How many words does it really take to be fluent in English? Or how much vocabulary is enough for English? Well, the short answer is ‘around ten thousand’. But like most short answers that doesn’t really tell you everything you need to know. To get to the long answer, we need to start by defining our terms, and making sure that we are asking the important question.
What are ‘words’?
This isn’t just sophistry, the concept of what defines a ‘word’ linguistically, is surprisingly slippery. By one definition, a well-educated native speaker of English (or any other language) might ‘know 10,000 words’. By another, even a minimally educated person with a ‘poor vocabulary’ knows more than 35,000 words.
For example, take verbs like ‘run’. If you know ‘run’, you probably know all of its cases and declensions. You know ‘ran’, ‘runs’, ‘to run’, ‘ran’, ‘running’ and half a dozen more. If you know ‘is’, then you most likely know ‘am’. ‘are’, ‘was’, ‘will be’, etc. So is ‘is’ one word of vocabulary, or ten?
For these purposes, we’re treating clusters of words that all fall under the same root word and concept as single units of vocabulary. Each is one word.
Are we counting active vocabulary, or passive?
Your ‘passive vocabulary’ is probably several times larger than your active vocabulary in a second or third language. It is probably measurably bigger even in your own native language or languages.
Passive vocabulary means ‘the words you understand when you hear or read them’. It does not include those words you might ‘know’, but can’t access easily, or those which you understand fairly well in use, but aren’t 100% sure how to use them correctly in a conversation.
Active vocabulary is everything that you are confident and clear about, and can rattle off in a conversation without hesitating.
Think of it this way: When you go to the doctor, they might explain, in detail, what is wrong using a bit more medical terminology than you are comfortable with. You understand what they are saying, and could explain it to someone else, but you’d probably use a lot more, simpler words to do so. A conversation with a mechanic or computer repair technician might be much the same, unless you share the same skill set.
That’s because the specialised words the speaker used are mostly part of your passive vocabulary, but not your active vocabulary. For this question, we’ll be looking at your active vocabulary only – we mean that you need a ten thousand word active vocabulary to be a fluent speaker, not a fluent listener.
What is ‘fluency’?
Fluency is more than simply ‘knowing a great many words’ in a language. It comes from the same root word as ‘flow’, and refers to your ability to use a language – in this case English – fluidly. To be fluent, you need to be able to communicate quickly and accurately, and with good ‘flow’ – not haltingly or with long pauses to choose the right word. The ability to speak English at this level is sometimes called ‘conversational’ for this reason – it denotes the ability to have a conversation about nearly anything, with a native OR non-native speaker. However, we’ll use the term ‘conversational’ a bit differently. You’ll see that we mean below.
Now, you DO need to have a large and wide-ranging vocabulary in order to be fluent in English. Let’s consider the different size categories of word groups in a speaker’s active vocabulary, and look at the different levels of fluency they represent.
- Beginning English speakers
Beginning speakers have only just started gaining familiarity with a language, and may only have been learning it for a few weeks. Beginning speakers can just about handle themselves in basic conversations in their new language, but probably refer to a phrase book or a translator app to communicate on deeper levels.
A beginning speaker might have an active vocabulary of three hundred to five hundred word groups.
- Conversational English speakers
Conversational speakers aren’t fluent, but they are gaining ground. At this level, you can have common, non-specialised conversations with the people you meet, and discuss common, every day events.
A conversational speaker in English would have to know between one thousand and three thousand word groups actively, but their passive vocabulary might already be nearing that ‘magic’ number of ten thousand words.
- Advanced English speakers
Advanced speakers of English, or most other languages for that matter, probably have more than 5000 words in their active vocabulary, equivalent to the C2 level of the CEFR (Common European Framework for Reference).
They can carry on fairly flawless conversations about more than general topics. They probably have several specialised vocabularies as well, including those relating to their professions, their hobbies, their other interests, and even the interests of many close friends.
- Truly fluent English speakers
In English, and many other languages, fluency denotes an active skill with the language that is nearly that of native speakers. A fluent speaker could talk about nearly anything, even issues that they are unfamiliar with or which are completely outside of their fields of expertise. Moreover, they can understand words that they don’t immediately recognise by their context in a sentence, and ‘file them away’ for future reference.
A fluent speaker will have at least ten thousand word groups in their active vocabulary, and often quite a few more.
- Native-level English speakers
This is the highest level of ‘language fluency’ that exists. Whilst you can make distinctions about vocabulary beyond this level, those are usually discussions about ‘expertise’ and ‘level of education’, not fluency per se.
A typical native English speaker commands around 20,000 word groups actively, and can be considered to have nearly every word that is not highly technical or archaic within their passive vocabulary.
But it really isn’t about the sheer number of words you ‘know’
You could easily go off and learn 10,000 new words, and still be unable to have a decent conversation. You must be sure to learn the ‘high frequency vocabulary’ first. What we mean is, in English, 90% to 95% for the words used in common, every day conversations (not trying to diagnose why the Large Hadron Collider isn’t working, for example) use just a few thousand very common words. By some estimates, if you learn the right 3000 words, you can get along just fine in English, and most of the people you meet would probably consider you to ‘speak English fairly well’.
Gain this crucial vocabulary with programmes like italki
Language programmes such as italki can help you gain a deep understanding of this core vocabulary, and then help you build upon it to achieve true fluency in English -- and many other languages besides. They connect you with local, native speakers with a passion for teaching, who can lead you through these first crucial weeks of language acquisition so much more effectively than learning from a book or computer program, yet at a time that is convenient to you and in the comfort of your own home.
- What does it mean to be “fluent” in a language?
- What are the 100 most commonly used words in English?
- How many “words” do I need to learn?
- The Numbers Game: How Many Words Do I Need to Know to Be Fluent in a Foreign
- How many words do you really need to be fluent? Thing Explainer!
- How many words do I need to know? The 95/5 rule in language learning, Part ½
- How Many Words Do You Need to Know to Speak French Fluently?
Hero image by Tim Gouw on Unsplash