How much vocabulary do we need?

My students often say they don’t know enough vocabulary and have trouble learning it. Well I often say “use it or lose it”, we only really remember words we need and use frequently. But how many words do we really need? I thought I would do some research on the topic of English words in current use and read that the Oxford English Dictionary contains entries for 171,476 words. Less than I thought … This compares to the German Duden dictionary which has about 135,000 words, so fair enough, you have more words to learn in English than I do in German 😊.

But how many words do you actually need? I read that 3,000 English words will cover 95% of everyday writing such as newspapers, blogs, most books and movies. Of those 3,000 words, 1,000 are used in everyday writing. If I asked you how many words you know, I’m sure you wouldn’t know, just like I don’t! Well, you’ll be pleased to hear that level B1 (low intermediate) knows about 2,000 words and B2 about 4,000 words so you probably know more words than you think.

I think the problem is that so many of these words are sitting comfortably in your passive vocabulary – I mean I’m always forgetting words and notice that the older I get, the more I say “thingy, whatsit, thingamabob, thingamajig, you know what I mean” etc. etc.

It’s really not about knowing words but being confident at describing words you don’t know without worrying about it. Then the conversation flows and your conversation partner probably doesn’t even notice you have forgoten the word! There are several ways to learn vocabulary – reading, playing word games (one of my favourite), using flashcards, subscribing to ‘word of the day’ feeds (the Word of the Day app is a good one) or using mnemonics (I prefer to say donkey bridges) for words you always forget. I could never remember the German word ‘Dozent’ until I remembered my lecturers were often lazy or dozy and I will never forget it now!!!

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