How Many Words do I Need to Know??

Many travellers try to pick up a language, but very few are actually successful. However having learned French and Spanish and in being a teacher’s college graduate, I may be able to help you out. To start, I want to show you a quick tip on how you can get a solid start to vocabulary in any targeted language. 

Take for example this diagram:


I guarantee even very few natives know these words in English and so why would we encourage foreigners to learn them? So first off then, instead of considering all the words in a dictionary, we only need to consider the words that natives know.

Now I don’t know the number of words that natives use in each language exactly as it varies from language to language and study to study. To guess though, we can go through a few pages in a dictionary of our native language and see what percentage of words we know and apply that to the new language. For example, I went through 10 pages of an English dictionary and I knew 194 of 327 words, which puts me at 59%. So then for any language I can take the entire amount of words, multiply it by 0.59 and then I will have a rough estimate of the quantity that a native in that language knows.

This sounds good right? Well it gets better.


Based on our calculations so far I can estimate that the average French native speaker roughly knows 59,000 words as the total number words in French is 100,000 according to google. But really how many do of these word do natives really use? Here is a difference between passive and active vocabulary. A word like “peril” is known by the common English native, but everyone just uses “danger” instead. If we look at the words from our dictionary that we knew then, we can now go on to see how many we use and again apply that to the target language. Out of my 194 words, I use 49% of them, and if we apply that to the 59,000 words in French, we now reduce the number of target words to 28,910.

Still too big of a number? I agree with you! Good news is that we can reduce it even more!

Even considering the quantity of active vocabulary that natives use there are still words that are used more commonly than others. For example, perhaps a word like “proud” is known by all the natives, but at the same time we’re not going to say that it’s going to be a part of all daily conversations like the word “and”. This is where we can apply “The Pareto Principle”. It states that 20% of causes account for 80% of results. In our case this means that if we learn the most common words up until we reach 20% of the total active words that a native uses, we’re going to understand 80% of them. In the case of French then, if we take 20% of 29,910 we find that we would need to only need to know 5,782 words in order to be able to understand 80% of the words a French native uses.

Crazy eh? We went from 100,000 to 5,782 for French. What’s it like for your target language? Sure, we are still going to miss 1 out of every 5 words, and on top of that knowing words doesn’t mean we really know how to use them with grammar, but this is the starting point for vocabulary.


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