Do you find it difficult to speak English fluently and confidently, even after many months or years of study?
If so, this post may help you understand your situation more clearly, and offer some helpful tips.
Let’s begin by looking at a few numbers:
- According to research, most native English speakers know 3,000–4,000 words by the time they begin attending school (at age 5–6), and 15,000–20,000 words by the time they reach university. 1
- In comparison, many non-native speakers know only 2,000 words in English, even after many years of study. One group of researchers found that, in some school programs, students learn just 1 new word for each hour of class time. 2
- Other researchers have found that, to understand a conversation, you need to know at least 95% of the words that you hear. For a typical conversation, this equates to knowing the 3,000 most frequent English words. 3
Do you notice a problem here?
Why You Can’t Speak English Fluently
The numbers above present an interesting picture of this thing we call ‘fluency’.
If we look at native English adults, we find that they use just 16% of the words they know to express 95% of what they typically want to say. Perhaps because they use them so often, these words seem to simply roll off the tongueroll off the tongue: an idiom to describe a word or phrase that is easy to say.
These numbers also seem to confirm what you may have noticed about children: by the age of five, they sound amazingly ‘fluent’ and can understand and take part in many conversations with adults, despite their smaller vocabulary.
These 3,000 words 4 appear to be extremely important, both for speaking and for understanding your conversation partner.
By contrast, few non-native speakers learn English the way children do, by listening and speaking. Instead, their lessons tend to focus on learning advanced grammar.
This may be one reason why you can’t speak English fluently. Whereas non-native speakers have a small vocabulary and big concern for grammar, native speakers rely on simple grammar and a larger vocabulary in order to communicate quickly.
Another good reason for increasing your vocabulary: when you understand 95% of spoken English, you can more easily enjoy and learn from spoken content, including films, TV series, YouTube videos, and podcasts.
Moreover, you can focus more easily things like pronunciation, idioms, grammar, as well as that other 5% of not-so-frequent vocabulary. 5
How to Learn New Vocabulary Quickly
There are many methods to new words, such as flash cards or the goldlist method, and it’s worthwhile to try these techniques for a couple weeks in order to see if they’re a good fit for your personal learning style.
You can also discover some interesting techniques from polyglotspolyglot: someone who speaks or uses many different languages like Luca, a fluent English speaker from Italy:
On the other hand, you might also find that ‘natural’ methods are more effective. Think about the way children learn their first language. They don’t use flashcards or smartphone apps; they simply do lots of listening (and later on, lots of reading).
Looking again at the numbers above, we can see that native English speakers learn about 1,000 words per year during their time in school. That may seem dauntingdaunting: causing anxiety or fear because something is difficult or dangerous, but it’s only 20 words per week, or 2–3 words per day.
Interestingly, researchers estimate that learners need to see a word 6–12 times for it to enter into their long-term memory. By this calculation, in order to learn the 3,000 most frequent English words you could simply read for 10 minutes per day. 6
One important advantage of this natural approach is that you see the many meanings and uses of these high-frequency words in different contexts.
For example: the word ‘look’ is one of the 100 most common words in English, but it means something different in look at a picture, look confused, look forward to, look something up, give someone a look, and have a look around. It’s difficult to learn all of these phrases from a single flashcard or simple program like Duolingo.
How to Focus on Learning Useful Words
One risk with the learn-vocabulary-by-reading method, however, is that you may focus too much attention on words that are not very useful. For example, reading Harry Potter can be a good way to expand your vocabulary, but you might also squandersquander: to waste something (time, money, opportunities) unwisely your time learning unimportant words like cereal, moustache, and prickle.
One solution is to learn vocabulary from spoken content. Remember, the most frequent 3,000 words in English make up 95% of spoken content (compared to 80% in written English). The other advantage of studying spoken content is that you encounter lots of useful phrases, and the grammar is often simpler.
How to study more efficiently:
- Find a podcast transcript, movie script, or the subtitles from a YouTube video about a topic that you find interesting.
- Copy a section of the text and paste it into Oxford’s Text Checker and click Check text. The high-frequency English words will be highlighted in 4 colors; low-frequency words will remain black.
- Focus on learning the colored words first. Add to your study routine (flashcards, goldlist, etc) any unfamiliar words.
- After studying the colored words, turn your attention to the black (low-frequency) words. You can look these words up in a dictionary, but don’t add them to your study routine thoughtlessly. First ask yourself if you expect to use this word in a normal conversation. Do you love to eat cereal? Do you know someone with a moustache? Are you a wizard with a scar that prickles? If not, don’t waste your time learning these low-frequency words.
- Finally, listen to the podcast / movie / video again. Pay attention to the pronunciation and other spoken aspects of the content. To practice your speaking, pause and repeat words and phrases that you can imagine using in a conversation.
This method may initially seem difficult, but it has the advantage of exercising your reading, listening, and speaking skills — while also avoiding the distraction of unimportant vocabulary and the complex grammar of other written texts.
Last but not leastlast but not least: a common phrase to emphasize that something is important, even though it is the final item: take a close look at the Oxford 3000 word list, which offers clear definitions, example sentences, helpful collocations, and pronunciation of these common words in both British and American English.
Footnotes & References
Carlo, Maria S., et al. “Closing the Gap: Addressing the Vocabulary Needs of English-Language Learners in Bilingual and Mainstream Classrooms” The Journal of Education, vol. 189, no. 1/2, 2008. ↩︎
Schmitt, Norbert, and Diane Schmitt. “A Reassessment of Frequency and Vocabulary Size in L2 Vocabulary Teaching” Language Teaching, vol. 47, no. 4, 2014. ↩︎
There is some disagreement between researchers — and a lot of confusion among ordinary people — about what constitutes a single ‘word’. Should we consider teach and taught as two different words? What about teaching, teacher, and teachable? The researchers I cite in this post consider all of these variations to be part of one ‘word family’. For the sake of easy reading, however, I use the word ‘word’ as short-hand for ‘word family’. So, when I say ‘3,000 words’, I actually mean 3,000 word families. ↩︎
Don’t be fooled by the numbers here! ‘Five percent’ may seem like a small number of words, but in fact I’m referring to the other 15,000+ words that native English speakers can understand after 12 years of education. That’s not a small task. ↩︎
This is a very rough estimate, based on (a) the statistical frequency of these 3,000 words, (b) a reading speed of 150 words per minute, and (c) the necessity of reading these words 6-12 times in order for them to enter into your long-term memory. The researchers also suggest that learners read for 50 minutes per week (5 days, 10 minutes each) for 40 weeks. See Webb, Stuart, and Paul Nation. How Vocabulary Is Learned. Oxford University Press, 2017. ↩︎
Photo by Fabrizio Frigeni