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How many words do you need to know in English?

Obviously, it depends on how you want to use your language. Some people are happy with casual chats on holiday and others want to read classical literature in the original. And there’s a huge difference in the number of words one has to know for these two purposes to feel comfortable.

Also, ‘knowing a word’ is not easy to define. Is it about knowing its meaning? translation? being able to make a sentence with it or just recognising it in context? After all, just knowing words is not enough – one has to put them together in coherent and grammatically correct sentences and choose the ones that fit the context the best.

On the other hand, if you can measure your passive knowledge of vocabulary, why not? If I can see the results of a vocab test (and a grammar test) from a new student, I usually get a good idea of their passive knowledge before even speaking to them.

So it’s worth a try anyway.

If you do this test once a year or every 6 months, it can show you how your vocab is growing and whether it’s enough for the level you’re currently at.

Here’s a test to estimate your passive vocabulary.

The test will take you about 5 minutes to complete – you’ll need to put ticks next to the words you know.

About the test

The dictionary the test uses has about 45 000 entries. It would be extremely hard to test users on all of them, so the test uses clever sampling (you see only about 120 words) and some maths to estimate your vocab.

At the first step you’ll have 40 words to choose from (to determine your approximate level). The second step takes you further and contains around 120 words.

The samples have been chosen not to be words that are

  • easily guessed, e.g. ‘unhappy’;
  • easily confused with each other, e.g. ‘lesson’ and ‘lesser’;
  • specifically American or British, slang, scientific/medical, archaic words, animals or ingredients;
  • rarely used alone, e.g. “lop” => “lop off” (=”chop”);
  • cognates or false-friends with Portuguese, i.e. words from Romance languages.

So the words you see in the test are broad, general English words.

These are the estimates for each level against which you can measure your results:

  • A1 – 500+ headwords
  • A2 – 1 000+ headwords
  • B1 – 2 000+ headwords
  • B2 – 4 000+ headwords
  • C1 – 8 000+ headwords
  • C2 – 16 000+ headwords

where “headwords” are the words that “start” a word family and include its inflections (other words made by adding suffixes and prefixes to the base), e.g. – run, running, ran OR paint, painting, repainted.

And here are some interesting facts to help to interpret the results:

  • 1000 headwords will allow you to understand about 80% of the language which surrounds you, if it is not too specialised;
  • With 3000 headwords you’ll be able to understand about 95% of most ordinary texts and dialogue in film or TV (if you are ok with the pace of spoken language and the accent used);
  • 5000 headwords let you understand about 98% of most ordinary texts, which also means you’ll be able to guess new words from the context;
  • 10 000 headwords will account for about 99% of most texts;
  • The C2 level with 16 000+ approximately matches the level of a native high school (not university!) graduate. So passing the CPE test is quite an achievement, but in terms of passive vocab it’s similar to a native teenager or an adult without higher education;
  • A university graduate will have something starting from 20 000 headwords, most likely 30 000 – 40 000 and I have even seen a figure of up to 70 000 – 80 000 (!) words (I would make a guess that’s for university professors of the English language and literature).

To give you a better idea of what 80%, 95%, 98% and 99% understanding of a text is, look at these figures.

The whole article has 445 unique words.

  • If you understand 80% of it, you’ll find 89 (!) unknown words,
  • If it’s 95%, you’ll find 22 unknown words.
  • If it’s 98%, you’ll find 8 unknown words.
  • If it’s 99%, you’ll find 4 unknown words.

The importance of being realistic

I think these are some very eye-opening figures, especially for those students who keep saying ‘I want to speak fluently like a native speaker’. Speaking skills are like the tip of an iceberg – they depend on what we’ve read/ heard + the amount of speaking practice we’ve got.

So if we think of a native speaker with higher education, that would mean that these students want to be C2 and then get some education in the language. Or read many books including classics and poetry, watch tons of news, series, talks, documentaries, lectures and the like. Still, it may be almost an impossible task to match your first language passive vocab.

My story, if you’re interested

I did my CPE exam in 2014 and got a B. I did it after university and two years of preparation in a language school. At that time I already worked as a teacher, working mostly with B1 students and beginning to teach B2. But the exam was incredibly difficult for me. I almost failed the writing part. Then, in 2017, I found this passive vocab test and got about 14 000 (3 years after the exam and teaching B2-C1 then). So finally it was clear why the exam had been so hard – my passive vocab was clearly not enough!

Now I usually score about 17 000 – 18 000 words. It’s not a big increase but now almost all words from Advanced learning books seem very familiar, to the point of being a bit boring. It’s also easy to read/ listen to most things on the Internet, including news articles, research papers, and talks by university professors.

With books, that can be 1-2 new words across several pages, and I usually just guess their meaning. Still, my reading speed is about 30% slower than in Russian. But in general it feels comfortable.

How many headwords would you like to know?

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