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How many words do you need to speak a language fluently?

| 54 comments | Category: learning languages

Sometimes on this blog, I like to ask really stupid questions (or make stupid statements) in the post title, and then explain how idiotic I think the question is in the first place within the actual post, and explain an alternative way of looking at it. This is one of those times!

I’ve been getting asked this and similar questions a lot lately: how many words do you need, before you speak a language “fluently”?

It’s hard for me to easily convey how idiotic I find this question, so let me attempt to do it with an analogy:

It’s like asking a composer “How many notes do you need exactly, before you have a musical masterpiece?”

How do you think a composer would answer such a question, apart from rolling his eyes and thinking “you really don’t get it, do you?”

It’s not about the number of words you know, it’s the quality of amount of words that you will be using.

Any time someone has quoted some number to me, which they plucked out of the air, or got from a “reputable source” who pulled it out of his ass, it leaves so many questions left over: What’s a “word”? Does dog & dogs count as two? What about relevance? Is the importance of “red” and “armadillo” the same? What if I don’t fit this generic one-size-fits-all use of language you’ve defined? What are you basing this on, and how can you possibly count the words someone actually knows?

It’s just another attempt to put a language in a convenient testable and extremely measurable box, rather than let it be the freeflowing interactive and flexible means of communication that it truly is.

Reading a menu

To give you an example; I’ve been getting the word “impossible” a lot in comments on my mission to speak Mandarin in 3 months. Most of them get added to my “ignore asap” stack, since they clearly don’t get what I’m doing here.

However, one point brought up which deserves a reply, is that I won’t be able to get by in restaurants in Chinese in terms of reading the menu after just 3 months. As well as there being x bazillion Chinese characters to learn, the terms themselves for any given menu item may be very complicated.

For example, you have things like “Buddha jumping over the wall” (a stew of meats and dried ingredients served in a big wine jar), dog-not-obey dumplings, ants climbing a tree (spicy ground beef sauce poured over deep fried bean threads), lion’s head (large meatballs stewed with cabbage leaves) and many other colourful titles whose actual component words don’t give you a clue as to what the ingredients are.

So yes, if I was taking a Chinese menu test at the end of these 3 months, I’d fail miserably – and this is even if I somehow knew every single character/word’s direct translation. Reading is a low priority for me over speaking, so I’ll be very far from this.

But here’s the thing: I’m not going to take a Chinese menu test, I’m going to eat in Chinese restaurants. This is very very different!!! You can fail a test that examines every single pointless thing you could learn about a language, no matter how irrelevant it is for you, but you can indeed get by in the real world with useful context that is relevant to you and your requirements and situation.

For example, I’m vegetarian, so the only thing I need to know about “Buddha jumping over the wall” is that it is not vegetarian. I’ll fail the Chinese menu test, but I’ll pass the “can-I-eat-the-bloody-thing-or-not test”. In fact, I can just presume the whole menu is inedible and work my way up, which I see as way more efficient. So I know to recognise (and pronounce) useful things like 季節蔬菜咖哩飯  (vegetable curry rice) as a high priority.

Another thing is that menu items tend to be grouped together in some way. So I know that it’s more likely that I can eat some appetizers, which will be at the start, or if I know that one menu item is vegetarian then it’s way more probable that the items surrounding it are perhaps vegetarian too and require more thought than the part of the menu sprinkled with 肉 (meat) characters all over. This is not context that ever comes up if you ask someone point-blank how to translate a given term. How can you possibly ignore this if you claim to be testing someone’s actual practical use of a language? Unless it’s in a real restaurant, there will always be some important context missing that could help.

It would be very “interesting” to learn to remember that ants-climbing-a-tree is called that because of the black specks on the noodles looking like ants, but unless you give me this imaginary menu test, then why on earth do I need to know it if my goal is to get by in restaurants? Those black specks are meat, so putting effort into remembering this term is time poorly spent for me. It goes in the vague box of me “not going to eat”, and that’s the only essential information I care about right now.

And this is forgetting the obvious reason why speaking should be a priority over reading. If you can read every piece of Chinese ever written except for that one item on the menu, but not speak, you are screwed. As a speaker of the language, I can just ask the human being behind the counter what this particular item has.

