Learning a second language is a different challenge to learning your native language. When you are developing your native language skills in childhood, you are also learning a myriad of other things – how to walk, what a cat is, how to ride a bike, what a cake tastes like – and these experiences all dovetail into each other and enrich your evolving experience of life. Everything you encounter presents you with an opportunity to learn something new.
As a teenager or adult, learning a second language is an entirely different experience. Sure, you might be learning new things about other cultures as an indirect product of learning a new language, but the emphasis will be on translating what you know and understand in your native language into this mysterious new language.
In this article, we consider just how far you need to take this process by asking the question: How many words do you need to learn to ‘get by’ in a language?
Are All Words Equal?
When you learn a new language, you start with some of the most useful things to know – how to say hello and goodbye, how to ask if someone speaks English, and the words for common places, times, shapes and colours. Usefulness is the key – and learning with a particular purpose in mind (such as business) may also influence the words you aim to learn and use as your knowledge grows.
Some words are certainly more useful than others. Imagine that you have learned 1,000 words of a new language, but half of those bear a close relation to some of the other words you know – perhaps you know the words for several different shades of blue, but you cannot recall how to ask for directions or check the time. How helpful would that be?
Similarly, imagine you have learned all the different verb forms for a handful of seemingly essential words, but you cannot put these to good use in a conversation. How helpful are all these words – and should several different forms of a headword such as ‘run’ or ‘eat’ count as one word or many?
Your 1,000 words could look quite different to somebody else’s – and lead to quite different levels of comprehension.
Native speakers are thought to know between 15,000 and 20,000 word families (for example, where the word ‘run’ and all its forms counts as one word family), but we probably do not need anywhere near that number of words or word families to hold a conversation in a second language.
‘Getting By’ Versus Aiming for Perfection
As an adult learning a new language, you can make things easier for yourself by applying some real-world experience to the situation. It may help to think about why you are learning the language in the first place. If it is for work, you may find that a little goes a long way at first, especially if the same topics keep coming up in relation to your business. Of course, being able to talk with confidence on wide-ranging topics is an excellent way to impress your business partners and build rapport, but your commitment to learning the language can often break the ice just as well – and as you spend more time using the language, your expertise should naturally evolve.
Stuart Webb, a professor of applied linguistics, suggests that you can understand around 75% of spoken English if you learn only 800 of the most common word families used in English. Further, he says that learning between 800 and 1,000 of the most common word families should be enough to help you quickly pick up the basics of a new language. Sometimes in life, a little goes a long way!
Of course, a few more words/word families can help to deepen your conversational skills. Reading, writing and listening to dialogue in films and on TV may also become easier when you know and understand more words. Check out our recent article on vocabulary-building to get some tips on boosting your word count!
If you can hold a conversation in your second language, maybe you already have enough words for your purposes – but you can always expand your skillset over time so that you can appreciate the language in different contexts. The wonderful thing about language learning is that it is an ongoing journey – and though it may seem tough at times, it is an amazing reward to be able to make sense of the world through the lens of a new language.
To find out more about our language-learning training, please do get in touch. We offer bespoke training for individuals, groups and businesses, and we can offer language support in over 70 languages.