How many words to speak English?
After answering the question how long to learn English , let’s answer this one: how many words do you need to know to speak English?
The answer will of course vary depending on the level you are aiming for. The short answer:
- Aim for 600 words of English to be able to hold basic conversations .
- Aim for 5,000 words of English to be independent and no longer need Hindi to understand or express yourself.
In this context, a word means a word as found in the dictionary :
- am , are , is , was , were , be all count as one word, the verb to be .
- man, men count as one word, the noun man .
- On the other hand, to book (the verb to reserve ) and a book (a book) count as two different words.
It is useful to keep in mind because English has a lot of words that are written the same but whose grammatical category (verb, noun, adjective, adverb…) varies according to the context. This is why, when you start in English, you sometimes do not understand words that you thought you knew .
Let’s look at some more stats to be specific, and then see how to tackle the vastness of English vocabulary .
How many words per level
Modern languages follow Pareto’s law: the 20% most common words are used 80% of the time .
Various studies show that understanding 95 to 98% of the language is desirable in order to be able to understand almost everything, guess the meaning of words that you do not know and be able to do without your native language to understand English.
From my work on the subject, I was able to confirm that the 5,000 most common spoken words in English cover 96% of spoken English . Breaking this down by European levels , we get:
|CEFR level||How many new words||Cumulative vocabulary||Cover|
|A1||600 words||600 words||85%|
|A2||1,000 words||1,600 words||91%|
|B1||1,100 words||2,700 words||94%|
|B2||1,000 words||3,700 words||95%|
|C1||1,000 words||4,700 words||96.13%|
|C1+||300 words||5,000 words||96.30%|
Source: Fabien Snauwaert, Frequency List (2014)
Concretely, this means that, by targeting the English vocabulary that we learn, we can quickly reach 80% comprehension . That’s exactly what frequency lists are for : they give us a list of the most common words in English , so we can focus on them and learn useful things right away!
You can also see in the table that the further you go, the slower you go – that’s normal, that’s how languages work, new words become more and more rare.
FYI, from level C1+ (around 4,700 words), something interesting happens: synonyms become more and more present.
Finally, with 5,000 vocabulary words , you no longer need a bilingual English-Hindi dictionary and you can look directly in the English dictionary, where you will understand all the definitions.
In a moment, I’ll tell you what to do to put all this into practice. Before that, I would like to answer a question that often comes up on the subject.
Words, words, and more words!
how many words in english
How many words are there in the English language? And, related question, how many words do natives know?
Let’s just take a few indicative figures :
- An English dictionary such as the Oxford English Dictionary (in twenty volumes) defines 171,476 words in use in modern English.
- In adulthood, natives know about 15,000 words and, for the most educated, between 25,000 and 35,000 words .
- This figure varies according to age and level of education .
- The estimate includes all the words the person knows, including those they only use once a year or haven’t used since childhood.
- It is estimated that there are more than a million words in English, but this includes an avalanche of technical and specialized terms, specific to very specific fields (chemistry, medicine, IT, etc.).
Your goal is not to know everything because it is simply impossible. No one knows all the words in the dictionary! Your goal is to know the English vocabulary that serves and interests you so that you can communicate and use English in your life .
How many words are used in English?
What to expect
For all these reasons, 5,000 words is still a very realistic goal . It means being autonomous and mastering English .
And then ? After those 5,000 words, you’ll want to focus on your specialties (hobby, job, or whatever) because following a frequency list would become of limited use (words too rare to be useful).
Over time, you will continue to accumulate English vocabulary , easily (because you will have a solid foundation), until you reach ten thousand words.
Among all this, having a bilingual level in English means for me using English every day and knowing at least ten thousand words , with a level of fluency similar to that of native speakers .
To attack !
You have an idea of the numbers now:
- How to learn your first 600 words of English?
- Or, how do you reach that coveted milestone of 5,000 words?
You will want to start with a frequency list , to know the priority words. This allows you to attack vocabulary in a smart and organized way, rather than haphazard and chaotic.
Good lists group words by dictionary entry (as seen at the beginning of the article) to avoid duplicates and learn all forms of the word in one go. Also, good frequency lists focus on speaking because that is what is most useful for communicating – spoken English and written English are different.
Frequency lists are the key to effective language learning . Linguistic research has demonstrated their effectiveness decades ago but, unfortunately, finding a good frequency list is proving difficult. This is what led me to spend over six months developing my own frequency list so that I could teach English wisely.
Let us quote as frequency lists :
- In our products for learning English .
- In Click & Speak : all the vocabulary words taught have been chosen according to the frequency list, created especially for the occasion. The goal ? Teach English vocabulary in a progressive way , with the most useful words first, leaving nothing to chance.
- From FrequencyList.com
Nouveau !: The frequency list used in Click & Speak is now available online for free. You can view phonetic transcriptions , listen to pronunciation , and view or add cool videos (song clips , movie scenes …) for fun.
- In our Summer Courses : my frequency list is included as a gift. (Go to the course access page then click on
Frequency Listat the top of the page).
- The work of Mark Davies, of BYU University.
- Mark Davies’ frequency list has long been the only quality list.
