Learning with Steve: How many words do I need to know?


I know that you feel that vocabulary is the key to language learning. But how many words do I need to know?

It is difficult to answer this. It is a bit like saying how long is a length of string. It depends on your goals. If you just want to be able to say a few things when visiting a country, you probably don’t need many words. If you want to understand what people are saying to you, what’s on the radio, and what’s in the newspaper, you need a lot of words.

Yes, but could you give me a number?

The problem is that it is difficult to define what we mean by knowing a word. If I can recognize the meaning of a word in even one context, I considered that I know that word. By that I mean that I have started on the path of getting to know the full scope of the meaning of that word, and eventually being able to use it. I know the word, but I’m really only at the beginning stage of mastering the word. Most of the words that I know in a foreign language, and many even in English, I know only partially. I do not know all the different ways in which these words can be used.

Another difficulty lies in how to count words. Do we count the words “run”, “running”, “runs” and “ran” as different words? What about “outrun”, or “also-ran”, or “runner”? It is not clear whether we should count only word families, or each form of a word, as a different word. It is also not clear just what to include in a word family. So I prefer not to put too much emphasis on a specific number. Instead I just say we need to learn a lot of words. The more words we know, the better our potential ability to understand, and even to speak.

But you measure known words at LingQ. What does that number mean?

Our “known word” count at LingQ is an accurate measure of your level of activity and your progress in the language. The more words you know, the further along you are in the language. You will find that as your “known word” count increases, your ability to read and understand improves. In my experience, lots of reading, lots of listening and creating lots of LingQs, is an effective way of learning a language.

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