The Rule of 2 – How Many Words You Should Know (For Every Language Level)

How Many Words You Should Know

 

I love words. They are like tiny, beautiful puzzle pieces. Choose the right ones, and you can assemble beautiful and meaningful sentences. Sentences that convey your thoughts with surgical precision. Choose the wrong ones, and you will get a stinky bag of confusion.

 

But there is a lot of confusion around how large your vocabulary should be for each level. I have heard dozens of different versions. That’s why I decided to come up with an easy rule on how to remember how many words you should know at every language level.

The Rule of 2 – How Many Words You Should Know for Every Language Level

 

But first things first. If you have no idea what a language level is, refer to the Common European Framework of Reference for Language Learning.

Now back to the rule! It is as simple it gets — the number of words needed to advance to every level doubles.

How Many Words You Should Know (for Every Language Level)

Language LevelNumber of Base Words Needed
A1500
A21000
B12000
B24000
C18000
C216000

 

Add or deduct up to 20% of the given values. This way, you will get the approximate range for each language level.

 

Why up to 20%? Because words you choose to learn matter that much! If you were to concentrate on words from the frequency list, you would definitely have to deduct 20% on higher levels (B1-C2). However, if you, for some reason, started learning names of trees or birds, you would have to add 20% to the said levels.

What Is a Word?

 

It needs some clarification since this term has changed its meaning in Linguistics in the last few decades. In the past, “a base word” was the base word itself and all its inflected forms. For example, “tough,” “toughen,” and “toughness” used to be treated as 3 words.

 

Nowadays, “a base word” indicates “the word family” and consists of the base word and its inflected forms and derivations.

 

According to a renowned linguistic researcher Paul Nation, if you use the 1.6 factor to base words, you should get (more or less) the number of “separate” words (i.e., inflected words).

“Why Do I Need to Know How Many Words You Should Know for Every Language Level?”

 

A fair question, I guess. It’s not a fun fact which you can rub in somebody’s face. There are two good reasons:

Vocabulary size is a good indicator of your current level

The number of words you know is one of the most reliable indicators of your language level. If you track the size of your vocabulary, you should be able to tell (more or less) what level you’re on. Assuming, of course, that you learn the right words. Memorizing the names of plants won’t get you far!

 

Vocabulary size can be your milestone

Not knowing where you are heading can be frightening. It’s like straying in the fog. You don’t know what lies around the corner. Knowing your goal can give you a sense of direction. Even if you fall,  it will be on a pile of cushions, not the sharp rocks.

How Many Words You Should Know for Every Language Level – Milestones

 

How Many Words You Should Know

Photo by: John Spooner

 

There are 4 most important vocabulary milestones in language learning. They are a great way to establish what your current language level is and how big a distance you have to cover to get to the next one.

Just in case you wonder – the following rules stand roughly true for most of the languages. Be it Asian or European. But since languages tend to differ from each other quite a bit, please take it with a grain of salt and use these calculations only as a landmark.

1000 words

1000 words allow you to understand about 80% of the language which surrounds you, as long as it is not too specialized (Hwang, 1989; Hirsh and Nation, 1992; Sutarsyah, Nation and Kennedy, 1994)

In theory, it sounds great. JUST 1000 words, and you understand that much! Unfortunately, the remaining 20% is what really matters. Just look at this sentence:

“I went to the … to buy …. but they told me that they couldn’t… .’ Sure, you understand a lot of words. But does it help?

 

3000 words

3000 words allow you to understand about 95% of most ordinary texts (Hazenberg and Hulstijn, 1996).

It seems like a lot. Sure, on this level, you will be able to hold a decent conversation. You will also be able to get the general ideas and concepts of most of the articles.

BUT…general comprehension is not the same as full comprehension, as it involves some guessing.

Still, there is no shortage of enthusiasts who claim that such level is high enough to start picking up new words from context. However, researchers tend to disagree and say that the “magical” number of words which allows learning from the context is….(drum roll)

 

5000 words

5000 words allow you to understand about 98% of most ordinary texts (Nation (1990) and Laufer (1997)). Such a vocabulary size also warrants accurate contextual guessing (Coady et al., 1993; Hirsh & Nation, 1992; Laufer, 1997).

It means that you can function surrounded by this language without bigger problems. Sure, you will struggle if you want to formulate your thoughts precisely, or when you encounter specialized vocabulary.

But other than that, you will be fine.

 

10000 words

10000 words allow you to understand about 99% of most texts (Nation (1990) and Laufer (1997)). It is the pinnacle of language learning — a counterpart to having the vocabulary of a college graduate.

With that many words, you can express yourself with fantastic precision and pass for a native speaker if your accent is good enough. It is the minimum goal for every language I learn. It makes me feel like a citizen of a given country.

