Language Learning: How many words?

Recently, Benny Lewis tackled the question “How many words do you need before you speak a language ‘fluently’?” And by tackled I mean tackled. To the ground. As if it had looked at him in an insulting manner. Benny approaches at language learning as a motivator, rather than taking a scientific approach. I’m not going to argue with that. I enjoy reading his blog, though his style of language learning is not for me. On the other hand, it is science that leads to the development of better teaching methods, better learning materials, and understanding how we go about learning a language. Without claiming to be an expert on the subject (I am not) I would like to look at the question of “how many words”, because it is something I have done a little bit of reading about recently.

Firstly I don’t think the question “How many words do I need to know to be fluent” is answerable. I would say fluency is not just about how many words you know, as such. Fluency is about the ease with which you speak. Knowing words is part of that. If you don’t know many words, of course you can’t speak fluently.  But simply knowing the words doesn’t necessarily make you fluent. I wouldn’t discount the possibility that many of the processes that go into learning a lot of words might also contribute towards fluency – such as extensive reading and listening. But fluency and knowing a certain number of words are not the same thing.

When do the numbers matter?

So what is a better question to ask about numbers of words? Reading. Reading research, for example, focuses on how many words you know. I believe in the power of reading to increase vocabulary. I think reading a lot as a child improved my English vocabulary, and that the same is true of additional languages. Extensive reading is supposed to be good for developing reading fluency, and becoming more comfortable with the language.

The term extensive reading refers to reading a lot, at a level where you understand most of it – so you can just get on with reading – while presenting a bit of a challenge. The idea is that if you understand most of the vocabulary (the optimal number now seems to be 95-98% of the words) of a text, this is the best situation for incidental vocabulary acquisition. This means that you can probably get a sense of what the new words mean from context. So you don’t sit with a dictionary the whole time just to figure out what you are reading. It also means that the few new words you pick up are more likely to stick in your memory – if they are repeated, so much the better. You learn new words incidentally to what you are doing for your own enjoyment. I believe  Steve Kaufmann of LingQ is right when he says “content is king”. It’s all about motivation. Unlike Steve Kaufmann, most people would not have the motivation to slog through a text that is really way above their level. So 95-98% coverage is optimal.

This article describes a study of students taking English for Academic Purposes.  It suggests knowledge of 6000-8000 word families is recommended for reading authentic academic texts. The numbers may differ depending on what kind of text you want to read, but whatever it is, a few thousand word families will cover, say, 90% of the text. The rest of the words will be specialized to the topic. There are a lot more specialized words because of the number of different fields of knowledge and interest. That is why you can get to that 80-90% coverage quite quickly, and you may spend the rest of your life learning the rest of the language (which will only constitute about 10% or less of any given text).

What to do?

These numbers are useful for people designing language courses, especially a reading course intended to increase vocabulary and ‘reading fluency’. What can the self-taught student do with it? I don’t know. Probably not much. Extensive research exists on learning English, for obvious reasons, but for many languages, nobody has even determined high frequency word lists. It’s a pretty big undertaking.

What I read.

I mostly read news articles online in German, French, Italian and Spanish. I find news articles fit into my life easily. A news article is not a long commitment, you can slot it in anywhere. The style of newspaper writing is usually not too complicated – another bonus. With Google News and Google Alerts, you can always look for news about topics that interest you. For news alerts in other languages,  just change the URL from “.com” to whatever is appropriate for the country: “.it” for Italy, “.fr” for France, “.de” for Germany, etc..

If you are interested in foreign language reading from a scientific perspective,  Reading in a Foreign Language is a journal you can read for free online… Some very interesting stuff.

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2 thoughts on “Language Learning: How many words?

  1. Jennie

    I agree that extensive reading is a good way to increase vocabulary, but learning words in print will mostly help you recognize them first and then perhaps help you use them in writing. Extensive listening is also required, especially for languages where the spelling of a word is not all that helpful in determining the pronunciation, or for languages where the stress and intonation focus more on breath groups rather than individual words. Either way, both are passive activities that do increase your comprehension a lot, but only increase your production of the language in a small way.

    Part of my PhD research is on the teaching/learning of vocabulary, so in addition to Laufer that you linked to, other researchers to read on vocabulary acquisition are: P. Nation, N. Schmitt, J. Coady, T. Huckin, V. Cook, M. McCarthy, P. Meara

    I would also recommend euronews.net for reading news in several languages. Their articles are a bit shorter but almost all come with videos so you can also listen along.

    Reply
    1. aspirantpolyglot Post author

      Thanks, Jennie, for the useful info.

      I tried to teach myself French from a book as a teenager, and very quickly got frustrated by the fact that I was not sure how the words on the page should sound. So no, I agree that just reading is certainly not a way to become fluent in speaking a language.

      I have used euronews on occasion, and found it quite useful. Most of my language practice revolves around what is convenient to me – reading news on my cellphone. For me, this is a way to make sure that I do something – by doing what is convenient. Also, I’ve been particularly interested by research on reading, because I enjoy reading.

      Reply

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