Size of vocabulary

Discussion in 'French-English Vocabulary / Vocabulaire Français-Anglais' started by Renault, Oct 26, 2006.

  1. Renault Member

    England French
    Many years ago I read somewhere that Shakespeare had a vocabulary of over 45,000 words - but has anyone come across research which tells us what size of vocabulary we need to speak:
    a) our own mother tongue
    b) get by in foreign language which we are learning
    and if there are such studies, do they distinguish between words which we understand when we read or hear them, but which we would rarely if ever use, and the more limited vocabulary which we fluently use when we are speaking or writing.
    Building up a vocabulary and learning words is hard work, a real memory slog, so forgetting about the niceties of grammar and syntax, if you were to build up a vocabulary say of 5,000 words, would you be able to understand and get by in a foreign langage. That also begs the question of word recognition of the written word, vis à vis the spoken word.
    And in my maternal language, (English) would a Sun reader for example have a vocabulary of say 5,000 words, and a Times or Telegraph reader a vocabulary of 15,000 to 20,000 words?
    And what of the last Pope who would give his Easter message in 70 languages, and go into a meeting with 5 or 6 prelates from different parts of the world, and converse with them in their own language. Was his brain controlling say a total vocabulary of 200,000 words?
    In the three months or so I have been following this language forum, it is apparent that the moderators and other contributors have a mastery of French & English - what size of vocabulary have they at their command?
  2. Fred_C

    Fred_C Senior Member

    I would say an average person (with a handsome level of education) is able to pronounce with no hesitation about 5000 words. When writing, if he or she concentrates a bit, the average person will probably be able to use 10000 to 15000 words.
    When it comes to understanding, the numbers are far higher.
    I do not think that being able to understand 45000 words is unfeasible.
    It must be about the number of words contained in a small pocket dictionary. Some people know all the words contained in those dictionaries.

    In a foreign language, things change dramatically. I would say I am able to pronounce without hesitation about 2000 English words. The same when writing, because speaking a language is a tedious task for a foreigner, and it requires the same energy as writing it.
    The English words I will be able to understand are fare more numerous. I could guess the meaning of many many words, thanks to general knowledge. In this regard, knowing more languages helps your memory and your comprehension, instead of making the task more difficult, as you seem to believe.

    Sometimes, when I am reading a novel in French, I try to notice the words I do not understand and the words I understand but could never have found myself. There are always words I did not know at all. But some of them may be technical words, or words of any specific trade, that can be found in documentation about the subject. The author may have found them there.
    As for words that I understand, but could not have used myself, they are often general words, difficult to find in any documentation. You need to know them in order to use them. When there are many of them in the book, I must admit that the author has a better knowledge of French than I.

    I am curious to know if my numbers are quite realistic, or if I am very far off. Those are only my estimates, but I have been thinking about the question for a while.
  3. Hakro

    Hakro Senior Member

    Helsinki, Finland
    Finnish - Finland
    I don't know the answers to your questions a) and b), but I believe that with a vocabulary of 5,000 words you can speak very fluently a foreign language. You may do grammatical errors but generally you'd be understood.

    I have read that an English "man of the street" lives all his life using seldom more that 500 words.

    On the other hand, the 500 most common english words have about 15,000 different meanings, in average 30 different meanings per word.

    They say that the total number of English words will reach one million before the end of this year. In fact there are thousands of foreign words that are seldom if ever really used and that could be understood only by very few people.

    I happened to hear the Pope's message in Finnish and I'm sure he didn't understand a word what he was speaking. It must have been the same with about 50 other languages.

    The moderators seem to have an excellent mastery of several languages. Maybe they'll give information about their vocabularies.
  4. Aupick

    Aupick Senior Member

    Strasbourg, France
    UK, English
    Here's a thread on a similar topic. I suggest a bit of an answer in post #5.

    number of words an average person knows

    It's hard, of course, to count the number of words in a language or in a person's vocabulary. Do phrasal verbs in English count separately ("to make" = 1, "up" = 2, "to make up" = 3?). In heavily inflected languages like Polish, do you count each ending? If you don't, there'll be far fewer words, even though the language is no less complicated (there are just as many lexical units to remember).

    (Oh, and I'm afraid I've absolutely no idea about the size of my vocab in any language.)
  5. Hakro

    Hakro Senior Member

    Helsinki, Finland
    Finnish - Finland
    Hi Fred C,
    I didn't see your post because I was writing my own at the same time, but I agree in everything you say about foreign languages. But reading my own language I seldom if ever meet a word I don't understand perfectly or semi-perfectly (if we're speaking about novels, not about professional specific trade texts). And they say that there are one million Finnish words...
  6. kats Senior Member

    In Japan, there are actual counts of how many words an educated person would know, versus the ordinary person that finishes high school. Because the writing system uses Chinese characters, the counts are based on how many words a person can read. I can't remember how many characters more educated people know, but the newspapers limit themselves to 2,000 to be accessible to all.
  7. Qcumber Senior Member

    UK English
    Several years ago I read a study on this question. This is what I remember.
    1) the active vocabulary is the sum of terms you use: the average is about 3000
    2) the passive vocabulary is the sum of terms you understand: the average is over 10,000.

    If your corpus is limited to a single writer's works, you may be amazed at the small number of terms he uses. I think Racine didn't need more than 2000 terms.

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