The pointlessness of learning everything

One major issue I have with perfectionists in language learning, is this need to know absolutely everything. As if it could save your life some day to be absolutely sure what the translation of obsidian was before you could consider yourself fluent. In my opinion, this obsession with knowing everything before you even try is the biggest failing of the academic approach to learning a language.

It’s better to take a Pareto approach to realize the huge amount you can do with the little you initially learn, and discard non-essential words and come back to them later. I’ve discussed in detail elsewhere that I have a “triage” approach to language learning. I deal with the essentials right away, and get to the rest with time. You don’t need to know everything right now. It’s wasteful – people keep telling me that they have been learning a language for years and don’t feel ready to speak it yet. As if there is an invisible barrier of x (hundred) thousand words you pass and then can call your level “good enough”.

Actually, even if you knew every single word in a language, you can still be far from fluent!! Fluency to me means that I can live my life entirely through that language in the real world without natives needing to adjust for my benefit.

On top of this, there is a long-forgotten art of figuring it out from the context. You absolutely don’t need to know every word – in many cases, it can be pretty obvious what it should be, and if you don’t know… just ask!!

It’s easy to pass language oral examinations if you don’t see it as a test

“But Benny, you’re aiming for C1 oral level, and in C1 you need to know X amount of words!”

No you don’t. Really, trust me on this. They don’t throw random words at you and ask you to translate it to your mother tongue.

I’ve sat three high level European examinations, where I got a very good grade in the oral component (96% in Spanish and 74% in my German one: both C2), and yet I’m sure that I don’t know the amount of words “recommended” to have that level in German, and it’s unlikely that I know 96% of all Spanish words.

I actually think these tests are well designed and are tested very fairly by the Instituto Cervantes and Goethe Institut. I like oral tests because they tend to look at things that matter in a general scaled system (ease of use, relevance of discussion, lack of hesitation etc.), rather than ask you specific questions that you either get right or wrong. Such an approach is greatly flawed as a testing system because the real world doesn’t let you either do fantastically or fail. There are a lot of alternatives.

For example, in the German test, I had to discuss deforestation. The thing is I can’t even discuss this in English! So, I bullshitted my way through it – because they weren’t testing to see if I knew the word for particular trees or whatever, they wanted to see how good my German was flowing. I didn’t hesitate and I explained myself pretty well in how I put my points together – this is despite not having the vocabulary necessary to discuss deforestation. I worked around this. They weren’t actually testing my deforestation knowledge, they were testing my fluency.

When I’m presented with any situation where I need to discuss any given topic, I try my best and talk around words I don’t know, while not making it obvious that I am doing that. This has gotten me through very professionally styled academic tests fine.

The most important things in knowing a language are untestable or unmeasurable

If you corner me and ask me to be a dictionary without any context – I can’t answer you. I don’t know what the Spanish for toothpick is if you ask me out of the blue, but it will flow out of me if I’m speaking the language consistently and I will always recognise it when I hear it in context.

Technically speaking, I don’t “know” words like this and would fail your tests, but I’m not trying to be a walking dictionary I’m trying to actually use the language in the real world!

This is why I haven’t really defined any tests to take at the end of this three month period and would prefer to just make a series of videos where I’m using Mandarin with natives – I know from experience what level of comfort I need for C2 and am aiming a bit below that. I’m not sure if I’ll reach it, but your tests are worthless to me in terms of knowing that I have. Flow in conversations and living my life through the language in complex social situations is the real test.

Academics will be big crybabies about this because having a life is not something that you can test for.

Most numbers for concepts like “number of words you need to know before you speak fluently” are actually too big to even conceptualise and mean anything. I like how Penn talks about it in this video (from his show “Bullshit”):

I measure my language successes in important things that are less easily quantifiable than mathematical concepts like “numbers of words I know”. And these are for things that I’m not really interested in measuring, like number of friends, or how many times I’ve laughed when speaking that language.

These are probably things I could track, but why would I want to? I’m learning a language here, not trying to score very high on some leader-board to wear as a badge. I want to talk to people. Friendships are something worth counting upon for success, not some empty number that to most of us can only be described as “more than a motherfucking shitload”.

Sometimes having a quantifiable target to aim for can be very helpful if it motivates you – but that’s all it is – an extra motivational tool. It doesn’t actually mean anything. Learn as many words as you possibly can, because the more you know (as long as you are applying an efficient triage) the more you can say. But rather than measure the exact number, why not focus instead on using as many words as you can? :)

Your thoughts on this appreciated in the comments below!

