How many words do I need to know to be fluent in a foreign language?


Let’s say that our vocabulary counts are using headwords and word families that are included in our active vocabulary (the vocabulary that you can quickly remember and actively use when writing, speaking and thinking).

So, we are not counting all the different forms of a given word, and we are not counting anything that’s only in our passive vocabulary (the vocabulary that you are passively able to understand when you see it or hear it, but that you cannot use—or that you are unsure of how to use—when writing, speaking and thinking.

When we reduce our perspective like this, we can start making approximations.

  • Functional beginner: 250-500 words: basic, everyday conversations. In most of the world’s languages, 500 words will be more than enough to get you through any tourist situations and everyday introductions.
  • Conversational: 1,000-3,000 words: With around 1,000 words in most languages, you will be able to ask people how they are doing, tell them about your day and talk about everyday life situations like shopping and public transport.
  • Advanced: 4,000-10,000 words: Past the 3,000 word mark in most languages: C2 level. Moving beyond the words that make up everyday conversation and into specialized vocabulary for talking about your professional field, news and current events, opinions and more complex, abstract verbal feats.
  • Fluent: 10,000+ words: Near-native level of vocabulary, words for talking about nearly any topic in detail and understanding the unfamiliar ones from context.
  • Well-educated Native: 10,000-30,000+ words: Total word counts vary widely between world languages, making it difficult to say how many words native speakers know in general. As we discussed above, estimates of how many words are known by the average native English speaker vary from 10,000 to 65,000+.

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