Sunday, June 28, 2009

Native speaker language input

A while back we took a glance at how much information is out there (the information exaflood). Now let's take a look at how is this information consumed. Let's see how much language input native speakers get and how much they speak.

TV and other media

Snapshot of the US: 65 days in front of the TV and five months of media

"If you are reading this as you surf the internet while the TV is on, the radio is playing and you are listening to music on your personal stereo you are already tapping into the American way of media multi-tasking."

The average US adult spends over 3500 hours each year on (English-language) media.

According to 2007 US Census Bureau figures the average US adult spent

65 days in front of the TV
41 days listening to the radio
A little over a week on the Internet
A week reading a daily newspaper
A week listening to recorded music

Per day:

4.27 hours watching TV
2.7 hours listening to the radio
And roughly 30 minutes per day
reading a newspaper
and listening to music

The Internet statistic seems to contradict some other published research. The likely reason is that places like Bowker or Nielsen track “nationally representative” panels of U.S adult men, women and teens. In other words, if you’re reading this you’re also more likely to be “wired” and “representative”.

The global average daily TV viewing time in 2003: three hours and 39 minutes. TV fiction or drama is traditionally the world's most popular type of show (2003: 41 percent), but it has edged down four points from 2002 by entertainment programs, comprising games, variety, music, reality and theatre shows.

“Viewers in Japan remain the world's top TV watchers, with a viewing time of four hours and 29 minutes per person per day, just ahead of the United States where time spent in front of the box was four hours and 25 minutes.”

British people watch TV 148 minutes a day, 900 hours a year or 2944 days across the entire lifetime. Source: The Human Footprint Channel Four Documentary.

The average American adult spends 8 1/2 hours a day staring into all types of screens. Link

“…the observers recorded — in 10-second increments — consumer exposure to visual content presented on any of four categories of screens: traditional television (including live TV as well as DVD/VCR and DVR playback); computer (including Web use, e-mail, instant messaging and stored or streaming video); mobile devices such as a Blackberry or iPhone (including Web use, text messaging and mobile video); and "all other screens" (including display screens in out-of-home environments, in-cinema movies and other messaging and even GPS navigation units).
All told, the VCM study generated data covering more than three-quarters of a million minutes or a total of 952 observed days. This is the largest and most extensive observational study of media usage ever conducted. the VCM study found the average for all other age groups to be "strikingly similar" at roughly 8 1/2 hours”

College students may be watching less TV but they’re still glued to a screen. They are also "multitasking".

“The findings confirm other recent reports concluding that college students are heavy online users. For instance, earlier this month Alloy Media + Marketing reported that students spend 3.5 hours a day e-mailing, instant messaging and Web surfing, and 6.5 hours a week on social networking sites. Burst also found that a large number of students spend minimal time with either the TV or the radio. Around 30 percent of respondents reported spending less than three hours per week watching television, while almost half--46 percent--said they devote less than three hours a week to radio listening. What's more, many college students who watch TV or listen to the radio are multi-tasking at the time. Around 64 percent of respondents report using the computer when viewing TV, while around 60 percent use a computer while the radio is on.”

The average college student spends a very small percentage of his or her time in class or studying. Link

TV and children

Number of TV commercials viewed by American children a year: 20,000
Age by which children can develop brand loyalty: 2
Time per day that TV is on in an average US home: 7 hours, 40 minutes
Hours of TV watching per week shown to negatively affect academic achievement: 10+
Hours per year the average American youth spends in school: 900
Hours per year the average American youth watches television: 1023

Music: Americans spend 3.7 hours per week listening to music on CDs/iPods
Source: PubTrack Consumer


A five-year old child’s typical verbal output is 10,000 – 15,000 words per day of grammatically correct, meaningful communication, drawing on a vocabulary of about 5,000 words.

The most comprehensive study of this kind involving college students found that both men and women used an average of 16,000 words each day or about 15 words per waking minute, assuming a person sleeps 7 hours.

The researchers also pointed out that there are "very large individual differences around this mean," or average. For instance, one of the most talkative males spewed out 47,000 words a day (nearly 1 per second) compared with just more than 500 daily words for the least talkative male.

Keep in mind that the “silent type” college student speaking about 500 words per day is also a native speaker.

British people speak on average 4,300 words a day, more for women, less for men. This average figure is spread across the entire lifetime:

“The vocabulary of the average UK citizen is just 25,000 words, only 4% of the 616,000 words in the English Oxford Dictionary. We speak on average 4,300 words a day - more for women (6,400-8,000), less for men (2,000-4,000). That's 123,205,750 words in a lifetime.” If we compiled a book from all the words spoken in a lifetime, it would add up to some 5 volumes. Not nearly as impressive as the student chatterbox.

