Vocabulary happens to be the single biggest motivation-killer when it comes to learning a foreign language. As we speak, countless Spanish learners around the world are throwing in the towel out of frustration brought about by an ocean of intimidating words alien to their English ears. But guess what, it doesn’t have to go down that way by any stretch. Not only is it incredibly easy to tame Spanish words regardless of how unfamiliar they sound, it’s also not even necessary to tame them all to begin with!
Let’s shelve Spanish for a minute and take English as an example. Do you really think you know every word in that big fat dictionary on your shelf? Unless you’re a Nobel Laureate in Literature, chances are you don’t have even half of them down which is fine because that doesn’t make you any less competent when it comes to holding complex conversations with absolute confidence in English. Your English vocabulary was even more limited when you were younger and yet your fluency was no different. That’s how it works with all languages. Yes there are figuratively an infinite number of words in the language with new ones being churned out every day, but not all words matter the same. So how many is good enough when it comes to Spanish? That’s what we will talk about over the next 10-odd minutes.
First Things First, Let’s Define Word
Well, duh. Before we start with how many words, it only makes sense to first understand what even qualifies as one in this context. Typically one could argue it’s just a string of letters that doesn’t look like a computer-generated password. That definition holds water in every sense. But for our purposes, a little more nuance is necessary. We have to establish which ones count and which ones don’t.
Let’s take the word run, for instance. To the plebs that’s one word, not to the linguists. As language-ninjas we have to differentiate between the various contexts the word is used in. Are we talking about run, the noun? Or are we talking about run, the verb? The two contexts could mean entirely unrelated usage which is why, for our purposes the two variants count as two independent words. On the other hand, how do you see the various forms of run, the verb? To others, run and running count as two words but to us, they’re one. That’s because although different in spelling, they imply the same action. So you see a word for us language lovers is not the same as a word for the rest of the world. Linguistic prudes use a special term for this situation to keep outsiders at bay: lexeme. So, run, the verb, and run, the noun, are two different lexemes. And on the other hand, run, running, and ran is one lexeme. But we’re not prudes and we’ll just call them words. This little preamble on words might sound silly but was important because when we talk about how many words to learn, you’ve got to know which ones lest you wind up with a wrong count.
So How Many?
Insanely extensive studies have been performed on this subject by language fanatics all over the world so we lesser mortals could have a ready two-bit answer at our disposal without much efforts. This is no easy feat and involves more collective elbow oil than you and I can afford in a lifetime. The subject I’m referring to is commonly titled word-frequency. The good news is that they all concur on the viability of learning a very small subset of the entire word-corpus to get increasingly proficient in any given language. The law of diminishing results applies here as well so beyond a certain point, the number of additional words needed to make a practical difference to your proficiency increases exponentially. The not-so-good news is that the studies don’t have a lot of consensus when it comes to which words one should prioritize. Yet again, the good news is that this subjectivity doesn’t really matter a whole lot up to a certain level of proficiency.
Ever heard of the famous 80-20 rule? Well, that is the key here. Studies say, only 20% of the entire lexicon accounts for 80% of all day-to-day communications in any given language, give or take. That should immediately brighten you up! One of the most heavily referenced studies of this kind for the Spanish language was conducted in 2005 by a professor of Applied Linguistics at Brigham Young University named Mark Davis. A bachelor’s with double major in linguistics and Spanish language, a master’s in Spanish linguistics, and a doctorate in linguistics and Iberoromance philology mean one thing beyond all doubts: That this man is not fooling around and when he talks, you’d do well to pay attention.
The widely-acknowledged paper he published his findings in is titled Selected Proceedings of the 7th Hispanic Linguistics Symposium. I know that sounds intimidating six ways to Sunday which is why I won’t ask you to go look it up unless you were thoroughly intrigued. For the ones who are too lazy for that like me, here’s a brief of his conclusions: You only need a real small vocabulary to get going in Spanish and by small, I mean less than 2,000 words! Okay that’s too brief, I guess, so here’s a little more perspective to understand numbers:
- 1,000 words: This will have you covered for around 77% of all written and 90% of all verbal communications.
- 2,000 words: This many words cover 85% of all text and 93% of all speech.
- 3,000 words: Master this many words and you’re good for 90% of all written and 94% of all verbal stuff.
Suddenly Spanish vocabulary doesn’t look all that big, does it? At least now you have a concrete number to strive for and goals always make things more doable. If you noticed, something very interesting comes out of this. While the first 1,000 words get you from 0% to 77%, the next 1,000 add only another 8% to your comprehension. This is what I meant by laws 0f diminishing results. But don’t let that discourage you. Another fun conclusion is that you need far fewer words for verbal proficiency than for written. That also makes sense since people tend to use simpler words while speaking as they don’t have much time to think. On the other hand you can take all the time to come up with flowery words and metaphors while writing which explains the lower percentage for reading comprehension for the same amount of words.
