Did you know that you only need to learn 550 words to become conversationally fluent in English? This applies to any language you’re learning, whether it be Spanish or Farsi or Japanese.

You see, all languages, at their core, are the same. In fact, all languages have three main ingredients:

  1. Words (vocabulary)
  2. Rules (grammar)
  3. Sounds (pronunciation)

That’s it. There are three main parts to any language.

The 8 Fundamental Questions When Learning Vocabulary

Let’s answer eight fundamental questions about learning vocabulary:

  1. How many words do you need to learn?
  2. What are high frequency words?
  3. What’s the difference between meaning words and grammar words?
  4. Why is it important to be able to identify nouns, verbs, adjectives?
  5. How many times do you need to meet a word before you remember it?
  6. How can you memorise words fast?
  7. How can you organise your vocabulary?
  8. What is the importance of application and consistency?

So make sure you stick around to the end, because this video could enable you to learn 94% of a language in just a few months or possibly even just a few weeks. Before we begin, make sure you hit that subscribe button for lots of great language learning videos. Ok, let’s begin by discussing how many words you need to learn.

1. How many words do you need to learn to become fluent?

Native English speakers know about 20,000 words – and it’s the same for native speakers of any other language too. 20,000 is lot of words. When you think of learning 20,000 anything, your brain explodes, and what’s worse is when I say ‘word’ I’m only counting the root words, not all the other associated words.

So the word FRIEND, for example, has lots of associated words including:

All these words are counted as one word. So a native English speaker knows 20,000 of these single root words alone.

But how many words do you need to know to become fluent in another language such as English?

Here’s the best news you’ve heard all week. You don’t need to learn 20,000 words to become fluent. You only need to learn 700 – and as I’ll explain a little later, actually only 550. That’s right. If you are smart, you can save yourself a lot of time and effort by concentrating on:

2. What are ‘High-Frequency Words’?

These 700 keywords are called ‘high frequency’ words. You see, although there are actually 600,000 words in English. We only use a tiny percentage of them in day-to-day speech. Here’s the equation which will blow your mind:

700 keywords = 94% of day to day spoken use

We can look at this another way. In nature, there are things called ‘power laws’. You may have heard of them. Sometimes they’re called Zipfian curves or the 80/20 rule. Visually, they look like this:

High-Frequency Words Uncommon Words

High Freq. Words Uncommon Words

So, while there might be 600,000 words in English, of which a native speaker knows about 20,000, you only need 700 to understand almost 10/10 words used in daily speech. And as I mentioned, it’s not actually 700 – it’s 550, because I need to explain something really important to you.

3. Whats the difference between ‘Meaning Words and Grammar Words’?

If we look at the most common 700 words in English – and this applies to all languages – you’ll notice that the most common words, the words we use in almost every sentence, all the time, are actually grammatical words. In fact, the top 20 most common words in English are all grammatical words:

You see, there are two types of words in English. There are grammatical words, like we’ve just seen, and there are meaningful words. Let me explain a bit more…

Grammatical Words

Notice how these grammatical words don’t have any or very little meaning? When I say one of these words to you, you can’t see anything with your mind. That’s because these words are kind of like the glue of language; they help stick language together.

Then we have the meaningful words – or the bricks.

Meaningful Words

Nouns, verbs and adjectives are meaningful. When I say these words they form a picture in your mind; you can see them. They have meaning.

So, the good news is you don’t have to memorise any grammar words. You learn those through practice and exposure. You only have to memorise or learn meaningful words. And because there are 150 high-frequency grammar words in English.

That means, of the 700 words, you only need to memorise 550 in total to understand 94% of spoken English.

550 words? What? You can do this. And, in the description below is a link to download these 550 most commonly used nouns, verbs and adjectives. It’s an excel spreadsheet that you can use for English or any other language.

But to use this super powerful word list you need to be able to do one thing:

4. Identify nouns, verbs, adjectives

As I mentioned, you only need to memorise nouns, verbs and adjectives. These are – by far – the most important words to learn. But you need to be able to identify these words when you see them in front of you.

For example, if you look at this sentence here, can you identify the nouns, verbs and adjectives?

The small child sat next to his young mother.

Well, the nouns – the things – are child and mother. The verb is ‘sat’ and the adjectives are small and young. The other words – the, next to and his – are grammar words.

If you need help identifying nouns, verbs and adjectives then check our free grammar course. It’s super important that you have this skill. It will make learning another language much simpler.

Now that we know what words we need to learn, let’s find out how to memorise them.

5. How many times do I need to see or hear a word before I remember it?

Let’s unpack this a little bit. The first issue I want to talk about is understanding versus using. It’s one thing to understand a word when you hear or see it, but it’s another thing to be able to use a word when speaking or writing. In fact, it’s much easier to understand a word than it is to be able to use it.

