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How many words do I need to know?

Resourse lingholic.com By Lingholic: How many words do I need to know?

Do not be wise in words, be wise in deeds.

A very common question that people ask when starting the study of a foreign language is “How many words do I need to know in order to be conversationally fluent for everyday talk in X language?” This is a very good question, and one that we will try to answer in, but first of all, let me ask you this: - Have you ever wondered how many words there are in your language? Well, this is the wrong question, in fact, since there is no single sensible answer to this question. Why is that? Simply put, it’s impossible to count the number of words in a language, because it’s so hard to decide what actually counts as a word.

For example, it is said that the word “set” in English has 464 definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary. Would we count a word with multiple definitions as one single word, or would we count each definition has an individual word? And what about phrasal verbs, such as “set up,” “set about,” “set apart,” and so on? Or what about so-called open compound words like “hot dog,” “ice cream,” and “real estate”? Lastly, if you consider the plural and singular forms of words, different verb conjugations, together with different endings, prefixes and suffixes, you will quickly understand the difficulty in counting the number of words in a language.

So the question really should be: - Do you know how many words there are in your language’s largest dictionary? Since I wanted to get a rough idea of the number of words in some of the world’s major languages, and compare this number to the average number used 90 to 95% of the time in everyday life and in common news articles, this is a question I spent quite a bit of time searching answers for. And I’m sure you are curious too.

As I said before, many language learners wonder the number of words they will have to learn before gaining intermediate or advanced fluency in a given foreign language, and I will answer that question a bit later on in this article. So after doing quite a bit of research, I did manage to find the number of words the major dictionaries of the world’s major languages. But hey, don’t stop reading here, because I have some other important stuff to discuss!

The Pareto Principle and Language Learning

- So what is the purpose of my “research”?
Well, some of you might have heard about the Pareto Principle, also known as the 80-20 rule. In a nutshell, though, the Pareto Principle is as follow: after having observed numerous phenomena ranging from land ownership to pea pods, Italian engineer and philosopher Vilfredo Federico Damaso Pareto came up with what became known as Pareto’s Law: for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. In other words, in the context of work or study, 20% of the efforts bring in 80% of the results.

In the context of language learning, then, I wanted to find out the approximate percentage of words you would have to learn to understand 90 to 95% of the most commonly used words in everyday life. - Why 90 to 95% of the most commonly used words? Simply put, this is the rough amount of comprehension needed in order to understand what is being said quite well in a language. Plus, by understanding this much of the vocabulary, you’ll be able to guess the remaining 5 to 10% of words that you do not know simply through context. The numbers are not exactly the same as the 82-20 rule, but the principle is similar: only a small fraction of your efforts will bring in the biggest results.

This is very important, because after having reached a level of understanding high enough in a language, I believe it’s time to drop the dictionary and to truly start (or continue at an increasing speed) learning “inductively”, through context and through good guesswork. You do that every day in your own language, since nobody knows the meaning of every single word in their language (wait until you see the number of words that the Oxford English Dictionary defines!), very far from it in fact; so why not do the same in a foreign language?

Developing Good Guessing Skills

I read an article in The Telegraph entitled “Learning a foreign language: five most common mistakes”. It’s a short and rather informative article, so I encourage you to give it a quick read. One of the most common mistakes that the author listed in there was that of “Rigid Thinking”. The excerpt is worth quoting at length:

Linguists have found that students with a low tolerance of ambiguity tend to struggle with language learning.

Language learning involves a lot of uncertainty – students will encounter new vocabulary daily, and for each grammar rule there will be a dialectic exception or irregular verb. Until native-like fluency is achieved, there will always be some level of ambiguity.

The type of learner who sees a new word and reaches for the dictionary instead of guessing the meaning from the context may feel stressed and disoriented in an immersion class. Ultimately, they might quit their language studies out of sheer frustration. It’s a difficult mindset to break, but small exercises can help. Find a song or text in the target language and practice figuring out the gist, even if a few words are unknown.

Rigid thinking is in fact extremely common among language learners, and extremely uncommon when it comes to your native language! After all, do you really reach for a dictionary often when reading in your native language? My guess is, not so often, even if, I am sure, you do not know the meaning of several words you come across (especially in novels, where the descriptive vocabulary is very literary and uncommon at times).

Yet good guessing skills are truly important when it comes to acquiring a foreign language, for the simple reason that it’s not possible (and even if it were, it would be highly impractical) to learn every single definition of a even a single word (such as “set”) in English. If you can’t learn the definitions of a single word in a given language, why even imagine the need to learn the definition of every single word you come across?! What happens is that you will eventually learn words through repeated exposure, in different contexts, at different places. This is called assimilation. And this is your aim when acquiring a foreign language.

Let me give you this example sentence: “We put a tremendous amount of effort to finish this project, and we finally succeeded.” Now, let’s say that you understand everything here except for the word “tremendous”. Chances are you get can a rough idea of the meaning of “tremendous” through the context given here. You understand 92.5% of this sentence (14 words out of 15), and the remaining 7.5% can be understood contextually. Keywords include “effort”, “project”, and “finally succeeded”, and through guesswork, it’s not that hard to come up with a meaning that will be similar to what you would find in a dictionary. If you couldn’t guess the meaning of the word “tremendous,” by the way, it simply means “a lot”, “a great amount”.