This information is from a transcript of “Human footprint” a Channel Four (British) documentary. There is also a US National Geographic version but I don't know if it is as detailed.

Women vs men (somewhat humorous, most figures apparently not based on solid or at least traceable research)

20,000/7,000; 30,000/15,000; 7,000/2,000; 30,000/12,000; 50,000/25,000; 25,000/12,000

Sarah and Tim experiment

Hannah: 12,329 words
Tim: 11,279 words

Hannah "accidentally" turned off her recorder for two hours so her real total could be 14,000. A likely story.

The average American spends at least 622 minutes a month on the cell phone which amounts approximately to at least 20 minutes of cell phone use per day. Minorities speak more.


The Britons will read 533 books (8 books per year) and 2,455 newspapers during their lifetimes. This will consume some 24 trees per person. Some 3% of people can't read in the U.K., 40% choose not to read, and more households own two cars than two novels! (The Human Footprint).

Americans spend 3.9 hours per week reading books. Some forty-five percent of Americans over the age of 13 read a book in 2008 and one in three of them were over the age of 55, according to Bowker.

Americans also spend four hours per week reading newspapers/magazines.

These figures vary. One newspaper headline: “3 out of 4 Americans read books each year.” Another: “One in four Americans read no books last year”.


Now, this is a tough one. Obviously TV, radio etc. needs to be counted but what about daily verbal communication? Some good figures can be found about children:

According to some studies, parents should speak at least 17,000 words per day to children before age 3 in order to ensure academic success:

This "groundbreaking" 1995 study apparently caught on with the rest of us in 2008 thanks to ABC news.

"By age 3, children from privileged families have heard 30 million more words than children from underprivileged families. Longitudinal data on 42 families examined what accounted for enormous differences in rates of vocabulary growth. Children turned out to be like their parents in stature, activity level, vocabulary resources, and language and interaction styles. Follow-up data indicated that the 3-year-old measures of accomplishment predicted third grade school achievement."

Hart and Risley (2003)

Number of words heard at home per hour by 1- and 2-year-olds learning to talk:

low-income child: 620
middle-income child: 1,250
high-income child: 2,150

Number of words heard by age 3:

low-income child: 10 million
middle-income child: 20 million
high-income child: 30 million

Source: Hart & Risley, 1995. Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young Children

The New York Times article What It Takes to Make a Student has more on this:

"They found ... that vocabulary growth differed sharply by class and that the gap between the classes opened early. By age 3, children whose parents were professionals had vocabularies of about 1,100 words, and children whose parents were on welfare had vocabularies of about 525 words. The children’s I.Q.’s correlated closely to their vocabularies. The average I.Q. among the professional children was 117, and the welfare children had an average I.Q. of 79...

When Hart and Risley then addressed the question of just what caused those variations, the answer they arrived at was startling. By comparing the vocabulary scores with their observations of each child’s home life, they were able to conclude that the size of each child’s vocabulary correlated most closely to one simple factor: the number of words the parents spoke to the child. That varied greatly across the homes they visited, and again, it varied by class. In the professional homes, parents directed an average of 487 “utterances” — anything from a one-word command to a full soliloquy — to their children each hour. In welfare homes, the children heard 178 utterances per hour. What’s more, the kinds of words and statements that children heard varied by class. The most basic difference was in the number of “discouragements” a child heard — prohibitions and words of disapproval — compared with the number of encouragements, or words of praise and approval. By age 3, the average child of a professional heard about 500,000 encouragements and 80,000 discouragements. For the welfare children, the situation was reversed: they heard, on average, about 75,000 encouragements and 200,000 discouragements. Hart and Risley found that as the number of words a child heard increased, the complexity of that language increased as well. As conversation moved beyond simple instructions, it blossomed into discussions of the past and future, of feelings, of abstractions, of the way one thing causes another — all of which stimulated intellectual development."

More about this here

Parent anxiety has helped create some curious products:

Device Counts Amount of Baby Talk a Day
Experts Say Children Should Hear 25 Million Words By 4 Years Old

Lena, created by Infotorture er, Infoture, Inc., is a "verbal pedometer" that helps parents gauge how vocal they are with their child by measuring the number of distinct words a baby hears.

A little bit about vocabulary development in small children

By age 3, a child is forming simple sentences, mastering grammar, and experiencing a “vocabulary explosion” that will result, by age 6, in a lexicon of more than 10,000words.

