When starting to learn a new language, it is natural to wonder how long it will take you to become fluent in that language. In order to measure your progress, one of the most popular methods is to count the number of foreign vocabulary words that a student knows and uses.
How many words do you need to communicate effectively
It is quite difficult to answer this question accurately. In fact, different views of many foreign language learners often contradict each other.
The problem with counting vocabulary words
Despite the fact that it’s one of the most popular methods of assessing language comprehension, word counting is ineffective. There are many reasons for this, including:
- It’s hard to say at what specific number of vocabulary words you begin to comprehend a language well.
- Language experts disagree about the best method to measure vocabulary.
- Not all languages are equal in complexity. Chinese, for example, is clearly more difficult than English.
- Learning a list of words doesn’t mean you can communicate well. Some terms are more important to learn than others because they are more useful in everyday life. A person can learn many highly specialized words, but still not be able to communicate on a fluent level.
What strategy to choose when studying words
First we learn to spell a word. Then, we learn more about the structure of the language. Furthermore, we can learn the use of a term in other contexts, using other forms of the word.
So some experts count all forms of the same word, and some only the root forms. And the resulting numbers will vary greatly even within the same person. What is the correct way? There is no objective answer. None of them is right or wrong. The volume of people’s vocabulary can be measured by any of these methods. Therefore, it is important when comparing people or groups to each other to choose one method of assessment and stick to it to get real results.
What does it mean to “know” a word
Language learners make a distinction between active and passive vocabulary.
- Active vocabulary is vocabulary that you can quickly recall and use without hesitation while speaking and writing.
- Passive vocabulary is vocabulary you know and understand (more or less), but for some reason don’t use in simple communication. You can read how it usually happens in this research. In other words, passive vocabulary can consist of terms you don’t remember or can’t rapidly translate yourself. Therefore, you may feel uncomfortable saying it in a dialogue and this is why you keep them only in your mind.
The number of words in passive vocabulary tends to be many times greater than the number of words in active vocabulary, both native and non-native speakers.
When seeing or hearing a new word for the first time, most people automatically incorporate it into their passive vocabulary. But when, for example, children encounter the term more often and start to understand its meaning and context better, the word becomes part of their active vocabulary, which they can use in everyday life.
One of the most effective strategies for improving language comprehension is to convert terms from passive vocabulary to active vocabulary as quickly as possible.
How many words does an average native speaker use
When it comes to “how many words do you need to know to be fluent in a language,” there is no single answer. This is partly because linguistic schools use different metrics when counting words and use different criteria when evaluating what it means to be familiar with a term.
For this reason, ranges are usually used to determine word counts. Ranges make it possible to categorize people based on their language skills, based on a rough estimate of how many words they understand.
You need to understand that it all depends on the difficulty of the particular language, but an average can be categorized like this:
- Beginners include those who know between 250 and 500 words.
- Those who know between 1,000 and 3,000 words are able to have normal conversations in everyday life.
- People who know between 4,000 and 10,000 words are classified as advanced language users.
- And those who know more than 10,000 words are classified as fluent speakers or native speakers.
What strategy to choose when studying words
Not all words are the same when it comes to learning a language. Learning everyday words is more important and can accelerate your development more than learning special, rarely used vocabulary. To effectively learn a language, focus on the most common terms before moving on to more specialized groups of vocabulary. And instead of trying to memorize all the words at once, start with the ones that occur most often.
Remember the Pareto Principle, which says that 20 percent of actions lead to 80 percent of results. It also applies to learning a new language. That’s about you’ll have the most success if you start focusing your efforts on mastering skills that you can apply immediately. Trying to learn a language by reading the dictionary from beginning to end and memorizing every term and meaning takes that much of your work and will be ineffective and in vain at worst. This is, for example, why online flashcards are so popular. Here you can form your own vocabularies with the most important and useful words.
By the way, earlier we had an article about 7 useful word sources for language learning. Check it out.
Is it possible to somehow count the words in our vocabulary
Yes, it’s possible. When you keep your own dictionary (in general, and particularly in Langavia Personal Dictionary application), you can easily track your progress in building your own vocabulary. Just watch how your language proficiency grows while adding and learning new words. Be assured that by the time your dictionary reaches 10,000 words, you will definitely not be a beginner anymore.
Moreover, if you study a foreign language in class you can ask your teacher to use flashcards. We previously wrote about how flashcards can be used in class learning process.