Why is it taking so long to learn English?
Do you remember when you started learning English? It was so easy and fun! You learned so many new words. It was easy to learn words like dog and house and cheese. Before you knew it, you could form a sentence. One day you realized you could have a basic conversation with someone in English. That was exciting!
Then, something happened, and you’re not quite sure what. It’s taking more and more time now just to make small 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 native language (the first language you learned to speak and are fluent in, and the language you use every day).
It seems to be taking a long time to learn English.
This is a chart from Oxford Dictionaries website. 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 has information on all the words native English speakers use in speaking and writing. The people who put together the Oxford Dictionaries examined the OEC to see how many words native speakers actually use. In this chart, 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 everything native speakers say and write. You need to know 100 words to understand 50% of everything native speakers say and write, and 1000 words to understand 75% of all the words used in common, everyday 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 everything they say and write!
To move from the intermediate level to the advanced or 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. 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.
You don’t need to know all 1 million+ words in the English language. I am a native speaker, and I don’t know all 1 million+ words in English.
In the chart above from Oxford Dictionaries, I know all the words like at the 90% level. I can use all those words in a sentence. At the 95% level, I can understand the words saboteur, autocracy, and conformist. I have probably read them in a book at some point in my life, but I don’t use them in my everyday conversation. In fact, I don’t think I have EVER used those words in conversation!. At the 99% level, I have no idea what those words mean. I have never seen those words before, and I’m confident I don’t need to know them.
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 common words used in English. You need to know those words 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 advanced, rare words. [Click to tweet this!]
How do I learn all 7000 core vocabulary words?
There is no list of all 7000 words, but there are resources on the internet that can help you identify core vocabulary words.
Oxford Dictionaries has a list of what it has identified as the 3000 most common words used in English. Oxford calls these words keywords. When you see or hear a new word, you can check this list and see if the word is on this list. When you look up a word in the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary (choose “American English”), you will see a key symbol identifying the word as one of the 3000 most common words on Oxford’s list.
Oxford Dictionaries also has an excellent resource called the Text Checker. You can copy and paste any text into the box, and click on “Check Text.” It will tell if you any words in your text are not on the keyword list.
Merriam-Webster’s Learner’s Dictionary also has a list of the 3000 most common words in English. Merriam-Webster calls these words core vocabulary. When you see or hear a new word, you can check this list and see if the word is on this list. There is no symbol in the listing that will tell you if it is a core vocabulary word. However, the Learner’s Dictionary has a great feature where you can save a word by clicking on the red star. You can return later to see your own list of words and study them. You need to set up an account with the Learner’s Dictionary to do this. (The Merriam-Webster’s Learner’s Dictionary focuses on American English.)
The Macmillan Online Dictionary has the best resource for identifying core vocabulary words. Macmillan has identified the 7500 most common words in English and calls this group of words core vocabulary. Macmillan does not publish a list of words in this group, but it has an excellent way of identifying core vocabulary words. When you look up a word in the Macmillan online dictionary, the word will either be red or black. If the word is black, it is not a core vocabulary word. It is just a reference word. If the word is red, however, it is a core vocabulary word. Further, Macmillan has a star system to identify how common the word is.
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. 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. One red star * means that the word is one of the next 2500 most common words.
The Macmillan dictionary has very comprehensive entries for red words. You can see in the above listing for opinion, there is a long list of collocations, phrases, and sentence structures that go with the word. (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.)
In the Oxford Dictionaries chart at the start of this article, 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 conversation.
Don’t panic. Don’t get discouraged. Be excited!
Throughout this website and my listening lessons, I use the term core vocabulary to mean that 7000 words that Oxford Dictionaries identified as 90% of everything native speakers say and write. I check the words in all three dictionaries.
This entire post was written using core vocabulary. The only words in this entire article that are not core vocabulary are:
- calyx (and I only used that word as an example of reference vocabulary)
- blog, download, podcast (these words are still fairly new and are becoming common, everyday words)
- indefinitely (used in a quote from another blog)
- keyword (the name of Oxford Dictionaries’ list of common words)
Did you notice that there were a few words in this article in purple? Those words may seem like difficult or advanced words, but they are part of core vocabulary and you need to know those words, too!
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 and they have not yet mastered English.
You 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! You are one word closer to being fluent and sounding like a native speaker!
Listen to the English Teacher Melanie Podcast
I created this podcast for you. The purpose of this podcast is to help you learn, understand, and remember core vocabulary.
The English Teacher Melanie podcast is a series of listening lessons. Each listening lesson includes a story. I write each story using core vocabulary. Each story is about something that happened in my daily life in Canada. It is easier to remember new words when you can connect the word to a real event.
Remember, not only do you need to know a word, you need to be able to use a word in a sentence and in conversation. If you try to learn too many words in one 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!
What do you think? Are you ready to focus on core vocabulary? How can you add core vocabulary to your daily studies?
(Please note: this article has been rewritten since it was first published in 2012. I have updated the information on how to identify core vocabulary words.)