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I am interested in learning a second language. To do this I have created a list of the 1000 most common words and phrases for a given language. I've also established sentences which contains each of these words. Acknowledging the challenge of making a truly comprehensive list of this type, I'm doing my best to include as much relevant information as I can.

I want to know what the average vocabulary size is for someone capable of engaging in everyday casual discussions. Approximately how many words and phrases must one know to have a reasonably fluent conversation in a language? From this answer I plan to expand my vocabulary list.

Examples of words and phrases that I think might well be in this list for English: apple, banana, gay, orange, apartment, sunny, leg, sex, word, sentence, pink, second, holidays, carry, finally, potato, onion, sometimes, rice, shower, whatever, pasta, since, plastic, always, fish, really, last, french, beef, pork, water, sea, fall, love, river, penis, chicken, knife, hit, fork, stolen, spoon, cup, brilliant, probably, cool, breast, dollar, box, foot, circle, fix, journey, help, always, between, ass, remember, sit, clock, run, buy, either, want, normal, fart, hairy, straight, time, internet, on the other hand, after all, kind of, hurry up, shut up, as well, not for long, lie down, oh my god, america, shampoo, pair, around, okay, under, table, money, milk, toilet paper, come on, pick it up, put it down, never, remember, business.

Examples of words and phrases that might not find it onto the list: grumpy, lemon, adore, lawn, infant, hero, witnessed, miracle, punch, gorilla, tip, heel, knuckles, approximately, fluent, author, return, truly, salmon, moon, purple, pineapple, elbow, napkin, accordingly, assumption, as a matter of urgency, have a blast, go to town, get real, don't get me started, lighten up, get down

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    Welcome to Linguistics SE. It's a common misconception that linguistics is about helping people learn languages and I felt like your original question was only borderline acceptable for this board so I edited it to make it fit the guidelines better. – acattle Mar 8 '13 at 16:26
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    Welcome! "Fluent" can mean many things, so I think you might want to define that. – Cerberus Mar 8 '13 at 16:44
  • Also, what language are we talking about? – Alenanno Mar 8 '13 at 17:39
  • @Cerberus I'm not interested in being fluent in the language. I'm just interested in reaching a level where I have a reasonable understanding of everyday conversation. – Baz Mar 9 '13 at 13:07
  • @Alenanno Irish Gaelic – Baz Mar 9 '13 at 13:07
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From what I'm seeing it's generally accepted that most English speakers have a vocabulary size of 15000 to 20000 words. It should be noted that some sources place this estimate as high as 50000 to 75000 words.

Of course, only a fraction of those words are used regularly. This study found that knowing as few as 2000 words could lead to a 95% comprehension rate for English speakers. If one increases their vocabulary size to 5000 words (250% the vocabulary size as before), the comprehension rate only increases to 96%. This is why focusing on just the most common words in a language, as you are doing, is a common tactic for language learners.

For lower levels of competency, I've found this Yahoo! Answer (and several like it) suggesting that 400-500 words and 150 phrases are enough to communicate in a second language (albeit with a fair amount of difficulty). However, I cannot find any academic research to back up these claims.

The exact number of words you need to know depends on how you define "fluency", the language you're speaking, and the context you're speaking in (for example, business speech, casual speech, and even academic speech are all different registers with different vocabularies). Additionally, this number (as well as how you define "word") will change depending on the language.

Another problem with these estimates is that they vary in how they define "vocabulary size". It could mean the number of words that a speaker knows and can produce in conversation or it could mean the number of words that a speaker is able to recognize in conversation, even if they would never use it.

So in summary, the exact number of words one must need to know to be "fluent" in a language varies depending on how you define fluency, which language you're talking about, if you're talking about comprehension, speaking, or both, and how you define "vocabulary size". The best lower-bound estimate I can find is 2000 words. Note that that particular study was based only on comprehension, so maybe you could get away with a slightly smaller number of "active" or "producible" vocabulary (words you know how to use in conversation).

