How many words are necessary/enough for basic conversation?

Do you know Basic English: <a href="https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basic_English">https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basic_English</a>? ;

“Basic English is an English-based controlled language created by linguist and philosopher Charles Kay Ogden as an international auxiliary language, and as an aid for teaching English as a second language.”

It consists of 850 words that are supposed to make basic conversation possible. There’s a bible version based on Basic English with 150 additional words, so altogether 1000 words.

I learnt more than 1200 Arabic words and have the feeling that it’s nothing and that I’m still a total beginner and not ready for basic conversation. I guess that it depends on which 1000 words you learnt...

What is your experience? Do you use frequency word lists or other lists and how many words are enough for you to get around?

May 4, 2019 3:54 PM
Comments · 21
Miriam, thumbs up for the nice post! Lots of good comments, so I’m just going to make one little point. If we’re learning a related language, the frequency list can be relatively short, due to cognates / borrowed words in the language family that we already know or can easily pick up. On the other hand, if Arabic is your first semitic language, not only will you need a good list, but you’ll need separate frequency lists for every dialect you’re interested in.

Nice link. As far as the American manager in Japan who ‘cannot understand why his Japanese staff will not give him the “ballpark figure” he has demanded’, it probably seems incredible to the average italki member, but that’s actually a common enough problem for native English speakers trying to learn foreign language. My practical recommendation to his international colleagues (and other ESL learners) would be to simply and politely ask him what a “ballpark figure” is. Problem solved.

One more thing — I’d like to ask for the name of the 3000 words app you’re using, in order to get an idea of what a poorly designed app (or unsuitable word list) looks like.

May 5, 2019

Unfortunately, I'm not available for language exchange. But I'd be interested to know something about your language. I sent you a message.


Ok, thanks that are numbers I can work with. I think it strongly depends on the kind of vocabulary you learn. I worked with an app that has altogether 3000 words but they were the "wrong" words for me, so I fave up after 1200 words...


Damn. I can't change my age. But I can work on the other areas. Once I had a lesson with an italki teacher and we managed to play around a whole hour with just 10 words and it felt like a conversation ...

May 4, 2019

I teach English to immigrants.  Part of the class is devoted to reading and listening to stories with vocabulary starting at the 200-common-word level and gradually increasing to the 3000-common-word level.

I find that students start to talk (converse) at roughly the 1000-common-word level and that they talk easily at roughly the 2000-common-word level.

This is a result of vocabulary level plus total time spent reading, listening, and speaking.  At the 1000-common-word level, the students have usually had 15 total hours of listening while reading stories and at the 2000-common-word level, they have had 60 total hours of listening while reading.

May 4, 2019

I don't use frequency word lists as I like to learn vocabulary in some context not just as flashcards, or maybe I misunderstand what you mean by "frequency word lists". 

Maybe this is a mistake for me but I tend to learn words and phrases about topics I'm interested in and practice discussing them with that topic. I find the basic things tend to pop up in the vocabulary related to those topics. I don't mean I talk about something like science or philosophy but I choose something I like and simplify it.  Of course, I'm not really qualified to say what works, since I have a lot of learning to do still, but this is how I stay motivated to keep practising. 

May 5, 2019
@Serge - I agree.  More words and more time help. 
May 4, 2019
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Language Skills
Chinese (Mandarin), French, German
Learning Language
Chinese (Mandarin)