Stop Counting Vocabulary!

How many words do you need to know to become fluent in a language? Some experts will tell you that’s not the right question to ask – but it’s a question worth examining.

Many language learners believe that once they have acquired a certain number of words, they can consider themselves fluent. When I was starting my language learning journey, I was obsessed by this idea. If only I knew the 500 most common words… the top 2,500 most common words…. the top 5,000… I’d be fluent, right?

If only it were that simple. Counting words is not an effective way to evaluate fluency. There are several reasons for this.

  1. It is impossible to come up with an exact number of words that demonstrates fluency.
  2. Language experts disagree about how to measure vocabulary size.
  3. When it comes to learning a language, all words are not equal. Some words are more valuable for people to learn than others, and the order in which we learn words matters.

In this section, we are going to look at the best way to learn a new language and how to measure our progress. We’ll also consider other methods of evaluating proficiency, and examine the relationship between learning individual words and learning a whole new language.

So, how many words do you need to know to be proficient in a language? Spoiler alert: not only do experts disagree, they don’t even share consensus on what constitutes a word or on what it means to know a word.

Obviously, we need to unpack this question and scrutinize its parts to understand it better.


What is a word?

You might assume everyone means the same thing when they talk about a word, but that turns out not to be the case at all.

Language experts sharply disagree with each other about the number of words people have in their vocabularies. For example, one expert says the average native English-speaking high school graduate knows at least 35,000 words. Another expert says the average highly-educated native English speaker has a vocabulary of 10,000 words.

It doesn’t make sense that people with more education would have smaller vocabularies than people with less education. Where does this discrepancy come from?

The variance in the numbers is the result of how experts measure what they are evaluating. They are actually measuring different things. They don’t agree on the definition of “word” or the definition of “know,” so it’s not surprising they come up with such contrasting answers.

Some experts count every form of a word as a separate word. For example, they count each form of the verb “to see” separately. By this measurement, “to see,” “see,” “sees,” “seeing,” “saw” and “seen” would be considered six individual words. These experts apply the same logic to nouns, counting “cat” and “cats” as two separate words.

Other experts count only the root word, not its different forms. As a result, they come up with much smaller numbers. These experts count “to see,” “see,” “sees,” “seeing,” “saw” and “seen” as only one word, because they are all forms of “to see.” They also consider “cat” and “cats” as a single word, because the singular and plural are forms of the same root noun.

Their thinking is that when people learn a root word, such as “to see” or “cat,” they are learning a new word for the first time. However, when the same people then learn different forms of the root word, such as “seeing” or “cats,” that should be considered an addition to their knowledge of grammar instead of an expansion of their vocabulary.

After all, these experts say, this is how we learn languages. First we learn one form of a word. Then, as we understand more about the structure of the language, we generalize the use of the word to other situations, using its other forms.

When evaluating the number of words in people’s vocabularies, the experts who count every form of a word will come up with a much higher word count than will the experts who count only the root forms. And that’s the case even when both sets of experts are studying the same language and the same groups of people.


What does it mean to “know” a word?

Experts also disagree on when a person actually knows a word.

People who study languages make a distinction between active vocabulary and passive vocabulary. Some think people “know” a word only if it is in their active vocabulary, while others believe people “know” all the words in their active and passive vocabularies combined.

A word is in your active vocabulary if you can remember it quickly and use it without hesitation in your thoughts, speech, and writing. A passive vocabulary word is one you can recognize and more or less understand when you happen to hear it or see it, but you can’t easily remember the word and are not comfortable using it in conversation. For both native and non-native speakers, the number of words in their passive vocabularies is usually several times larger than the number of words in their active vocabularies.

People generally absorb a new word into their passive vocabularies after they see or hear it the first few times. Then, as they encounter the word more often and better understand its context and different meanings, it becomes part of their active vocabulary. (One of the best ways to expand your knowledge of a language is to move words from your passive into your active vocabulary.)

So you see the problem: in assessing how many words a native speaker knows, do you count their active or passive vocabulary?


Using vocabulary ranges instead of word counts

Now that we have seen why language experts generate such different word counts, we can return to our original question about how many words you need to know to be considered fluent. For the purpose of this discussion, we’ll measure vocabulary by counting only root words (not their different forms) and by counting only the words in people’s active vocabularies.

