How Many English Words Do I Need?
The more words you understand in English, the more you can communicate. The more you can communicate, the more words you will know and understand.
How many words are there in the English language?
There is no single answer to this question. Is ‘hot-dog’ one word, or two? Is it a noun: a type of food? Is it a verb: a skiing move maneuver? What about hot-dogs, hot-dogging, and hot diggity dog?
To further complicate the possibility of answering this question accurately, the English language is laden with loanwords from many cultures past and present: sushi, karaoke, pajamas, coffee, algebra, orange, kangaroo and many more. Significant contributions also come from specialist vocabularies of science, technology, medicine, law and more without excluding slang and dialects.
Merriam-Webster's Third New International Dictionary lists about 470,000 words while the Oxford English Dictionary has some 300,000 words listed of which 47,000 are obsolete. Recently, the Global Language Monitor, the size of the English language crossed the 1,000,000. Clearly, the number we are discussing is very elastic.
How many words do native speakers need to know?
With a vocabulary of 15,000 words you should be able to read about 98% of texts of which headwords account for around 72%. Headwords are those words used to locate an entry and dictate its alphabetical position in a dictionary. However, a native reader needs to understand approximately 95% of a text to really comprehend what is being read not discounting the different types of texts (i.e. a novel vs. a newspaper). So, this answer can range anywhere from 2000 to 5000 or more ‘high frequency’ words. A native English speaker, for example, understands approximately 20,000 words by the time he/she finishes college.
How many English words do I need?
The number of words you need varies according to individual needs: are you a banker, bus driver, academic, business person, entrepreneur, etc. As a speaker of English as second language a vocabulary of around 3000 high frequency words can be enough to get by.
To score high on TOEFL, GRE and GMAT it is estimated that a 10,000 word vocabulary is necessary. Other studies indicate that a 2,000-word vocabulary of high frequency words actually comprises 87% of words in an academic text accompanied by an additional 800 academic words identified as comprising an additional 8% of textual items are sufficient for a successful college life.
So, have we covered 95% of texts – yes or no? The remaining need for words stems from technical items of specific fields amounting to between 1,000 - 2,000 items. Lastly, a large number of low frequency academic words estimated to number up to 123,000 words can be added to one’s vocabulary to achieve our purpose.
How do I improve my vocabulary?
Increased exposure to English will have a positive effect on your ability to strengthen and develop a rich vocabulary. This can be achieved by having fun in English through dedicated learning and incidental/indirect learning through listening and reading.
It is important to spend valuable learning time by i) guessing from context; ii) using word parts and mnemonic techniques to remember words; and iii) using vocabulary cards or lists to remember English vocabulary with first or mother tongue language pairs.
Additionally, keep an organized, categorized notebook for new words, with information such as: meaning, pronunciation, part of speech, grammar or anything that helps you remember the word or expression. Create a good pattern of study and stick to it. Study with a dictionary to look up words only after you have tried to guess the meaning.
Remember that pronunciation is important to vocabulary development and speaking confidence. It is equally important be understood as well as to understand when communicating whether, in person and over the telephone. Develop appropriate pronunciation and intonation through personal interaction with English speakers and practice such as or by using the Q English Speaking Lab. Practice intonation and stress patterns in a variety of contexts (e.g., everyday conversation, business language, academic language, etc.)
Lastly, good spelling ensures clear communication. Spelling can be improved through extensive reading, relating spoken and written words and by reviewing your writing before clicking on ‘Send’.
These strategies and tactics can be practiced within the Q English language learning technologies.
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All the best,