- You can view a list of the 5,000 most common words for free. The full list costs $90 for the general public and $45 for students to see the top 5,000 spoken words .
- The limit of these lists is that the corpus (the set of texts used to analyze the language) is very politically oriented and reflects too little everyday English.
The other lists are disorganized with too many duplicates and unrealistic vocabulary.
Another option that costs a pittance is to buy a pocket dictionary.
Pocket dictionaries are designed to be compact and therefore include only the most common words, selected by the dictionary editors. (For example, the one I use to learn Hungarian contains 5,000 words for 10,000 definitions). It’s not as convenient as a frequency list, but it does get around the 5,000 most common words .
I don’t have a particular dictionary to recommend at the moment. I will go around the question the next time I go back to France. Until then, feel free to share your recommendations in the comments .
The mistake to avoid
Once you have a good frequency list handy, read through it to see where you stand . This gives you pointers on the work to be done and allows you to organize yourself, by telling you which words to learn now.
Now, the big mistake to avoid is to learn the words alone! Mastering English does not mean knowing five thousand isolated words with their Hindi translation, no!
Knowing the vocabulary means knowing the words in the context of plain sentences so you can use them on demand whenever you need them . (See my article How to memorize English vocabulary on this subject ).
How many words to learn per day in English
How many words to learn per day in English ? Before answering the question for Hindi speakers learning English, let’s take a look at English speakers.
Among English speakers
Source: TestYourVocab (blog)
You can see an interactive version of the graph on the site for more details but, in summary:
- The average is 382 words per year .
- From 4 to 15 years old , children and adolescents learn about 1,300 new words per year .
- The largest peak occurs around age 13, with nearly 2,500 words learned in one year .
- Between the ages of 16 and 20 , young adults learn 600 to 800 words a year .
- From 20 to 50 years old , this fluctuates between 300 and 400 words learned per year .
- There is a lot of variation from around age 50 : while some lose vocabulary, others continue to learn hundreds of words.
Where many will be tempted to explain everything by biology (and ignore the variations that show the opposite), I prefer to explain these figures by behavior: if we always do the same thing, we learn nothing new; If you don’t use what you have, you lose it . Which is unfortunately what happens to far too many adults.
Let’s compare this with sport, if you stop doing it you will necessarily be less fit than someone who continues. It’s a lifestyle choice. It doesn’t mean you don’t age, it just means you reap what you sow. Think you’re too old to learn, do nothing about it, and life will prove you right. Practice English because you know that you are never too old to learn and that it is important to use your brain to keep it in shape , and life will prove you right too.
By the way, why do children learn so many words? Because they have no choice! Children and adults live in different worlds. Children have a lot of free time, they need to discover the world around them and they have a general mission of learning well at school. Adults already know a lot – which is good as long as it doesn’t lead to closed-mindedness – but typically have less free time. While the environment of children leads them to learn, that of adults leads them to stagnate more and more.
It is up to us to replace this stagnation with action.
Among foreigners learning English
The advantage of adults is that they are no longer discovering the world around them. If you have to call a cat a cat in English, it’s not a new concept (even if it is for a toddler). Same for a ton of topics.
As an adult, you will first want to learn how to express yourself about things you already know . Then you will want to continue learning in English , rather than Hindi, to practice and enrich your life.
Compared to natives, one advantage of adults learning English these days is that technology has come a long way. Spaced repetition systems allow you to optimize your review times to devour more vocabulary and embed English in your long-term memory .
If, in addition, one learns in an intelligent way by learning the most important vocabulary first (frequency lists), in the context of well-chosen sentences, with a progressive grammar , I sincerely believe that one can learn the words well faster in English than we did in our native language.
Finally, if what we learn is clear and perfectly comprehensible , both at the meaning level and at the oral and phonetic level , well, I think we can push this limit even further.
For all these reasons, I currently place the number of words that can be learned in English at:
14 words a day .
That is: 5,000 vocabulary words in 1 year .
This is a steady pace but doable for anyone who wants to give themselves a year to master English.
So much for the theory… but what about in practice?
This goal of learning 5,000 words of English in one year became a reality the day the first users of Click & Speak™ completed their English course , one year after starting it. It was a lot of work but they did it! They learned those 5,000 words in the context of 7,066 sentences (see Statistics ), with 365 Dialogs to help them.
So the question some may be asking is: can we do more? Unless you make it a full-time job, no.
I challenge anyone to learn over 5,000 words of English in a year with meaning, pronunciation and being able to construct correct sentences with all that vocabulary, not just comprehension.
Truth be told, I even challenge anyone to learn 5,000 English words in a year without Click & Speak™ because the course is optimized to chew the work out of you and tell you exactly what vocabulary to study each day.
Learning English vocabulary is a sprawling job. Mastering English means knowing how to use 5,000 words. You have to know how to go about it .
- If you’re in a hurry and want to master English in a year, aim to learn 14 new words a day .
- If you want to go at a more moderate pace, aim to learn half or 7 new words a day .
In any case, keep in mind that, beyond the numbers, it’s regularity that counts – because, without it, you can’t remember anything, you’re wasting your time.
By being regular, everything will become easier and the words you study will answer the call the day you need them.
So aim to speak English every day . We will see how to make this possible in future articles.