 

If you want to download frequency lists for your target language, visit this website.

How Many Words You Should Know for Every Language Level – Summary

 

Knowing how many words you need to know to get to the C1 level gives you some perspective on how much effort it takes to achieve this monstrous goal.

I’m writing this because many of us get depressed after seeing dozens of videos on YT of people speaking or claiming to speak 10 or 20 languages.

But the truth is that there is a yawning gap between being good and being great at a language (or anything else for that matter).

 

Any person who has truly mastered a language (i.e., achieved C1/ C2 level) could have learnt 2-4 languages to B2 level or 4-8 languages to A2 level in that time

 

Remember it the next time gloomy thoughts start creeping up on you, my friend.

 

65 comments

  • My friend,

    This is an amazing article you nailed it really! Keep up the great work. Thank you.

    Cheers
    Hasan

  • You’ve inspired me to reflect on MY vocabulary size)))

  • go raibh maith agat.

  • Hi Bartosz, One of the best, most practical and inspiring articles I’ve read on the topic. Thanks for posting it.

  • That’s amazing because I was looking for this very information last week and I couldn’t find anything interesting. This article is perfect. I share it. 🙂
    I agree that there’s a gap between B2 and C1. I lived in Brazil 7 months to learn Portguese and discover Brazilian culture and I didn’t really study there, which was bad. I think at that time I knew 5000 words. I was frustrated because I didn’t reach the level I wanted and have the hability to speak fluently though I could understand them pretty well and make some grammaticaly correct sentences.
    Now, i am in Argentina, I want to learn Spanish and before to read your article I estimated the number of words I needed as more or less 10 000. Know, I have the same level in Spanish that I had in Portuguese, and I know that with little work I can reach a good C1 or C2 in few month, because I am not interested in speaking well, I want to speak like a citizen in every language I know. 🙂

    • Hello!

      I know the pain – I also couldn’t find any good article about this topic! 🙂

      Learning 10k words takes some time but it’s time well spent!
      Good luck with your mission! I’m sure you will succeed! 🙂

  • Have you read this article?: http://www.lingholic.com/how-many-words-do-i-need-to-know/
    Could you send some links to the research articles you mentioned? They are a bit tricky to find.

    Thank you!

  • I loved this post. Thanks for the great explanantion. I am learning Ukrainian, so there arent any common european framework tests that I could find (for free at least). This give me a SMART goal now. Really appreciate this post.

  • Raymond John Edwards

    Hang on…. English has over one million words, divide by four to approximate the number of base words, that’s 250 thousand. Are you seriously saying that you have mastered a language after learning 4% of these? I have taught English for many years and in my opinion this is nonsense.

    • Hi Raymond!

      The number of words in English vary significantly. Frankly, it depends on the source of information.
      Secondly, yes this is what both research and my personal experience says.
      I can only assume, by your name, that English is your native tongue and you haven’t really learnt any other language to C1 level.
      If you did, you would definitely notice that 10k words are more than enough to function freely within boundaries of basically any language.
      I don’t mean to offend you or be snarky in any way, just to be clear.
      I guess that the potential misunderstanding might be also a result of different definition of “mastery”.
      What is yours?

      Tank you for your comment Raymond!
      Cheers,
      Bartosz

  • Could you precise how did come up with the specific number of words for each language level from CEFRL ? It is nowhere to be found in the wikipedia article. Thanks.

    • Bartosz Czekala

      Basically, it’s the mix of my own calculations which are based on CEFRL.
      CEFRL specifies in a quite detailed way, what is the expected level of comprehension on each of the levels.
      I cross-referenced this info with the expected level of understanding for each of the aforementioned milestones.
      I also used some papers to back-up my data. So yeah, that’s pretty much it 🙂 Hope that helped!

  • I haven’t read any article of this kind before. It’s very interesting and really encourages me to learn more and more. Besides you helped me to choose the right direction in improving my skills. Thanks a lot.

  • Hi Bartosz, I would like to congratulate you for the very interesting article, method and calculations!
    I’ve been looking for such a piece of info for quite a few days and many different word combinations on Google were tried out to finally get me here.
    Knowing exactly the number of words one should master to get to a milestone like C1 level is of great help for using tools such as Ankidroid, where you have various lists from 1K to 10K to choose from, what makes you a bit confused about whether all of those words in the long lists would be needed, cause else you’d be fine hitting a shorter list and the pursuing a proficiency test.
    Now thanks to your article I’ve found out that much work has to be done for me to reach C1 level on German. Keep up the good articles! Thank you!

