300, 2,000, 11,000, all the words in the dictionary? How many words do you need to know to speak a language? This is a legitimate question and one that many learners ask themselves. Some linguists believe that 800 words are enough to hold a basic conversation. However, your vocabulary should be over 8,000 words if you want to speak a language as well as a native speaker. So what is behind these figures? Are they applicable in all situations? Let’s find out…
Learn all the words in the dictionary: not necessary!
The good news is that you don’t need to know all the words in a language to be fluent! This is a point on which linguists are unanimous.
If we take the example of French, there are nearly 60,000 words in the Larousse dictionary. However, how many of us claim to know them all? Not many, I think. It is estimated that an adult French speaker uses an average of 5,000 words, i.e. a little over 8% of the words listed.
Why is this? Simply because we don’t need to know the rest. If you work in the restaurant business, for example, it is unlikely that the technical vocabulary related to aeronautics will be useful in your everyday life, and vice versa.
The number of words needed to speak a language: what the experts say
Several researchers have looked into this complex issue. A BBC article summarises the findings of one such researcher, Stuart Webb, professor of applied linguistics at the University of Western Ontario. Among other things, Webb tried specifically to answer the question: “How many words do you need to know to speak English well?”
The current English language is estimated to have about 171,000 words. This figure does not take into account some 47,000 words that are considered obsolete. It is estimated that native English speakers know about 15,000 lemmas. In linguistics, lemmas are canonical words from which other words are formed, such as dream, dreams, dreamed, or blue, blueish, bluer, etc.
According to Webb’s findings, it is impossible for an ESL learner to master as many lemmas as a native speaker. Learners find it difficult to go over the 3,000 word mark, even after years of studying the language. In their book ‘Vocabulary in Language Teaching’, Norbert and Diane Schmitt state, for example, that the average French high school student knows 1,000 English words after 400 hours of teaching.
You think that’s not enough? It depends. Professor Webb explains that 800 to 1,000 lemmas are enough to understand 75% of everyday English.
The number of words you need to know depends on your level
A few hundred words: that’s all you need to get to a “survival” level in a language. You won’t be able to hold deep conversations, but you will be able to get by in most simple situations (introducing yourself, ordering in a restaurant, asking for directions, etc.).
With 1,500 words or more, you can qualify for a pre-intermediate level. You will be able to express yourself easily and have everyday conversations with your peers and colleagues. This corresponds approximately to a level of A2/B1 on the CEFR scale.
To attain a so-called fluent level, a vocabulary of more or less 3,000 words is required. This wealth of vocabulary will enable you, for example, to watch a film in its original version without the subtitles.
What does fluency mean? Not all specialists have the same definition of the term “fluent”. It would seem that it is more a question of the perception of the level of the language than of its actual mastery. To find out more, read our article – When can you say that you speak a language fluently?
Finally, if you want to be able to express yourself as well as a native speaker or nearly so, to read novels in your target language and to aim for a C2 level, you will need to learn 8,000 to 9,000 words. If this sounds unattainable, just imagine that at 10 new words a day, you can learn 8,000 words in just over two years.
🔎 Read also: Becoming bilingual: Why? How? How quickly?
The key to success: learn the words that are useful for you!
Mastering a large vocabulary is one thing, learning words that you can use is another. If you want your vocabulary to help you to speak a language well, you need to learn words that are really useful to you.
Do you need English to talk to your new food supplier? Why learn words like paper clip or stapler? These are probably common items that you use often in the office, but they don’t necessarily serve your purpose.
This means that you will have to leave out the ready-made vocabulary lists. Terms that are relevant to one person may not be relevant to another. You must therefore opt for personalised learning adapted to your objectives. There is no need to count the words you know to measure your progress.
In short, the right question to ask yourself is “what words do I need to know to speak this language well?” and not “how many words do I need to learn to speak a language?” One thousand relevant words will always be more useful in learning a language than 3,000 words that you will never use.
With 1to1PROGRESS language training, you benefit from a tailor-made programme designed to meet your objectives. You can count on our trainers to teach you the words that really count!