How Much Vocab Do I Actually Need to Learn?

Wise Words Can Be Fuzzy by Kevin Dooley

Turns out you don’t actually need to memorize very many of these to have a conversation.

Externally one of the most imposing aspects of learning a new language is the thought of tackling all that vocabulary.

If you’ve ever seen an unabridged Oxford English Dictionary, you know just how vast a lexicon can be. Grammar rules and even exceptions can be memorized easily and tend to be finite, learning a new writing system only takes 15 minutes or so, but there are hundreds of thousands of words out there. So how do you face this imposing wall of verbiage? How in the world can you possibly be expected to learn all of that in any reasonable amount of time?

You can’t.

That’s ok though, because you don’t have to learn everything.

Getting Your Priorities Straight

I’ve talked about prioritization in language learning and application of the 80/20 principle in the past and I’ll revisit it here. Think about your native language, if you pull a dictionary off the shelf is there genuinely not a single word in there that you don’t know? Not a single one which would be new to you if you read it cover to cover? What about the volumes of the aforementioned OED?

Chances are there are as many if not more words in your native language that you don’t know as there are that you do know. That’s even your native language. There’s no reason to ever think that you’ll need to know every word in a target language, even if you’re aiming for achieving native level fluency.

So how many words do you need to know?

Admittedly it will vary a little from language to language and depending on your general goals, but 3,000 words is a pretty good benchmark. The vast majority of daily conversations people have are made up of a relatively small chunk of the available lexicon. To put that in 80/20 terms, 80% of your conversations are comprised of 20% of the languages total number of words. Once you know those 20% or so, you’ll understand the majority of conversations, newspapers, etc.

Before you complain that you want native level fluency and that’s going to require understanding more than 80% of your conversations – that part comes afterward. Learning those 3,000 opens up the world of contextual learning, the way you learned most of the words you know in your native tongue. It’s slow, but it’s easy. Readers of Lewis Carroll don’t need to grab a dictionary to figure out what ‘frabjous’ probably means. In fact you could probably hear it once in context and then use it in a sentence correctly. That’s contextual learning.

Getting those 3,000 or so most common words down first is the part that requires a little more work.

Learning Your First Three Thousand Words

The first part of learning the most common words is going to be figuring out what those words actually are.

Thanks to the glory of the Internet upon which you are reading this very article, that’s extremely easy. Just go to your search engine of choice and do a search for ‘[target language] frequency list’ where [target language] is obviously the name of the language you’re learning. If you want to get tricky add in the word ‘lemmatized’ before the name of the language. A non-lemmatized frequency list will list different forms of the same word (is, am, are, be, etc.) as different words whereas a lemmatized list would combine their rankings (list all of those as ‘be’).

From there, I highly recommend using an SRS to actually learn the words. Best of all my two favorite SRS systems, Anki and Memrise, both have countless user generated decks available for free. That means you can likely even skip all this search engine business and just download a deck that’s been curated for you. How easy is that?

Actually learning the words once you’ve got them may seem like a daunting task, but it’s really not that bad. Even fifteen words a day, something that’s really a bare minimum with a good SRS program, will get you to your 3,000 words in 200 days. That’s about six and a half months. For spending five minutes a day actually studying is six months or so such a long time to wait to be able to read newspapers, understand TV and have conversations in your target language?

If you’re super impatient or particularly ambitious you can even kick it up a notch. I’ve successfully managed 1,000 words in a single month (34 words or so a day), so you could conceivably get to understanding a majority of a target language in as little as three months time.

I’ve talked about the best ways to memorize things and to learn vocab in the past. A good SRS system and an active imagination will make the whole process so easy it’ll never actually feel like studying.

If you’ve got a particular area where you’ll be specializing in or have something you’re really interested in feel free to add in as much vocab from that as you want as well. If you’re an accountant getting transferred to your company’s Tokyo office, by all means learn as much accounting terminology as you can in addition to the common stuff. Even if you’re just super interested in something like photography, learning that particular area’s vocab will open up a lot of reading material that you find interesting like books and blogs on that topic in your target language.

The most important thing to remember is that you don’t really need to know that much to be conversant and context will teach you most of everything else from there. Find your language’s most common 3,000 words and go rock them out – you’ll get farther in six months that way than most people do in three years of classes.

To prove my point I figured it up and, excluding this paragraph, this article contains 438 different words (non-lemmatized, so singulars and plurals count as separate words). Of those 438, if you knew only the top twenty ‘of, the, a, to, you, in, that, words, and, language, your, as, be, if, learning, is, so, are, know, & most’ then you can understand 39% of this text. Those twenty words alone make up 426 of the 1,000 or so words in the article. Could you understand it all with just 20 words? Probably not, but if you knew the first 80 or so of the 400 in the article that’d likely do it. That’s not many at all.

Have any additional suggestions for how much vocab people should learn or the best way to go about it? Have you approached language learning this way and, if so, how’d it go? Share your experiences in the comments.

Photo Credit: Kevin Dooley