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 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.
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
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 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 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 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 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.
Done reading? Time to learn!
Reading articles online is a great way to expand your knowledge. However, the sad thing is that after barely 1 day, we tend to forget most of the things we have read.
I am on the mission to change it. I have created about 30 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go.