    • Hi Rodolfo! I’m beyond happy that you enjoyed it. Thank you for your comment and good luck with your learning! 🙂

  • Adalberto da Silva

    Hello Bartosz.
    i’ve learned at high cost that it is this simple: if you try to read interviews with models or soccer-players and it seems toooo foreigner Gotta dedicate good time to learn more words.
    Even germans say gernan is a straight-forward language. Nein! JorgeLuisBorges in Ode to German Language mentions german dictionaries that never get it right. They don’t help much.
    i may be able to know passive-wise about 5,000 words in german. Man, still far. But as Michael Erard tweeted(google)”Everybody loves a polyglot.” Worth taking the hard road.
    Bye Tchau Ciao Adios À bien-tôt (and hopefully eon(en?) schön Tag: Tschús!)
    Adalberto

  • I happy to read your article and I see it’s very important, thank you.

  • I knew one guy (during my studies) who had many exercise books full of english words. It was his method to improve the vocabulary size. His name is Bartosz Czekała, I’m so proud of you 😉 On the other hand, I work on my vocabulary size now and started writing new words into.. exercise book. Test showed the knowledge of 7,1k words, so much more work to do. Have a nice day 🙂

    • Well, my methods back then were pretty ineffective! 🙂 IT’s a great result! You are definitely on your way to achieve full fluency!
      Thank you for your comment Pawel! 🙂

  • esperanza salazar

    HI! I´m wondering where did you get the info from? I mean, the number of words for each level.

    • Bartosz Czekala

      Basically, it’s the mix of my own calculations which are based on CEFRL.
      CEFRL specifies in a quite detailed way, what is the expected level of comprehension on each of the levels.
      I cross-referenced this info with the expected level of understanding for each of the aforementioned milestones.
      I also used some papers to back-up my data. So yeah, that’s pretty much it ? Hope that helped!

  • Neatly done, mate! I have been dreaming of inventing a machine that would be able to “measure”/count/?/ our vocabular capacity. Something like a speedometer, thermometer, etc .. Maybe one day in future?:) Keep rocking, bud

  • Zastanawiam się, czy tu “wolno” pisać po polsku? 😉 OK ok, for other users reading… – how many languages do you know with 10k words if I may ask? How long did it take you? I have just started learning Spanish, today, as of 3.30 pm. I “need” it to… teach it to my kids. They are homeschooled and we are not awfully rich to pay for so many courses. I know English well enough, and German, Italian and French just a little I guess, but I “forgot” them sort of. Stopped using them. So I decided to learn something new this time, and that’s how I got here, to this site. And it’s inspiring I must say, and quite interesting. Keep up the good work!

    • Wszystko wolno! 🙂

      6 out of 8. Somewhere next year I will achieve this goal for remaining 2 (SPanish, French).
      It depends on a language. The quickest I have heard a 10k mark was for Swedish, Took less than a year,=.
      Hope you succeed! 🙂 Drop me a message if you need some help 🙂

  • Hi Bartosz,

    First of all, I love your blog!
    As you have managed to learn so many languages I would like to ask you one question which bothers me a lot. Currently I’m trying to improve my intermediate Spanish but I’ve also started learning another language from scratch. Apart from that I’m continuously trying to improve my English 🙂 What in your opinion would be a better strategy – learn/improve 3 languages simultaneously or focus on one language till I gain a certain level? Which strategy is more effective?

    Thanks in advance for your advise 🙂

    • Hi Natalia!

      Thank you very much for your comment! 🙂
      Answering this question is actually quite difficult as it requires more details.
      However, the general rule is very simple – most of the time almost anyone will make quicker progress by sticking to just one language.
      And the best time for another language is at about C1 level (or B2 if you are not interested in learning a language to an advanced level).
      Hope that helps! Feel free to write to me with more details so I can give you a more precise answer! 🙂

  • HI Bartosz! Thank you for the splendid article. Too bad I didn’t come across it when I worked on my project dedicated to measuring the English vocabulary. It could have been a great help back then. Will you allow to use some of your ideas for improving it? If you happen to find my website interesting and appropriate for your users, I’ll be grateful for a link here (or somewhere else on your site). The address is in my by-line.

  • Thanks a lot, Bartosz! As soon as I am done I’ll add a reference to your article.

  • Onur Kadir Ural

    Hello, could you please send us the resources (https://www.universeofmemory.com/how-many-words-you-should-know/) – I would like to read the whole articles but I cannot find the names of the articles: Nation (1990), Laufer (1997), etc.

    • Bartosz Czekala

      Thank you for your question. Please try Google Scholar, It will take too much time to find it for you since I don’t have it handy.

