How Much Vocabulary Is Enough?

Today’s guest post comes from Jeffery Nelson, the creator of a great new blog called Living Bilingual.  After you enjoy the article stop by and visit.


Language skills are hard to measure.

There is an innate subjectivity in analyzing a language learner or speaker and their language skills.

Languages are enormous, spanning literally an infinite number of sentences that can be produced from a set of words. In addition to that, you have the various meanings of words, sentences, how they are arranged, what tone is used, and literally thousands of other factors that complicate the matter.

While not infinite, the number of sentences is certainly greater than any number that would be significantly different than infinite.

After that, fluency of communication, confidence, pronunciation and accent, and who-knows-how-many-more factors are all included in analyzing how well someone speaks a language.

One area that can be measured fairly well is vocabulary.  Even within vocabulary, you have passive vocabulary and active vocabulary that muddy the water a bit. Can you just recognize a word and give a ‘more or less’ meaning for the word, or can you actually produce the meaning of the word from seeing it, or produce the word from seeing the meaning?

All of these things require a different level of vocabulary and recognition/familiarity with the language.

So How Many Words Are Necessary?

The number of necessary words largely depends on your goal and is highly dependent on your ability to guess, deduce, connect, and construct meanings from imperfect data (your understanding of the language).

The common ‘rule of thumb,’ however, for general conversation is that with about 3,000 words a person can begin to learn through context without having simplified texts; reading blogs, newspapers, etc.

Of course, this rule varies language to language and topic to topic, however the exciting part is that 3,000 words, while it may seem like a lot, isn’t actually all that many.  A person who learns 10 words per day, which would be an easy task with a spaced repetition program, including maintenance, would hit that mark it under a year.

[Check out Anki: Bringing Flashcards Out of the Stone Age - to learn more about spaced repetition]

You could be reading the newspaper in your new language in under a year if you just learned 10 new words per day!

Obviously this needs to be paired with the other components of language learning: listening, speaking, and writing, however as far as vocabulary is concerned with regards to all three, you would be set!

How Can I Learn More Vocabulary?

Let’s assume we are talking about active vocabulary.  For example, you want to talk about casas (houses) and can actually come up with the word casas.  That is an example of active vocabulary.

Passive vocabulary would be seeing the word casas and realizing it meant houses in context.  I am a big proponent of using a spaced repetition system to learn vocabulary, especially active vocabulary, and help me retain it.

With this method, I can look at my deck and see how many words I can easily recall within that deck to give me an idea of my vocabulary.  However, this excludes easy words I didn’t need to put in there, cognates, words I just seem to remember easily, etc.

If there are 500 words in my deck then that means I have learned 500 words I couldn’t easily remember, not total.

Another easy way to measure your vocabulary would be to pick up a frequency list of vocabulary words, randomly select 100 words from the list, and then see how many you got right out of those randomly selected words. This would give you a baseline to work with.

Then, as you go on learning your language, continue to take that same ‘test’ with the same frequency list until you are doing very well, and then perhaps expand the list to a greater number (i.e. the top 10,000 words instead of top 5,000 words).

The reason I like this strategy as opposed to using a dictionary is that there are a lot of words in the English dictionary that I don’t have in my active vocabulary. The reason is that I never use, hear, or speak them.

What is the point of being discouraged when learning a language because you didn’t know the word antiestablishmentarianism in German?

Stick to words that matter.

Even more importantly than hitting your language vocabulary numbers, you’ll find language learning to be more pleasant if you pick the correct language to study.


About the author: Jeffrey Nelson is a husband, father, author and bilingual living and working in the Midwestern United States. He lives with his Mexican wife and their son, Liam, who is currently being raised bilingual in English and Spanish. Find out more about him and his journey to learn a language here.

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Welcome to The Everyday Language Learner. My goal with this site is to empower everyday folks to learn language well and to point language learners toward great resources, activities, information and ideas. My name is Aaron Myers and my family and I live in Istanbul, Turkey where we too are everyday language learners. My hope is that I am able to help you be a more effective, more efficient language learner and to help you have a lot more fun on the language learning journey. Have an amazing day! -Aaron
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