A Fast, Easy Way to Increase Fluency in a Foreign Language
Focus on high-frequency words
Why you can study a language for years and still not be fluent
You may still struggle to come up with the right words, even after years of study. Feeling frustrated by an inability to communicate in everyday life, you might think fluency in a foreign language is out of reach.
It’s not, and here is why. The words you know may not be the words you need. You can learn a mountain of vocabulary and still not be able to hold a conversation, because what you learned doesn’t fit what you need to say in real life.
Given you have limited time in the day, you’ll want to make the most of your studies and prioritize your learning. You need to build a concise but highly useful vocabulary. This is the secret to reaching fluency: learn the high frequency words.
There are many words in a language, but not all of them are useful
How many words are in the English language? That’s difficult to determine for many reasons, but Merriam-Webster gives a rough estimate of 1 million. That is a lot of words. But, not all of them are useful.
Taking an example from English, to masticate means to chew. Although I know both of those words, as a college-educated native-English speaker, I can’t think of a single time I have ever needed to use the word masticate. I’m not even sure why I know this word. Maybe I had to learn it for a vocab quiz in high school, and now it’s just sitting in my brain taking up space.
If I were to tell my kids to masticate their food thoroughly at dinnertime, I would get some weird looks from my family. Masticate is not a high-priority word when learning English. Chew is a lot more useful.
Of the many words in the English language, some are more useful than others. You only need to know a fraction of the total in order to become proficient in the language.
How many words do you really need to learn?
According to this BBC article, linguists estimate that native speakers typically know 15,000 to 20,000 word families in their first language. A word family consists of a root word and its variations, for example: eat, eating, ate, etc.
When learning a foreign language, you probably won’t build a vocabulary as large as that of a native speaker. And that’s okay, as long as you focus on the most useful, high-frequency words.
So, how many words do we need to learn to become fluent? The answer is that it depends on how you intend to use the language. All figures below are from the aforementioned BBC article:
- By learning the most common 800 word families in English, you would be able to understand 75% of what is spoken in everyday life.
- To watch and understand movies or TV, you would need the most common 3,000 word families.
- And, to comfortably read novels, newspapers, and magazines, you would need 8,000 to 9,000 word families.
Whether you are just starting out with learning a language, or have been at it for some time, it’s worth doubling down on the most commonly used words. If you learn the highest frequency words, you will be able to get by pretty well in most situations.
There are a couple of great sources you can use to build a high-frequency vocabulary that puts you well on the way to fluency: a high-frequency dictionary and everyday life.
1. Get a frequency dictionary
In my experience, the Routledge frequency dictionaries are better quality than some of the other available options, although I have only used the French and Spanish versions.
The Routledge frequency dictionaries list the top 5,000 most commonly used words in the language, compiled from oral and written sources that include transcripts of conversations, interviews, and debates; newspapers, magazines, and literature.
For each word, the dictionary gives the part of speech, an English translation, and a usage context that comes from a real-world source. On occasion the usage context may have grammatical errors, especially if taken from a spoken language transcript. Sometimes, we’re kinda loose with grammar when we speak. Nonetheless, these books are a goldmine of useful vocabulary, sorted by frequency, but also with occasional call-out boxes of thematic lists.
2. Use words from your own everyday life
I decided to learn Spanish when my daughter was born. Since I had a baby at home, my list of useful words included diaper, crib, rattle, and stuffed animal. As she grew, my vocabulary expanded to include crawl, puréed vegetables, temper tantrum, and pretty much all of the farm animals.
If you don’t have kids, you won’t need those words. Your day-to-day vocabulary will be different than mine.
- Build a list of words that you use every day or often enough that they seem useful.
- Write them down on flashcards.
- Find the translation in a dictionary.
- When the dictionary gives multiple options, and you aren’t sure which is most suitable, ask a native speaker for clarification.
Sometimes there will be different options for how to translate, and you’ll want to pick the one that best suits your purposes. A native speaker can be an invaluable guide in helping you pick the most common, widely understood word, rather than one that is archaic or only used in some regions.
You can find native speakers online, through language exchanges, or by taking a local language class. If you’re lucky, you might even have a willing friend to guide you.
We’re all busy these days, but it’s well worth the effort to learn another language. If you focus your efforts on studying the words and phrases that are useful in your everyday life, you’ll become fluent faster. Being able to hold a conversation in another language is truly a thrill, and it’s within reach.