[And yes, I'll have another video of my current level in Mandarin coming up later this week. Just know that today I reached a major milestone and had an entire hour long non-repeated conversation in Mandarin! This is despite knowing way less words than I probably "should" before speaking to converse for an hour ;)]

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  • Kate

    The other problem with number of words as a measure is that it doesn’t tell you how ready the person is to deal with specific contexts. For instance when I came to Israel my husband was significantly more comfortable in Hebrew generally than I was, having lived here a few years (that’s now not the case, since I’ve had the opportunity to put far more effort into working on the language than he has) but when I got pregnant and started going to prenatal medical visits and reading up while he was at work I suddenly could talk about the topics of pregnancy, medical tests, childbirth, hospitals and babies far better than he could. Relevancy is very important.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Well said. There are specific contexts I am much more likely to encounter and should prepare for, whereas there are others that people have assigned to me as part of their strange test ideas (like having a political discussion), that I simply do not do even in English. I hold each of my languages to similar standards. I’m not much of an intellectual in English, why should I be in my other languages?

      Also, word lists can never cater to a particular person. The word “blog” is clearly way more important to me as a blogger than it is to most learners, so it’s one of the very first words I learned in Chinese.

  • http://www.facebook.com/stanley.k.ho Stanley Ho

    Try that veggie dish: Braised Tofu Taiwanese Vegetarian style 台灣紅燒豆腐,素食.  it’s delicious.

  • WC

    You seem a bit angry in this post.  :)

    I’ve been learning Japanese for years, at my slow pace.  The last year or so, I started noticing what I think are ‘stupid questions’ like ‘How many words does it take to be fluent?’  I never noticed them before that, and even asked some of them.

    After learning your first ‘second language’, you know that some things just don’t matter, and it lets you get on with the things that do.  However, the first time…  Well, there’s a lot of uncertainty, and you find yourself asking questions to fill in that uncertainty.  I think it’s the nature of a mind learning a new skill to do this.  

    That isn’t to say I’m patient with those people, though.  I usually just ignore them and let someone else answer.  

    I’m still in awe that you took on Chinese and are doing so well.  It’s an impressive feat, and lends weight to a lot of your opinions on language learning.  Not that your other languages weren’t impressive, but Chinese is another level entirely, in my book.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Chinese is a language spoken by humans, like any other. We need to get it off this pedestal people have put it on as superior or deserving awe if people learn it. I’d rather it be quite normal for people to be learning it.

      • Jessica Yang

        I get a bit annoyed whenever I see comments like that. Why is Chinese so awe-inspiring exactly? Each language has its own set of challenges that need to be overcome in learning. Chinese is difficult for westerners to learn initially largely because of the tones and ideograph system. German is challenging for a native Chinese speaker (me – mainlander, not Taiwanese) because of all the cases and strange pronunciations I’d never encountered before in English, Mandarin or my Chinese dialects. Somehow the sentiment I always encounter is that if a westerner is learning an east Asian language, it’s an amazing feat equivalent to scaling Mount Everest. When an Asian learns a Western language, equally foreign and challenging to them, the reaction is just ‘meh, another ESL straggler’.

        • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

          I agree 100%. It’s fantastic that a learner is willing to learn a language and culture so different to his own, but looking at him in awe is almost discouraging to the rest of us. I’m going to frame Chinese as a manageable task once I’m deeper into this mission, because this will encourage more people to learn it.

          Maintaining an air of awe for westerners that learn Chinese is great for their egos and nothing else. As you say, Chinese natives are not congratulated for going the other way, even though they are working much harder than their European counterparts.

        • Ophelie

          Even as a Westerner, when I took a Mandarin conversational course in school, I found the language to be very logical and straightforward. I couldn’t understand why it has a reputation of being so difficult. I’m sure the writing is a lot of memorization (it was a conversational course so we didn’t touch proper writing)  but I thought that the spoken language made a lot more sense than other languages I took courses in.

          Whenever I’d tell people I was taking the course, they’d talk about how difficult the tonal aspect of the language is, and even that… maybe it’s just because I really like music, but to me, it was no different than singing. Besides, when I’d practice with my mandarin friends and I’d make mistakes, they’d laugh, but they still understood what I was saying.

        • JDG

          There’s some department in the US Government or Military that rates languages from 1–4 based on difficulty for English speakers.

