Words are important building blocks of languages. Without knowing words, you cannot achieve conversational fluency in any new language you’re learning.
So it’s no surprise that people often ask: How many words do I need to know to become conversationally fluent?
This question comes without a precise answer. The number of words you need to know depends on the language, to an extent on your life situation, and on your personal and professional interests.
Still, there are estimates. For example, the linguist and polyglot Alexander Argüelles apparently believes that the 2000 most frequent words are those that let you express everything you could possibly want to say, although often by awkward circumlocutions.
A Lingholic blog post suggests:
“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.”
Of course, having a precise number is nice. But, how do I know how many words I’ve learned? Perhaps the reverse is true: When I understand most of everyday conversations and texts in a foreign language, I probably know between 2000 and 3000 words.
Knowing frequently-used words is essential and will help you understand. The context in which you’re having the conversation is important as well.
There are many ways to learn words. You can use Flashcard apps such as Memrise and Byki, etc, and sites such as Lingohut.com, Digitaldialects.com, Learnwitholiver.com are great resources.
A number of language learning bloggers also have good advice for memorizing vocabulary more efficiently. Just a short time ago, Olly Richards of Iwillteachyoualanguage.com posted a three-part article on how to learn vocabulary: http://www.iwillteachyoualanguage.com/how-to-learn-vocabulary-part-1/
Most importantly, you’ll want to create your own “system” for reviewing, so that you can focus on relevant vocabulary and review at the intervals that help you remember.
In his book “Fluent Forever,” Gabriel Wyner describes how to make a paper-based flashcard system that’s very practical and adaptable. Or you can use the computer-based Anki SRS (Spaced Repetition system).
If you’re learning a new language, you’ve probably realized that “communicating,” i.e. participating in a conversation, is not that easy, even if you’ve practiced tons of words: You have to be able to LISTEN and COMPREHEND and then also to SPEAK.
Real conversations are often unpredictable in content. So listening to various kinds of topics you’re interested in will help prepare you. With time, you’ll start noticing and assimilating certain language patterns, even if there’s a great variety in vocabulary.
Also, when you first start listening it will appear that the sound stream goes too fast. It’s an experience most language learners share.
If you’re a novice practicing listening comprehension, start out slow, with individual words, phrases, then sentences. Short audio stories are a good next step. Make sure you know the meaning of what’s being said.
For the more popular languages, there now are free podcasts and YouTube videos available. Many of the free or fee-based online language programs have podcasts or videos as well (including GamesforLanguage).
When you learn a foreign language, you’re learning how to combine words in a new way that is meaningful in your new language. In other words, you’re learning a second (or third, etc.) word-order system.
You’re also learning grammar forms that don’t exist in your own language. In English, you don’t have noun gender, for example. French, Spanish, and Italian have two: masculine and feminine, German has three: masculine, feminine, and neuter.
Dealing with two (or more) grammar systems makes a teenager or adult different from young children learning their first language. Between the ages of two and three or so, toddlers go from one- or two-word “sentences” to quite sophisticated ways of asking questions, saying what they want, telling you what they saw, repeating what they heard, teasing you, etc.
Despite some hits and misses, children seem to catch on quickly which words go into what order, and what grammar forms to use. Most amazingly, often what they say are new combinations, and not just sentences they’ve heard and are repeating.
Children are able to do that because of their brain’s powerful “learning mechanisms,” which allow them to assimilate patterns of usage though listening.
Pattern learning also holds for adults learning other languages. The more we’re exposed to the patterns of usage of a language, the better we’ll acquire them.
For becoming conversationally fluent, you need to develop two skills: understand what’s being said and create speech that is meaningful and relevant.
You don’t directly need reading for becoming conversationally fluent. Children learn to speak in sentences years before they learn how to write them. And in many countries there are still adults who can’t read or write.
Adults don’t NEED reading to become conversationally fluent. But for most, reading is still the most practical way to accelerate their learning in class, with exercises and apps, or with online programs.
Furthermore, as soon as you’re able to read news articles, blog posts, even books in your new language, you have several potential benefits:
I very much like the motto of the late Dartmouth Professor John Rassias, a effective promoter of the immersion teaching method: “Don’t learn to speak a language, speak to learn it.” Speaking fluently can only be learned by actually speaking.
Listening will train your ear to the language’s sounds, which is essential when the sounds are quite different from your native language.
But, speaking a foreign language involves transforming your thoughts into specific sounds by training your vocal chords and moving your mouth in a certain way. It also means creating a stream of sounds that has the particular rhythm, pitch, and intonation, etc. of the language.
All of that has to be practiced aloud, typically by imitating native speakers. A teacher or tutor will be able to correct your pronunciation and point out different ways the tongue or mouth can produce the desired sounds.
Apps or online programs that have recording features are quite effective for improving your pronunciation. By playing back your own recordings and hearing how you sound next to the native speaker, you can work on making changes.
As a novice, start out slowly. Listen and repeat as often as you can. Don’t be discouraged when you hear yourself for the first time. Memorize conversations, even act them out, mimic the native speakers – have fun sounding like a native!
It’s very hard to have a genuine conversation just with sentences that you’ve memorized.
Certainly, repeating words and sentences aloud, and learning them by rote are essential techniques for a beginning learner.
But then, conversations with friends or exchange-partners who are native speakers, or a tutor who only uses the target language are the best way to improve your conversational skills in your target language.
Talking with someone is a complicated back and forth that creates a context for words and sentences. With talking come all kinds of “filler words and sounds” that are normal for a casual conversation.
Participating often in such open-ended conversations will expose you again and again to the typical patterns of the language you’re learning and prompt you to use these patterns yourself.
So yes, learning 90-95% of words commonly used is an excellent language learning goal. And if you learn as many of them as you can in context, rather than as words in a list, you’ll be building conversational skills.
Even if you understand all the words, you still have to decide whether someone is asking for something or telling you what you should do. You have to figure out how to formulate a question, express a reasoned opinion, or how to comment to a fast-moving conversation of your friends or family.
Getting to that level of fluency takes lots of words, plus it takes much listening and many conversations on a variety of topics. And it takes friends and conversation partners to practice with.
There is no way around it: The path to fluency goes though speaking, speaking, and speaking….
Bio: Ulrike Rettig is the co-founder of GamesforLanguage.com. She is a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, the Netherlands, and Canada. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
An earlier version of this post was first published on Gamesforlanguage.com on December 27, 2016
In December we published a post on the Gamesforlanguage site, titled: “Why You Need More than Words for Language Fluency.” Apparently, one of our faithful Gamesforlanguage’s users liked it and posted it on Reddit.
We were surprised by several of the comments. One of them suggested that “if the article added a section on ‘learning vocabulary,’ it would actually become a comprehensive article on what learning a language to an intermediate/advanced level entails.”
That was good advice. No question, you need vocabulary, lots of it. So, to the original article, we’re adding a “learning vocabulary” section and streamlining a few of our arguments