How much English vocabulary do I need to be fluent?
Fluency is the goal for many people studying English, but it is hard to measure. Why would it be hard to measure? Because students have different end goals for their language skills. If you want to be a medical doctor, fluency standards are going to be higher with a lot of specialized vocabulary. If I want to be an English teacher, I'm going to need high levels of accuracy in all my uses of English. If I want to be an accountant, again, my goals will be different.
How many words are in English?
English has 600,000 word families. A word family describes a set of words that are all related. Let's look at the word information.
This chart describes the word family of "information"
adjective with the prefix "un-"
adjective with the prefix "un-"
This one word expands to 10 words when we look in the dictionary. There are many many many more collocations for this word. If we really know this word family, we will know most of these forms. You don't need to be perfect, but it's a good way to expand your vocabulary.
How many word families does a native speaker know?
A native speaker will know around 30,000 word families. Some may know more depending on their education levels, or area of speciality. It would be fair to think a lawyer knows many more words than your average American because legal English is a whole different set of vocabulary. Legal English contains many Latin words that are not used in everyday life.
So how many words do I need to be fluent?
If you learn the 3,000 most common words in English, that will cover around 90% of core daily vocabulary in English. There are 700 basic spoken words in English. This will get you really far!
But what do I mean by learn?
I mean learning the whole word family. Understand the forms of the word, the prefixes and suffixes, the phrasal verbs, and the common collocations. That one word family will expand to many different words. This should be one of your strategies to expanding your vocabulary.
How do I know what to focus on?
To find the words you should focus on you can use the New General Service List This list has been created by looking at many examples of written and spoken English. But downloading the list, won't give you a lot of direction on how to study.
Start here on Quizlet. The words are divided into blocks of 500 words. Starting with 1-500 might be frustrating if you've spoken English for a while. In the first block, you are going to find words like: the, be, at, in, etc. If you're advanced, try the last block to study.
What vocabulary do I learn if I already understand the foundational language?
If you already have a lot of English vocabulary, you can try a few different things. You can learn the Academic Word list if your goal is college or a professional job. You can also learn words specific to your field. Professions like engineers, doctors, dentists, architects and lawyers all have specific vocabulary for their field. Most of the vocabulary is learned in college for these specific fields. You might want to learn vocabulary around your hobbies or favorite sports.
Either way, vocabulary is a building block of fluency, and you should never stop learning it.
How can I organize the vocabulary I know?
Organizing the vocabulary that you know and use is a study skill that will serve you well. You can make your own flashcards, download an app, or use this method I used in my classes.