Ross A. Thompson, Developmental Psychologist, University of California, Davis - National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. Link

“Children continue to learn new words throughout the preschool period and into the school years. Anglin (1993) has estimated that, on average, children’s vocabularies grow from 11,000 words at age 6 to 20,000 words at age 8 to 40,000 words at the age of 10 years….

Towards the end of the second year of life children begin to acquire morphology. The acquisition of morphological knowledge marks an important milestone in language development because it is an essential component of mastering grammatical rules and also in the development of vocabulary.”

Developmental psychology by Margaret Harris, George Butterworth

Friday, June 26, 2009

Incomprehensible input - or how I learned Italian from scratch watching TV

Formerly the "TV method"

This post was prompted by numerous discussions and speculations on language learning discussion forums whether it is possible to learn a language "just by watching TV. The boob tube. The idiot box. I wrote this on a whim and rather quickly and it shows. I don't know if it's more effective than a more traditional approach to language learning but I do believe that it beats spending 4 hours per day in front of the telly consuming programming in one's mother tongue. It's also "possible", if you were ever wondering about it.

 My "incomprehensible input" consisted in massive amounts of TV programming during summer holidays. This was not a conscious attempt to learn anything. The "student" was a 5-year-old kid. Next year he was 6, then 7 and so on.

I saw my first cartoon in Italian when I was five. I was alone and bored and I remember playing with an old-fashioned TV-tuner, the antenna was weak and pointing in the wrong direction (the local TV tower) but I managed to catch an Italian-language cartoon about a family of bears. I liked it so much that I had to see more at all costs. I spent a lot of time for someone my age bustling around antennas, disassembling amplifiers and fine-tuning the channels on an old black-and-white TV. The picture was not great but the sound was usually excellent. After about three-four summers I was able to understand children's programming.

I remember in vivid detail my first triumph over my father. He had teased me about watching something I could not understand. I demonstrated that I completely understood a show by recounting it in minute detail. After several more summers I believe I had a full grasp on what was going on the TV screen at all times. That includes most TV programs. Obviously, I watched only what piqued my interest. My language skills blossomed (and wilted) several times before I started high school.

I went to the beach and I also played with friends but I believe I managed to spend 8-10 hours per day watching Italian TV. I'm estimating that it took me about 3,000 hours of TV watching to achieve excellent passive understanding of Italian.

I had access to Italian reference books and dictionaries. They stayed on the bookshelves. Since I was a kid with no guidance I used a dictionary only a handful of times - after I realized that I could understand the language. I do remember looking up a few things and getting a kick out of it. I still remember looking up “basilico”. I already knew that it was a culinary herb. I played  a few times with an old Italian encyclopedic dictionary looking at the pictures and reading randomly. I remember listening to Italian radio a few times when I was especially bored but I quickly lost interest. I do remember that I could easily follow radio programs.

Foreign magazines were easily available during the summer months. Italian magazines especially drew my attention since I noticed that I could easily read the headlines. I remember looking wistfully at German-language "Dagobert" (Uncle Scrooge) comics which were way too expensive for my pocket. I remember reading a few articles in the Italian magazine "Gente" about sharks, about a 19th century brigand and a girl who later became a saint. By the time Enzo Tortora went to jail I was able to understand Italian. It's a curious thing for a kid to remember but Italians just kept talking about it and one of the magazines had TORTORA printed on the front page.

The types of TV content I consumed:

I examined a non-exhaustive list of Japanese cartoon shows aired in Italy at the time and I recognize around 150 titles including Heidi, La Principessa Zaffiro, Ken il Guerriero (Fist of the North Star), Ikkyu San, the Time Bokan series, La battaglia dei pianeti, Il fantastico mondo di Paul, Lo strano mondo di Minù (Mrs. Pepper Pot), Pinocchio, Candy Candy, Georgie, Maison Ikkoku and Mademoiselle Anne. The combined running time of these shows is easily over 3,000 hours. That's without commercial interruptions and not counting any reruns.

Movies: American movies, Italian movies, other foreign movies (sci-fi, horror, comedy etc.)
Series: Italian and foreign: crime, sitcoms, drama etc. Little house on the Prairie, The Dukes of Hazzard, Battlestar Galactica, La Piovra, Brazilian miniseries and soaps (La Schiava Isaura).
Japanese cartoons about: fishing ("Sampei"), giant robots ("Jeeg"), history, sport, aliens (Lamú - Urusei Yatsura), animals (Demetan), insects (L'Ape Maia, L'Ape Magà) etc. etc. I can still sing along to many theme songs.

