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

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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 free-flowing interactive and flexible means of communication that it truly is.

Reading a menu

To give you an example; I remember seeing 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 my language missions and would prefer to just make a series of videos where I'm using the language 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? 🙂

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Benny Lewis

Founder, Fluent in 3 Months

Fun-loving Irish guy, full-time globe trotter and international bestselling author. Benny believes the best approach to language learning is to speak from day one.

Speaks: Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Esperanto, Mandarin Chinese, American Sign Language, Dutch, Irish

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