How Many Words Do You Need to Speak a Foreign Language? 1

How many bricks do you need to build a house? How many steps do you need to take from your living room to your kitchen? How many eggs do you need to make an omelette?

How easy is it to answer these questions? It’s quite straightforward. They are three tasks that require a specific number of things (bricks, steps, eggs) to get them accomplished.

I’d probably use three eggs to make an omelette for myself – and maybe five if I was making one for two people. Easy question – easy answer!



So, how many words do you need to know to speak a foreign language?

This question is different. It’s not as easy as the other three.

If you want to find out what I think the answer is, read on or watch the video below!

The number of words you need to know to speak a foreign language is not fixed and it depends on a number of things.

But if we want to answer the question of how many words you need to speak a language, we should first tackle the question of what it means to speak a language.

What does it mean to ‘speak a language’?

If I can say a few things in Japanese, does it mean I can speak it? It certainly doesn’t mean I can speak it fluently but it does mean I can communicate (at least a little bit).

For me, speaking a language means being able to communicate – being able to say things and being able to understand what other people are saying.

You don’t need thousands of words to speak a foreign language 

Most everyday conversations will involve words that get repeated in the same conversation a number of times. I call them general words. Words like ‘do’, ‘get’, ‘have’. Words that are so flexible that they allow you express a number of different things. Words that you will need all the time.

General words help you express general concepts but they also help you describe more specific concepts. Concepts that you don’t know how to translate directly into your target language.

For example, the word ‘jog’ in English. You may not know how to say it but you may know how to say ‘run’ and ‘fun’. So, you can explain the concept of ‘jog’ by saying it’s like ‘running for fun’.

And there you go – you’ve just communicated a concept without knowing the specific words you need to translate it.

So, what I’m trying to say is that you don’t need thousands of specific words to speak a foreign language. What you need instead is a good number of general words that are flexible enough to enable you to communicate.

Focus on the general vocabulary first

When learning a foreign language, try to focus on the general vocabulary first, before you move on to more specific vocabulary.

Even a small number of general words will be enough to convey most messages.

Like I said, the number is not fixed. So, first determine what it means for you to ‘speak a language’. Then, decide what general words you need to be able to communicate – understand and be understood.

But how do you choose which words to learn?

For more detailed advice, check out my article about how to choose which words to learn in a foreign language.

I hope you found this article useful. Don’t forget to join my newsletter (below) to get access to exclusive advice on language learning.

Take care and good luck!


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  • dandiprat

    For me personally I need to a lot to feel comfortable. I really, really want to be able to understand what other people say to each other and everything that is said on TV.