          Chinese is rated a 4—as among the hardest.

          I disagree, but this is partly why Chinese has a reputation for being difficult. Also, characters.

          Many find tones and pronunciation difficult, but they aren’t if a good foundation is laid in the first few weeks.

          But you’re right—other languages have their difficulties, such as conjugation, declination, or complex grammar, whereas Chinese doesn’t have any of those.

      • Maddy

         I completely agree. I am currently learning both Japanese and French.

        I have been doing French outside of school since I was about 7 and have recently found that, because I was submerged in an environment where the teachers spoke fluently to each other, I am able to understand the basic conversational topics spoken by my teachers at school. It’s quite interesting!

        I have only been learning Japanese for about a year and am self teaching so it will most likely take a while. Japanese is a lot like Chinese, but neither are very difficult. In school I learned a bit of Chinese and the teachers tell us to imagine the character as something like what it means (sorry this sentence doesn’t make much sense) and after a while the characters just flow and are embedded in your mind, I actually thought that I had forgotten the Chinese I learned but I still remember!

        Anyway, just because people who speak a European language think characters instead of letters are hard doesn’t mean they are. It’s actually quite easy when you stop and think about it and take the short amount of time needed to remember it just a little bit, after all, you can always look at it again if you forget, besides, English is actually the hardest language because of the amount of tenses needed to speak it properly, Asian languages are quite easy because there are so many less words needed to speak a normal conversation.

        Sorry if this was really long for you to read, I couldn’t stop writing, personally, language is my favourite subject at school.
        Thanks

      • Diane

        Precisely all languages spoken by humans should be considered as equals,while it is annoying to hear Chinese people boosting how difficult or even impossible for westerners to master mandarin so is it when some English natives show the sort of attitude that it is meant to be hell easy for the rest of the world to master English over night,(when it comes to them learning an oriental language? it’s gotta be tough)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=669540127 Stefan Hansen

    Okay, you don’t count the number of words, and I understand why. Still, I’m curious about the number of hours it took you to reach the C2 level in German, as I asked about on your Facebook page. Thanks.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      I’m amazed that despite me explaining this to you on Facebook and you seeing an entire post here where I say how wasteful it is to quantify large numbers like this, you asked me again how many hours I spent as if it means something? It’s the quality of the hours, not the amount of them.

      Please re-read the reply I already wrote to you. I’m not repeating myself.

      • Thomas Illgen

        Hi Benny, 

        I am a big fan of your blog and associated language tips.  Of course, I did not read your reply to Stefan on FB, but in reading your response here, you sound a bit harsh.  Granted it’s your site, so you can say whatever the “F” you want. LOL   That said, you do realize that by naming a site “Fluent in 3 Months” that you’re going to get many questions around HOW LONG it takes you to complete your various language goals (such as the one posed by Stefan, above)!  Also, not to play armchair psychologist, but you seem a lot less friendly in your recent posts.  Maybe you’re getting burned out from your lifestyle (learning ~4 new languages/year, traveling the globe, etc.). Then again, I guess that is a nice way to burn out (especially while meeting girls like the one in the karaoke pic above). :)

        Anyway, best of luck with the mandarin.  And let us know how many words you’ve learned at the end of 3 months. KIDDING! 

        Cheers from a fellow vegetarian,
        Tom

        • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

          Please save the armchair psychology for someone else.

          People getting on my nerves has nothing to do with my lifestyle! This kind of behaviour would piss me off even on a good day.

          Even after THIS reply, Stefan replied AGAIN on Facebook asking me the same tedious question a third bloody time! I’ve had to block him to stop this tedious trolling – I don’t have time to cater for everyone on the entire Internet who intends to do nothing but waste my time.

          My initial reply to him answered his question, and I patiently answered his follow up questions as best as I could, but since he didn’t get a precise number he kept nagging at me as if I’d say “Oh OK then, the real number of hours was 1,273.4512″.

          Even if I wasn’t in a stressful intensive learning environment I’d still find it idiotic to answer a post about how pointless asking for big numbers is… with the 2nd (of 3) repetitive requests about another big number. Frankly, someone who does this deserves a blunt reply.

          Some people need to read between the lines. I will continue to be “harsh” to anyone who annoys me with the same question multiple times, and asking “How many hours” in a post that very clearly states “How many words” is a stupid question, really makes me question the person’s ability to think laterally.