Science tells us that we need to see or hear a word around 12 times before we can
memorise it. And if we want to be able to use the word in speaking or writing, we need to come across the word up to 80 times.

I’m sure you know that you can’t just see a word once or twice and then understand and use it for the rest of your life. You need to see, hear, say and write the word lots of times before it sticks in your brain.

Or do you? Surely there’s a way to make learning vocabulary much, much faster…? There is.

6. How to memorise words FAST

The reason why it takes 12 to 80 times before you memorise a word is because you’re meeting the words by chance – perhaps you hear word on YouTube or see a word in an advertisement on the street. You’re not purposely memorising key words.

You can, however, burn these words into your brain much more quickly by learning them on purpose. And the way that you do that is by using

7. How can you organise your vocabulary?

Flashcards

Personally, I don’t recommend using a flashcard app. I don’t think they work. They certainly don’t work for me. What works for me is writing the word down onto a piece of paper. But there’s a certain way to organise your flashcards.

Organising Flashcards

Categorise your flashcards by nouns, verbs and adjectives

Don’t memorise grammatical words, and don’t mix up your word types. Have a stack of nouns, a stack of verbs and a stack of adjectives. Having them separated like this will help you to memorise them more easily.

Write the English word on one side – or whatever language you’re studying – and then write the translation in your native language on the other.

So remember I told you it’s easier to understand or comprehend a new word while listening or reading rather than to use a new word while speaking or writing?

Well, when you start using your flashcards, you want to start by ‘understanding’ the new words first. This means that you go from the target language, such as English, think of the translation, then flip the card to your native language to check you got it right.

Here, we’re training our listening and reading skills – or our receptive skills. Once you’re comfortable with this – and I’ll teach you a trick in a minute to help memorise words much more easily – you then work through the flashcards in the opposite way, starting with the word in your native language, thinking of the English word, and then checking you got it right. This way, you’re training your speaking and writing skills. You’ll probably notice how trying to think of the target word is much harder than just understanding it. You need to move through the flashcards in both directions.

Just as an aside, I like to use different coloured pens when I write my words. I write my nouns in blue, my verbs in red and my adjectives in green.

Use a memory aid (mnemonic)

Okay, let’s say you want to learn a new word. Do you just look at it, say it a few times and then move on? No. That doesn’t work. Our minds are very good at forgetting information; and terrible at remembering information. So what we need to do is make an association between the new word in the target language and an existing word that you already know in your first language.

Imagine you’re learning a noun…

“karooble” (it’s not a real word, but just bear with me…

We’ve identified it as a noun. And let’s imagine it means “opportunity”. So the new word “karooble” means opportunity in my first language.

What I need to do now is make a connection – some sort of connection, any sort of connection – between this new word – this new sound – and a word I already know that reminds me of the word karooble and the meaning opportunity in my first language.

So… I know that ‘ruble’ is the currency or money used in Russia. And ‘kar’ reminds me of the word car in English.

So I imagine that: I have a great opportunity to buy a car in rubles.

I’ve just given my mind something to hold onto. I’ve used two words I know – ruble and car – to remember, to memorise ‘karooble’ as ‘opportunity’. If I do this well, I don’t need to meet the word 12 or 80 times. I usually only have to do it once or twice and I can remember the new word. And importantly, I can remember it in both directions:

If I see the word ‘karooble’, I think: ah, ‘opportunity’!
And if I want to use the word ‘opportunity’, I think ‘karooble’!

Can you see how important it is to know the word in both directions?

Sometimes, admittedly, it’s difficult to think of an association. But what’s weird is that the more abstract the association, the easier it is to memorise. You need to do this with all 550 words. And I recommend doing, 10 or 20 or even 50 words at a time. It’s possible and trust me, it works, and the more you do it the easier it becomes.

Getting organised

To be honest, one of the most challenging things about learning a language and learning these 550 words is getting organised. You’ll need:

Remember you can download the 550 words from the description below. These words are based on the work of two linguistics experts Charles Browne and Brent Culligan, and I’ve put a link to their website in the description below.

The word list is an Excel spreadsheet that has four columns:

Of course, you can use this list for any other language as well. You’ll just need to make sure you get a good translation.

Okay, there’s one more important piece of the puzzle here…

8. What is the importance of application and consistency?

It’s a major step towards fluency by memorising these 550 words, and if you memorise 50 at a time, which is entirely possible, you may only need to study eleven times to remember them all. But then you need to start using them. You need to apply them. If you’re learning English, this is where you go across to www.e2school.com and start putting them to use in fun listening, speaking, writing and reading activities.

Recap

So, I’ve just shown you how to rapidly learn a language. 550 of those words, as well as the grammatical words, will result in you knowing 94% of the spoken language.

We understood:

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