How many words do you need to know to communicate in a foreign language?

How many words do you need to know to communicate in a foreign language

Will learning the names of over 6,000 species of beetles occurring in Poland allow you to communicate freely in Polish? The answer to this question is actually much simpler than specifying how many words you need to communicate in a foreign language. Nevertheless, it isn’t impossible to do!

How many words do you need? Let’s start with the basics

We’ll begin with a question – what counts? What is a single word? For example, do the words “bicycle” and “bicycles”, i.e. singular and plural, count as one word or two? To dig a little deeper and decide how many words are needed to communicate in a foreign language, it will be helpful to introduce the term “word family”.

What is a word family?

The word family is a word and all of its forms inflected by genders, numbers and cases. Each family is represented by a so-called lemma, i.e. the dictionary form of a given word. “Bike” is the lemma of the word family – the family here are “bikes” in every available, linguistically correct form. And when we write about how many words you need, we will mean word families.

Learning vocabulary vs knowing the word

So, we’ve figured out what the term ‘word’ means. Now, it’s time to answer the question: what does it mean to know a word? Can you say that you already know the word when you learn its dictionary forms? Learning vocabulary is a process. This is clearly visible with the example of the verb “have”. If English is a foreign language for you, then knowing “have” as “possess” is the beginning of your adventure with this word. Only after some time, when exploring the secrets of grammar, you’ll discover the extremely complex role of this English word:

  • It can act as an auxiliary verb: Have you ever been to Spain?
  • Create collocations: Adam has it in for me. I don’t know what I did to him. (Adam holds a grudge against me. I don’t know what I did to him.).
  • Acts as an operator in all tenses of the Perfect type (Present Perfect, Present Perfect Continuous, Past Perfect, Past Perfect Continuous).

As you can see, after discovering the basic meaning of the word you cannot rest on your laurels. This is not the end, but the beginning of learning.

Stages of learning a word

  • First you need to know the basic form of the word (lemma) and its meaning.
  • The next step is learning the inflection of a word by person, case or tense – of course, this all depends on the specificity of the particular grammar structure.
  • Later, it is useful to look for other meanings of the word and learn to use them in practice.
  • The last step is to know all the secondary meanings of the word, along with the collocations.

The above process is continuous, so do not worry if despite your best efforts, you are still not able to list all the phrases associated with a given word. This is not what it’s all about. After all, the goal is usually fluent communication, not linguistic erudition.

How many words does a native speaker use?

William Shakespeare needed about 20,000 words to create his works, which changed the history of literature forever, and just about that many words, or lemmas, are used by an educated British person (you can read all about it in a book Learning Vocabulary in Another Language), which is not a particularly impressive number, considering that, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, there are between 171,146 words in current use. Many of them, however, are known only in narrow circles of specialists, and, luckily, to communicate fluently in English (but not only) you will need far fewer words.

How many words do you need to achieve your language goal?

According to Professor Stewart Webb, a linguist at the University of Western Ontario, the fastest way to communicate in a foreign language is by learning 800-1,000 words. However, and this is extremely important, they must be the most frequently used words in a given language. Mastering the 800 most common words should allow you to understand approximately 75% of everyday conversations. It is worth taking this path if you just want to communicate fluently in basic everyday situations. Of course, if your goal is to develop language skills for professional purposes, or if you plan to study at a foreign university, the basics are not enough. However, they are a necessary foundation.

When learning vocabulary, it is important to set a clear goal: communicativeness or fluency? If you have a management position in your company and you need the language for your professional goals, it is definitely worth focusing on well-targeted and in-depth learning. If, on the other hand, you are thinking about enriching your vocabulary for travel purposes, 800 words should be more than enough.

How to choose which words to learn

Are you at the beginning of your adventure with a foreign language? Start with the most frequently used words.You will probably find them in most good textbooks. To maximize the learning outcome, we also encourage you to use the SuperMemo method, based on the original spaced repetition method, and to check out dedicated courses for learning vocabulary – series like PowerWords! and Extreme.

When looking for popular words, it is also worth reaching for the lists of the most frequently used vocab. They are widely available on the Internet, but we suggest that you treat them as a learning aid, because it’s best to learn words in a specific context, i.e. in sentences or phrases. Therefore, instead of memorizing words from a list, it is better to use simple phrasebooks. Thanks to them, it will be easier to remember new vocabulary and, along the way, to pick out new meanings from the context. A good source of the most popular words are also frequency dictionaries, which select the most commonly used vocabulary from the press, TV series or, for example, colloquial speech. Such solutions can be found in the PowerWords! and Extreme courses created by SuperMemo.

Knowledge of vocabulary vs level of language proficiency

On the CERF scale, which determines the level of foreign language proficiency, there are 6 different levels of advancement:

  • A1
  • A2
  • B1
  • B2
  • C1
  • C2

Have you ever wondered how many words you need to know at each level? Well, there are no official requirements or guidelines. However, you can give an approximate number as one of the benchmarks to get an idea of ​​what level you are at.

How many words should you know at each stage of language learning?


Vocabulary size and the common European framework of reference for languages, James Milton, Thomaï Alexiou, 2009

Want to check your actual vocabulary? You can do it (but only if they are English words) by doing the test on the website The authors of the test assure that its margin of error is only 10%, and the test itself was developed as part of a US-Brazilian research programme. By completing it, you contribute to the development of the project.

Vocabulary or grammar?

Have you ever come across such a question? You can, of course, try to answer it, and it isn’t totally pointless. However, the truth is, to communicate fluently, you need both vocabulary and grammar. The choice of what you should focus on more can be determined by the goal you want to achieve.

A tourist who wants to find out where to find a bus stop can skip the complicated rules of grammar, and just learn the basic Japanese, Italian, Russian, English words (depending on the country they want to visit), and this should be enough for a brief stay.

Most of us, when undertaking the effort of learning a foreign language, expect more impressive results. If you are studying for career purposes, or you want to live in another country, after learning the basic words, you should look at grammar. Grammar is a kind of foundation, it allows you to place words in context, understand collocations and simply move freely around the content of a given language.

Passive and active vocabulary knowledge

Let’s start by explaining the difference between passive knowledge and active knowledge. It often happens that computer programmers boast a very good passive knowledge of English words. This is because English is an international coding language, and developers deal with it on a daily basis (at least in the form of code and various technical instructions). It is easier for them to understand written texts, they often have quite good vocabulary, but it might be difficult for them to use it in practice. We define this knowledge as passive and it is characterised by the following:

  • You have a relatively rich vocabulary.
  • You are able to understand a lot by catching the meaning from the context (reading or listening to statements in a foreign language).

Unfortunately, passive vocabulary knowledge is not enough to communicate freely in a foreign language. You also need active knowledge of the vocabulary, i.e. know how to use it in speech and in writing! That is why contact with a native speaker is so important, as well as being able to talk and speak, despite the language barrier we often encounter.

Only when you start to use words in practice will you have the opportunity to acquire language skills. Don’t delay! Don’t just collect Japanese, Italian or Spanish words like stamps in an album. The sooner you start talking, the sooner you will become fluent and find it easy to communicate. It is also important that you practise regularly. This way you eliminate the risk of forgetting newly learned words.

How to remember vocabulary

When learning vocabulary, it is worth using a proven method. SuperMemo is a series of courses developed on the basis of the results of Piotr Woźniak’s research on the process of remembering. Our courses, such as PowerWords! or Extreme, employ an algorithm that adjusts the time intervals between repetition to the individual predispositions of each user. However, remember that there is no single way to learn. It is worth drawing from different schools and not only memorising words, but also using them!