How many words do we really need to know?
This is a very common question,
a question I’ve been asked many times.
And it’s a common source of frustration among language learners: “I need more vocabulary, I don’t know enough words” is what people say all the time.
According to Google, there are over a million words in the English language
The Second Edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary contains full entries for 171,476 words in current use.
How many English words do we need to know?
There are 3 answers to that question, there are 3 numbers:
Let us look at each of these 3 numbers.
1. How many words do we need in order to speak fluently?
The answer to that question is in the most important piece of advice I give every language learner: use monolingual learner’s dictionaries
Monolingual learner’s dictionaries use a limited list of common words for writing simple definitions of every word in the dictionary. The list is called “ defining vocabulary ”
According to Wikipedia, in 1978 Longman was one of the first modern dictionaries to use defining vocabulary, “and since then defining vocabularies have become a standard component of monolingual learner’s dictionaries for English and for other languages.”
How many words are on the defining vocabulary list?
So here is your answer to the question of speaking:
You need between 2,000 and 3,000 words in order to speak well. With about 2,500 words you can express ANY idea and make a sentence on ANY topic:
from literature to business,
from philosophy to mathematics,
from sports to movies,
You name it, every conceivable topic
Granted, not in the most eloquent of ways, but still, you will be able to get your message across as long as you are able to rephrase your sentence.
Between 2,000 and 3,000 words. Let’s meet in the middle: 2,500 words for speaking.
How about listening comprehension?
How many words do we need in order to understand what others are telling us in a typical face-to-face conversation?
Well, it depends but in most cases 2,000 to 3,000 words should do, for two reasons:
Firstly, in a face-to-face conversation native speakers are kind enough to adjust their level, cutting down on the slang and focusing on more common words and phrases.
The second reason you could get by with even 2,000 words in a face-to-face conversation is that you can clarify and confirm when you don’t understand.
In a face-to-face conversation you could ask:
These are the few questions every language learner must learn first.
How about language tests?
Well, the answer to that question is once again in my favorite English learner’s dictionaries
According to Macmillan dictionary: "90% of the time, speakers of English use just 7,500 words in speech and writing"
Oxford dictionary gives a similar number: 7000 words account for 90% of the language
2,000 vs 7,000 is a considerable difference. It’s Active vs Passive vocabulary:
- 2,000 to 3,000 words for speaking - active vocabulary
- 2,000 to 3,000 words for listening in a typical face-to-face conversation - active and passive vocabulary
- 7,000 words for language tests as well as movies, newspapers and news on TV - passive and active vocabulary
And the good news is that most language learners already know 2,000 words.
The bad news is that most language learners don’t know how to use them quickly and in grammatically correct sentences. Most people can’t remember the words they know, remember quickly and use correctly, because most language learners don’t know how to learn vocabulary.