Assimilating the Language

So the point I’m trying to make here, is that if you can achieve a 95% understanding of the most common words found in a given language, it will become possible to acquire the remaining unknown words contextually, by a process called assimilation. Now, of course simply knowing words does not equal to a perfect understanding of what you listen/read, since there is also grammar/idioms/figures of speech/etc. involved in the language, and these can provide wonderful barriers to understanding. You could very well know every single word in a sentence and still not understand what is being said because of unfamiliarity with these aspects of the language. Nevertheless, most of the time, by knowing 90 to 95% of the words in a sentence, and by being provided with sufficient context, you should have very few problems understanding and communicating in the language, especially if you are learning a language that is part of the same language family as that of your mother tongue.

How many words are there in some of the world’s major languages?

As I stated, there is really is no way to answer this question. Languages are evolving and continuously changing, and subject to people’s own creativity and imagination. After all, it is said that Shakespeare himself invented 1,700 new words!

People continuously invent new words, alter some existing ones, or stop using others altogether. Plus, what about medical and scientific terms? Should they be counted as part of our “vocabulary”? And if we look at the English language, for example, what should we do about Latin words used in law, French words used in cooking, German words used in academic writing, Japanese words used in martial arts? Do you count Scots dialect? Teenage slang? Abbreviations?

The most “objective” measure that we have available for counting the number of words contained in a given language, then, is to calculate the number of words contained in its largest dictionary (really, it’s not that objective, but it’s the only measure we have access to!). I thus began to research answers to this question in regards to some of the world’s major languages, but quite surprisingly, I couldn’t find any resource on the net actually listing languages and their associated number of words based on dictionary word count. So after having scourged the net for scattered answers, I’d love to share with you my findings.

So here’s a list for 11 of the most spoken languages around the world:

Chinese Hanyu Da Cidian. Lit: Comprehensive Chinese Word Dictionary 370,000 words; 23,000 head Chinese character entries
English The Second Edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary 171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 obsolete words; 615,100 definitions
Dutch Dictionary of the Dutch language 430,000 words
French Le Grand Robert de la langue française 100,000 words; 350,000 definitions
German Der Duden 135,000 words
Italian Grande dizionario italiano dell’uso (Gradit) 270,000 words
Japanese Nihon kokugo daijiten 500,000 words
Korean Korean Standard Unabridged Dictionary 500,000 words
Russian Explanatory Dictionary of the Living Great Russian Language; AKA Dahl’s Explanatory Dictionary 200,000 words
Spanish Diccionario de la Real Academia Española 100,000 words
Portuguese Vocabulário Ortográfico da Língua Portuguesa Nearly 390,000 words

Is it true that English has the most words of any language?

The first thing that will probably jump to your eyes, here, is the apparently low word count for English. If you do a quick Google search, you will find out easily enough that many claim that English has “the most number of words of any language” out there, with several hailing the “millionth word” milestone recently reached in the English language.

- So why only 171,476 words in current use? Well, again, when comparing the largest dictionaries out there, we have to keep in mind several important points: Which country has the best-developed dictionary industry? The best archives? Do you count obsolete words? Dialectal ones? How many scientific words are included?

In Korean, for example, the largest dictionary ever compiled was the result of 8 years of work, through the collaboration of over 500 scholars, for a total cost surpassing 11.2 billion Korean won (~$11.2M). The dictionary includes nearly 200,000 technical words in itself, and thousands of old sayings no longer in usage.

Specialized vocabulary used in sciences is most notably very large and growing constantly. The French “Dictionnaire de la chimie de Duval” (Duval Chemistry dictionary), far from being exhaustive since we already distinguish over 100,000 coloring matters, already contained 26,400 entries in 1935, and more than 70,000 in 1977.
Therefore the reason why English has 171,476 words in current use in its largest dictionary is partly because the dictionary excludes inflections, does not cover several technical and regional vocabularies, and does not, obviously, include words not yet added to the published dictionary. If distinct senses were counted, according to the Oxford Dictionary, the total word count would probably approach three quarters of a million.

Which language has the biggest vocabulary, then?

As you can see, the list I compiled does not necessary tell us which language has the “biggest vocabulary”. It simply tells us which dictionary was made to include the most words.

In any case, if I had to give a short answer to this question, I’d say “Who cares?” Each and every language is amazingly rich and interesting in its own way. Each language has its own genius and its own personality. Arabic has apparently over fifty different words for “camel”. In Korean, there are over five different words for each color equivalent in English (i.e. red, blue, yellow, etc.) and several thousands of words have both a pure Korean and a Sino-Korean equivalent.

The reason I compiled a list of the number of words in the dictionaries of some of the world’s most widely spoken languages is simply out of sheer curiosity, not to stir up a debate over which language has the most words. This question, once again, has no definite answer.

