By Teresa Tinsley

02 October 2013 - 10:41

'Learning 1,000 words in a new language is a manageable goal.'
'Learning 1,000 words in a new language is a manageable goal.' Photo ©

Arek Olek, licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the original.

Brits have a reputation for being poor linguists, so a group of UK institutions, including the British Council, launched a campaign last week to encourage everyone – not just the elites – to learn at least 1,000 words in another language. Campaign lead Teresa Tinsley explains.

The 1,000 words campaign seeks to overturn two perceptions: first, that Britons make poor linguists, and second, that languages are only for the privileged or talented among us.

The (linguistic) state of the nation

One of the reasons behind the campaign was the revelation last year that fewer than 9 per cent of English teenagers have more than a basic level in the language they are studying, compared to an average of 42 per cent across 14 countries taking part in a European survey.

On top of this, the British Academy’s State of the Nation report highlighted the growing division between the linguistic haves and have-nots. Whilst policies such as the English Baccalaureate are designed to achieve a better social spread of language learners, they can reinforce the impression that language learning is for high achievers and of little relevance to the rest.

However, the report showed that there is demand for language competence at all levels in the workforce, and that the biggest gaps between supply and demand are at the middle and lower end of the occupational spectrum.

And it’s not just about jobs and the economy either. Language learning has an important role to play in improving understanding of our culturally diverse world, and in raising intellectual and cultural levels across the board. For Ian Bauckham, president of the head teachers' association ASCL, languages are critical to the deeper purposes of education – to the understanding that ‘my way of seeing the world’ is not the only way.

How much can you do with 1,000 words?

The idea of 1,000 words has already caught the imagination of members of the public who want to take up the challenge. It’s immediately measurable and achievable. But which words should I learn, they ask? The 1,000 words target is not just about vocabulary learning, although that is an important part of getting to grips with a new language. It’s intended to express a minimum level of competence, which enables learners to ‘get by’ or have a basic conversation. It’s more than a smattering, but considerably less than fluency. It’s about getting the basics in place, so that you’re ready to face the challenges that globalisation may throw at you. For some, it may mean you can give a warmer welcome to foreign tourists. For others, it may make the difference between winning or losing a job opportunity, a business deal or an exciting new relationship.

Academics believe that with 1,000 high-frequency words you should be able to understand about 72 per cent of a written text, so it’s an important first hurdle in breaking through communication barriers internationally. Some of those taking up the challenge may wish to focus on vocabulary-building as a helpful and motivating way of developing their competence, and the 1,000 words web page contains links to websites and free resources that may be useful for this. Others may wish to take up the challenge of 1,000 words in a more creative way – for example, one primary school is building a tower of 1,000 words.

Teresa is director of her own language consultancy firm, Alcantara Communications, and the author of the British Academy’s State of the Nation report on languages. You'll find more information on the campaign website.

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