At the time when I started to learn English I remember some statements that to maintain conversation in English on a descent level in most of the situations you need around 3500 words. I don’t remember exact explanation to that, but 3500 figure stuck in my head up to present 🙂 Anyway even this relatively high number is a real source of consolation for students scared by an ocean of unknown words in new language, as putting a limit on what you are going to need from that changes your POV from frustration and dismay (if you have that) to something like “it’s attainable/manageable.” It is especially important for language learners who for some reason preoccupied by “how do I learn all that” more than anything else and consequently not able to start working in small steps towards tangible results. Personally, I never was intimidated by vocabulary immensity, rather perceiving it as richness and space to explore.
Anyhow now trying to learn French, I have better idea of importance of frequency in language acquisition, especially when you aiming at rapid language acquisition. Recently I heard more qualified opinion of Dmitry Petrov who builds his entire language learning system around frequency principle, and according to him average native speaker in any language uses 50-60 verbs regularly vast majority of other verbs used only rarely (approximately in 10% of speech). And giving the fact that verb is a “language’s engine” or core around which you can built various structures it is a good idea to familiarize yourself thoroughly with most frequent verbs and other parts of speech in your target language.
Side note: I think an opinion a person who supposedly can read in 50 languages and works professionally as interpreter with 8 of them Dmitry is more than qualified to speak about how to learn language efficiently.
Anyhow now I have a bit more clearer understanding of importance of frequency principle and will try to apply it in my language learning quest. This principle is not a revelation and maybe something we all know with our gut feeling, but sometimes idea has been spelled out to you to be appreciated fully. There are special frequency based dictionaries out there and some lists of words can be found in the internet. My French teacher recently shared with me some links to check out most frequent words in French:
Last link is most extensive list of all mentioned and it mentions interesting statement/factoid for those who like benchmarks anxious to have some frame of references on how much words is enough: it mentions that magic 3500 figure and also says that “le vocabulaire de Guy De Maupassant a été évalué à une fourchette allant de 12 000 à 15 000 mots” 🙂
So if you aiming for full blown sophisticated writing in your target language there is just 12 000 – 15 000 words to master… Almost nothing if you compare with number of entries in unabridged edition of OED or with some impressive but useless to be well known simultaneously for any person amount of rapidly growing corpus of special terms from science and technology.
Anyhow for me frequency principle is not something to guard me from vastness and richness of vocabulary but rather an efficiency tool in language learning something to focus on in the beginning. But lest frequent words to me not something to be ignored they rather space of opportunities and world to explore… Really there should be treasures and loads of things to explore in that space.