In this post I’d like to look at the vocabulary aspect of language learning.

If we liken speech to a house, then words are the bricks and grammar is the binding agent that joins them together. Both are important. However, it is possible – at least in theory – to build a house with bricks only, though it won’t be safe to live in, whereas cement on its own is good for nothing (though here I may not be quite right as I’m not a builder, but you got the idea).

Image by Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke from Pixabay

Now, how many words do you need to know to be able to effectively communicate in a language? Well, let’s first make a distinction between active and passive vocabulary. Passive vocabulary includes those lexical items (words, idioms, collocations etc.) you recognise and understand when you come across them in text or speech. Active vocabulary as you might have already guessed is what you can actually use in your speaking and writing. No prizes for guessing which one is bigger.

How do you make words in your passive vocabulary active? Through constant and regular practice, there’s no other way I’m afraid. And you need to do a lot of it. A LOT. Research has shown that any new information – in our case, words and lexical chunks – needs to be encountered and used in one way or another between FIVE and SIXTEEN times before it finds its way into longer-term memory. In other words, you need to come across and make use of a word quite a few times just to remember it. It may sound like a daunting perspective but it’s entirely possible. The key here is to regularly review and recycle everything you learn. If you struggle to do it on your own, a good teacher will help you by making it part of your work together.

Image by PDPics from Pixabay

And now back to the ultimate question of how many words do you need for successful communication? The good news is that just 1,000 words make up 90% of all writing. On the other hand, the vocabulary of the average person consists of approximately 35,000 words. Ouch! That number depends on factors such as level of education and occupation. 35,000 is a lot of words and give what you already know about how we memorise things this amount of vocabulary can’t be learnt in a matter of a few months.

Native speakers achieve it through thousands of hours of exposure to the language at home, school, on the street, on TV etc. But they start early. The moment they are born, actually. How can non-native speakers make up for not being immersed in the language from birth? One thing is consistent intentional practice. Another is that you don’t need to know everything (no one does anyway). Just decide on the topics you would like to be able to talk about and learn the vocabulary you need for that. Remember that even native speakers struggle to discuss subjects outside their area of expertise.

Hope you found this article helpful and even encouraging. Next time I’ll share with you my well-tested and so far favourite way of expanding my vocabulary.

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