Like the fish that swims in the ocean all his life yet never gets to know what water is, we do not tend to think too often about language, probably since we are fully immersed in it all the time. Luckily for us, some people do think about language often and even study and measure all its fascinating complexities.

For example, have you ever thought of the number of words that we use on a given day? Or how many words do we come in contact with - and manage to remember - throughout our entire lives? A recent study revealed that most adults have a vocabulary range of about 20,000 to 35,000 words, and that, while most of us learn almost 1 new word per day during most of our lives, vocabulary growth usually stops around middle age.

Differences in vocabulary growth by age

How many words can an average English-speaking person assimilate in different stages of their lives? According to various researchers, the following numbers represent normal figures for each age group:

  • Ages 1 to 3 - children can recognize around 50 words or more
  • Ages 3 to 5 - children recognize 1,000 words or more
  • Ages 5 and upwards - children can recognize more than 10,000 words

As you might guess, this trend keeps going up into adulthood, until it reaches an average per adult of 42,000 words or a bit more. By age 60, this number is a bit higher, reaching an average of 48,000 words.

How many words do we actually use on an everyday basis? – Active and Passive vocabularies

Researchers establish a difference between our active and passive vocabularies to better illustrate how most adults actually make use of their linguistic inventory. Active vocabulary includes all the words we have learned and used in our daily lives as English speakers, while passive vocabulary encompasses all words we are capable of recalling but have never been able to use in speaking or writing yet. 

With these differences in mind, some experts consider that most adult English speakers have an average active vocabulary of around 20,000 words, while their passive vocabulary can be way higher, closer to 40,000 words. However, realistically only around 1,000 words are used in 89% of everyday speaking and writing.

How many words do you need to speak a language?

Researchers of applied linguistics have discovered that the most effective way to be able to speak a new language in record time would be to learn the 800 to 1,000 most common words. With that knowledge, according to the experts, you should be able to understand around 75% of the language spoken in everyday life.

However, if you wish to understand more complex dialogues in movies or TV you will need to step up your language practice and learn at least the 3,000 most common words. Delving into the world of the written word - books, newspapers, etc. - will be quite a challenge from there, since you will need to learn around 8,000 to 9,000 words!

But as a non-native speaker, knowing this large amount of words might prove difficult. According to many studies, while typically native speakers know about 15,000 to 20,000-word families, for those who are learning a second language this feat might be extraordinarily difficult, averaging only around 2,000 to 3,000 words even after years of studies.

In any case, the key lies in the frequency with which the words you know appear in everyday use - if you master these core 800 to 1,000 words, you will be able to speak fluently and understand easily in most situations. While learning new words is always a pleasure, you clearly don’t need all of them to chat with friends, order food at a restaurant, or just go about your normal life.

Still thirsty for more captivating language facts? Stay around to read more content on topics relating to language, weird and beautiful words, and many things lost in translation.