Of course, these are just theoretical values and real-life communications are not all math and numbers. Several nuances play a role in making matters more complicated for you in real-life than a study would indicate, e.g., rate of speech, accent, colloquialism, etc. But these numbers are fairly viable benchmarks to work toward. Still better than having to cram up the whole dictionary like a maniac, right?
Like I said earlier, words in this context do not stand for words in the traditional sense; they represent ideas and context. So if I tell you hablar (to speak) is one of the first 1,000 words to learn, it inherently includes all its conjugated forms too, such as hablando (speaking) or hablaba (spoke). Those derivatives do not get counted separately. Similarly, la (the) and la (her) are two separate words because they convey entirely independent meanings. So you see, 1,000 words could quickly bloat up to a whole lot more if you account for every included verb’s conjugated forms. Despite that, I’d say this is a welcome bargain. I mean consider the street-cred you’ll gain with just a thousand-odd words of Spanish! Even if you trotted along at a mere 5 words a day, you’re there in less than 7 months. Here’s a more granular interpretation of the aforementioned study to further inspire you:
- 250 words: This is the very core of Spanish; this is what you’ll need at the very least in order to be able to construct some very basic sentences and expressions.
- 750 words: This is about the number of words a native speaker uses in most day-to-day chatter.
- 2,500 words: This many words is all you need to express most anything in fits and starts.
- 5,000 words: This is the net word-inventory of a native Spanish speaker didn’t go beyond high-school.
- 10,000 words: A native Spanish speaker with academics words bragging about has around this many words in his vocabulary.
- 20,000 words: Ace this many words and you should sail past bodies of literary works by renowned Spanish language writers.
With vocabulary goals condensed in such palatable numbers, your endeavors should certainly look a lot more affordable now. Use these milestones and you’ll see your confidence grow with every little conquest.
Eat a Balanced Diet…even If It’s Just Words
Any lexicon is a soup of different parts of speech. There’s nouns, there’s verbs, there’s adjectives, and so on. Not all words are needed in equal numbers. This holds true for every language including Spanish. That’s why just knowing that you have 1,000 words to memorize is not enough. Think about it, what good is a vocabulary of just 1,000 nouns with no verbs, adjectives, or adverbs is going to be in a conversation? You have to have bits of everything. And just as is the case with food, you cannot have an equal number of nouns, pronouns, verbs, etc. in your arsenal and expect to conquer the streets. It doesn’t work that way.
Take English again, for instance. Pay attention to any random conversation and try taking note of how many of each type of words were uttered. Did you hear an equal number of everything? No. You heard far more nouns than verbs and you heard much fewer adverbs, if any. Some conversations might go without any adjectives at all, others might do away with adverbs. None would go without nouns and verbs though. So there’s a clear pattern for you to observe: More nouns are used than verbs, more verbs are used than adjectives, more adjectives are used than adverbs, and so on. So it’s important to break down your target word-count into each of these categories for the efforts to ever pay off.
Let’s say you’re aiming for a 90% reading comprehension target. That means 3,000 words. Here’s what Davies has to say about optimally balancing this count across nouns, pronouns, etc.:
- Noun: 2,040 words (68%)
- Adjective: 780 words (25%)
- Verb: 180 words (6%)
- Adverb: 40 words (1%)
That’s, of course, an extremely simplistic distribution and does not account for other smaller but equally important parts of speech such as conjunctions, prepositions, and pronouns; these consist of so few words that you practically need all of them.
Do understand though, that for each of those 180 verbs, you also need to account the various conjugated forms for the corpus to be any good in real-life scenarios. Same goes for nouns and adjectives where inflections like gender and number don’t get counted but are obviously essential nonetheless.
This should give you a good starting point to plan your vocabulary goals and measure your progress in numbers. Although I have only discussed the numbers, the actual words that count toward each level of proficiency are easy to find. A simple Google search would get you dozens, if not hundreds, of sites offering these lists. Just search for something like “Spanish word frequency list” or “top 1,000 Spanish words” and you’ll be spoilt for choice. Do make sure that you don’t attempt to just memorize those words, list after list. That won’t get you far enough and you’ll forget most of them. This is an incredibly boring way of acquiring new words as well. Always learn new words in context. Context is what makes the words stick. Look up the context section on this site if you need help with any word.