How Many Words Do We Need to Speak a Language?

How Many Words...

It is tempting to believe that we can just acquire a small number of very useful words, and sort of get a jump start in a language. I have never found that to be the case. Even learning “where”, “when” “why” etc. does not help a lot, in my experience, because it simply takes a long time to get used to using these words, or even remembering them. We need to be exposed to them often in order to get used to them and to a new language.

It is not difficult to get a list of the most “useful” words in a language. You can look them up, or you can just type them out in your own language and submit them to google translate. I doubt if that will help much, at least it does not in my case. You need to see and hear them, over and over, in meaningful contexts.

That is why I prefer to focus on finding content, interesting content, to listen to and read. It starts with easier, perhaps less interesting content, but as soon as possible I move on to more challenging but more interesting content.

LingQ enables me to do this. I can look up word and phrases that I don’t understand. I can save these words and phrases for occasional review. The most useful words, the highest frequency words, keep on appearing in the content I am reading and listening to. Almost like magic, in an order that I cannot control, they become part of me. First I understand them and then I start to remember them.

There are also less frequently used words in my reading and listening, words that need in order to understand what I am reading or listening to. I save them as well in LingQ but I ignore them. They are in my database and in my brain somewhere, but will probably not be activated for quite some time. Eventually some of them show up often enough that I learn them. Some of them stick in my brain for reasons that I can’t control.

I create lots of LingQs, in other words save lots of words and phrases to my database at LingQ. I do this not only for words I do not know, but also of common little words that work differently in the new language, like “meu” or “minha” in Portuguese versus “mi” in Spanish. Some of these common words I may tag for different categories to help me review them if I have the time.

My experience tells me that there is not a short cut. I just need to continue enjoying immersing myself in the language and learning about new things via the language. In time I will get the opportunity to speak, and the more I speak, the more I will activate the vocabulary that I have naturally acquire in this manner.

I know that in order to have meaningful conversations, I will need to understand lots of words, not just the most common hundred or so. If I don’t have a large enough vocabulary, I will be lost in my attempts to engage people in conversations. If I have a large passive vocabulary, I will find that all kinds of words that I have never used before just rush to my brain and come out of my mouth.

That is what I am now doing for Polish. After two months of input activity, I have started speaking, and am surprising both myself and my Polish natives speaker counterparts with what I am able to express. I have made no special attempts to learn the most common words of Polish.

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3 comments on “How Many Words Do We Need to Speak a Language?

Tomasz Skaba

Hello Steve,
With interest I read your excellent article about the words number in learning language to be able speak with natives.
I agree with your ideas and lecture.
With pleasure I’ll read your next articles.
I look forard to hearing from you Soon.
Best Regard,
DrTomasz Skaba

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