However, as I'm sure you know, there's more to speaking a language fluently than vocabulary size alone. For starters, there's your grammar skill. Also, remember that "fluency" is derived from the same origin as "fluid" so a big part of "being fluent" is being able to speak smoothly, evenly, and at a reasonable pace. Similarly you need to be able to listen and understand other speakers to be able to respond appropriately. This all take lots and lots of practice; preferably with native speakers. Even just getting your tongue used to pronouncing foreign words at a reasonable speed can be incredibly difficult. While learning the most frequent vocabulary words is a good exercise, it alone cannot teach you a language.

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    "On the other hand" is a phrase that is used regularly in English. It is also composed of words that exist within the top 2000 English words. However, its meaning can not be deduced by simply learning the meaning of on, the, other and hand. This is why I am also interested in knowing how many phrases one needs to learn in order to have a 95% comprehension of English. – Baz Mar 9 '13 at 12:52
  • Another point I'd like to make is with respect to grammar. I learned to speak Swedish as an adult without learning any grammar. I noticed while doing this that certain verbs are almost always exclusive to a particular tense. For this reason I think its a waste of time for a beginner to learn the version of a common word in those tenses that are not used so often. Also what is the point of learning the definite plural form of a common word if that form is rarely used? This is why I have a problem with "word groups". I would treat "get" and "got" are different words in my list. – Baz Mar 9 '13 at 13:26
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That depends on dominant semantic scope of a vocabulary for a given language. Some languages, like English, Spanish or Chinese, have more than one meaning for an item.

Others, like Japanese, Finnish or French, target at specific, or 'occasional' semantics. E.g, there are special words for 'nest' and 'a nest within a hollow of a tree trunk', 'alone pine' or 'pine in a forest' in Finnish, or special words for 'you-underling', 'you-equal' or 'you-superior' in Japanese.

The former languages usually have fewer words in vocabularies as compared to the latter ones.

Or the languages with greater number of cases might have no word for, say, 'at' or 'within', but a word like 'up' might have more than three different varieties.

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Going by the words you provided, you might need somewhere around 5000–8000 separate words in English, where inflected forms are counted as one word each. Your phrases or expressions will have to be extrapolated based on this. If you can give us a few more words that you think should be in one's vocabulary, and a few more that wouldn't, more precision could be achieved. But it is still a bit arbitrary, unscientific, and non-transferable to other languages...

How your words rank in the list of most frequent words in TV and movie scripts (Wiktionary corpus):

814th apartment

2927 orange

3021 holidays


5182 banana

8110 elbow

8127 assumption

(> 10,000) pineapple

(> 10,000) accordingly

  • I've added a few more words to my question above. Would love to learn about any research in this area with regard to the number of "useful" words and phrases required for someone wishing to have a good general understanding of everyday conversation. Again, I stress phrases since, for example, the meaning of the very common phrase "as well" needs to be learned separately from the words as and well. – Baz Mar 9 '13 at 22:36
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According to a statistical estimation I know roughly 7000 words in English. I am able to read all literature with one unknown word per three lines on average (guessing on basis of ten books I have read in the last six months), can speak pretty fluently but still noticeably worse than in my native language and understand nearly everything in spoken language (conversations, films, and so on). The only remaining part of the language I have a lot of difficulties with is music.

My third language is Russian. I have a lot of practise with listening but not understanding because I've been exposed to it passively. In the previous month I have learned the thousand most commons words by memorizing them through space repetition software and I have got six hours of training in Russian lessons. Now I am able to understand all kinds of basic conversation but with a lot of guessing. I can express only simple thoughts, very uncomfortably, slowly and in a completely wrong way but natives understand me.

I have seen estimations of passive native vocabulary as high as 50k and more. As mentioned above my English vocabulary is about 7k words big and with regard to my abilities I am pretty sure that a normal human being doesn't know more than say 20k to 25k words. I guess that 10k - 12k is enough to speak/understand like a native in the case that you are strong in all other areas of a language (accent, grammar, ...).

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A native English speaker will typically have a vocabulary of 6-10,000 words. Maybe more, depending upon how highly educated they are.

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