The words you need: follow the red words and stars

Posted by on April 03, 2014

Red-words-and-starsI learned a great new Spanish word last week: tiquismiquis. Its equivalent in English would be something like nitpicker or fusspot. It’s not quite a case of onomatopoeia, but there’s something about the word that matches the referent, and this makes it easier to remember. Next time I come across it, I’ll know what it means — except that I may never come across it again, because it’s a relatively rare word.

Languages are like that. As we’ve seen before, a language may have hundreds of thousands of words, but only a fraction of these are used regularly and repeatedly. Most words in a language are rare, whereas most of the words in a text are common words. This is why the Macmillan Dictionary places so much emphasis on its “red words” — a “core” vocabulary of the 7500 most frequent English words, divided into three equal bands marked by one, two, or three red stars. You can check your knowledge of these words are by playing our “red words game”, and now there’s a brilliant new video explaining how the red words system works.

Why is this so important? We know that different words can have very different frequencies. In Spanish, for example, tiquismiquis occurs in text at a rate of (roughly) once every five million words, whereas bueno (“good”) has a frequency of almost 1400 in every million words. But so what? Well, there is a clear link between a word’s frequency and its usefulness. To put it another way, the more common a word is, the more it is worth learning. Of course, it’s not always quite that simple. When you are engaged in a specific task (like reading a text, or creating one of your own), the words you need are the words you don’t know. But if you look at the bigger picture — a person’s long-term goals as a language learner — there is a strong argument that learning a core vocabulary of 7500 words will provide the means to operate successfully in both receptive and productive situations.

Among experts on vocabulary size (people like Paul Nation, Averil Coxhead, and Norbert Schmitt) there is a broad consensus that, in order to understand an unfamiliar text, you need to already know 95%-97% of the words in it. Macmillan’s red words will take you most of the way (research shows the top 7500 words account for around 93% of the words in most texts), and their value in productive mode is even greater. This is why we give the red words such special attention in the dictionary, with detailed coverage of their meanings, syntactic behaviour, collocations, and phraseology, all backed up by example sentences illustrating the word’s contextual range.

I learned tiquismiquis without really trying, though it remains to be seen whether this will do me any good. But most vocabulary in that (low) frequency range isn’t worth actively learning: you just need a good dictionary to tell you what it means if you ever encounter it. The opposite is true of Macmillan’s red words. Whatever kind of task you’re engaged in, these words are always going to be useful, and the dictionary provides enough information to enable you not just to learn them but to know them. And that really is worth the effort. If you’re not convinced (or even if you are) check out the red words video.

Email this Post Email this Post
Leave a Comment
* Required Fields