How many words to fluency?

I’d like to discuss a topic that actually comes up quite a bit among both beginning language learners and polyglots alike. I’m talking about the age old question: “How many words do I need to know to be fluent in a language?” Obviously this is one of the most subjective questions you could possibly ask, but it does make you think, doesn’t it? Throw out the obvious distraction (“fluent”), modify the verbiage a bit, and you are left with a reasonable question. “How many words does one need to know to function in a language. “ Let’s see if we can find out.

This handy chart below is from a quote by Professor Alexander Arguelles, a renowned polyglot and language scholar. He advises that the below are just round numbers, but are excellent illustrations of words compared to functionality:

  • 250 words constitute the essential core of a language, those without which you cannot construct any sentence.
  • 750 words constitute those that are used every single day by every person who speaks the language.
  • 2500 words constitute those that should enable you to express everything you could possibly want to say, albeit often by awkward circumlocutions.
  • 5000 words constitute the active vocabulary of native speakers without higher education.
  • 10,000 words constitute the active vocabulary of native speakers with higher education.
  • 20,000 words constitute what you need to recognize passively in order to read, understand, and enjoy a work of literature such as a novel by a notable author.

Now, obviously this is tremendously generalized as different languages have different numbers of words as well as varying frequencies of use, but it is a nice ballpark. So what does this tell us exactly?

Well, for starters, 2500 words seems to be a minimum threshold of “basic (or conversational) fluency”. After all, if you can “express everything you could possibly want to say”, I’d say you are conversational in the language. The caveat, “albeit often by awkward circumlocutions”, is what separates “conversational” from many people’s definition of fluency in a language. From what I have seen, most people would be thrilled with anything in the range of 2500-5000 words.

Now, the big distinctions between the 10,000 word threshold and the 20,000 word threshold are the words “active” and “passive”. For those who don’t know, active vocabulary includes words you are able to include in your speech and writing whereas “passive” vocabulary includes those words which you can recognize, but do not know well enough to incorporate them into speech production.

Naturally, our passive vocabulary will always be substantially larger than our active vocabulary simply because we don’t need to use a lot of our passive vocabulary every day; we simply need it for things like reading and listening. Passive vocabulary often includes specialized words that are simply not a part of most people’s daily lives.

I have known several bilinguals and maybe a handful of trilinguals who hold themselves to the fluency standards of educated natives, but this is rarely a benchmark for polyglots as it can take 10+ years of immersion to reach something comparable to that level.

Now What?

Ok, so now that we have (kind of) an answer to the how much vocabulary question, how do we know which words to learn? How do we find vocabulary?

  1. Fiction books (novels). Ok, I know, Captain Obvious to the rescue, but this is a big one. I know people who just take very unknown word from a book they are reading and put it right into ANKI. I have not found this to be successful for two reasons: A. There are a lot of words in most books that you do NOT need to use on a regular basis. B. ANKI is not as effective with words that you throw into it cold (with no previous review). So, which words should you pull out? Well, I ask myself “Have I used this word in English in the last month in any conversations?” If the answer is no, I leave it out of ANKI. If yes, in it goes (after some pre-ANKI review).
  2. TV shows and movies. Subtitles can be found on the internet quite readily in most languages for popular TV shows and movies. Especially if it’s a movie you know very well, you can learn quite a lot (and pull a lot of good vocab) by studying some of your favorite lines. Again, if you don’t see yourself using it, don’t waste your time on it.
  3. Internet forums. A lot of colloquial speech and slang chunks can be found on one of the many forums that exist online in your target language. It doesn’t have to be about language learning either. Interested in cars and learning German? Check out a cartalk forum in German (they are out there). Interested in videogames and learning Korean? Check out a Korean videogame fan site. Interested in Anime and studying Japanese? Too easy.
  4. Frequency dictionaries. Be careful here. For active vocabulary, you’ll want to make sure the frequency dictionary you choose comes from a large lexicon covering both written and spoken sources. The last thing you need to do is memorize a frequency list pulled from 100 year old historical novels or something outdated like that.
  5. Skype. I get a lot of useful vocabulary from Skyping with native speakers that I meet on or other language exchange sites. Text chats are also a great way to get new vocab.
  6. I like to come up with expressions that I use on a daily basis in conversation and post them to lang-8 for translation help into my target language. I just grab a piece of paper and ask myself: “What do I want to know how to say?” The more idioms and colloquial expressions I have at my disposal, the easier it is for me to speak about the same stuff that I do in my native language.
  7. Dictionaries. Ok, this one is probably more for the Hardcores. I do this a lot, but I enjoy it (for some reason no one has ever been able to ascertain.  This involves picking up a dictionary and turning to a random page. From there, I just skim through and jot down any unknown words that think would be useful. I usually stop after about 20-25 words. This may not be your cup of tea, but I find it relaxing and extremely useful.
  8. Podcasts, internet radio, and Youtube – At an intermediate/advanced level, these can be great tools for grabbing new vocabulary.

Some ANKI Advice

I know that some of you may not use ANKI or any other electronic SRS system. If you do, however, I have some advice that I wish someone had given me when I started using it. Disclaimer: This is not MY discovery. I have heard other language learners mention this advice before, but it does not seem to be as well-known as I think it should be. This is me doing my part to disseminate the knowledge to those less fortunate than myself. With that said, here it is:

Don’t use ANKI for “Blind Vocabulary”

What do I mean by “blind vocabulary”? Simple, don’t input words to ANKI unless you have at least a fleeting familiarity with them first. Any words going into ANKI should have been preceded with some kind of study methodology. ANKI isn’t optimally designed to TEACH vocabulary, but to assist with RETAINING vocabulary with properly spaced interval repetition.

Does this mean that you CAN’T learn cold words through ANKI? No. It just isn’t nearly as efficient as if you were to put in a little pre-study time first. SRS is an exceptional way of converting vocabulary to long term memory, but using it to learn blind vocabulary is not very efficient.

Now, I’m not saying you should memorize all of the vocab before you put it into ANKI. This would kind of be defeating the purpose of using ANKI in the first place. My suggestion is to just review the words a few times, maybe in groups of 5-7 at a time. Get familiar with them. You may even give yourself short term quizzes to test your retention. This should be enough to get the words in short-term memory so that ANKI can do its thing.

I have tried both blind vocabulary and familiar vocabulary and I have to say that the familiar vocab stuck more quickly and converted to long-term memory much for efficiently.

Parting Words

I want to take a minute here and say thank you to everyone who has helped make HowToLanguages really come alive in the last few months. All of the feedback I’ve gotten has been great. Please leave a comment with any suggestions for this or future posts. I read everything. Your opinion matters.