          You’ll find me equally blunt with people one or two years ago. This has always been my style. I’ve written plenty of posts in the same tone before, but most posts I write are obviously encouraging or sometimes factual or narrative instead.

  • erik

    Benny . . . 파이팅!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Tomas Andrijaitis

    I find your blogs very interesting, and some of your videos in blogs very supporting and motivating(everybody is free to wear sunscreen). Whenever I find free time I try to read your blogs, I am interested in languages too, and I’m hopping to learn few languages :) Btw good luck with your current mission

  • Anonymous

    I truly hope some of the younger language learners who come to your forums read this post, as I see so many of them logging down to the minute how much time they have spent learning their target language, and yet clearly this is not the way to do it.  This is partially why I have gotten away from program learning with the likes of Rosetta Stone, for example.  Aside from English, I have hopes of speaking four or five additional languages, and while every program out there will teach me how to make reservations at a hotel or ask where I can exchange dollars for euros, since my specific goals do not include extensive travelling, I don’t need these words or phrases.  If I want to talk to my co-workers about how they spent their weekend, it doesn’t matter if I spent three hours or three days studying their language unless what I can say is relevant to our conversation.  Knowing ten words you can use everyday is a lot better than knowing a thousand words you will never use in casual conversation.  Thanks for once again putting it all in perspective.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Logging your hours per se isn’t a bad thing. If aiming to do, say 3 hours a day, is your goal, then it can be very helpful as a motivator if you attempt to track it. 3 hours, or x words a day is something that can be understood by most people. It’s all this long-term generic stuff I find worthless.

      But even with all the tracking, it’s the non-trackable stuff that really counts towards how much you’ll improve. Tracking studying and studying in general, can only go so far.

      You’re right that most generic courses try to please too many people, and end up being irrelevant for too many others.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lehcyfer Leszek Cyfer

    It’s funny that people are so fixated on the amount of words. I guess that it’s good to learn 1000 of statistically most often used words in a given language – but the rest is just a result of individual predilection – you simply learn words you use and encounter. Heck – as you are proving it – one can learn much less words and thrive – they simply need to be those one uses and encounters in his line of living in the language.

  • Anonymous

    This is the type of question my seven year old nephew and five year old niece ask me. Do you know more words in Spanish than ___? Mind you, my niece thinks I am fifty 100 years old:) Therefore no matter what number I say to her, it doesn’t matter.

    I don’t even know how many words I know in English, my strongest tongue. Besides, there are words we can understand as they are derivatives of a root word or related to other words, like “sell” and “seller”. If you know the noun, you can guess what the verb means from the context. I can understand legal English (from the plethora of legal movies and TV shows in the US) but I most likely can’t speak in legalese if asked. There’s a difference in what we understand, even in our native language, and what we know and can say. You are right, the only way to test how well someone knows a language is to have a conversation and see how well they can explain themselves, as you did with the deforestation topic in German.

  • http://vocabat.com/ Katie

    If you have to ask if you’re fluent, you’re not quite there yet. 

    If you think you are but are excessively modest because you’re afraid that some language-Nazi idiot with no life will ridicule your inconceivable arrogance and try to unmask you, asking you how to say Whirling Dervish and duodenum and salutiferous in the target language to then expose you as a fluency fraud, you’re fine. It’s weird and sad that some people won’t accept that anyone be considered fluent in a foreign language just because they couldn’t achieve it themselves. It’s not even that hard, people– just get out of your rooms, close the dictionary, log off your forums, and go talk to people.

    It all depends on how you use the language, though. Someone could definitely accuse me of being unfluent in many areas of English– legal, medical, engineering, etc. I couldn’t give a rat’s ass, though, because I never have to use or understand those terms in my daily life. To say that I’m not fluent in English is completely laughable, ridiculous, and, just as you’ve put it, an utter waste of my time. It only speaks to the pettiness and insecurity of the accuser. 

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Agreed. Based on a lot of these silly definitions I’ve been hearing, and the ridiculous demands made to prove that someone has reached fluency, I’m not fluent in English either.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Indeed – forums are great tools for discussion, but sometimes I feel like some people spend way more time on forums discussing language learning, than actually learning (or more importantly, using) the bloody language!

