How Many Words Do I Need to Learn?

Azulejo 16Learning a language can feel like climbing a mountain sometimes. For every word you learn there are certainly a thousand more. I know that I don’t know every word in the English language so it is unlikely I shall ever learn every word in the Portuguese language!

Whilst fluency is always the goal of the language learner, we need to keep an eye on the basics of language: learning those words that we know we will need to use at some time or another. Of all the hundreds of thousands of words in any given language, we only tend to use a certain percentage of them. Some people have a greater vocabulary than others but a lot of the time we use basic staples. For example I know what the words ‘rhetoric’ ‘lapel’ and ‘usurp’ mean but they are not part of my everyday language. Much the same goes for ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’ which I think I can safely say will never get a look-in in a conversation (and this will be the only time I ever write it!). Words that we know the meaning of but never use are called ‘passive’ words by linguists.

When faced with that very high mountain, one of the best things you can do for yourself is to relax and accept you are never going to learn every word there is in your target language. Once you have done this, you can then rest in the knowledge that it is positively ok not to learn every single word you come across.

For example I don’t drive (I passed my test but I just never liked it). Therefore I really don’t need to learn all the parts of a car in Portuguese because it’s unlikely I’ll ever really need them. If I happen to learn them along the way that’s fine but I will not be going out of my way to learn them. My good friends here will probably secretly smile if they read this and remember the time when I drove my battered Morris Minor down the street, steam pouring from every crevice whilst onlookers stared. I had no idea what was wrong with it until my horrified friend asked me when was the last time I filled the water tank up? My reply was

“I have to put water in it as well as petrol?”

Enough said – I promise I will never drive!

The motto of this story is that there are words which you are going to need and words which you aren’t. Don’t be afraid of learning those that you personally will need. There are of course many words which most of us know but then we also have our own specialisms and interests. I know what ‘arm’ and ‘leg’ mean and most of the internal organs in the body but I don’t need the knowledge a doctor has. If you are a doctor however then yes you will need to learn the words that relate to your profession.

If you are feeling overwhelmed by the task of learning a language then try to approach it like any other complicated goal and break it down into manageable chunks.

There was an interesting short article on a site called Lingua Guide (now defunct) that suggested that an educated European probably uses between 10 and 20 thousand words. Now that is still a vast sum to learn. What interests me is the next level down where the article suggests that at around 8000 words you will have enough vocabularly to communicate freely with others. This suddenly sounds a lot more achievable doesn’t it? Is the mountain still looking really big or has it shrunk in size yet?

If you learned just five words a day for 5 years you would have learned those 8000 words. I know I have days when I learn more than 5 Portuguese words.

Let’s break it down some more…

Look around your home, your place of work, the places you go for recreation. What do you do for recreation? What do you wear? What do you eat? What do you read? What kind of people do you like or dislike? What would you say if asked to describe your day or yourself? Every word you just thought is a probably a word you will need.

Think about the above subjects and pick one of them. To start you off, I’m going to look at my home. I live in a flat in a city. It has 5 rooms: one living room, one bedroom, one study, one kitchen, one bathroom, and a balcony. These are all words I need to learn in Portuguese so I can describe my home.

I’ll break it down again…
Let’s take my kitchen – In there I have a cooker, fridge, washing machine, kettle, cutlery and of course food.

Slowly I am breaking down the words I know into manageable lists or words that have a common theme. I can keep breaking it down until I have a list of cutlery and a list of food. Food can be broken down to types of food that I like and dislike.

Working with lists has really helped me to have structure around my vocabularly learning and I will be sharing many of them with you. Working with small chunks of a language means that you can focus without becoming overwhelmed, safe in the knowledge that your overall vocabulary is gradually increasing day by day.

I shall start you off with one extremely important list which was devised by Tony Buzan and appeared in his book “Use Your Memory”. As the creator of mind-maps (another technique I shall explore at a later date) this man is a genius when it comes to memory techniques and has some amazing insights to share. One of these is that in just about any language there are just 100 words that make up 50% of that language!

Here is the list :-

1. A, an um, uma
2. After após
3. Again Outra Vez
4. All (the) todos os/todas as
5. Almost quase
6. Also também
7. Always sempre
8. And e
9. Because porque
10. Before antes de
11. Big grande
12. But mas
13. (I) can (eu) posso
14. (I) come (eu) venho
15. Either/or ou/ou
16. (I) find (eu) encontro
17. First primeiro/primeira
18. For para
19. Friend amigo/amiga
20. From de
21. (I) go (eu) vou
22. Good bom/boa
23. Good-bye adeus
24. Happy feliz
25. (I) have (eu) tenho
26. He ele
27. Hello olá
28. Here aqui
29. How como
30. I eu
31. (I) am (eu) sou
32. If se
33. In en
34. (I) know (eu) sei
35. Last o último
36. (I) like (eu) gosto de
37. Little pequeno
38. (I) love (eu) amo
39. (I) make (eu) faço
40. Many muito
41. One um, uma
42. More mais
43. Most (of) a maioria (de)
44. Much muito
45. My meu(s), minha(s)
46. New novo
47. No não
48. Not não
49. Now agora
50. Of de
51. Often frequentemente
52. On em
53. One um, uma
54. Only so
55. Or ou
56. Other outro
57. Our nosso
58. Out fora
59. Over sobre
60. People gente
61. Place lugar
62. Please por favor
63. Same mesmos
64. (I) see (eu) vejo
65. She ela
66. So assim
67. Some uns
68. Sometimes Às vezes
69. Still ainda
70. Such tais
71. (I) tell (eu) digo
72. Thank you obrigado/obrigada
73. That que
74. The o, a
75. Their seu (s)
76. Them eles
77. Then então
78. There is/are
79. They eles
80. Thing a coisa
81. (I) think (eu) penso
82. This isto
83. Time tempo
84. To a
85. Under abaixo de
86. Up acima de
87. Us nós
88. (I) use (eu) uso-me
89. Very muito
90. We nós
91. What que, o que
92. When quando
93. Where onde
94. Which que
95. Who quem
96. Why porque
97. With com
98. Yes sim
99. You tu/você
100. Your, your(pl) seu(s)/sua(s)

If you are still looking up at the mountain with bleary eyes then I can highly recommend using this list as a starting point for learning Portuguese (or in fact any language). Of course we need to have grammar as well as vocabularly to truly communicate in a given language but at least with vocabularly you can make yourself understood even if you aren’t eloquent.

Right then – 7900 words to go 🙂


2 comments for “How Many Words Do I Need to Learn?

  1. niconois
    April 28, 2009 at 3:58 pm

    great information, thank you for the list of words, I hadn’t heard about Tony Buzan, I will check is work out 😉

  2. Lily
    April 28, 2009 at 5:40 pm

    Thanks for your comment Niconois. Enjoy your language learning!

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