The Rule of 2 – How Many Words You Should Know (For Every Language Level)
I love words. They are like tiny, beautiful puzzle pieces. Choose the right ones and you can assemble beautiful and meaningful sentences. Sentences which 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 big 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 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.
|Language Level||Number of Base Words Needed|
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 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 definitely 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).
“But why do I need to know it?”
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 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 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.
4 Most Important Vocabulary Milestones In Language Learning
Just in case you wonder – the following rules stand 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 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 can’t … .’ Sure, you understand a lot of words. But does it really help?
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 allow you to understand about 98% of most ordinary texts (Nation (1990) and Laufer (1997)). Such a vocabulary size warrants also 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 really precisely, or when you encounter specialized vocabulary.
But other than that, you will be fine.
10000 words allow you to understand about 99% of most texts (Nation (1990) and Laufer (1997)). This 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 amazing precision and pass for a native speaker if your accent is good enough. This is the minimal 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.
Knowing how many words you need to know to get to C1 level definitely gives you some perspective on how much effort it actually 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 clearly 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.