English learners may come from different countries in different regions of the world, but all of them have one common question: “How many vocabulary words do you need to know to be fluent in English?” At first, you may think that that fluency will come to you after learning over 1,000,000 (1 million) words — that’s a very big and admirable goal, but large numbers like that can be quite demotivating, so is there a set number of words you need to know in order to become fluent in English?
Let’s look at some facts first.
- Native speakers of English have an active vocabulary of about 20,000. This means that while there are millions of words in the English language (something you are probably aware of already), you only need about 20,000 just to live your daily life.
- Of course, you also need to have a passive vocabulary as well. Passive vocabulary refers to words that you understand and see/hear often, but are not words that you would necessarily use in your day-to-day living. For example, if you’re not a doctor, then you probably won’t need to use the word “cerebral cortex” on a daily basis, right?
- English currently has over 171,000 words in use, and about 50,000 words that are obsolete (meaning that they’re not used anymore). This often refers to words that were quite useful in the past in the 1970’s, or 1980’s, or earlier, but have become less and less used in favor of new words that are being created by native speakers every day! Crazy!
What’s even crazier is that most English words have more than one meaning, which means they are used in more than one way.
However, having a vocabulary of just over 3,000 words is enough to provide coverage for about 95% of common texts (news, daily conversations, blogs, and other types of media). If you’re REALLY focused on having a conversation, you can probably do this using 1,000 words.
Now, you’re probably wondering which words you need to know. This depends on one English learner to another, and often this depends on what you want to do, and who you are. For General English, you’ll need to learn high-frequency vocabulary words (words that are used a lot) There are lists that can be found online.
Is Any Of This Necessary?
No. Counting how many words you know really isn’t the best way to learn English, and who has the time to count these words? The point of learning English is to be able to communicate with each other. Knowing 1,000,000 words in English is great, but if you can’t make a single sentence or even have a basic conversation with someone, then what was the point of learning all of these words in the first place? When you think about it, it makes no sense!
While this question is very interesting, there’s no way to provide a single, sensible answer, and that’s because it’s simply impossible to count the number of words that exist in a language. The English language is changing every day, so a word you know now may become obsolete tomorrow.
What recommended is to learn phrases and expressions. As mentioned before, the goal of English should be to communicate, listen, and learn how to respond. This is the way most English-language teachers like to teach, and it’s also the most effective way to learn a language.
Watch the video below!