This is the approach taken by the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR). The CEFR is the current guideline used to describe achievements of learners of foreign languages across Europe and, increasingly, in other countries. It was put together by the Council of Europe as the main part of a project called “Language Learning for European Citizenship” between 1989 and 1996. Its main aim is to provide a method of learning, teaching, and assessing that applies to all languages in Europe. The six reference levels (see below) are becoming widely accepted as the de facto standard for evaluating an individual’s language proficiency.

Source

Using this method of measurement, we can sort people based on their language fluency into six groups or levels. You may have seen this table before, but we’ll present it again here for convenience.

LevelDescriptionVocabularySpeakers generally can:
A1Beginner500 wordsUse and understand basic phrases when speaking slowly.
A2Elementary1,000 wordsUnderstand simple expressions and express immediate needs.
B1Intermediate2,000 wordsUnderstand common issues and improvise discussion.
B2Upper4,000 wordsUnderstand complex topics; engage in spontaneous speech.
C1Advanced8,000 wordsExpress ideas fluently and spontaneously without strain.
C2Mastery16,000 wordsComprehend virtually everything read or heard.

 

Looking at these ranges, you may say, “Well, I’d like to aim for level A2 before my trip to Spain next year.” Great, you’ve clarified your goal. But now what?


How to study vocabulary

How do you choose the most efficient way to learn the vocabulary words you need to achieve your goals? Here’s my recommendation.

Step 1: Decide what kind of vocabulary you want to learn

In a perfect world, where you could wave a magic wand and have any learning materials you wanted delivered to you instantly, you would start by deciding what kind of vocabulary you wanted to learn. This might sound trivial, but it’s more nuanced than you might think.

  • Are you flying to Germany for a trade show on industrials? You might want to pick up very highly specialized, technical vocabulary to understand the gist of what people are discussing.
  • Maybe you work at a hospital with a large Russian-speaking community in Brooklyn, New York. You might be interested in learning some basic anatomy and words that describe major medical issues.
  • Or maybe you’re an accountant who works in a large Spanish-speaking community in Los Angeles. Your focus might be on vocabulary that deals with math, numbers, and tax issues.

Of course, these are specialized use cases. It’s more common that language learners want to pick up general-use vocabulary, so while your approach would definitely differ in the examples above, let’s assume you’re a general-interest language learner.

Step 2: Get a vocabulary list

Even if you’re a general-interest language learner, there are a number of different kinds of vocabulary lists from which you might want to choose.

Sight-word lists. For example, you might start with something called sight words. These are very basic words often targeted at young children. Most of these words are concrete and cover a narrow range of topics. Common sight words include words like the following: mother, father, dog, cat, tall, short, eat, cry, play, sleep.

As you can already see, these are very basic words, but they are as valuable to an adult language learner as they are to a native-speaking child. Depending on the nature and source, sight-word vocabulary lists range from 50-250 words. While sight-word lists are very common for English, they are not always easy to find for other languages. You can typically find free word lists with some Internet research.

Travel-word lists. Alternatively, you might want to pick up common travel words. These are lists that can easily be found in a variety of travel-phrase books, and they cover a much broader range of vocabulary. There is greater emphasis on more abstract terms, like “justice” or “political system.” These words are difficult to convey through an image. Travel-word lists are typically much deeper in their scope, even if that means they cover words that are not all that common.

For example, the food section of a travel-word list might include words for lobster, muscles, clam, and tartar sauce. While I’m sure you know these words in English, you probably wouldn’t use any of these words as often as the word “breakfast.” In fact, you could replace most of these words with “seafood.”

Travel-word lists can be found in any number of travel-phrase books, though it’s rare for phrase books to provide them all in list form. More often, they are spread throughout the book, so it can be difficult to extract them.

Word-frequency lists. Finally, you can try taking advantage of word-frequency lists. Lists like these are somewhat easy to find for widely-spoken languages, and almost non-existent for languages with fewer native speakers. The reason for this is simple: such lists are difficult and time-consuming to produce.

English word-frequency lists, for example, are produced every few decades by researchers. They gather a large sample of text in print, video, and audio across a range of subjects, and then data-mine the words and rank them in frequency.

