How many words are needed to really speak a language?

Seljuk   Sun Aug 05, 2007 11:48 am GMT
I'm trying to learn Russian these days and i am so serious about it. I already know 600-700 words but will try to learn 30 new ones everyday. Do you think I can manage this? And I also wonder how many words should I know to speak Russian fluently, to understand everyday situations, news on TV, TV programmes and fast speaking people?
furrykef   Sun Aug 05, 2007 1:02 pm GMT
30 words a day should certainly be manageable, at least with a tool like SuperMemo to help.

There is a certain point of diminishing returns when you learn a language. When you know 18,000 words, learning 2000 more words is not a great leap as it was when you went from 0 to 2000 words, even though the difficulty is about the same. That's how some polyglots learn: you can do a lot with 2000 words, and instead of learning 20,000 words of one language, you can learn 2000 words of ten languages, or 5000 words of four languages.

5000 words will get you pretty far, but it's not a near-native level. You could probably use a monolingual dictionary at that point. You will understand most words in every sentence, but the words you don't know will tend to be the important ones, so more advanced texts may keep sending you to the dictionary. 10,000 words is closer to a native level.

- Kef
Skippy   Sun Aug 05, 2007 2:31 pm GMT
What's typical for a native language speaker? By that I mean, are native speakers typically able to understand like, 80,000 words? 50,000? Anyone know the average?

*Note: I know people don't use nearly the number of words they are able to understand... That's why I'm aiming high lol
Seljuk   Sun Aug 05, 2007 2:35 pm GMT
Thank you very much, Furrykef. Russian is a difficult language so I hope i can cope with it ;) I think I should do what you recommend. I'll try learn 10,000 for Russian and a 10,000 more for another maybe, Spanish. Thank you again ;)

I need other opinions too, cover up please...
furrykef   Sun Aug 05, 2007 4:06 pm GMT
The trouble is that it varies from language to language, and we're not very sure anyway because it's hard to quantify such things. We can't just scan someone's brain and see that they know 50,000 words, after all. It's hard enough to determine what a word is, let alone how many somebody knows.

On trying to google it, I found an interesting webpage demonstating what the problem is:

- Kef
James   Mon Aug 06, 2007 4:20 am GMT
It depends on the definition of "word." If you go by the linguistic term "lemma" (something like a headword), then time, timely, timeless, etc., are all part of one "word." By that definition, a lot of research shows that youngsters learn about 1000 words a year, at least until young adulthood. 5000 will give you a very good handle, and you may actually sound fluent, (the first 5000 may cover over 90% of the most frequently used words), but your lexicon is on the level of a 5-year old. 10,000 (which may be about 16,000 with all word forms) is probably closer to real fluency, and 18,000 (which may equal close to 30,000 separate forms) to sound like an educated high school graduate.
James   Mon Aug 06, 2007 4:29 am GMT
Just a follow-up to my post. Paul Nation, who may be the world's expert on vocabulary size and acquisition, answers Seljuk's question pretty thoroughly--how many words do native speakers know, how many words does a learner need, which vocabulary is needed, etc. See:
K. T.   Mon Aug 06, 2007 6:36 am GMT
I think about 6, 000 words will do it for an upper-intermediate speaker.

It was interesting for me to find the Vocabulearn series (the sets that have all three levels in one package) and learn that you can listen to 1,500 words and expressions in each level. The language package includes English and the target language and can be used by English learners as well as foreign language learners in a number of languages.

This is great if you learn passively or have a decent aural memory. I thought it was almost painless to learn 20 or 30 words in a few minutes (I used the Russian version), and it's probably a great aid for people doing formal study as well.

4,500 words is a great start into a language. They probably have it at your library if you want to test-drive a language.

James' link is interesting too, btw.

This can be used by speakers of either language (for example, English/Russian) to increase vocabulary. 1,500 X 3 gives one a VERY good start in a language
K. T.   Mon Aug 06, 2007 6:40 am GMT
LOL, I didn't even see the last part on the screen. It's pretty obvious that I like Vocabulearn, I guess.

It works for me. I wish they had it in more languages. Some of the tapes are music enhanced.
Guest   Tue Aug 07, 2007 7:34 pm GMT
You need 10.534 words, but also 10.533 is good
Seljuk   Tue Aug 07, 2007 7:59 pm GMT
Guest what are you talking about? Why not 10,530 but 10,533 and if possible 10,534 is better? Are you kidding me?
K. T.   Tue Aug 07, 2007 8:31 pm GMT
Berlitz gives 10,000 words for the professional level of the target language. Google "Berlitz levels" then click the link for more information.
Franco   Wed Aug 08, 2007 7:32 am GMT
Well, I cant say what's necessary for general purposes. But for some, the only words needed to be learnt are "give me all your money".
Guest   Wed Aug 08, 2007 7:41 am GMT
Well, if you pull up a gun, that should be enough. Nonverbal communication, dig?
Hutch   Wed Aug 08, 2007 10:25 am GMT
Learning a language is much more complex than just memorizing words. You have to get a grasp on the structure of the language as well as verb conjugation. What good is memorizing 5000 words if you can't put them together to form a coherent sentence?