify the crucial 2,000 words needed to understand 90 to 95 percent of colloquial speech and 80 to 85 percent of common written texts; and Averil Coxhead’s Academic Word List (AWL), 570 words commonly appearing in academic texts that can be added to the GSL to give a better fit for learners going on to university study. Both technology and language never cease to evolve, and in 2013, Dr Charles Browne, Dr Brent Culligan, and Joe Phillips undertook the task to fully update these lists using a specially derived subset of the Cambridge English Corpus. The new lists can be downloaded from http://www.newgeneralservicelist.org and http://www.newacademicwordlist.org (coming soon), thus making the precise list of the most important words needed to comprehend English available to everyone.
How can these words be learnt?
The final piece of the puzzle, then, is the process of learning the words. Cambridge University Press, together with English Central, bring to you a fully integrated app, web, and print course that has vocabulary building at its core. It features seamless transition from print to app to web on a learner management system that lets teachers follow the exact progress of each of their students in building their vocabulary (and, of course, lets students see their own improvement as well).