Nugget of Knowledge: Learning words in a foreign language


Typically, we know and use 15,000 to 20,000 word families

(WYTV) – Learning a new language can be tricky, but how many words do you need to know before you can actually get by in a foreign tongue?

First, let’s look into how many words we know in English.

The Oxford English Dictionary lists some 170,000 words but we don’t use all of them.

Typically, we know and use 15,000 to 20,000 word families. An example of a word family is “walk,” “walking,” “walked” and “walkers.”

Linguists say it’s incredibly difficult for a language learner to ever know as many word families as 15,000 to 20,000. What’s a realistic goal?

You’ll struggle to learn more than 2,000 to 3,000 words and word families even after years of study. So which words should we learn?

The most effective way to be able to speak a language quickly is to pick the most common 800 to 1,000 word families in that language and learn those. For example, don’t bother learning the word for abode; learn the word for house.

Learn those 800 minimum and you should be able to understand 75% of the language as it is spoken in normal life.

Eight-hundred word families will help you speak a language in a day-to-day setting. “How much does this cost?” “Where’s the airport?” “How can I rent a room?” What’s on the menu?”

To understand dialogue in a foreign film or TV, you’ll need to know about 3,000 word families. As for novels, newspapers and anything technical, you’ll need to learn 8,000 to 9,000 word families.

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