Word Up

One of the questions we are most frequently asked by our new language learners is how many words they need to learn in order to be proficient in their chosen language.

Of course, the answer depends on what they mean by ‘proficient’ – get by in everyday situations whilst on holiday? Or make professional presentations and answer questions from native speakers? Or converse like a native?

And, of course, the answer depends on what you mean by a ‘word’. Generally, we don’t count verb conjugations or noun declensions as separate words. So even when we learn one ‘word’ French learners could be learning up to 102 variations of every verb and German learners need to prepare themselves for 16 variations of every adjective!

Don’t let this put you off: the reality is that you need to be a very advanced French speaker to even consider learning all 17 French verb forms in their entirety – and, even if you did, there would be some duplication. Plus, the average German on the street is unlikely to chastise you for saying ‘neue’ instead of ‘neuem’. We mention these examples, not to scare you – but to illustrate that giving a definitive size to an essential vocabulary is the linguistic equivalent of determining the length of string.

In English there are similarly scary statistics – the word ‘set’, for example, has 39 different meanings listed in Oxford Dictionaries online including use in phrases and phrasal verbs. Does each of these count as a separate word?

As English speakers, we’re encouraged in the belief that Britain’s history of invasion and invading and our readiness to accept loan words make English a far richer language than many others. A US organisation claims to have identified the millionth word in English, so even the Oxford English Dictionaries count is in dispute. My copy of Larousse has around 60,000 entries but I imagine that this is in no way comparable to the words included in the Global Language Monitor survey. Should scientific and technical terms be included? Should jargon, slang or regional words be included? And what about loan words – can schadenfreude, fait accompli and karaoke really be counted as English words?

The Oxford English Dictionary includes 600,000 words, but Turkish dictionaries record a similar number of words – and this is a language that wasn’t written in its current form until 1928.

It is certainly true that English’s roots as a Germanic language which was heavily influenced by French and Latin after the Norman Conquest has made it a very irregular language, but it isn’t evident that English speakers have or indeed require extra vocabulary to speak it well.

Estimates suggest that an educated native English speaker will have around 20,000 words in their vocabulary but only use about 2,000 in a typical week. For the majority of native English speakers this drops to around half. These figures are roughly comparable across languages – so a vocabulary of around 1,000 words will have you conversing like a native.

But even this figure may be far higher than what is required to communicate in most everyday situations – a linguist writing in the telegraph claims that only 120 words are necessary to see you through most conversational requirements.

Good news then – language proficiency could be quickly within your grasp! The next job is to determine what those 120 words are…


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