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Vocabulary: how many words do you need to know?

The fact that the dictionary of the language contains about 300 thousand words is only of theoretical interest for a beginner to learn this language. Perhaps the main principle for the rational organization of their studies, especially at the initial stage, is the economy of words. You need to learn to memorize as few words as possible, but do it as best you can.

Let us emphasize that our approach is directly opposite to the leading principle of “suggestionstopedia”, with its emphasis on the abundance of words presented to the student. As you know, in accordance with its canons, the beginner must be literally “showered with words.” It is best to ask him or her 200 new words every day.

Is there any doubt that any normal person will forget all the many words that he was “showered” with according to this, if I may say so, method – and most likely very soon, just a few days later.

Don’t chase much
It will be much better if at the end of a certain stage of the class you know 500 or 1000 words very well than 3000 – but poorly. Don’t be overwhelmed by educators who will assure you that you must first learn a certain number of words in order to “get on board.” Only you yourself can and must decide whether the vocabulary you have mastered is sufficient for your goals and interests.

Experience in language learning shows that about 400 correctly chosen words can cover up to 90 percent of the vocabulary you need for everyday communication. More words are needed to read, but many of them are only passive. Therefore, with knowledge of 1500 words, you will already be able to understand sufficiently meaningful texts.

It is better to master the words that are most necessary and important to you than to constantly rush to learn new ones. “Anyone who has chased too much runs the risk of missing everything,” says a Swedish proverb. “If you chase two hares, you won’t catch a single one,” a Russian proverb answers her.

Oral vocabulary
Very roughly, about 40 correctly chosen, high-frequency words will cover about 50% of word usage in everyday speech in any language;

200 words will cover about 80%;
300 words – about 85%;
400 words will cover about 90%;
well, 800-1000 words are about 95% of what will need to be said or heard in the most ordinary situation.
Thus, a well-chosen vocabulary helps to understand quite a lot with a very modest effort spent on cramming.

Example: if only 1000 words are said in everyday conversation, then 500 of them, that is 50%, will be covered by 40 of the most common high-frequency words.

We emphasize that these percentages, of course, are not the result of precise calculations. They just give the most general idea of ​​how many words it will take to feel confident, entering into the simplest dialogue with a native speaker. In any case, there is no doubt that, having correctly chosen from 400 to 800 words and memorizing them well, you can feel confident in a simple conversation, since they will cover almost 100% of those words that you cannot do without. Of course, under other, less favorable conditions, 400 words will cover only 80% of what you need to know – instead of 90 or 100%.

Reading vocabulary
When reading, having correctly chosen and well remembered about 80 of the most common, most frequent words, you will understand about 50% of the simple text;

200 words will cover about 60%;
300 words – 65%;
400 words – 70%;
800 words – about 80%;
1,500 – 2,000 words – about 90%;
3000 – 4000 – 95%;
and 8000 words will cover nearly 99 percent of the written text.
Example: if you have a text of about 10 thousand words in front of you (this is about 40 printed pages), then, having learned the most necessary 400 words in advance, you will understand about 7000 words that are used in this text.

Note again that the numbers we give are only indicative. Depending on a variety of additional conditions, 50 words will cover up to 50 percent of the written text, but in other cases, you will need to learn at least 150 words to get the same result.

Vocabulary: 400 to 100,000 words
400 – 500 words – active vocabulary for language proficiency at the basic (threshold) level.
800 – 1000 words – active vocabulary for explaining yourself; or a passive vocabulary for basic reading.
1500 – 2000 words – active vocabulary, which is quite enough to ensure everyday communication throughout the day; or passive vocabulary sufficient for confident reading.
3000 – 4000 words – in general, it is enough for practically free reading of newspapers or literature in the specialty.
About 8000 words – Provide meaningful communication for the average European. You practically don’t need to know more words in order to communicate freely both orally and in writing, as well as to read literature of any kind.
10,000-20,000 words – active vocabulary of an educated European (in their native language).
50,000-100,000 words – passive vocabulary of an educated European (in their native language).
It should be noted that vocabulary by itself does not yet ensure free communication. At the same time, having mastered 1,500 correctly chosen words, with some additional training, you will be able to communicate almost fluently.

As for professional terms, they usually do not present any particular difficulties, since in most cases it is an international vocabulary that is easy enough to master.

When you already know about 1500 words, you can start reading at a fairly decent level. With a passive knowledge of 3,000 to 4,000 words, you will be fluent in reading specialty literature, at least in those areas where you are confident in your orientation. In conclusion, we note that, according to the calculations carried out by linguists on the material of a number of languages, the average educated European actively uses about 20,000 words (and half of them are quite rare). In this case, the passive vocabulary is at least 50,000 words. But all this concerns the native language.

Basic vocabulary
In the pedagogical literature, you can find the terminological combination “basic vocabulary”. From my point of view, at the maximum level, the vocabulary is about 8000 words. It seems to me that it is hardly necessary to learn more words, except perhaps for some special purpose. Eight thousand words will be enough for full-fledged communication in any conditions.

When starting to learn a language, it may be wise to get by with shorter lists. Here are three levels that I have identified in practice as providing a good guideline for a beginner:

level A (“basic vocabulary”):
400-500 words. They are enough to cover about 90% of all word usage in everyday oral communication or about 70% of a simple written text;

level B (“minimum vocabulary”, “mini-level”):
800-1000 words. They are enough to cover about 95% of all word usage in everyday oral communication, or about 80-85% of the written text;

level B (“average vocabulary”, “copper-level”):
1500-2000 words. They are enough to cover about 95-100% of all word usage in everyday oral communication, or about 90% of the written text.

An example of a solid dictionary of the basic vocabulary is the dictionary published by E. Klett in Stuttgart, 1971, called “Grundwortschatz Deutsch” (“Basic vocabulary of the German language”). It contains 2,000 essential words in each of the selected six languages: German, English, French, Spanish, Italian and Russian.