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Learning the 100 most common words in a language: is it really useful?

If you want to learn a language, memorising vocabulary is a must. You may have found many lists of the 100 most common words in your target language on the web. But can you really use only 100 words to learn a language, to understand a conversation or to express yourself to a native speaker? When you know that there are about 60,000 words in the French dictionary (1) and that the English language has nearly 171,000 words, commonly used (2), you can be a little sceptical…

How many words do you need to know to speak a language?

Let’s face it: it is impossible to know all the words in the dictionary, even in your own mother tongue. So the question is: how many words do you need to know to speak a language?

The answer depends on the level you are aiming for. Consider:

  • 500 to 800 words for a beginner level;
  • about 1,500 words for an intermediate level;
  • 3,000 words to be fluent in a language;
  • and nearly 8,000 words to be bilingual.

🔎 Would you like to know more about this? Read the complete article: How many words do you need to know to speak a language well?

100 words to learn a language: a good start, but…

Looking at the figures given in the previous paragraph, we can see that 100 words will not be enough to express yourself in any language, no matter how briefly.

Let’s take a look at this analytically by applying the 80/20 rule (also called Pareto’s law), to the use of languages. This rule states that 80% of consequences come from 20% of the causes. This would imply that 20% of the words used in a language are found in 80% of the conversations.

So by identifying and learning the most used words (the famous 20%) you could understand 80% of what you read or hear. Not bad, eh?

Of course, memorising a few hundred words is not enough, but it’s still a promising start!

Choosing the right vocabulary words to get started a language

Many of the lists that you will find on the Internet will give you the most commonly used words in your target language, but be careful! You will notice that, in some languages ,these lists are more like a series of pronouns, articles and prepositions of all types, because these are the words that are most commonly used in a language.

However, this will not help you to construct correct or complete sentences, including subject, verb and object. So if you want to learn 100 of the most commonly used words in a language, we recommend that you make your own mix. To do this, select the vocabulary that will be most useful to you from several lists:

  • the most common nouns;
  • the most frequently used verbs;
  • the most frequently used adjectives;
  • etc.

Making your own vocabulary lists can be a time-consuming activity. The best thing to do is to trust a qualified trainer who will be able to give you the words to learn that are best suited to your needs.

Example: 100 words to start learning English

Here is an example of a list mixing several types of words you could use to start learning English. 

💡 Tip: Would you like to know how to pronounce the words you are learning? How about using Google Translate!

  1. the (indefinite article)
  2. a, an (definite article)
  3. to (preposition)
  4. and (conjunction)
  5. of (preposition)
  6. in (preposition)
  7. about (preposition)
  8. after (preposition)
  9. before (preposition)
  10. I (pronoun)
  11. you (pronoun)
  12. he (pronoun)
  13. she (pronoun)
  14. it (pronoun)
  15. we (pronoun)
  16. they (pronoun)
  17. that (pronoun, conjunction)
  18. for (preposition)
  19. on (preposition)
  20. with (preposition)
  21. but (conjunction)
  22. from (preposition)
  23. or (conjunction)
  24. what (interrogative pronoun)
  25. how (interrogative pronoun)
  26. who (interrogative pronoun)
  27. when (interrogative pronoun)
  28. yes (adverb)
  29. no (adverb)
  30. now (adverb)
  31. tomorrow (adverb)
  32. today (adverb)
  33. yesterday (adverb)
  34. only (adverb)
  35. because (conjunction)
  36. be (verb)
  37. have (verb)
  38. do (verb)
  39. get (verb)
  40. make (verb)
  41. go (verb)
  42. say (verb)
  43. see (verb)
  44. know (verb)
  45. think (verb)
  46. look (verb)
  47. want (verb)
  48. like (verb)
  49. take (verb)
  50. give (verb)
  51. ask (verb)
  52. day (noun)
  53. time (noun)
  54. person (noun)
  55. work (noun)
  56. number (noun)
  57. book (noun)
  58. country (noun)
  59. group (noun)
  60. home (noun)
  61. family (noun)
  62. life (noun)
  63. night (noun)
  64. question (noun)
  65. child (noun)
  66. name (noun)
  67. hand (noun)
  68. week (noun)
  69. year (noun)
  70. problem (noun)
  71. man (noun)
  72. woman (noun)
  73. company (noun)
  74. thing (noun)
  75. world (noun)
  76. money (noun)
  77. word (noun)
  78. age (noun)
  79. room (noun)
  80. water (noun)
  81. school (noun)
  82. city (noun)
  83. good (adjective)
  84. small (adjective)
  85. other (adjective)
  86. bad (adjective)
  87. big (adjective)
  88. new (adjective)
  89. old (adjective)
  90. different (adjective)
  91. young (adjective)
  92. long (adjective)
  93. short (adjective)
  94. same (adjective)
  95. left (adjective)
  96. right (adjective)
  97. next (adjective)
  98. first (adjective)
  99. last (adjective)
  100. important (adjective)

(1) Source Académie française

(2) Source BBC