A similar process is followed for other languages, but it requires plenty of content in lots of media and numerous people to data-mine them. That’s why lists like these are less common for languages that are not as popular. There’s just less material and fewer people to tackle the project.

Word-frequency lists can be purchased in book form from a variety of publishers, and there are several open-source lists freely available on the web. If you go this route, I’d suggest using a free list.

Most lists range from 1,000 to 10,000 words, with many languages providing at least 5,000 of the most common words. The reason I suggest going with a free list is simple: if you’re an academic statistician, you may really need to know whether the word for “mom” is more frequently used than “dad.” You might also wonder whether the more formal “mother” is more or less common than the less formal “mom.”

But if you’re a language learner, none of this matters to you, so long as these words are on your list. Additionally, those words are so commonly used, I can virtually guarantee they will be on any list you select.

The list I want doesn’t exist. I’ve always been surprised at the lack of effort to develop a helpful-word list. I’ll give you an example. In every English word-frequency list I’ve ever seen, “the” is at the top of the list, in position #1 or #2. The next entry is “a,” which trades the top spot with “the,” depending on the list.

While “a” and “the” are frequently used words, they are not especially helpful. You could learn everything in the English language other than definite and indefinite articles and still be 100 percent understood by native speakers. (If you’ve ever spoken to native speakers of Slavic languages like Russian, which lack articles, you know what I mean. Think of a classic spy movie: “I detonate bomb now, Mr. Bond!” Does the lack of “the” before “bomb” confuse Mr. Bond? Clearly not.)

But I digress. Let’s get back to how to learn your vocabulary.

Step 3: Begin to study – with some caveats

Once you’ve selected your word list, it’s time to dig in – with some caveats.

Variety is the spice of life. You’ll want to make sure your word list covers a range of parts of speech, including nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, and the like. This is important so you can start to build basic sentences as you expand your vocabulary.

If you spend the first few hours, days, weeks, or months trying to memorize the parts of the body, how would you tell someone that a part of the body was in pain? If you focused exclusively on foods, how would you tell someone you were hungry, or that a particular food was tasty or bland?

Similarity can be spicy, too. While you’re at it, you might also want to see if you can figure out whether the language you’re learning has any cognates in common with English. What are cognates? These are words common between two languages. Sometimes they are spelled the same. Other times they are pronounced the same. It’s rare that they are both spelled and pronounced exactly the same, though. Words like “Internet” or “coffee” or “metro” are cognates commonly shared between many modern languages.

At the same time, you’ll also want to be wary of “false friends.” These are words spelled or pronounced similarly between languages, but have very different meanings.

Method counts. You might be tempted to study vocabulary by reading words out loud, writing them down, labeling a bunch of things in your home with Post-it notes, or building flashcard decks, either in real life or with apps. None of these are bad approaches – but do you remember the difference between learning and studying? Both can be important, but studying is not the same as learning. Anyone who has ever studied for a test only to fail the final exam knows this all too well.

So while you can and probably should try some of these methods, you should also attempt to learn your vocabulary by learning the words in context. This requires the use of common phrases and basic sentences.

How to learn words in context

Learning words in phrases and sentences is one of the most widely-used methods successful language learners use to build large vocabularies quickly.

Variations of this approach are sometimes referred to as “mass input.” This is really just a real-world application of the Input Hypothesis developed by Stephen Krashen, which I covered earlier.

Another real-world application of this approach is called “sentence mining,” or the “10,000-sentence approach.” Adherents to this method simply expose themselves to 10,000 sentences translated between English and their target language. There is no active attempt to memorize, just to comprehend. The idea is that with a large enough sample of sentences, the language learner will naturally develop a significant vocabulary and intuitive sense of the grammar of a language.

Guided Immersion

I personally believe each of these approaches are excellent and just variations on one another. My own method, Guided Immersion, which I cover in a later section, is an evolution on this theme. I’ll spare you the details right now, but here’s the summary of how my method works.

Guided Immersion uses a much smaller data set than 10,000 sentences. In my humble opinion, and based on my language learning results and those of my students, Guided Immersion is able to “do more with less.”

