This Is Exactly How Many Words You Need to Know to Speak a Language
In the grand scheme of things, it’s not that many.
If you’re a traveler, you know how frustrating it can be to live in a place and not be able to communicate with the locals. Hand signals, broken English, and pointing can only go so far, and learning a new language—especially as an adult—is a daunting task.
But fear not! BBC took it upon themselves to figure out exactly how many words you need to learn to speak a language well enough to fit in.
Linguists Paul Nation, John Read, and Robin Goulden created a test to see how many words you know in English. Thankfully, it only involves 50 of them, compared to the 200,000+ words in the English language. The linguists’ theory is that if you take the number of words out of 50 that you understood and multiply it by 500, you’ll get an approximation of your English vocabulary. Find out the common words you’ll only find in the English language.
Stuart Webb, a professor of applied linguistics, found that native speakers of any certain language know 15,000 to 20,000 lemmas, or word families. A lemma is composed of a root word (say: walk) and all of its inflections (walked, walking, walker, etc.).
We hate to be the bearers of bad news, but chances are, if you’re learning a new language, you’ll never be able to comprehend 15,000 lemmas.
Professor Webb discourages people from learning all of the words in a language. Instead, he advises them to focus on the 800 to 1,000 lemmas that are used most frequently in the language. These lemmas, he says, will give you enough knowledge to understand 75 percent of the language. That’s enough to have you walking the streets feeling comfortable striking up a conversation, ordering at a restaurant, and dealing with other day-to-day communications.
But before you hunker down and hit the books, consider how passionate you are about the language. For example, if you’re planning on moving abroad long-term (or even watching foreign television without subtitles or reading novels in the native tongue), you may have to learn upwards of 9,000 lemmas—although, you might have a hard time learning these 12 quirky words that don’t have an English translation.
If you don’t have time to immerse yourself in the language before you travel, check out the easy way to learn a new language (hint: it involves the TV).