The reason the British are rubbish at languages?

I’ve found this article about the English education system and how the GCSE / A level / bachelor’s degree framework fits into the Common European Reference Framework for languages.

It is very interesting, particularly as it backs up with evidence from UK and European students Steve’s views about the correlation between a wide vocabulary and language proficiency.

It also explains why I have struggled to get my head around the LingQ proficiency levels, as the only language framework I understood was the UK system, which patently falls short of both theory and practice in the rest of Europe.


You have made my day. So I am not a complete nut!

some key observations from this report.

1)There are three reasons for trying to compare language levels using vocabulary size and vocabulary knowledge as an indicator. One is that the original work on the framework included wordlists so we do have some idea as to what vocabulary knowledge was expected of learners at some of the levels. A second is that vocabulary size and coverage are strongly connected so vocabulary size ought to be a good general indicator of more general knowledge and performance. Research bears out this idea (for example, Milton, 2006a) and vocabulary size does indeed appear a good general indicator of foreign language ability. The third reason is that vocabulary is countable: it is possible to put a figure to levels of knowledge and achievement. This fact allows comparisons between languages to be made, so it possible to compare knowledge between English and French as foreign languages, for example, in a way which is not usually possible.

Yes! Especially if you acquire the words honestly, through a lot of exposure to the language.

  1. In both English and French the most frequent 2000 words, and overwhelmingly the most frequent words in a language are learned earliest (Milton, forthcoming) give about 80% coverage of normal text. This is a very interesting and important figure because it marks the level at which learners appear to progress from understanding almost nothing they hear or read, except in the most limited and contrived of circumstances, to having passages of clarity and being able to grasp the gist of a conversation or a reading passage. But, in both languages, to add sufficient vocabulary to understand the remaining 20%, and therefore understand all of a text, requires massively more vocabulary. Learners do not have anything like full comprehension of a text until they have at least 95% or 98% coverage of a text and that may require 6000 to 8000 words.

Yes! You need a lot of words.

  1. Above this level presumably only the best learners select languages at ‘A’ level and they appear to add 500 or so words per year.
    Another 500 words a year are added to the mean while learners are in university although, again, this may be partly accounted for by the drop in the numbers studying the subject after ‘A’ level. Except, it appears, in the year abroad. You might expect to see considerable gain in learners’ vocabulary sizes during a period of study in the country where the language is spoken. Certainly, the overseas students learning English in UK have been demonstrated to add about 1500 words on average in an academic year, October to May during study at a British university.

These people obviously need LingQ!

I believe that since the paper was written the situation has changed in that French is no longer compulsory past the age of 14 (year 10?).

Also in the whole of my town there are only a couple of “language specialist” schools where it is possible to study a foreign language at A level. So my son, if he did decide to study a foreign language past the age of 16, would have to change school to do it.

I would rather he selects his school on other criteria and learns languages in his spare time with LingQ. He won’t get a French A level that way, but I think it’s becoming increasingly obvious what a French A level is worth. If he then spends a gap year in French (and hangs out with French people) he may come back more proficient than the average BA (Hons) French graduate.

It is indeed an interesting article, and it does of course appear to back up everything that Steve says.

Just out of interest, I wonder what the average vocabulary is of a native speaker in terms of numbers?
Just a cursory search seems to give lots of conflicting numbers about this, I’ve seen all sorts of figures, ranging from 20,000 to 50,000 to 200,000!

But this article…

…seems to suggest that the “that the average receptive vocabulary size of highly proficient university-educated non-native English speakers ranges between 13,500 and 20,000 base words”.

But then again if there are over 12,000 phrasal verbs?!

Well, I guess what I’ve written above isn’t exactly important, or should I say we probably don’t need exact numbers, but it seems that no-one can deny the importance of learning lots of words!