2013-07-29 Not a Polyglot - metal letters

How Many Words Should I Learn?

You might be wondering how large your vocabulary needs to be. As with so many other questions when it comes to language learning, the answer is “it depends.” Obviously, if your goal is to successfully make your way around the Santa Maria Novella train station, you’ll need fewer words than if you care to discuss nuclear proliferation with an Italian brainiac. But here are some rules of thumb when it comes to figuring out how many vocabulary words to shoot for, and how far a certain size of vocabulary will get you.

How many words you’ll need.

  • At around 500 words, you’ll have a feel for the language and be able to understand and construct extremely simple sentences, like “Ho la chiave” and “Mi piace la pizza.”
  • You’ll use about 1000 words in limited, daily speech.
  • Between 2000 and 3000 words, you can express most of your ideas, even if it’s in a somewhat strange and roundabout manner (say, “una barca con il grande cotone chi va con i venti” instead of “una barca a vela”).
  • Between 4000 and 6000 words, you can carry on pretty much any normal conversation.
  • You’ll need 10,000 words to match the vocabulary of a native speaker with higher education.
  • Shoot for 20,000 words to be able to understand and enjoy high literature.

For most of us, I’m guessing that sweet spot between 4000 and 6000 words is where we want to be. Of course, learning vocabulary should never stop, but making a concerted effort to get those words under your belt, whether it’s through word lists, flashcards, or vocabulary-building software, will greatly help you on your mission to speak fluently. (Check out this post on vocabulary-building resources for some ideas and suggestions.)

The Top 1000 Italian words won’t get you too far.

One note, though – don’t get stars in your eyes when you read that X number of words makes up X percentage of written or spoken language. Though it’s likely true (I haven’t crunched the numbers myself, but I’ll believe it), most of those words will be smaller words and function words. Yes, it’s probably true that the basic 100 words comprise something like 50%, while the top 1000 most frequent words comprise somewhere between 70-90% (according to different sources). But look at the top 1000 Italian words by frequency and think about what kinds of conversations you’d be able to have with them.

Pretty limited, right? You might understand 80% of what you hear, but it will really sound like, “And then she came inside the house and blahblah a blahblah from its blahblah. Then the blahblah was blahblah and we all blahblahblah. It was great!”

Reading won’t be much better.  To illustrate this, here is a passage in Italian from a Wikipedia article about Italy with the Top 1000 most frequent words in bold (which in this very short passage account for just 54% of words):

L’italiano è la lingua ufficiale e più parlata; è inoltre una delle lingue ufficiali dell’Unione europea. Appartiene al gruppo delle lingue romanze orientali della famiglia delle lingue indoeuropee e, in particolare, è la trasformazione dell’antico dialetto fiorentino del Trecento, idioma diffusosi e affermatosi in tutta Italia grazie anche a grandi scrittori come Dante, Boccaccio e Petrarca che ne hanno fatto uso nelle loro opere. Nell‘800, grazie ad Alessandro Manzoni, si diffonde l‘italiano moderno. Tuttavia, in Italia, esistono un gran numero di alter lingue e dialetti che si sono sviluppati autonomamente dall’italiano, evolvendosi dal latino.

You might get the gist of this passage in spite of its limited use of the most common words, due to the high number of familiar proper names – Dante, Boccaccio, Petrarca, Unione europea, etc. You might not find the same situation reading an article on noble gases or Egyptian ruins, however.

(Italian not your language? Check out this page listing the top 200 words by frequency in 40 languages.)

Learn words relevant to your life.

So what’s a good strategy? Be choosy about the words you learn. Don’t learn lists of business-related terms if you’re not in business and are unlikely to say marketing strategy, synergy, or boardroom anytime soon. Instead, think about the subjects you’re most interested in (e.g., opera, food) and most likely to use. Learn the words related to those subjects, with a heavy emphasis on nouns.

If you’re passionate about animals and expect to speak about them at some point, cane and gatto won’t get you very far. How do you say chinchilla, ferret, and lizard in Italian? How about horse-related words, withers, bridle, blaze? These words may not be on the Top 6000 Most Frequent Italian Words list, but if they are interesting to you, they should be on your vocabulary list.

And finally, slow and steady wins the race. If you learn just 100 new words a week, which is only 20/day for 5 days a week, for 50 weeks (you get 2 weeks off for being such a diligent student) you will reach that magical 5000 words in just one year. So get to it!


Further reading:

Thorough and interesting posts from Lingholic, part 1 and part 2.

An article on the same subject, except it’s about learning Spanish.

Ditto – for learning Japanese.

This article is on number/frequency of words (with a graph!) in Russian.


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