Popular Science Monthly/Volume 70/April 1907/Shorter Articles

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Professor Kirkpatrick's article in a recent number of the Popular Science Monthly leads me to present the results of an investigation on practically the same lines, extending over several years when I was engaged in teaching college students to read German. I used a dictionary test, a little different in detail, but practically the same as Professor Kirkpatrick's, to find the number of German words which could be defined by students when they entered the second year's work in the subject in college. Some of them had had one year's college instruction, and others were admitted on examination.

I found that the vocabulary of those who could pass such an examination was never less than 2,000 words, and went from that up to 5,000. The mark received on the examination was in close relation to the extent of the vocabulary. Those who had more than 5,000 words were generally fit to go into a higher course.

The test was repeated at the end of the year. The result then was from 5,000 to 12,000 words. The marks on the final examination of the second year's course were also in close relation to the extent of the vocabulary. I tried this with classes for several years, getting sufficiently uniform results to prove conclusively to my mind that these were, the normal figures.

I was then interested to extend the investigation to English, and had several classes make the same experiment for their own language, but with the very important feature that I used an unabridged dictionary, containing over 100,000 words, instead of one containing only 28,000. I found that most of the college sophomores reported from 50,000 to 60,000 words. Of course, if they had had only 28,000 to select from, it would not be surprising if they had reported only 20,000; and I think that Professor Kirkpatrick made a mistake in using so small a book. J found that students who had not studied Greek regularly reported from 10,000 to 15,000 words less than those who had. I also experimented with a number of people who had never been to college, but, with an ordinary common school education, were regular readers of books and periodicals. These reported generally from 25,000 to 35,000 words, though some of them went higher, even as high as the lower figures of the college students.

I then took a few cases of the working vocabulary in foreign languages of those really proficient in them, chiefly among modern language teachers. The results are probably fairly typified by my own case, which could, no doubt, be matched by almost any one who has made a life study of different languages. I found that my English vocabulary was about 65,000 words; German (counting all compounds given in the dictionary), 58,000; Danish (largely the same roots as German ), 52,000; French, 30,000; Italian, 22,000; Latin, 18,000; Spanish, 16,000; Greek, 13,000, and Old Norse, 11,000.

I should guess that these figures, which are for languages belonging to only two general families, could be reduced to 20,000 or 30,000 actual roots, or perhaps even less; but to verify such a guess would require an investigation with a system of slips, for which I probably shall never have time. I leave the interpretation of these facts to the reader, who can be assured that they are facts.

E. H. Babbitt.