How many words do you need to know to be fluent in a language?

Most people ask themselves this question when they start learning a foreign language. It can be daunting to think about how much you need to learn to be able to have a conversation with someone as you do in your native language. However the good news is that it is not as difficult as you might think!

How many words are there in a language?

This is a very hard question to answer since no-one knows exactly how many words there are in a language. Languages are constantly changing and new words are added to the dictionary all the time. Words also go out of fashion and are not used any more. Also think about the number of expressions languages have; should teenage slang be included, medical and scientific terms and so on.

What do we count as a word?

Let’s look at the word “take”. This can be used in several different forms depending on the person, the tense and the many number of phrasal verbs it is used with:

takes, taking, taken, took, take – these all come from the verb “take” but should they each be classed as a word or not?

There are also phrasal verbs such as: take on, take up, take out, take off, take apart and take away. Should each of these be counted as separate words?

The 80/20 rule and language learning

“Only a small fraction of your efforts will bring in the greatest results”
The Pareto Principle

The Italian engineer and philosopher Vilfredo Federico Damaso Pareto came up with the “Pareto Rule” which states that in any event, 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. Therefore when talking about any kind of study, 20% of your efforts bring in 80% of results.

Pareto’s Rule and Language Learning

Similarly, with language learning a similar rule applies; you only need to understand 5-7 % of the total number of words a native speaker uses to be able to understand 90-95% of the vocabulary in common texts. You will be able to guess the remaining 5-10% of words according to the context. 5-7 % of effort gives you 95% results.

KEY TIP: Each time you find a new word or phrase, before you add it to your list of vocabulary to learn and wasting precious time and energy memorising it ask yourself the following question:

“Am I really going to need to know this word?”

This method of choosing carefully what to add to memory and focusing your attention only on the most important vocabulary will make you a much more efficient language learner.

Therefore it is important that once you have reached a certain level in a language, you stop acquiring new words and instead focus on learning through context and through working out new phrases with guesswork. When you come across a sentence in which you understand most of the words except one or two, you still get the meaning of the sentence and you can probably guess the remaining unfamiliar word or words.

For example: “Yesterday we ate in an awful restaurant. The food was disgusting and the service was very bad.”
If you understood everything except “awful” you could probably easily work out what it meant from the context of the rest of the sentence. It is clear it must have a negative meaning, along the lines of poor, low quality. This process of working out what words mean through the context is called assimilation.

Idioms / figures of speech

There is also the added difficulty when learning a new language of knowing all the words in a sentence or phrases yet still not understanding what it actually means.

For example in Spanish they have the saying:

“Dime con quién andas, y te diré quién eres.”

If you understand all the words it will translate directly like this:
“Tell me with who you walk, and I will tell you who you are.”
The equivalent phrase in English is “Birds of a feather flock together.” (People with the same tastes and interests will stick together.)

How many words does a native speaker use in daily life?

According to Susie Dent, lexicographer and dictionary expert, we actively use 20,000 words.
In the “Reading Teachers Book of Lists” it states that the first 25 words are used in 33% of everyday writing, the first 100 words in 50% of adult writing and the first 1000 words are used in 89% of every day writing.
The most common 2500 words in any language make up 95% of daily vocabulary.
It is said that 2,500-3,000 words are enough for 95% of texts, including news items, blogs, articles and then you would start learning the remaining words you don’t know from context.

To conclude then, it is a positive outlook for anyone beginning to learn a language and who is maybe feeling a little overwhelmed by everything there is to learn. You probably think you will never know enough to have a real conversation with someone, however the good news is you only really need to work towards learning 2,500-3,000 words to be able to understand enough of everyday speaking and writing to get the meaning and then you just make a good guess of the unfamiliar words. Once you have reached this level, then you start adding their idioms, slang expressions and weird little structures to build your vocabulary further.

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