Study Tip – Core Vocabulary: The English Words You Need to Know

by Melanie on October 29, 2012

Why is it taking so long to learn English?

Do you remember when you started learning English? It was so easy & fun! You learned so many new words and it was easy to learn the words for ‘dog’ and ‘house’ and ‘cheese.’ Before you knew it, you could put together a sentence. One day you realized you could have a basic conversation with someone in English. That was awesome!

Then, something happened, and you’re not quite sure what. It’s taking more and more time now just to make the smallest improvements. When you read something, you still have to look up many words in the dictionary. You learn lots of new words but you can’t remember them all and when you want to explain your opinion, you can’t find the right words to use. You can’t express yourself as clearly as you would like to, or as clearly as you can in your mother tongue/native language.

It seems to be taking a long time to learn English.

Here’s why:

(Source: Oxford Dictionaries)
 
The Oxford English Corpus (OEC) is a collection of texts (books, newspapers, magazines, blogs, emails, speeches etc.) that shows how the English language is used in real situations. It keeps track of all the words native English speakers use in speaking & writing. It tells us the number of words that English speakers currently use.
 
A ‘lemma’ is the base form of a word; for example the lemma ‘climb’ includes the different word forms climbs, climbing, and climbed

 

According to this chart, you only need to know 10 words to understand 25% of what native speakers say and write. You need to know 100 words to understand 50% of what native speakers say & write, and 1000 words to understand 75% of all the words used in common, every day English. That’s why it was so easy to get to the intermediate level.

Congratulations! You already know at least 75% of what native speakers say and write!

Now look at the 90% level. This is the most important part of the chart. Native speakers use just 7000 words for 90% of what they say and write. [Click to tweet this!]

To move from the intermediate level to the advanced/fluent level, you need to learn 6000 more words. That’s why it seems to be taking so long!

Of course, there are more than 7000 words used in English. However, it’s impossible to count all the words in the entire language, and new words are added all the time. Here’s how the Oxford English Dictionary explains English:

English consists of a small number of very common words, a larger number of intermediate ones, and then an indefinitely long ‘tail’ of very rare terms.

 

Not all English words are equal. Learn the right words.

Those 7000 words are the key to speaking English well. Those 7000 words are the core vocabulary of English. They are the most frequently used words in English. You need to know AND be able to use those words.

The less common words are important, but they are mostly for reference. You need to know them to understand what you’re reading or listening to, but you probably don’t need to use them in your everyday conversations.

You need to spend more time learning the 7000 core vocabulary words, and less time worrying about more advanced, rare words. [Click to tweet this!]

 

How do I learn the core vocabulary of 7000 words?

1. Learn the right words.

Have you noticed that many words in this article are in red?

The Macmillan Dictionary has a great system called red words. The 7000 words (actually, Macmillan includes 7500 words) that make up the core vocabulary are in red. When you hear or see a new word, look it up in the Macmillan dictionary. If the word is in red, then it is part of the core vocabulary and you need to know this word!

 

 

You can see that there are 3 red stars *** after the word ‘opinion.’ This means that ‘opinion’ is one of the 2500 most frequently used words in English. You need to know these words, you need to understand these words, and you need to be able to use them in conversation.

The Macmillan dictionary has very comprehensive entries for red words. For example, in the definition for ‘opinion,’ you can also see collocations, phrases with ‘opinion’, ways of giving your opinion, and metaphors. You can also listen to someone pronounce the word, check different forms of the words, and find related words.

 

NOTE: The Macmillan dictionary has both British or American definitions. At the bottom of the entry, you can change to the British or American definition:

 

Here are some red 3-star words that I used in this article. You should learn & be able to use these words:
realize
improve/improvement
quite
express
seem
reference
consist
rare
waste
entry
system
relate
opportunity
clearly
entire
appear
fail

If you are a low-intermediate student, focus on the 3*** words. Make an effort to learn these words. When you feel comfortable with these words, focus on the next 2500 most common words.

 

Two red stars ** means that the word is one of the next 2500 most common words. Two-star words are part of the core vocabulary, but they are not as frequently used as the 3-star words.

2-star words used in this article:
panic
confident
comprehensive
multiple

 

One red star * means that the word is one of the next 2500 most common words.

1-star words:
rating
discourage
pace

 

Words in black in the Macmillan dictionary are not part of the core vocabulary.

In the chart above, the word the calyx appears at the 95% level. This is a black word in the Macmillan dictionary, so it’s not part of the core vocabulary. Also, it says ‘biology’, so I know that this is a word used in science, not in everyday conversations.

 

2.Listen to the English Teacher Melanie Podcast

The best way to learn new words is in the context of a larger story. The English Teacher Melanie podcast is a series of listening lessons. I use core vocabulary to tell you a story about something that happened in my daily life in Canada.

The English Teacher Melanie Podcast is a weekly audio podcast. A podcast is a series of episodes that you can subscribe to. Once a week I publish a short .mp3 file you can listen to on your computer, phone, iPod, or tablet. You can listen to it here on my website, download it to a device from my website or iTunes, or subscribe to the podcast on iTunes. It is short so that you can listen to the lessons over and over again.

 

3.Pace Yourself

Remember, not only do you need to know a word, you need to be able to use a word. If you try to learn too many words in a day, you’ll forget more than you’ll remember. One to five words a day is a good pace to improve your vocabulary. There is no time limit for learning English! You don’t have to learn every word as fast as possible.

Some words may have multiple definitions. Learn the definition in the context of where you heard/saw the word. Don’t try to memorize every single meaning of the word all at the same time.

Learning English is not a race.

 

4. Don’t panic. Don’t get discouraged. Be excited!

Seeing or hearing a new word does not mean there is a problem with your English. It does not mean that your English is worse than you thought it was. It’s just another opportunity to improve your English.

Some of my students get angry at themselves when they don’t know a word or can’t remember a word. They think that seeing or hearing a new word means they have failed & they have not yet ‘mastered’ English.

You’ll will be learning new English words for the rest of your life. Read that sentence again. Even native speakers are always learning new words, so don’t get angry with yourself because you don’t know every word in the English language. You will never know every word in the English language. I don’t know every word in the English language!

Be excited when you see a new word!

~

What do you think? Are you ready to focus on core vocabulary? How can you add core vocabulary to your daily studies?

 


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