How Many Words Do We Need to Speak a Foreign Language?

Steve Kaufmann
Nov 29, 2017 · 5 min read

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 foreign language. I have never found that to be the case.

Of course we need to learn key words like “I”, “you”, “he” and “she” and the like, or “where”, “when” “why”, etc. and the phrases that they are used with. However, knowing, or thinking we know, these words is not enough, in my experience, because it simply takes a long time to remember them when we need to.

Furthermore, these words usually trigger a context of language where we find ourselves quickly lost if we don’t have enough background in that language. We need to be exposed to these words in a variety of contexts in order to get used to them as we get used to the new language.

It is not difficult to find a list of the most frequently used 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. This is no doubt useful. These can become lists that you refer to over and over. However, before you can really use them, you need lots of exposure to them in a variety of contexts. Since these high frequency words appear so often, you will come across them often enough in whatever content you are listening to or reading.

However, there is, in my view, no magic number of words that we need to know in order to speak a foreign language. We need to know a lot of words, high frequency words, and even some lower frequency words, in order to understand even a fairly basic conversation.

The natives speaker knows a lot of words, and will inevitably use some of them when speaking with us. In the past I have delayed speaking with a tutor via Skype until I have at least 10,000 known words at LingQ. I am usually not comfortable until I am over 25,000 or even 30,000, depending on the language.

Learning A Foreign Language From Interesting Content

I don’t make a special effort to learn the high frequency words. They will take care of themselves. I prefer to immerse myself in language content, initially easier content with a lot of repetition, and eventually more interesting, more compelling content, to listen to and read. Over time, I will gradually absorb enough words, and enough familiarity with the language to be able to engage with native speakers.

LingQ enables me to do this. I can look up words 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 when I need to use them.

There are also less frequently used words in my reading and listening, words that I need in order to understand what I am reading or listening to. I save them in LingQ as well, but I make no special effort to learn them or even worse to memorize them. They are in my database at LingQ, 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 feel I have learned them.

I create lots of LingQs, in other words I save lots of words and phrases to my database at LingQ. I do this not only for words I do not know, but also for 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.

Speaking Activates Vocabulary Learned From Interesting Content

My experience tells me that there is no 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 passive vocabulary that I have naturally acquired 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 certain words that I have never used before pop up in my brain and come out of my mouth when I need them.

Unfortunately many other words that I need, and know passively, still resist my effort to find them when I need them. But, in time, more and more of them move into my active vocabulary. Meanwhile, knowing these words, even passively, enables me to participate in meaningful discussions. I just have to keep going.

That is what I am now doing for Greek. After months of input activity I have started speaking, and am surprising both myself and Greek native speakers with what I am able to express. I have made no special attempts to learn the most common words of Greek, but many of them are there for me.

To be honest, many words and phrases that I have used successfully will sometimes be forgotten the next time I look for them in a discussion. This includes even very common words. There are no shortcuts. We just have to stay the course and believe in ourselves.

Originally posted on my blog on The Linguist.


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Steve Kaufmann

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Steve Kaufmann speaks 16 languages and is the co-founder of LingQ, a web and app language learning resource.



A place to share knowledge on language learning and the edtech startup world. Want to learn a new language? Check out!

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