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i'm just a literary tease, my reputation's on its knees.

My Mental Lexicon is Tired

September 29, 2005

For tonight's Linguistics class I needed to do an exercise that estimated the number of words in my vocabulary. Here were the instructions, in case you want to try it:

1) Get an unabridged dictionary and flip open to a random page. Count the number of entries. Assuming this is a typical page, multiply this number by the number of pages to get the estimated number of words in the dictionary.

2) On four random pages, count the number of words and then the number of these words that you know*. Add up the total words on the four pages and the total words you know from these pages then figure out the percentage by dividing the number of words you know by the total number of words. This will give your a percentage (like .50).

3) Multiply the percentage you obtained by the total number of words gotten in number 1 and you have the number of words you know.

Go ahead... go try it. You know you want to do it!

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Now... that's all fine and good. I think it would be superfly to know the number of words that I, uh, know... But my problem is the similiar to the ones raised by this source:

Nagy and Anderson (1984) estimated that an average high school senior knows 45,000 words, but other researchers have estimated that the number is much closer to 17,000 words (D'Anna, Zechmeister, & Hall, 1991) or 5,000 words (Hirsh & Nation, 1992). Surely these dramatically different estimates depend upon the three questions described above, namely, what does it mean to "know" a word, what counts as a "word," and who counts as "average?"

Balanced Reading

What does it mean to know a word? Does it mean that I think "Oh yeah, I've definitely seen that word before?" Do I need to be able to provide a precise definition of a word in order to say that I know the word? Does "knowing" a word mean being able to use that word in a sentence or using that word on a consistent basis in many sentences? How do I know if a word is a partying fool in my mental lexicon or just some random group of letters hanging around the outskirts?

My results tell me I "know" 71,254 words. The average high school student "knows" 40,000 distinct words. My cats probably don't "know" any words. What does this mean? If I decided one day in a mood of sheer and utter pointless inquiry to write down every single word that I know, would it take 71,254 groupings of graphemes before I could finally through down my pen and say, "That's it! I quit, stop, desist, halt, give up, and, for that matter, forsake my pointless endeavor into the hazy depths of my mental lexicon!" ? Maybe... if I'm ever that bored... I'll let you know.

Moira at 03:36 PM :: Comments (1) :: ::
Comments:

There's too much math involved in that for it to be English. Are you sure it's not a math class covertly under an EL listing??

And if you're truly ever that bored, I hope you'd try knitting first before listing your personal lexicon :-)

Posted by: Karissa at October 2, 2005 07:53 PM
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