As language learners, we’re all seeking that “magic” number that will tip up over the edge from decent speaker to “fluent” speaker. But what is that number? Do we need to know the same number as native speakers? In English, for example, the average native speaker knows about 20,000 words. That goes up to 40,000 words when we’re talking about college-educated people.
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So, would a learner of English or any other language need to reach tens of thousands of words to be fluent? Even natives only regularly make use of a quarter or so of the words in their daily writing --- emails, notes, text messages, etc. So, how many words do you really need to know before we can say that you are “fluent”?
What is Fluency?
The first thing to discuss is what “fluency” really means in the grand scheme of things. Is fluency really just a question of a number of vocabulary words that you know, or is it something bigger and more involved? Here are some different ideas on how we understand the concept of “fluency” in language:
· The ability to speak in another language without hesitation or forethought
· Knowledge of all essential and many non-essential vocabulary words
· Thinking in a foreign language
· Being able to hold conversations on virtually any non-professional topic with native speakers
· Confidence and competence in all the core skills: speaking, reading, listening and writing
You can already see words that are debatable. For example, “without hesitation or forethought,” how long a gap of hesitation would constitute “not fluent”? Three seconds or more? Who knows? Also, “confidence and competence,” how do we measure that?
These questions and more are why “fluency” is actually a tough concept to nail down. We do have several systems in place already, however, which we will look at below.
Language Levels: CEFR
Some believe that if you reach the right level on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), such as C1 or C2, then you are essentially fluent. CEFR guidelines say that someone with this level certified can:
· Understand with ease virtually everything heard or read
· Summarize information from different spoken and written sources
· Reconstruct arguments and accounts
· Express themselves spontaneously
In the minds of many, this is a good measure of fluency. Someone holding C2 level would have an active vocabulary of 10,000 and a passive vocabulary of around 20,000. That’s in line with what information shows is the average for a native speaker to know.
Focusing on Frequency
Another method that language learners use to achieve fluency faster is to focus only on high-frequency words. In other words, they quickly learn the words that people use the most, and thus gain the ability to communicate well with most native speakers in that target language.
Let’s say we have a German learner trying to master English. In the English language, about 95 percent of everyday talk is drawn from a very limited pool of just 3,000 words. Therefore, mastering these 3,000 words first makes you quite able to keep up with vast majority of everyday conversation.
After that, you can use what is known as the Pareto Principle, which suggests that 80 percent of any set of problems are the result of just 20 percent of the causes. Therefore, if you fix 20 percent of your language-learning problem roots, then you get a much greater relative benefit.
Using this principle, language learners can laser focus their learning to gain apparent fluency in a relatively short time. They can do this by spending less time on vocabulary, only picking up definition that are commonly known. Words like “murder” for example mean in English the premeditated killing of another person. It is also the collective noun for a group of crows. Almost everyone knows the former, but very few know the latter, making it less useful.
This kind of frequency-based learning creates a feeling of fluency quickly, but is it really fluency? It’s a riskier idea because if you come across areas on which you have little or no knowledge, then you get stuck and your momentum stalls.
Word Counting – Is It Useful for Fluency
You can try to build to an international standard like C2 and gain a recognizably large vocabulary. Alternatively, you can work towards building a targeted vocabulary based on frequency. In both cases, you may appear fluent to others. So, is counting the number of words you know really that important?
Perhaps a better strategy is simply to focus on another of the criteria we mentioned further above, which is self-expression. When you are able to express your ideas confidently and smoothly into another language, regardless of what they are, it would be fair to say that you have achieved fluency, even if your vocabulary grammar aren’t always perfect.
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