How many words does it take to get to the center of a delicious foreign language?
Just like Tootsie Pops, languages are tasty treats that we rarely notice ourselves getting closer to the center of until we’re chewing on the chocolaty goodness of free-flowing conversation and wondering how many steps it took us to get there.
Unlike Tootsie Pops, languages are complex living things, frustratingly resistant to black-and-white measurements of how many words or how many licks it takes to cross the finish line and reach your goal.
However, while the number of licks in a Tootsie Pop remains a mystery to this day, there are a few different useful ways of sussing out how many words you need to reach arbitrary labels like being conversational or fluent in a foreign language or to truly speak the language.
There’s no magic number of words that you can learn to suddenly unlock all a language’s mysteries, but there most certainly are ways to think about the numbers of words that add up to fluency.
For instance, there are ranges of vocabulary that correspond roughly to different levels of fluency. There are particular kinds of words you should learn before others to get yourself closer to fluency faster. There are learner-tested strategies for first learning to understand new words and then learning to use them.
How Many Words Do We Need to Know in My Target Language?
When someone mentions learning a foreign language, our minds often fill up with images of endless flashcard apps and apartments covered in foreign words written on sticky notes stuck to everyday objects.
After all, words are the stuff language is made of, right? The gotta-catch-’em-all approach seems bound to pay off at some point.
It’s true that you can’t learn a language without learning the words that make it up, but amassing a huge vocabulary shouldn’t be your main goal the difference between 1,000 words and 5,000 is a small one if those extra 4,000 are just different versions of the first thousand, if they’re words you’ll rarely get to use, or if you don’t really know how to use them.
Before you can wrap your head around the difference between 1,000 words and 5,000, you’ll need to think about what a word is. The answer depends on who you ask.
What is a word
A quick search for how many words are known by the average native English speaker can give you results that vary widely.
One source will claim that highly-educated native speakers have a vocabulary of around 10,000 words, while another says that an ordinary speaker who has finished high school knows 35,000 easily.
It’s not because these studies are fudging their numbers, but rather what they’re measuring is just different.
Some word counts count every form of a word. For example, from the verb to run, we get to run, runs, ran, running and many more. By some counts, these would all count as individual words, all with slightly different meanings related to the person, number and tense.
Other counts only look at headwords or word families, the forms by which most words are listed in the dictionary and the root word from which all other forms are derived. When counting this way, house and houses would be two forms of the same headword, house. The same would be true of am, is, was and be, all forms of the headword to be.
Taking the latter approach to counting up our vocabulary, you can think of a verb like to run as a word that you’ve learned, and your ability to conjugate it to the dog runs would count as grammatical knowledge, rather than an entirely new word.
This way of thinking closely mirrors organic language learning, in which we learn one form of a word and, as we learn more about the language and its structures, we’re able to generalize it and apply it to other situations. The grammatical understanding you acquire over time allows you to make the word plural, past tense, future tense or a direct object.
Perhaps you can already see the gulf of the grey area between these two approaches.
For instance, if run and ran count as one word, what about the verb to run in the sense of to manage or the noun form, as in a quick run to the store? Where do we draw the line between one cluster of meanings and the next?
When attempting to count words, it’s important to adopt a consistent standard (what you’re counting and how you’re distinguishing one word from another).
It’s also important to remember that, at the end of the day, it’s all a bit arbitrary.
How do you know what you know?
Another complication is defining words we know.
Do you know a word if you sort of mostly understand it when you hear it, but are unable to recall it and use it during a conversation?
This is the distinction between active and passive vocabulary.
Active vocabulary is vocabulary that you can quickly remember and actively use when writing, speaking, and thinking.
Passive vocabulary is vocabulary that you’re passively able to understand when you see it or hear it, but that you can’t use—or that you’re unsure of how to use—when writing, speaking and thinking.
Generally speaking, new words will first be gradually absorbed into your passive vocabulary as you encounter them several times and start to get a feel for their use.
Then, once you’ve gained enough context clues, and once you’ve heard and read enough of a word’s different meanings and usages to have a more exact idea of what it means and how it’s used, it’ll move over into your active vocabulary.
Native speakers and second language speakers alike generally have a passive vocabulary several times greater than their active vocabulary. For learners, upgrading our passive vocabulary to the active category is one of the best ways to expand our knowledge of the language we’re learning.
How many words do you know, and how many do you need to know?
For the sake of this post, let’s say that our vocabulary counts are using headwords and word families that are included in our active vocabulary.
So, we’re not counting all the various forms of a given word, and we’re not counting anything that’s only in our passive vocabulary.
When we narrow our perspective down like this, we can start making approximations.
In general, we can describe levels of fluency in a foreign language with these rough word counts:
Functional beginner: 250-500 words. After just a week or so of learning, you’ll already have most of the tools to start having basic, everyday conversations. In most of the world’s languages, 500 words will be more than enough to get you through any tourist situations and everyday introductions.
Conversational: 1,000-3,000 words. With around 1,000 words in most languages, you’ll be able to ask people how they’re doing, tell them about your day and navigate everyday life situations like shopping and public transit.
Advanced: 4,000-10,000 words. As you grow past the 3,000-word mark or so in most languages, you’re moving beyond the words that make up the everyday conversation and into a specialized vocabulary for talking about your professional field, news and current events, opinions and more complex, abstract verbal feats. At this point, you should be able to reach C2 level in the Common European Framework for Reference (CEFR) in most languages.
Fluent: 10,000+ words. At around 10,000 words in many languages, you’ve reached a near-native level of vocabulary, with the requisite words for talking about nearly any topic in detail. Furthermore, you recognize enough words in every utterance that you usually understand the unfamiliar ones from context.
Native: 10,000-30,000+ words. Total word counts vary widely between world languages, making it difficult to say how many words native speakers know in general. As we discussed above, estimates of how many words are known by the average native English speaker to vary from 10,000 to 65,000+.
Of course, you’ll need to keep in mind that different languages have different amounts of words, and thus vocabulary quantities at different skill levels can vary considerably.