I recently asked a couple of colleagues which word they thought was more frequent – arise or blonde. Almost immediately, the answer blonde came back. However, despite the confidence of the response, according to the British National Corpus (BNC) and various dictionaries, my colleagues were wrong! Arise is in fact nine times more frequent than blonde in the BNC. There is some evidence to suggest that my colleagues are not alone. Teachers (and students) are not very good at recognising frequency of words (see McCrostie 2007).
Examples you can think of, rather than frequency
One of the reasons for this – particularly in the heat of the classroom where teachers may be under time pressure- can be found in Daniel Kahnamen’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman’s work focuses on the limits of intuition, quick thought and expertise. He highlights a number of heuristic biases associated with ‘quick’ thought and one of these is a so-called availability bias. This occurs when people underestimate or overestimate the frequency of an event or thing because rather than step back and compare events rationally using a variety of tools, people replace the issue with an ‘availabilty heuristic.’ This is the ease with which examples come to mind. For example, because we may remember more examples of, say, terrorist incidents than of accidental deaths caused by electrocutions (terrorist attacks being much more widely reported in the media than people electrocuting themselves), people may greatly overestimate the risk of death or injury from a terrorist attack and not realise there’s a similar (low) risk of electrocution.
Language teachers’ availability bias
This is an issue for teachers (and students) because availability or ease of recall will often be connected to categories, pictures in our minds, vivid ideas, personal experiences, etc. – and also perhaps with words that are spoken more than those which are read or written. As a result, we are likely to overestimate the frequency that we see or hear words like blonde, pear, ski, microwave, French, crowded, purple, jumper, beard or sociable . . . and to underestimate the frequency of words such as mood, economy, provide, policy, arise, adequate, data, deposit, discipline, extent, grant. All the first set are over the level of top 5000 most frequent words, according the Macmillan Advanced Dictionary (pear, ski, sociable and French (!) are not even in the top 7500), whereas all the words in the second set are among the 2500 most common.
As an example of this bias, you might try thinking of how many blonde people you can think of compared to things that are adequate. A second related issue for teachers and students is that when we come to think of examples, the ease with which we can think of the example is likely to also be an influence.
Basic grammar and more complex examples and priming
Words such as those in the first group above can be exemplified with the most basic representative structure of English:
It’s a pear.
I like skiing.
I have a jumper.
A lot of the words in the second set often require either additional information or more complex sentence structure that go beyond this basic sentence pattern. This is not just problematic in terms of choosing words over others with greater frequency, but it also means we tend to fail in providing a better range of true collocations and grammar that students need above these ‘representations’ of usage.
Finally, some of the words in the first set may also be more available to teachers of English and to language learners because of another psychological phenomena: we may well have been primed by our previous teaching and learning to expect most of these words at lower levels in lexical sets on appearance, food, etc. We assume that this is a legitimate choice without thinking. This is a theme we will follow up in future blog posts on lexical sets.
Getting better at frequency and giving examples
However, there is hope! We can get better at recognising frequent words. One way is to test yourself on guessing frequency for example through the website which goes with the McCrostie article above. However, simply knowing frequency is only part of the issue. Teaching less frequent words can be of use at times. It may be difficult to avoid teaching at least some nationalities such as French when they may well be needed for one of the first kinds of conversation many foreign speakers will have. Furthermore, if we can give good examples, this often makes the teaching and time spent worthwhile because it will often involve using a lot of more frequent language. It is the combination of low frequency and single word lists which we would see as inefficient. So, unlike the lexical tutor website linked in above, our aim would be to get teachers to think not only about which words are more frequent, but also about how they might be used.
Arise the blonde!
So, as a final example here, let’s return to blonde and arise. Why is arise more common, and potentially more useful? Secondly, how could we make better use of the less frequent word blonde?
Here are some possible examples.
If any problems arise, or you need help, please call. You have my mobile.
If anything arises while you’re staying, just email me. I check pretty regularly.
I don’t think we need any help now, but we can always ask if the need arises.
I think I have enough information. I can always call you if the need arises.
It is easy to imagine a variety of situations and contexts for these sentences. You might not want to teach them to an Elementary class because of their complexity, but there’s no reason they couldn’t appear in a text. And we might then teach it productively at Pre-Intermediate or Intermediate.
Have you ever seen it taught – or taught it yourself?
And what examples of how the word blonde is most frequently used can you think of?
Kahneman, D. (2011) Thinking, Fast and Slow. Penguin Books Ltd.
Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners (2007) 2nd. edition Macmillan ELT
McCrostie, J. (2007) Examining Learner Vocabulary Notebooks. ELT Journal 61 (3): 246-255