  • http://twitter.com/Tweetalang Tweetalang

    This question also drives me crazy! In my school in Japan, I tutor an American foreign exchange student. She had never studied Japanese before coming here, and rather than teach her chapter from chapter in a book, I was trying to show her how to live in the language and learn from her own desires to communicate. Things were going well, and she was starting to make progress. Three months later, the exchange student sponsor asked how many words she had memorized. When I answered I didn’t know, he wanted to see the list I was teaching her from. When I told him we didn’t have one of those either, he looked at me like I shouldn’t be teaching a foreign language. “How will we measure how fluent she is?” he asked, to which I responded, “Try talking to her about her life.”

    This is only the latest example, but it’s why deciding your purposes for learning a language in the first place is so important. If you want to get a perfect written test score, that is going to be a completely different path to success than focusing on what personally defines your needs. Those needs and how effectively you communicate them then determines one’s level of fluency. 

    Sorry to go on about this, but this is a point I’m very passionate about. Thanks again for posting!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Your exchange with that student sponsor sounds like many annoying exchanges I have with people about my own language missions. Tests are great for standardised mentalities, not for the real world.

      • Gus Mueller

        Should have asked how many words HE knew.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Sébastien-Stecker/100002873681324 Sébastien Stecker

    I feel your pain. I actually have a few native bilingual friends, and even for them it makes no sense to translate words or expressions out of their context. Being a professional translator is a very different thing from being able to speak a language fluently, and it usually requires years of training. I wish the distinction would be clearer in people’s mind.

    I stayed in Bariloche in Argentina for the 3 last months to learn Spanish and I applied many of your techniques. I had a lower-intermediate level when I got there, and it took me 6 weeks to reach fluency. The 6th week, I reached the same conclusion as yours, and it is really is the main message of your post for me:  ”It’s not about the number of words you know, it’s the quality of amount of words that you will be using.”
    Fluency doesn’t require an incredible number of words. It requires a small core of important words and structures that you need to discover and practice orally over and over. Once you can easily think in the foreign language with that essential core, you can deal with the majority of everyday situations. New vocabulary can be learned easily with native by explaining them the word you’re looking for. To me it doesn’t seem that different from the way we learn to speak a language as a child, and the reason it’s largely ignored by the high school learning system is a deep mystery to me.

  • http://leakygrammar.com Gavin

    “But here’s the thing: I’m not going to take a Chinese menu test, I’m going to eat in Chinese restaurants.”

    Hi Benny, nice post! you’re definitely passionate about your perspective.  I think you made some great points, that we need to get away from thinking about language learning as an abstract system to be memorized and towards looking at language as a means of interaction by actual human beings!  Like you said in your TED talk, just being in a conversation with someone, there’s so many resources at our disposal for talking from the context to even brand names, that you really “know” a lot more than you think you do! looking forward to your next video in Chinese!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Thanks Gavin!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    Exactly – talking to someone directly is the best way to gauge their level.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    ;)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    Yes, I’m definitely a “numbers” guy ;) As well as my engineering degree, I was a Mathematics teacher for over 10 years!!

    But having gone away from the technical side of the world and working more with people, I see numbers very differently now. They are not the specific quantities suggested when in a human, non-mechanical context. They really are nothing more than “more than a motherfucking shitload” when you start talking about most big numbers, which is quite worthless, even if that number actually meant something (which it never does in the case of the illusive words-to-fluent limit)

    • Jon Latoya

      You are 30, and you were a Mathematics teacher for over 10 years. Unbelievable, at least to me. 

      And it seems you are pissed off by many of the posters here and elsewhere. You should read zenhabits and should learn from Leo how cope with this anger.

      • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

        1. Believe it. I started teaching Mathematics while I was still in high school, and continued doing it throughout my travels.
        2. Maybe YOU should read zenhabits more carefully ;) http://zenhabits.net/fluent/

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    I haven’t discussed definitions at all here. Bookish definitions are mostly worthless – I prefer to know what you can actually do with your language, rather than how many words you “know” or how many exams you’ve passed…

    When discussing the likes of fluency, you can presume that the person has already learned “to give / please / thank you” already!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    She was my karaoke co-singer in the Philippines :D We were picking a song to sing together in Tagalog ;) I think the numbered list of song titles works well with the idea of “how many words”, so I used it here!

