Fluency: How Many Words Do I Need To Learn?

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Language learning requires a certain level of “chasing the word count”, regardless of which language it is. This is only logical, how else are you to express even remotely abstract ideas without a reservoir of words to pick from? But how many words do you actually need?

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Linguist Alexander Arguelles put together extensive research on this subject that is very close to the actual numbers of words necessary for various levels of competence in Chinese.

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How many Chinese words you need depends on your goals. For example, if I’m going to go to a country where I don’t speak the language for a few months, I would do very well to learn the 250 most common words in the language. Things like “eat”, “car” or “toilet”. Useful in a pinch, but not so much that I could actually engage in conversation.

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750 words is about how many different words your average person says per day, so you could call these 750 the “daily use” words. Still not enough to be considered “fluent”, but enough that you’re starting to be able to have basic conversations, as well as learn some words purely through the context of the things you are reading or hearing. 

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2500 words is about the minimum amount it takes to be “fluent” in Chinese. This is not as many words as a native speaker knows, but its enough to describe whatever it is you are trying to say. “The thing you put food in to keep it cool and fresh” and “Refrigerator” get across the same meaning. The person hearing it has the same object in their mind, which means you successfully communicated. Sure, saying “refrigerator” is more streamlined, but Rome wasn’t built in a day, successful communication is what matters in the end. 

If you are so inclined as to accumulate a vocabulary as large as a native speaker, then consider than your average native without higher education knows about 5,000 words, with higher education 10,000 words, and they have a “passive vocabulary” of about 20,000 words. Passive vocabulary simply means that you understand a word when you read or hear it, but you don’t really ever use it when speaking. 

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In our course, we give you everything you need to learn the most common 900 spoken words necessary to build a solid foundation, as well as their respective characters. With our incredibly efficient study methods and tools, you’ll be able to do this in 3-6 months at 1-2 hours of focused study per day. After learning those, we give you a bunch of other resources to allow you to continue learning words based on your own personal goals and interests. Progress increases exponentially for you after that.

For now though, just keep “chasing the word count” and remind yourself that each new word is a new tool. Have fun with it, play around with it, and it’s yours.