Six critical questions about word frequency

Is it time to ask some questions about frequency?

If you have been to a conference or read magazines or journals about English Language Teaching recently you cannot fail to have seen or read something about the most frequent words in English. Since the arrival of large corpuses of language (one of the first major ones being the Collins Cobuild Corpus) we now have access to vast amounts of data about how people actually use English. Dictionary and grammar books are constantly updating now to reflect this information. And teachers are being encouraged to follow this trend and prioritise their teaching accordingly. Probably where it is having most effect is in the world of materials writing. There are, however, some things that have had me wonder a bit about this latest “frequency fashion”. Here are six critical questions I’ve been pondering about it.

1. Are the most frequent words really the most useful? I can see the logic in this statement, but when I see the list of the top six words for example my first thought is…so what? As a teacher, this doesn’t shout “must go into class and tell them” because I don’t think it will be that useful. 

2. Is the teacher’s intuition wrong when it comes to frequency? I’ve heard the argument about teachers’ intuition when it comes to frequency – that it’s unreliable. A cynic could say that this conveniently justifies experts and corpuses and so on. Again, I agree in part but the “here be monsters” tone of this statement makes me think of the whole issue of false friends. I think we sometimes focus so much on linguistic false friends (a minority of words) that we are blind to the “real friends” which, especially if your students speak a Latinate language, are far more numerous. Returning to the original question, a teacher’s intuition is, I suspect, far more often correct than incorrect when it comes to frequency (there have been some studies that confirm this, in fact it could be correct up to 80% of the time). Use your intuition, which is more frequent: Hello or Salutations?

3. Whose frequency is being used? A lot depends on which corpus you are going to use. One dictionary I have lists “lovely” as one of the most frequent words but it certainly isn’t for me or millions of other North Americans. Same problem if you’re a British teacher in Asia using a North American book based on American corpus information. And this is only at a macro level of British/American English. Whose English was recorded for the corpus? Mostly educated people? Middle-class people? Urban dwellers? Men? Women?

4. Whose frequency is being used? (2). Instep and heel aren’t that frequent for most people, but they are for the shoemakers I taught in a small town in Spain who needed English for a trade fair. I couldn’t find a corpus for this, so I had to fall back on the old unreliable intuition of myself and my students of what was most useful.

5. What if some words in a set are more frequent than others? Did you know that Monday and Friday are more frequent than Thursday and Wednesday? Does that mean you only teach two days of the week first (the most frequent) and leave the others for later since they are less used? Of course not. Well, I wouldn’t anyway.

6. What about taboo words? Lots of the frequency lists I’ve seen in books tend to be a bit coy about swear words. How frequent is fuck or shit? I was at a talk once where a list of frequent expressions was presented as a big deal that should govern our teaching more but the speaker mentioned that he had omitted swear words “so as not to offend sensitivities”. Well, that’s a pedagogical decision and if we are making such decisions about taboo words then we can about others.

So, my feeling is that frequency lists provide interesting information (to some) and help give a clearer picture of how English is being used and how it is changing. This is important for dictionaries and grammar books, and published teaching materials that want to reflect language in the way it is used. But I also believe that the teacher and students are still the best judges of what is useful for their particular context. That is, this information needs to be mediated like everything else that filters down from linguistics to the language classroom. The frequency fashion isn’t likely to go away, but don’t let it blind you to good teaching!

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Published in: on March 3, 2009 at 3:49 pm  Comments (7)  
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Six most frequent words in English

Here they are, according to Wordcount which is based on the British National Corpus.

1. the

2. of

3. and

4. to

5. a

6. in

Does this leave you a little bit…cold? Expecting more? Wondering… so what? Feeling like the most interesting thing in today’s list is the image?

Me too, sometimes. 

Actually, I think that more useful and interesting would be the six most frequent collocations, which I have managed to get a hold of and will post tomorrow. The whole frequency fashion is quite curious actually. I’m also working on a more critical piece about it which I will also post shortly.

Published in: on February 26, 2009 at 3:57 pm  Comments (3)  
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