This Is Exactly How Many Words You Need to Know to Speak a Language

As a traveler, you’re likely familiar with the challenge of going to a foreign place without being able to converse with the locals effectively. Gestures, limited English, and indicating things can be helpful to an extent, but mastering a new language, particularly as an adult, can seem overwhelming.

However, there’s good news! BBC has determined the precise number of words one needs to know to speak a language fluently enough to blend in seamlessly.

Linguists Paul Nation, John Read, and Robin Goulden developed a test to determine your English vocabulary. Fortunately, it consists of just 50 words, a fraction of the 200,000+ words in the English lexicon. According to their theory, if you multiply the number of these 50 words you understand by 500, you can estimate your overall English vocabulary size.

Stuart Webb, an applied linguistics professor, discovered that native speakers of a language typically possess a vocabulary of 15,000 to 20,000 lemmas, which are word families. A lemma comprises a root word (like “walk”) along with all its variations (walked, walking, walker, etc.).

Regrettably, if you’re embarking on the journey of learning a new language, it’s unlikely that you’ll ever achieve a comprehension of 15,000 lemmas.

Professor Webb discourages people from attempting to learn every single word in a language. Instead, he recommends concentrating on the 800 to 1,000 most commonly used lemmas in the language. According to him, mastering these lemmas provides enough understanding to comprehend roughly 75 percent of the language. This level of proficiency allows individuals to feel at ease engaging in conversations, ordering at restaurants, and handling everyday communication while navigating the streets.

Before you settle in to study intensively, take a moment to reflect on your passion for the language. For instance, if you’re contemplating a long-term move abroad (or aiming to watch foreign TV without subtitles or read novels in the language), you might need to grasp around 9,000 core vocabulary words.

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