Recently, I've started studying 21.000 word list from the internet. I cannot learn anything from that because when I translate to my native I don't understand the meanings. So that's where my question comes from. If I learn 9000-10000 words will I be able to speak like a native speaker and understand every topic (I will learn the most important ones)?

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    One hint: in English, we separate groups of numbers with a comma (,) not a period (.) so we would write "twenty-one thousand" as 21,000. That's the kind of thing that a word list is not going to teach you! – stangdon Dec 13 '17 at 19:12
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    Speaking or writing a language idiomatically does not come from learning lists of words. – Lambie Dec 13 '17 at 19:16
  • There is something of an 80/20 rule in effect, as the frequency with which you use those words is extremely skewed. You use the top few hundred words— mostly determiners, pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions, auxiliary verbs, and the like— vastly more than any others. It doesn't matter if you know sesquipedalian but mix up got, gotten, have, do have, did get, have got, and have gotten. – choster Dec 14 '17 at 6:19

How many words you know is pretty much irrelevant (once you get beyond a certain number). You need to understand how to put them together and how to pronounce them in order to "speak like a native speaker". Get that in place, and then you can start expanding your vocabulary.

There is an article on The Economist's website (which I quote in part) that gives some interesting figures:

Several years ago we mentioned TestYourVocab.com here on the blog. Not long ago, the site reached its two millionth test result, and so the researchers have put together some data:

  • Most adult native test-takers range from 20,000–35,000 words
  • Average native test-takers of age 8 already know 10,000 words
  • Average native test-takers of age 4 already know 5,000 words
  • Adult native test-takers learn almost 1 new word a day until middle age
  • Adult test-taker vocabulary growth basically stops at middle age
  • The most common vocabulary size for foreign test-takers is 4,500 words
  • Foreign test-takers tend to reach over 10,000 words by living abroad
  • Foreign test-takers learn 2.5 new words a day while living in an English-speaking country

The Economist

As you can see, 10,000 words will get you to the level of an average 8-year old. You will need between 20,000-35,000 words to sound like an adult native speaker. However, I am a little dubious about these figures. An adult should be able to make much better use of a 10,000 word vocabulary than any 8-year old, since his thought patterns ought to be more sophisticated.

"It's not the years, honey. It's the mileage." -- Indiana Jones

  • Your link to The Economist throws up a paywall, at least for me :( – Andrew Dec 13 '17 at 18:51
  • I don't have a subscription. You're right: they do have a paywall, but they do allow a limited number of accesses (if you register, you are allowed 3 articles per week). Actually, I've just realised that I haven't quoted the entire article. I'm not sure if the site rules allow it, anyway. – Mick Dec 13 '17 at 18:55
  • That's a lot. How can a foreign speaker learn these 35.000 words? You are lucky as you are a native speaker :( – dBio Dec 13 '17 at 19:07
  • @NickBoss No two native English speakers will know the same 35,000 words (and not even the same 20,000 words). Treat these figures with a "grain of salt" (don't take them too seriously). Learn the words in your key vocabulary (whatever that is), and master grammar and pronunciation as well as you can. Don't fret about pronunciation. Most English speakers are used to foreigners struggling with the language, and will be patient with you. – Mick Dec 13 '17 at 19:30
  • @Mick What did you mean by "test-taskers"? – dBio Dec 13 '17 at 19:56

I agree with Mick that sounding like a native speaker has very little to do with the number of words you know. Just because you can give me the book definitions of (for example) "dirty", "grimy", and "squalid" doesn't mean you can use each in the correct context.

Personally, I think fluency is more about phrases than words, and more about idiom than vocabulary. For example, do you know what I mean when I say

My soda has gone flat

How about:

She flatly refused my proposal


She has a nice singing voice, but she keeps going flat.

Some English words have as many as a dozen different meanings, depending on context. A fluent speaker would know most or all of them, or at least be able to take a good guess.

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    @Sara 1. the soda has lost its carbonation -- that is, there are no more bubbles, 2. she refused my proposal without listening to any counter-argument, 3. the singer's notes are slightly below perfect pitch (flat here is actually more a musical term than an idiom). But I wasn't really trying to test you, I just wanted to give an example where a simple word like "flat" can have many different meanings, in different contexts. I'm sure it's similar with your own native language. – Andrew Dec 13 '17 at 20:39
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    When I was learning Japanese I spent a lot of time listening to native speakers and copying their patterns. While this got me in trouble in some ways, it did help me sound more fluent because I would use natural-sounding, complete sentences. – Andrew Dec 13 '17 at 20:40
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    I've been learning English for so long that my academic and formal vocabulary is analogous to a native speaker's. I'm still struggling, however, with informal and slang language because these require a lot of practise, which I don't have access to. To make up for the fact that language immersion is missing I've been adopting an approach that has proved effective. I've downloaded and watched every single episode of the TV show Friends 5 times over a period of 5 years. I've learned the script by heart. Breaking Bad is next. – Sara Dec 13 '17 at 21:09
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    @Sara my ex-wife learned her English the same way, by watching Friends and Seinfeld. Both are a little dated now, but still pretty funny. I haven't watched all of Breaking Bad but be aware some of the characters have a strong accent and use a lot of slang expressions associated with criminals (which you shouldn't use unless you want to sound like a drug dealer ;) – Andrew Dec 13 '17 at 21:33
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    @Sara I've heard Breaking Bad is extremely good, and most of the characters talk in standard American English. You should be able to figure out which ones are using dialect, so it should be educational. – Andrew Dec 14 '17 at 5:12

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