  • http://www.japaneseruleof7.com/ Ken Seeroi

    I’m looking forward to your next video.  You’re so obviously right about practical ability mattering more than an abstract number of words.  Living here in Japan, I’ve heard a lot of foreigners mention their test scores on the language ability test (JLPT).  While I think the test is worthwhile, a lot of people wear it as a badge, as though it proves their ability.  I was in a karaoke booth last year with a group of people and everybody was singing Japanese songs, except for one girl who couldn’t manage to sing along with the lyrics.  She kept saying, But I have a Level 2 certification!  Baby, no one cares.  You can either sing the song or you can’t.

    Your adventures in language learning have helped to solidify some ideas I’ve had regarding fluency for some time now.  Namely, that it’s about skill, rather than knowledge.  I wrote about this in some detail on my site, so if you get the chance, check it out.  http://www.japaneseruleof7.com/the-skill-of-fluent-japanese/  I’d love to hear what you think.

    Keep up the good work.

    Ken

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    “you may give them the answer satisfying them…”
    In that case, can I say “more than a motherfucking shitload” as suggested by Penn? This is the only answer that actually means anything as far as I’m concerned ;) Otherwise, what do you want me to do when I so strongly disagree with such a stupid question? Make up a number? I’d rather be straight with people.

    • Gus Mueller

      For large amounts I like a term from an online humor site: “fuckton”.

  • http://rivanathans.tumblr.com Riva

    Even though you may not need all of those extra words for speaking, you might need them for understanding other people. After all, comprehension is half of fluency. I’m about half a year into learning Czech, and one thing I noticed is that they have a lot of clusters of near-synonyms. At first, I thought I could just learn to use the most common one any get away with it, but often they’re all in circulation. I feel like I’ve reached the level of “fluency” as defined by this site. I can communicate without having to lapse into English on my end, and I’ve even had a language “exchange” become 2+ hours of conversation only in Czech when my partner decided it was simply more convenient to speak that way (she had been learning English for 15 years). I don’t take an interpreter on government office visits, etc. But I would still not consider myself fluent. I don’t understand everything other people are saying around me. I can get most of a fluffy magazine article, but I have yet to attempt a novel. And I realized that there are gaping holes in my domain-specific knowledge when I went to a lecture on politics, took a yoga class, and tried to talk with an acquaintance about his genetics exam. I really like your site for the tips on learning and the “speak from day one” philosophy—so true—but I don’t think it’s fluency if it’s only “knowing the things I want to say” and not “understanding the things I might happen to hear.”

  • Baza Esperanto

    Benny,

    While I would agree with you that a word count is not a good measure of fluency and it also presents issues of what we even mean by a word in various languages, I disagree that it is a question that only an idiot would ask.
    But rather than responding with any level of precision, it is probably satisfactory to give a broad range such as saying that one would would need more than 500 words (or morphemes) to reach the C1 level, but one would not need 5000 (others would give a narrower range, but at some point the other factors that you mention become more important).

    –Gary

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    This is why I don’t like arguments like this. They go on forever when you try to reframe what I say as ridiculous and claim that I’m implying not learning a language at all is the same.

  • Diane

    Must admit I’m more than just inspired by your post,as a typical perfectionist in language learning,I’ve recently found myself in a quite desperate situation feeling that I can hardly make any progress in my second language acquisition any more.It’s not that I want to become a word smith or anything,but I always think in a way that “the more words I learn the more secure it’s gonna make me feel”,and I did spend an enormous amount of time to build a vocabulary that would make me feel just a little bit more secure,but where did I end up?In the middle of no where.The more insecure I feel the more desperate I become in gaining new words,and the more new word I learn the more lost and depressed I feel!This has been really exhausting,but I just couldn’t stop pushing myself.I quite agree you on the point that”by the time you can hold an okay conversation,with a few short weeks or months into intensive use with natives you’ll be able to survive 80per cent of normal situations in that language” (or is it from the other post?correct me if I quoted it wrong),that was actually what I did with my new language,I went out meet different people and did the best I could to converse and socialize with them,but it really turned out enormously well.But once I stopped doing this,it seemed that all the confidence and fluency I had acquired by the diligent daily practicing over months just all DISAPPEARED.Considering that I’m not currently living abroad(where the language is spoken),there’s really not much I can do about it except continuing doing what I did before(studying stupid words like ”subterfuge” all day all by myself). And every now and again when I get the chance to skype or converse with natives face-to-face,my tongue somehow just get awfully twisted.I know I can do better than this,but I just can’t figure out what on earth is the tricky ”THING” that is holding me back every time I open my mouth

  • Livonor

    “I know Japanese kids who, spending only a couple years in a foreign country, speak English among themselves becasue it’s easier”

    They don’t speak because it’s easier, they speak because they know they have to improve it and they are used to it. I always think in english and I certainly don’t do that because english is easier than portuguese for me, it is just a habit

    • Gus Mueller

      Don’t judge an entire country/culture/language by their teenagers fascination with Hello Kitty.

