How Many Words Do We Need to Know?
Learning Words – How Many Do We Need To Know? was uploaded onto Steve’s YouTube channel on
October 25, 2014
Hi there, Steve Kaufmann here again. Today I want to talk about words. It’s a subject that comes up all the time, how many words do we need to know? I guess I have two quick answers to that. The first answer is lots, lots of words. The second answer is what do you want to do with the language?
Some of you may know that at LingQ we count the number of known words of each learner and I happen to believe that the number of known words is the simplest indicator of your level in the language. If you’re looking for one simple Gordian knot, Occam’s razor indicator of where you stand in the language, it’s the number of words you know. Now, let me explain a little further on that.
Of course there are uncertainties. For example, the number of known words in a very inflected language is going to be more than a language that’s not inflected. By inflected I mean a language where the words change form for person, tense, function in the sentence and so forth and so on. So, typically, 70,000 words in Russian may equate to 15,000 words in English. I don’t know what the conversion rate is. So the number of known words that we indicate at LingQ is not an absolute number, it can’t be compared from language to language.
The principle is that the more words you know in a language, the further along you are, the better you know the language. People will object. They’ll say how do you know if you know a word? My definition is I know it when I can understand it in a context, that’s all, because the goal for me is, first of all, to understand the language. If my goal is fluency, I have to be able to understand many different contexts. I want to understand books when I read them, I want to understand people when they speak and native speakers will always have a much bigger vocabulary than I have as a learner, not always, but in most cases, so I have to understand what they’re saying, otherwise I can’t communicate with them.
Now, if my goal is simply to be able to order food in a restaurant, order a beer, find my way to the bathroom, say hi, how are you, did you have a good weekend, if that’s the limit of what I want to achieve in the language, which is perfectly legitimate, then it’s fair to say I don’t need so many words. But, my goal in language learning is to be able to participate in intelligent conversations, read books, understand movies, listen to the radio, the news, listen to audio books and for that you need lots of words. Whenever I’m reading a book, even in a language that I know fairly well, it’s the words that prevent me from understanding, so my goal, my simple goal, the milestones on my road towards fluency are the number of words that I know.
Now, some people dispute that. You hear this argument, well, you know, the most common 1,000 words account for 75-80% of the language, so you only have to learn those words. Well, that’s simply not true if you want to be fluent, if you want to be comfortable discussing a wide variety of subjects. Those top 1,000 most frequent words will appear all the time. So if you are doing a lot of listening and reading in order to increase your vocabulary, you will necessarily go over these frequent words very often. So you will, in fact, nail those frequent words fairly early; although, you may forget some of them along the way.
It is a good idea when you first start out, for the first month or two, to limit your reading and listening to content that has instead of 75% high-frequency words, 95% high-frequency words. Because there is so much in the language that’s uncertain, unknown, in order for you to get a bit of a grip on the language it’s better to have a higher percentage of words that are easy that you’re going to see so often that they’re more likely to stick for you. But, very soon, in my experience, after a couple of months you have to move on to more normal content not designed for the learner where the percentage of the lower-frequency words is much higher.
You have to do that; otherwise, you can’t find anything to read or listen to. At least that’s been my experience. In order to learn these words that are less frequent, you have to read and listen a lot. I have not found, in my own case, that it’s been that helpful to try to learn words out of context. I learn words within a context. Even at LingQ when I review flashcards, I much prefer to review the flashcards that came from a specific content item.
What happens with this word counter is if you have accumulated a large number of words, even a passive knowledge of a large number of words and if you have acquired them through what I would call honestly through a lot of listening and reading, then that is kind of a milestone of the amount of exposure that you have had to the language. That means you have, therefore, absorbed so much more of the language and along the way have learned other things about the language, like the structure. Certainly, as I always say, as a part of your listening and reading, you do want to regularly have a look at the grammar, but you need that base of words.
Right now, I’m enjoying a tremendous content, a series, a collection that _______ has put into our Russian library called __________, Practical Russian Grammar. He uses a lot of words to explain the grammar, but he explains it and then he has a lot of examples so it’s enjoyable. So I go and spend a little time with the grammar listening to _________, but then I go back and I work on my reading and my listening and linking, of course, to expand my vocabulary. I need a lot of words so if I pick up a newspaper, if I turn on the TV, if I meet someone and we’re discussing any subject I’ll have a better chance of understanding what they’re talking about.
The fact that your active vocabulary is always going to be much smaller is less of a problem. You may struggle, but you can limit your participation in the discussion to those words that you’re able to use, which will always be a much smaller part of your total vocabulary. But, if you can’t understand what the other person is saying because you don’t know the words, then you won’t be able to participate in the conversation.
So, to me, if you needed one sort of factor, one index of how far along you are in the language, it’s the number of words you know. That is what drives me in my language learning. I want to acquire more and more and more words so that if I open an item in LingQ I see maybe five or 10% new words in blue instead of 30, 40 or 50. I want to get those pages whiter and whiter because that tells me I’m understanding more and more and, sure enough, if I pick up a book I can read it and I can understand it.
As David James says, if you have a solid base in terms of passive vocabulary and lots of listening and reading, when you have the opportunity to speak, whenever that opportunity arises at whatever stage along your path, you’re going to be able to take advantage of it and your ability to produce the language will develop very, very quickly. If you don’t have the words, then there’s not much point in practicing what to say at the train station and what to say at the post office because you won’t understand much of what comes back at you.
The question is how many words do you need to know? Well, (A) in principle, lots and (B) it depends on your goals. If you want to be able to operate as an intelligent person able to discuss a variety of subjects without the native speaker having to slow down, repeat, explain it in other words and so forth, then you need a lot of words. If you want to be able to go and have a couple of drinks and say that the weather is nice then, of course, you don’t need so many words. So it does depend on your goals. But, to my mind, the number of words you know is the quickest indicator of how far along you are in the language.
Thank you for listening, bye for now.