How many words do I need to know in order to speak English fluently?

Some of you out there may be wondering “How many words do I really need to know in order to speak English fluently?” Much of how you answer this question depends on how you define fluency. So following that line of thinking, I will begin by identifying three kinds of fluency, then discuss what various sources say about the number of words required for these levels of fluency, and finally, end with three ideas about how to efficiently learn vocabulary. 

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  • Defining fluency

Fluency is hard to define because everyone has their own idea about it. For example, when people say they want to speak English fluently, they may mean that they want to speak like a native, or they might just be saying that they want to be able to travel comfortably through places where their target language is spoken and have basic conversations about everyday topics with locals. For practical purposes, however, we’ll imagine that fluency falls into the three categories suggested by Sagar-Fenton and McNeill (2018): (1) fluency for everyday or basic conversations, (2) fluency for movies/series, and (3) fluency for reading articles in newspapers or magazines. 

  • Minimum number of words for each kind required for each kind of fluency

In 2017, Browne and Culligan produced the New General Service List for Spoken English (NGSL-S). They claim that their list of only 721 words provides 90% coverage of everyday spoken English. Whether 90% coverage is sufficient for fluency in basic conversations isn’t certain, but according to Foer (2012), knowing the 1,000 most common words is “just enough to let you hit the ground running once you’re authentically immersed in the language”. In other words, you can survive in a foreign country in the target language with just those 1,000 words. And based on my personal experience using the language learning program Pimsleur for Portuguese, Spanish and Japanese, I believe these 1,000 words are more than enough for you to not just converse but flourish in everyday conversations, provided you get enough conversation practice.

For more advanced kinds of fluency such as for movies/series, or for reading newspaper/magazine articles far more words are needed.  Sagar-Fenton and McNeill (2018) state that movies/series require at least 3,000 words, while news/magazine articles need a whopping 8,000 to 9,000. 

  • How to learn vast amounts of vocabulary

In order to learn vast amounts of vocabulary efficiently, you need to do at least two things, but I’m providing a third just for good measure: 

1. Learn words according to frequency. To do this, check out Paul Nation’s word lists; scroll down to ‘The BNC/COCA headword Lists’ section to find them. 

2. Use spaced repetition. There are apps like Memrise and Anki to help you do this, but if you’re a nerd like me and want to learn more about spaced repetition and why it’s awesome, check out College Info Geek’s video The Most Powerful Way to Remember What You Study

3. Watch Benny Lewis’s TedX Talk on rapid language hacking. Benny’s an Irish polyglot who talks about how he learns languages and at around 9:40 in the TedX Talk, he explains the technique that he uses to learn tons of words. 

Hope you have found this helpful and interesting, and if you’d like me to write about something else, please let me know. You can email me at mjhandrewes@gmail.com.   

 

References

Browne, C. & Culligan, B. (2017, October 28). New General Service List-Spoken 1.2 (NGSL-S). New General Service List Project. http://www.newgeneralservicelist.org/ngsls 

 

Foer, J. (2012, November 9). How I learned a language in 22 hours. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2012/nov/09/learn-language-in-three-months 


Sagar-Fenton, B. & McNeill, L. (2018, June 24). How many words do you need to speak a language? BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-44569277

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