  • https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Wiktionary:Frequency_lists
    Check by yourself, see how many words do you really know in these lists

    i am a portuguese native speaker, 3 years ago i did a exam to define how many words i knew in portuguese,
    Results: 30k AND i was in the 1% top,
    by the way, there are 300k words in portuguese.
    So i was in the 1% top of portuguese speaker population with only 10% of all vocabulary, hummmm, interesting…..

    so.. how many words a median person has? how many words a average person has? 20k is a good number, i think it is a good metric to aim

    you said “I have taught English for many years and in my opinion this is nonsense.”, sorry for saying that BUT you are hilarious, and i’ve taught mathematics (for children) for years, do you think i know mathematics like calculus 2 ? i don’t even know what calculus 2 is.
    what kind of teatcher are you?

  • Sorry Bartosz Czekala, i wanted to reply “Raymond John Edwards”. disconsider my last comment it was not for you, it was for Raymond.

    can you delete my last comment? and we can pretend it was not happen.
    :3

  • Hi, I saw the references for the 3000, 5000 and 10000 words but didn’t see that for the 1000. Could you send me, please?

    By the way, does your calculations on the number of words for each CEFRL level is a correspondance between what authors say about beginner, intermediate and advanced speakers and the definitions of A1, A2, B1, etc?

    Do you know if those numbers are quite fixed or they vary in fonction of cultural aspects? For example, I’ve already seen that for getting 90% of french texts, it is necessary 600 words, while in English or Dutch that number is far higher.

    Nice article, by the way !

    • Hi, I don’k now why I missed it before. Here are references: Hwang, 1989; Hirsh and Nation, 1992; Sutarsyah, Nation and Kennedy, 1994).
      Yes, this is an approximate average of the number quoted in the linguistic literature. They definitely vary in some way. However, I don’t think it’s a problem. Treat these numbers as a general guideline in your learning and you should be fine 🙂

  • Reached A2 level in German – so that’s 1000 words. Looking forward to hitting 8000+ at C1.

  • Hi Bartosz,

    Reading your articles is always a good way for me to start the day. They’re really motivating and yet not deluding.
    I got a specific question for you, as you’ve learnt Russian.
    I recently moved to Moscow and have learnt about a 1000 Russian words so far but have very little confidence in using them as they change according to the sentence (cases). What was your technique to power through it ?

    • Hi! Thank you for your comment and encouraging words! First of all, my take on that matter wouldn’t help you much. Russian is very similar to Polish so I never struggled with that problem. However, what I tell my English-speaking students is this – don’t try to learn all the conjugations at once. You should be more or less aware of how they sound so you can understand them. But don’t try to activate them. Instead, only try activating conjugations for “I” and “you”. If that’s too much for you then just stick to “I”. Once you get over this hurdle, try memorizing other forms. Also keep in mind that you can even use infinitives at the very beginning and you will be understood perfectly. The most important part is that you activate your words well so you don’t hesitate when you speak. Good luck, Pandora!:)

  • Thanks for the advice!
    I was actually talking about nouns/adjectives declensions rather than the verbs, but I guess those are similar in Polish too.
    If you want some inspiration for your next article, I’d love to read on how you got from C1 to C2 in english. I know you did legal translations, but I’m sure it doesn’t only come down to that.
    I am kind of hitting the diminishing marginal return of the learning curve in English and while reading a lot helped me to get to C1, it doesn’t seem to lead me to C2 (or maybe it does but very very slowly).
    I saw that this question is quite common but it seems no one covers that part of language learning with an effective method. Would love to hear your take on that.

    • Yes, those are similar as well 🙂 That’s a brilliant idea. I will definitely write something about it! Although my take on the matter will probably strike others as strange! 🙂 Anyway, will do! 🙂

  • Hi, great article! Where can i find a reliable reference to quote the Rule of 2? Thanks!

    • Bartosz Czekala

      Hi! If you want to quote it, simply link to this article on your website. That’s it 🙂 Thank you!

  • Hi Bartosz,

    thanks for the informative article!

    Just to clarify, do your vocabulary size estimates refer to passive or active vocabulary knowledge?

    Thanks!

    • Hi Georg! Thank you! They refer to the overall size of vocabulary, i.e., they include both passive and active vocabulary. That’s why it’s easier, for example, to start learning languages passively if you learn those which are similar to the ones you know.

  • Hi Bartosz,
    Thank you so much for taking the time to put together such a comprehensive and motivating/motivational blog. I’m a native English speaker who has studied German (C1) and Spanish (B2/C1) but I feel I’m losing my fluency as I’m back living in an English speaking country. I was feeling despondent about this but this article has put a spring back in my step and has encouraged me to take the proactive approach of looking up the vocabulary lists! Very much appreciated! Thanks again, Bartosz! 😉

  • If you’re the kind of person that has taught English for years, then in your opinion EVERYTHING is nonsense. (If you reply, I’m sure you’ll prove me correct)

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