All you need to know about learning English vocabulary
How many words do you need to speak English? 🙊
How many words do you need to speak English? How can you learn vocabulary more efficiently?
This is a common and important question that people have, so today I'll tell you everything you need to know about learning English vocabulary, starting with the question how many words are required to speak English.
The answer will of course vary depending on the level you want to reach. The rule of thumb is:
- Aim for 600 words in English in order to be able to hold basic conversations.
- 5,000 words in English if you want to reach a level where you would no longer use your native language in order to understand or express yourself.
In this context, when I say word, I mean the variations you can find in a dictionary:
- am, are, is, was, were, be count as a single word, the verb to be.
- man, men count as a single word, the noun man.
- On the other hand, book (as a verb, book a hotel) and a book (as a noun, something you read) count as two different words, because they have different meanings.
It's a good idea to be aware of the fact that a large number of words in English are written the same way but the grammatical type(verb, noun, adjective, adverb, etc.) varies depending on the context. That's why when we're still beginners in English, we often don't understand words we thought we knew.
Before I show you how to learn English vocabulary more efficiently, here are some statistics:
How many words per level
Modern languages respect the Pareto principle - 20 % of the most common words are used 80 % of the time.
According to different studies, you need to understand around 95 to 98 % of a language in order to reach a level where you not only can understand almost everything, but you can also guess the meaning of words you don't know without your native language.
Based on my own research on the topic, I can confirm that the 5000 most common words in spoken English cover 90 % of the spoken language. If we put that into the context of the CEFR, we get:
|Number of words
Source: Fabien Snauwaert, Liste de fréquence (2014)
More specifically, this means that when targeting English vocabulary that we want to learn, we can quickly reach an 80-percent-comprehension. That's what frequency lists are made for, they give us the list of the most common words in English, in order to allow us to focus on learning words which will serve us immediately.
We can also see in the table that the more advanced we get, the slower our progress becomes - that's normal, that's how languages work, encountering a new, unknown word becomes rarer.
By the way, something interesting happens at the C1+ level (around 4700 words) - synonyms become more and more common.
Finally, with these 5000 vocabulary words, you will no longer need a bilingual dictionary, meaning you will no longer need to translate words in English into your native language. Instead, you'll be able to directly look in the English monolingual dictionary and you will have the capacity to understand all the definitions.
In a second I'll tell you how you can put all of this information into practice. Before that, I'd like to answer a common question on this topic.
Words, words, and even more words!
How many words are enough to speak English?
How many words are there in the English language? And a related question, how many words do native speakers know?
Let's just take a few numbers to illustrate:
- An English dictionary like Oxford English Dictionary (in 20 volumes) states that there are about 171,476 words currently in use in modern English.
- At an adult age, native speakers know about 15,000 words and, the more educated ones, between 25,000 and 35,000 words.
- This number varies depending on age and level of education.
- The estimation also covers all the words a person knows, including the ones they use only once a year or haven't used since their childhood.
- It is estimated that there are more than one million words in English but that includes an avalanche of technical terms, specific to certain fields (chemistry, medicine, IT, etc.).
Your goal is not to know everything, because that's simply impossible. Nobody knows all the words in the dictionary! Your goal is to know the English vocabulary which will serve you and which interests you in order to be able to communicate and use English in your daily life.
What to expect
For all of these reasons, learning 5,000 words remains a realistic goal. At that level, you'll be fully autonomous and will be able to use English with ease.
And then what? After having learned these 5,000 words, you will want to focus on vocabulary related to your personal life (hobbies, work, and others) because following a frequency list is productive only to a certain extent. After that you end up learning words which are too rare to be useful.
As time goes by, you will easily continue to accumulate English vocabulary (because you will already have a solid foundation), until you reach 10,000 words.
Among all of that, having a near-native level of English to me means everyday English and knowing about 10,000 words, being able to use them as effortlessly as native speakers.
On your mark, get set ... GO!
Now that you got an idea about the numbers, the two questions that will have naturally come up are:
- How do you learn your first 600 words in English?
- How do you reach the 5,000-word level?
You'll want to start off with a frequency list, in order to see what the most popular words are. This will allow you to learn vocabulary in an intelligent and organized way, as opposed to a chaotic and illogical one.
The good lists organize words by dictionary entries (as we saw in the beginning of this article) in order to avoid duplicates and learn all forms of the word in one go. Also, good frequency lists focus on the spoken language because the hardest part is communicating - spoken English and its written version are different.
Frequency lists are the keystone which will allow you to learn a language efficiently. Research in linguistics has shown their efficiency for decades now but, unfortunately, finding a good frequency list has proven to be the harder task. That's what led me to spend 6 months to develop my own frequency list in order to teach English intelligently.
Frequency lists worth mentioning:
- In our English-learning products.
- In Click & Speak - all of the taught words have been chosen according to their frequency, created especially for the occasion. The goal? To teach English vocabulary progressively, with the most common words first, not leaving anything to chance.
- On FrequencyList.com : the same frequency list used on Click & Speak is now available online for free. You have access to phonetic transcriptions, you can listen to the pronunciation, watch or add nice example videos (songs, movie scenes...) which makes learning fun.
- Mark Davies' work, university of BYU.
- Mark Davies' frequency list has been the only quality list for a long time.
- You have access to a list of the 5000 most common words for free. The full list costs $90 for the wide public and $45 for students, and allows you to see all the 5,000 words used in the spoken language.
- The disadvantage of these lists is that the corpus (the collection of texts used to analyze a language) is very focused on politics and does not reflect everyday English much.