Other: Takeshi's castle, Mai dire Banzai, Colpo Grosso, "catch" wrestling...

I saw an awful lot of commercials. I remember many jingles: "non ci vuole un pennello grande ma un grande pennello!" "Sanpellegrino aranciata esagerata," various Barilla commercials, and the now very inappropriate "Ta-ta, ta-tabù!"...

I never had any opportunity to speak. I was never completely “fluent” in this sense.

I studied Italian in high school. I usually did my homework five minutes before the class. I never prepared for any exams. During the first year the teacher told me that I could go for a walk if the class proved too boring. This was also the time when I spent a lot of time on other language programming and I neglected Italian. My skills were very broad and deep but if someone carefully probed a particular area they would have certainly found shortcomings. For my high school leaving exam paper (a loose translation) I chose "I Promessi Sposi" - a famous historical novel that is the bane of all Italian high school students. I defended it in Italian. That was pretty gutsy at the time.

I chose to study Italian at university. Most of my university exams were straight A’s. I never had to study grammar in order to pass a language test. I was required to read and write a lot and this is where I benefited tremendously.

I achieved intermediate-level German using a similar approach: link.

Edit: In 2016 and 2017 I began watching Spanish and Portuguese TV programs (a code word for "studying").

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Writing in a language that's not one's own

French-language authors whose mother tongue is not French. In no particular order:

Casanova, Madame de Noailles (Romanian), Anna Moi (Vietnamese), François Cheng , Tierno Monembo , Aki Shimazaki (Japanese), Seymus Dagtekin, (a Turkish Kurd), Samuel Beckett (Irish), Julien Green, Eugène Ionesco (Romanian, mother French), Milan Kundera (Czech), Camara Laye, Léopold Senghor (Senegalese), Cioran (Romanian), Tristan Tzara (Romanian), Elie Wiesel, Atiq Rahimi (from Afghanistan), Eduardo Manet (Cuban), Brina Svit (Slovenian), David I. Grossvogel (American), Tahar Ben Jelloun, Amin Maalouf, Andrei Makine, Jonathan Littell (American), Hector Bianciotti Argentinian), Silvia Baron Supervielle (Argentinan), Vassilis Alexakis (Greek), Andrei Makine (Russian), Anne Weber (Germany), Bjorn Larsson (Swedish), Ying Chen (Chinese), Fouad Laroui, (born in Morocco, based in the Netherlands writing in French and Dutch), Andrei Vieru (Russian-Romanian), Arthur Adamov (Russian, of Armenian origin), Henri Troyat (Lev Tarassov), Michel Del Castillo (Spanish, father French), Julia Kristeva (Bulgarian), Oscar Wilde (one play – Salomé).

The Phenomenon of Authors Whose First Language Isn’t French Writing In French

English-language authors whose mother tongue is not English.

Achebe, Chinua
Arlen, Michael
Asimov, Isaac
Bellow, Saul
Brodsky, Joseph
Bronowski, Jacob
Broumas, Olga
Budrys, Algis
Codrescu, Andrei
Conrad, Joseph
Dinesen, Isak
Heym, Stefan
Ishiguro, Kazuo
Kakuzo, Okakura
Kerouac, Jack
Kingston, Maxine Hong
Koestler, Arthur
Kosinski, Jerzy
Lewis, Saunders
Limonov, Eddie
Lin Yu-tang
Lowe, Adolph
Lundwall, Sam
Malinowski, Bronislaw
Milosz, Czeslaw
Mukherjee, Bharati
Nabokov, Vladimir
Narayan, R. K.
Nin, Anais
Rand, Ayn
Sabatini, Rafael
Seth, Vikram
Skvorecky, Josef
Smirnov, Yakov
Soyinka, Wole
Stoppard, Tom
van Gulik, Robert
Vincinzey, Stephen
Wertenbaker, Timberlake
Wongar, Banumbir
Zukofsky, Louis


Some winners of Adelbert von Chamisso Prize, a German award to foreign writers recognized for their contribution to German culture.

Adel Karasholi, (Syrian), Galsan Chinag, (Mongolian), Yoko Tawada (Japanese), Maria Cecilia Barbetta (Argentinian), Asfa-Wossen Asserate, Franco Biondi, Gino Chiellino, Zehra Cirak (Turkish), György Dalos, Dante Andrea Franzetti, Zsuzsanna Gahse, Yüksel Pazarkaya, Ilma Rakusa, Luo Lingyuan (Chinese), Tzveta Sofronieva (Bulgarian) Michael Stavaric, Saša Stanišić.