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English vocabulary size

Have you ever wondered about how many words the average English speaker knows? Estimates vary widely, partly because of how you define the terms "word" and "know" and the type of vocabulary—reading, speaking, listening, and writing.


Some researchers agree that the number is 10,000 to 20,000 words, but other estimates are much higher. Various estimates depend on what it means to "know" a word, what counts as a "word," and who counts as "average?" Even what is meant by "vocabulary size" is not straightforward. (And as "straightforward" shows, words can consist of other words joined.) Also, should you count all forms of base words, which may include prefixes, suffixes, and even recursive suffixes, as in "nation," "national," "nationalize," "nationalization," and "nationalizational"?


Richard Lederer, a lion among linguists, tells us that English is the most cheerfully democratic language in the history of mankind. It has 616,500 entries in the Oxford English Dictionary. This compares with a vocabulary of about 185,000 words for German, 130,000 for Russian, and 100,000 for French. Yet the average English speaker possesses a vocabulary of 10,000 to 20,000 words, he says, but actually uses only a fraction of that, the rest being recognition or recall vocabulary. Another source says that English speakers use only about 400 words 80 percent of the time.


Literacy and amount of reading are highly correlated with vocabulary size (e.g. Nagy and Anderson, 1984), so an adult that does not read habitually would have a much smaller vocabulary than an adult that reads voluminously. Nagy and Anderson (1984) estimated that an average high school senior knows 45,000 words, but other researchers have estimated that the number is much closer to 17,000 words (D'Anna, Zechmeister, & Hall, 1991) or 5,000 words (Hirsh & Nation, 1992). Surely, dramatically different estimates depend on the three variables mentioned above, namely, what does it mean to "know" a word, what counts as a "word," and who counts as "average."





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