Forum Rocket German German Vocab How much vocab do we need to learn?

How much vocab do we need to learn?

Graeme -TE1q

We can't learn a language without knowing words.  So how many words do I need to know, say, to "learn" German?  Someone out there might know whether German is the same as English in this respect.

The average English dictionary contains about 500,000 words.  If we add abbreviations to this the total becomes around a million.  If we add technical terms we get another million.  Of these two million or so words, the average English-speaking university student has a vocab of around 70,000 words.  Does this mean that to speak German well, I need to know around 70,000 words?   Hopefully not because at that rate I would never learn German.

Fortunately, for English we can divide these 70,000 words into our active and passive vocab.  We actively use around 30,000 words.  If we talk about regular use, the number drops significantly.  The average university student regularly uses about 16,000 words.  This is sounding more doable in terms of learning vocab but is still a very large number.

However, things get better.  Many of the words we use don't have much meaning in themselves but act like "glue" to hold other words together which do have informational content.  In English, just 100 of these "empty" words make up about half of everything we write.  So far so good.  But how many words do we need to make up the remaining half of what we write?

Here the news gets slightly worse in terms of learning vocab.  To cover around 75% of what we write, it is estimated that in English we need to know another 1,000 words.  However, to get to 90% we need to know around 7,000 words and to get to 95%, we need to know around 50,000 words.

So in English, if I want to speak and write in a reasonably well-educated way, I probably need to know somewhere around 30,000 to 40,000 words which gets us back the active vocab of the average university student.

For the average casual student of a foreign language, assuming that the rules of that language work the same as in English, that person probably needs to know at least 1,000 words very well which should cover about 75% of everyday speaking and writing.  However, this means in effect almost instant recall in order to be able to conduct a conversation.  You need to be able to think in the language being learnt, as opposed to thinking of a sentence in English and then translating it in your head which is what most casual language learners do.

My question is this - does anybody have any tips as to how to achieve this, over and above the tips already set out in the course?



That's a good question and I wish I had the answer. I don't think it is just vocabulary. Knowing lots of words is good, but the important thing is to be able to put them together into sentences that allow you to express yourself.
I reckon I know somewhere between 2000-2500 words but I struggle to say anything useful except for the most basic things. This is the area where internet courses break down. It is not hard to get someone to learn phrases and to repeat them exactly with speech recognition. However It breaks down if you say something perfectly valid but not exactly the same as the original phrase.

I have a German friend staying with me so I should be in a good position but she speaks perfect English and doesn't have much patience with me if I try to speak German. :-)

I think it would be nice if tutors could encourage people to try and write in German on the forum and maybe join in a bit. But then I am not sure if they have time for that kind of thing.


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