A very common question asked by those who begin to learn English is “how many English words do you need to learn in order to communicate freely on everyday topics”. To play freely with foreign words, to express all your non-trivial ideas and perfectly understand your interlocutor - for some it’s just a dream, and for others it’s a goal.
Dictionaries and concepts
How many words are in English?
A person constantly invents new concepts, changes existing ones, or ceases to use them altogether. Should they all become part of our vocabulary? Teen slang? Abbreviations? Medical and scientific terms? And how many Latin words in English are used in jurisprudence? And if you dig deeper, then in the culinary sphere there are a lot of French words, in scientific literature - German, and in the field of martial arts - Japanese. What do we do with all this diversity?
But back to the quantitative question. English is the leader in the number of borrowings, and we are talking about millions, because the question of how many words in a language disappears on its own. So why only 171476 words (according to the Oxford dictionary) are in direct use? Again, when comparing the largest dictionaries, we should pay attention to whether obsolete, dialect or scientific words are included in the dictionary.
The reason why the largest dictionary gives such an answer to the question “how many words are in English” is clear - it excludes endings, does not cover some technical and regional vocabulary, and obviously does not include neologisms (new words). It can be assumed that if the above were calculated and published in the Oxford Dictionary, then the total number of units would probably be about ¾ million.
How many words do you need to know in English?
“Green Eggs and Ham” is a book written by Dr. Seuss (his real name is Theodore Sues Geisel), in which the vocabulary used does not exceed fifty units. This work is the result of a bet between Suze and his publisher, Bennett Cerf, that Suze (already after The Cat in the Hat was published using 225 words) cannot complete the whole book using so few words.
Obviously, if you can write a whole work using only 50 words, then there is no doubt that in the vocabulary of 40,000 words there is no great need. According to research by Suzy Dent, a dictionary expert and lexicographer, the average passive vocabulary of an adult English-speaking carrier is about 40,000 words, and active is about 20,000 words.
What is the difference between passive and active vocabulary stocks? Active consists of words that can be recalled and used freely in your speech. Passive, on the other hand, are lexical units that you can recognize and understand, but cannot use yourself.
Now the fun part!
We will understand, finally, how many words in English you need to know. Although the average adult native speaker has an active vocabulary of about 20,000, statistics show that:
1) the first 25 units are used in 33% of everyday writing;
2) the first 100 appear in adults and students in writing in 50% of cases;
3) the first 1000 are used in 89% per letter every day!
Naturally, if each time a person strives for a higher percentage, the number of words begins to increase dramatically (especially after understanding 95%), but the vocabulary of 3 thousand words covers about 95% of the information from common texts (for example, news, blogs, etc.) d.)
Now you can plunge into the calculations to find out how many words in English you need to know. As already noted, the modern Oxford English Dictionary contains 171,476 words, while the vocabulary of 3,000 words provides an understanding of 95% of the texts available to the world. If you make a calculation, it is only 1.75% of the total number of words! And, really, knowing only 1.75%, you can understand 95% of the material. In addition, it is still 7 and a half percent of the average passive dictionary of an adult carrier of English. Isn't that good news?
Develop flexible thinking
The goal is to understand 95% of the words in everyday life. Why exactly this amount? It is necessary in order to understand well enough, let us assume, why your interlocutor smiles so mysteriously. In addition, understanding most of the vocabulary, you can guess the meaning of the remaining 5-10%.
The rigidity of thinking is extremely common among language learners and disappears completely when it comes to the native language. After all, do we often turn to the dictionary when reading in our native language? The answer is likely to be negative, even if there is no certainty about the meanings of some words. Flexibility of thinking is really important when it comes to learning a foreign language, for the simple reason that it is impossible to learn every definition of even the same word set.
Pareto principle and learning English
If we talk about the well-known Pareto principle in the context of learning, then only 20% of efforts bring 80% of knowledge to foreign students, which they can really work with - understand by ear, read news and books, it is understandable to speak. To speak English fluently and understand 90% of frequently used words, you must first of all work 100%. If the minimum lexical minimum is 3000 units, then this should be the 80% that you need to know.
Languages contain an incredible number of words, and many people learn a foreign language as an insurmountable barrier that takes tens of years to achieve any result. With confidence in your intuition (guess by context) when learning a language from scratch and gradual “building” a good level of vocabulary can be achieved quite quickly - a level at which you will read English texts freely and understand 95% of the information. Up to 2500-3000 units - this is exactly as many English words you need to know at a minimum. This is essentially a “golden” number, since such a large number of words is enough not to make reading in a foreign language depressing. More importantly, it is necessary to know just such a number of lexical units in order to be able to easily guess the meaning of words from the context.
Languages are developing and constantly changing, and all thanks to the creativity and imagination of mankind. In the end, only one Shakespeare came up with 1,700 new words!