  • Livonor

    “Foreign Service Language Institute puts Japanese in the highest category of difficulty”

    Every human being borns with the same intelligence and ability to learn, and learn his/her native language at the same time, There’s no difficulty languages

  • Livonor

    “for example, one common character, 生, can be read in more than a dozen ways in Japanese”

    To be sincere, that’s bullshit. I hate when a see japanese students saying things like “the japanese characters are so difficult! look, this book says that 女 has more than 6 readings!” they are wrong. More than 85% of the japanese characters have just ONE on-reading that you need to know (using 女 as a example, you just need to know the “jo” reading). The others 25% are very, very, very common characters like 生 so you certainly will learn all the readings that matters without thinking about it.

    • Gus Mueller

      Thank you. I couldn’t think of a nice way to call that one out.

  • Gus Mueller

    I know someone who achieved Level 5 competence in Tibetan thru a five year immersion, during which he memorized the Das Dictionary up thru the letter R, then other things took up too much time so he never finished the dictionary. Don’t know how many words that is, but I think he did it for extra credit in his own mind. Certainly didn’t need it.

  • Rachel Key

    This is one of the things that sucks about having learned Japanese in a classroom setting and then coming to Japan. In my classes in the US, obviously we learned very basic things like the words for family members and colors and days of the week. But then when we moved on from there we started doing things according to topics like “sports” or “music”. Well that’s great if you are into those things, but I haven’t talked with a single person the whole time I’ve been here about musical instruments or who won the latest baseball game because I have no interest in those things in English either so why would I take the time to be up to date with them in Japanese? We rushed through the basics in order to get to more “high level” words so that we could do things like discuss deforestation, but here I am in Japan and I can’t understand what is in most of the things at the supermarket even if they are written in hiragana because I never learned a good variety of food words! We were surprised in level 1 when we were going through our very basic kanji and wondered why we were learning the kanji for cow along with things like “walk” and “school” but thank goodness I learned it because now I can figure out which cartons in the beverage aisle have milk in them XD I wish I had learned the names of fruits and vegetables before coming!!!! I need those right now a lot more than I need things like “experiment” or “substance” (both of which I know, and will probably not use much in my everyday life).

  • Zariuq

    Good point. You can learn as many acontextual words as you want and forget them as soon as your tests end. The words you learn really are context dependent. For example, I am fluent in Japanese and can have everyday conversations, play RPGs, and talk about anything I want, albeit in simple language. Now, throw me an economics, physics or machine learning article and every-other-word will be new. Gotta learn them all from scratch again, but there’s no point in doing that unless I want to fluently discuss physics. I’m not really fluent in medical English myself :x.

    But, putting that aside, surely there is some basic amount of the language that if you know, you can discuss pretty much anything? Sure, knowing every name on the menu is silly, but you’ll want to have a vague idea what it is if it’s described to you (a bit beyond “meat or not meat” :p).

    So, if you push for it, maybe one of those numbered pulled out of our asses could be refined. Although, making said list of words or trying to study one is more doubtful xD.

  • Anna Stanford

    Loved this! Thank you! My teacher has been hammering me with knowing words and I’ve been feeling a bit like, “okay, I’ve just learned 200 words in the last 3 days… and when do I get to do something with them?” I’m going to steer him to speaking with me full time.

  • Jonathan Samuels El

    My name is Jonathan and I like your practice approach to learning new languages. My question is: In what way would you approach learning a dead language like Egyptian hieroglyphics. As the characters sometimes represent multipul sounds simular to the mandarin? How would you learn ancient languages like this one? As I am learning it but I find it hard because no one in America can speak old kingdom Hieroglyphics which is called Mdu Ntr. I already know the basic phonetic individual sounds. I can not read words but I can spell them out when I find their phonetic value. Please help.