Language learners exposed to a smaller volume of content end up with greater command of their target language in less time.

I don’t want to come off sounding like my method is “the best.” I think it’s pretty nifty, but as I’ve said countless times before, what works for one person may not work for another. I genuinely believe every language learner should draw from a wide range of learning materials.

Getting back to the original topic, you can study your vocabulary using any study method you want. There is a time and place for active, conscious study for lots of language learners. But if you want to really learn new vocabulary so you can make use of it in everyday discussion, any variation on Krashen’s Input Hypothesis will work, so long as:

  • You have a reasonably good quality collection of words, statements, phrases, or even short stories.
  • Those materials are available in your target language and you can understand their meaning in English (or your native language).
  • You have a reasonable volume of materials and you spend a realistic amount of time reviewing those materials.

Take a broad approach… and have fun

One final note here. I’ve mentioned before that your language-learning efforts should be relevant, engaging, fun, and within the context of what you want to learn. I’ve seen many (struggling) language learners focus almost exclusively on the study of a language. They sometimes spend hours per day slogging through textbooks, unable to move on to the next chapter until they have memorized 90 percent of the material covered.

I don’t think this is a very effective approach. It’s not enjoyable – which means you’ll eventually burn out – and it’s not very effective, since this just isn’t how human beings learn languages. It’s OK to use a textbook. I’d argue it might be better to read short stories. It’s absolutely fine to play video games, listen to the radio, work with a tutor, or watch YouTube videos. you’ll just remember that you’ll be far more successful by exposing yourself to a broad range of inputs and enjoying them than you’ll be by focusing intensely on a narrower range of content and trying to memorize it.

Don’t focus on memorizing definitions

Many people begin their language studies by attempting to memorize high-frequency words and their definitions. Adherents often focus on the first 500–1,000 most frequently-used vocabulary words in their target language.

There’s nothing wrong with that; I’ve used this approach with several of the languages I’ve taught myself. But if this is an approach you’re considering, give careful thought to where you get your vocabulary lists and how they were created. Go back to our exploration of “what is a word” and consider how you choose to study definitions.

You don’t need to memorize every definition of the words you are learning. That would be very time consuming, because some common words have several alternative definitions.

(For example, in English, the word “murder” normally means “to kill.” It is a word one often encounters in news reports. An alternative definition is “a flock of crows.” This secondary definition is not commonly known among native speakers, let alone language learning students.)

Instead, it is far more efficient to learn only a few of the most common definitions – the ones you are likely to need in ordinary conversations. Then, with experience, you’ll naturally learn more when you hear the words used in different contexts. In that way, through exposure to the language over time, you’ll assimilate the language, learning it in a natural way.

If you focus on learning the most widely used words (and their most commonly used meanings), you’ll be able to pick up the language far more efficiently than if you tried to take in everything at random.


Wrapping up

There is no precise number of words you need to know to become fluent in a new language. In part, that is because language scholars use different measurements when they count words, and apply different standards to evaluate what it means to know a word.

It is more useful to group people by their language proficiency according to a rough estimate of the number of words they know, such as the CERF ranges.

When it comes to learning a language, all words are not equal. Learning some types of words will accelerate your progress more quickly than other types of words. To be most effective in learning a language, focus on the most common words in that language before starting to study more specialized vocabularies. And learn the most common definitions first, instead of trying to memorize every definition.

You’ll progress the fastest if you start by spending your time learning what you can use right away. If, instead, you try to read a dictionary from cover to cover, grasping every word and every definition in the language, much of your effort will be inefficient at best and wasted at worst. (I know because I tried – and failed – using this method. It’s mind-numbing and horribly inefficient.)

Learning the most common words and definitions puts you in a position to start assimilating the language in a natural way. The more you hear and read words in the language, the more you understand new words and new meanings from their context and other relevant cues. This is similar to the way you learned your first language as a child. The more you expose yourself to your new language, the more fluent you’ll become.

You don’t need to count the number of words you learn in order to become fluent. Instead, put your time and effort where they will do the most good. Speed up your language learning by focusing on the most commonly used words, and let your natural language learning ability take over.

This combination of targeted studying and assimilating language by experience is the most powerful and efficient way to master a new language.

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