What does matter to you as a language learner, though, is to know the approximate number of words needed in order to reach conversational fluency in a language. Of course, you could very well learn a language without ever asking this question and, frankly, it wouldn’t matter the least. But it’s still nice to know. And this number is the approximate amount of words you will actually have to more or less “deliberately” memorize before reaching a point where you can essentially learn almost only through context and good guesswork.

How many words does a native speaker use in daily life?

“Green Eggs and Ham,” is a book written by Dr. Seuss (a pen-name of Theodor Seuss Geisel), whose vocabulary famously consists of just fifty different words. It was the result of a bet between Seuss and his publisher, Bennett Cerf, that Seuss (after completing The Cat in the Hat using 225 words) could not complete an entire book using so few words.

Obviously, if one can write a book using as few as 50 words, it makes no doubt that having a vocabulary of 40,000 words is not necessary for communicating. For your information, though, according to Susie Dent, lexicographer and expert in dictionaries, the average active vocabulary of an adult English speaker is of around 20,000 words, with a passive one of around 40,000 words.

- What is the difference between an active and a passive vocabulary? Simply put, an active vocabulary is comprised of words that you can recall and use in a sentence yourself. A passive vocabulary, on the other hand, is a vocabulary that you can recognize and know the definition of words, but are not able to use yourself.

Now, here’s where it gets interesting: although an average adult native English speaker has an active vocabulary of about 20,000 words, the Reading Teachers Book of Lists claims that the first 25 words are used in 33% of everyday writing, the first 100 words appear in 50% of adult and student writing, and the first 1,000 words are used in 89% of every day writing! Of course, as we progressively move to a higher percentage, the number of words starts to dramatically increase (especially after 95% of comprehension), but it has been said that a vocabulary of just 3000 words provides coverage for around 95% of common texts (such as news items, blogs, etc.). Liu Na and Nation (1985) have shown that this is the rough amount of words necessary before we can efficiently learn from context with unsimplified text.

When it comes to Chinese, approximately 3,000 characters are required to read a Mainland newspaper. The PRC government defines literacy amongst workers as a knowledge of 2,000 characters, though this would be only functional literacy. Of course, given the nature of the Chinese language, 3000 characters equals to many, many more words. Nevertheless, the highest level (VI) of the new Hànyǔ Shuǐpíng Kǎoshì (HSK), also known as the Chinese Proficiency Test, is a vocabulary of 5000 words (2633 characters).

Finally, in French, the 600 most common words apparently account for 90% of words found in common texts, although I cannot verify the veracity of this claim. But I think you can see from the numbers here that really, in order to understand the biggest part of a language, it is not necessary to know tens of thousands of words. Generally speaking, a vocabulary of about 3000 words (not counting for inflexions, plurals, etc.), then, would be the number necessary to efficiently learn from context with unsimplified text.

Do the Math

We have seen that the Oxford English Dictionary contains 171,476 words in current use, whereas a vocabulary of just 3000 words provides coverage for around 95% of common texts. If you do the math, that’s 1.75% of the total number of words in use! That’s right, by knowing 1.75% of the English dictionary, you’ll be able to understand 95% of what you read. That’s still just 7.5% of the average passive vocabulary of a native speaker (3000 vs. 40,000 words). Isn’t that great news?

Let’s repeat the math for Chinese. The Hanyu Da Cidian contains 370,000 words, whereas 2500 words (1710 characters) are necessary in order to “read Chinese newspapers and magazines and watch Chinese films”, according to the HSK test(level 5). That’s 0.68% of the total number of words contained in the Hanyu Da Cidian! Knowing 5000 words, the minimum number required to pass the highest HSK test (level 6), would mean knowing 1.35% of the total number of words contained in the Hanyu Da Cidian.

Pareto’s Law and Language Learning

We will end this already lengthy article by once more taking a look at Pareto’s Law, also known as the 80-20 rule. If you’ve already forgot, the law states that for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. In other words, in the context of work or study, 20% of the efforts bring in 80% of the results.

If we drop the unrealistic figures of the number of words in the largest dictionaries out there, and we instead count the number of words an average educated native speaker knows, which is around 30 to 40 thousand for many languages, we will find out that Pareto’s Law works on steroids! In many cases, knowing just 5-7% of the total number of words that a native speaker knows will allow you to understand anywhere from 90 to 95% of the vocabulary found in common texts! That’s right, 5 to 7% of the effort brings you 95% of the results. That is great news for you my friend.

So yes, languages contain fabulous numbers of words, and for many, learning a foreign language seems like an insurmountable barrier, something that takes dozens of years to accomplish. But the fact is, by learning from the very beginning words in context (I highly recommend the Assimil method, and by gradually building your vocabulary to around 2500-3000 words, it is possible to reach quite rapidly a level at which you will be able to read common texts in the language and understand anywhere from 90 to 95% of it. This is essentially the “golden” number, since this amount of understanding is enough not to make reading in the language a frustrating experience. More importantly, though, this is the rough amount of words necessary before you’ll be able to efficiently learn from context.