Other lists are too unorganized with too many duplicates and an unrealistic vocabulary.
Another cheap option is to buy a pocket dictionary.
Pocket dictionaries are designed to be compact and thus only include the most commonly used words, selected by the dictionary's editors. For example, the one I use to learn Hungarian contains 5,000 words and 10,000 definitions. It's not as practical as having a frequency list but it does allow you to browse through the 5,000 most commonly used words.
One big mistake to avoid
Once you get a good frequency list on hand, read it through to see where you stand. This gives you a good idea about the work you still have ahead of you and allows you to get organized by showing you which words you still need to learn.
And now, the big mistake to be avoided at all costs - learning words on their own! Mastering English does not mean knowing five thousand individual words along with their translations in your native language - no!
Knowing the vocabulary means recognizing and understanding words clearly in the context of sentences in order to be able to use them whenever you need them. In other words, you need to learn vocabulary naturally.
How many English words can I learn per day?
How many words in English should I learn every day? Before answering that question for foreigners learning English, let's have a look at native English speakers.
Source: TestYourVocab (blog)
You can check out the interactive version on the website for more details, but to summarize:
- The average is 382 words per year.
- From the ages of 4 to 15, children and teenagers learn about 1,300 new words per year.
- The biggest peak is around the age of 13, with next to 2,500 learned words in one year.
- Between the ages of 16 and 20, young adults learn from 600 to 800 words per year.
- Between the ages of 20 and 50 years, the number swings between 300 and 400 learned words per year.
- There's a lot of variation from 50 years - while some start losing vocabulary, others continue to acquire hundreds of new words.
While many will be tempted to explain all of this with biology (and ignore the variations which show the opposite), I'd rather explain these numbers through behaviors. If you always do the same thing, you don't learn anything new; if you don't use what you have, you lose it. That's unfortunately the case for many adults.
Let's compare this to sports, if you stop working out, you'll undoubtedly find yourself in worse shape than someone who continues. It's a life choice. This doesn't mean that we don't get older, but simply that we reap what we sow. If you're of the mindset that you're too old to learn and do nothing about it, then that is the goal that you will accomplish. Rather, you can practice English because you know you're never too old to learn and that it's important to use your brain in order to keep it in shape.
On that note, how is it that children learn so many words? Because they don't have a choice! Children and adults live in different worlds. Children have a lot of free time. They need to discover their surrounding world and they need to perform well at school. Adults already know a lot of things - which is an advantage as long as you don't become closed-minded. The problem is that they typically have less free time. While children's environment pushes them to learn, the adult world limits growth and constrains learning.
It's up to us to address the problem of stagnation by taking action.
Foreigners who learn English
The advantage that adults have is that they no longer need to discover their surrounding world. If you need to call a cute little pet that is "a cat" in English, it's not a new concept (even though it's the case for a young child). The same applies for a lot of things.
As an adult, you'll want to first learn to express yourself about things you're already familiar with. Then you'll want to continue learning in English, as opposed to in your native language, in order to build English-speaking skills and enrich your life.
Compared to native speakers, an advantage that adults who learn English nowadays have is that technology has progressed extraordinarily. Spaced repetition systems allow you to optimize your time for revision, devour more vocabulary, and memorize English in the long run.
On top of that, if you learn in an intelligent way with the important vocabulary first (frequency lists), learn it in the context of sentences, with a progressive grammar, I sincerely believe that you can learn words much more quickly in English than you did in your mother tongue.
Finally, what we learn is clear and perfectly comprehensible, not only when it comes to meaning, but also when it comes to the spoken language and phonetics, so I think we can push that limit even further.
For all of these reasons, I'm placing the number of words you can learn in English at:
14 words a day.
Or: 5,000 words in a year.
This is a sustainable and realistic pace for people who want to master English in a year.
That's it for the theory... but how is it in practice?
The goal of learning 5,000 words in English in a year has become a reality the day the first users of Click & Speak finished their training in English, one year after having started. It was a lot of work, but they made it! They learned 5,000 words in the context of 7,066 phrases, with 365 dialogues to help them.
The question that some of you may be asking is: is it possible to do more? If you're also working fulltime, no.
I challenge anyone to learn more than 5,000 words in English in a year, with their meaning, pronunciation, and being capable to build correct sentences with all of this vocabulary, not just understanding it.
To be honest, I would even challenge anyone to learn 5,000 words in English in a year without Click & Speak, because the course is optimized and has done all the work for you, by telling you exactly what vocabulary you need to study each day.
Learning English vocabulary is a sprawling task. Mastering English means knowing how to use those 5,000 words. You need to know how to go about it.
- If you're in a hurry and want to learn English in a year, aim at learning 14 new words a day.
- If you want to go about it at a more moderated rhythm, aim at learning half of that, or seven new words a day.
In any case, keep in mind that beyond these numbers, it's consistency that counts, because, without it, it's impossible to remember anything, you're wasting your time.
By being regular, everything becomes easier and you'll be able to use the words you learned whenever you need them.
In other words, aim at studying English every day. We'll see how to make that possible in the next articles.
How many words do you need to speak English?
- Click & Speak - the online course which will allow you to master English. We have created this course in order to allow you to learn a maximum amount of English in a minimum span of time possible.
What to look forward to:
We're working hard on bringing the best articles on learning English to you! If you liked this article on the number of words in English, stay tuned for:
- How much time it takes in order to learn English - the answer is in hours rather than years.
- How to reach a native-like level in English