Dix (ten), cent (one hundred), mille (one thousand), dix milles (ten thousand)?
No, no, no, French learner, I am not teaching you how to count by intervals in French!
Instead, I am asking you: How many words do you have to know to be “fluent” or “proficient” in French?
And not only that, but which words do you need to know?
Well, that’s where the complication starts, isn’t it?
When it comes to learning French, it seems that there are suggestions aplenty for acquiring vocabulary. We are bombarded with vocabulary flashcards, vocabulary builders, daily vocabulary and even shopping vocabulary.
But which words do you actually need to know? And how many words do you really need to know in order to communicate effectively in French? We will find out in this post!
Why Vocabulary Size Matters
Being aware of how many words one needs to know in a target language is a real concern for many language learners.
While aiming to know a certain number of words should not be the only goal when learning French, it is useful to know how many words are needed to be “proficient” or “fluent” in the language.
Instead of focusing on just a number, then, a learner’s goal should be to learn a certain number of words alongside grammatical constructions for using said words in everyday situations. Because of this, it is best to learn vocabulary in context. This means learning vocabulary in simple example sentences where the word is displayed correctly to showcase its use and meaning.
Further, learners should aim to grow their active vocabulary. Active vocabulary includes the words that you can recall easily when speaking or writing, whereas a passive vocabulary includes the words that you can recognize when listening or reading. Having a large active vocabulary allows learners to express themselves accurately and concisely.
What Constitutes a Word?
One problem that learners of French (or any language) often encounter is that the definition of a “word” varies. This makes it hard to quantify how many words a learner already knows as well as to figure out how many words they should know in a target language.
On one hand, a word can be seen as a distinct unit that has its own spelling and/or pronunciation. For example, take the words fille (girl) and filles (girls) in French. These could be regarded as separate words because, even though they are pronounced the same, they have different meanings and are spelled differently.
On the other hand, these two words are actually from the same “root” word and in the same “word family.” That means that filles (girls) is just a variant (in this case, the plural form) of fille (girl). Both instances simply constitute two variants of the same word. It is easier to learn “roots” or “word families,” especially in the case of nouns, adjectives and verbs where one “word” may have dozens of variants such as verb conjugations, plurals and gender agreements.
French further complicates word counting because one word may have multiple meanings. For example, personne can mean both “person” and “no one.”
For our purposes, we are going to say that variants constitute the same root word and that a word can have multiple meanings. In other words, when figuring out word goals, learners should count a word and all its variants as a single word.
How Many Words in the French Language Do I Need to Know?
Now that we have decided what constitutes a word, we need to figure out how many words a French learner should know for getting by in everyday French conversations. To do that, let’s look at some statistics about the French language.
According to the French dictionary Larousse, there are approximately 130,000 words in the French language—but you do not have to know all of them! The average adult vocabulary in English is 20,000–35,000 words, and we can assume that this number is comparable to the average adult French vocabulary.
So, what does all this mean? Well, first of all, one should not aim to learn all the words in the French language—even French speakers do not know then all.
Learners do not have to know 35,000 words, either. Given that a big part of those 20,000–35,000 words are vocabulary that speakers do not use in day-to-day speech (passive vocabulary), French learners should focus on growing their active vocabulary. And there is good news!
The average active vocabulary size is around 5,000 root words or word families.
Further, according to the Universe of Memory, knowing the most common 1,000 words in a language will allow you to understand 80% of the language, and knowing the most common 5,000 words in a language will allow you to understand 98% of the language.
Therefore, to be “proficient” in French, you should have around 5,000 words in your active vocabulary.
Getting to 5,000 Words of Active Vocabulary
Despite not needing to know 130,000 French words, reaching a vocabulary of 5,000 words is still a daunting task. But never fear! A step-by-step process is here.
When growing your vocabulary, you should learn new words strategically.
Aim to learn the most common words in the language. You can do this by consulting some of the frequency lists that are included below. A frequency list is a collection of words that compiles the most common words by how often they are used. I also suggest using topic-specific vocabulary lists to learn vocabulary catered to a learner’s needs.
Remember, a good active vocabulary consists of the most useful words for your purpose. There is no sense in learning the French word for “limited liability partnership” if you do not imagine yourself in a situation where you would need to say it.
Your First 1,000 Words
Your first 1,000 acquired words should focus on the most common, everyday words and expressions in the French language. This includes knowing articles such as “the” and “a” (as well as their rules and usage), greetings and common vocabulary from everyday topics such as food, colors, the household, travel, etc.
You should also aim to familiarize yourself with grammar during this stage of vocabulary acquisition. Remember, you want to learn these words in context. Learning the word table (table) without knowing that it is feminine and takes the articles la (the) and une (a) will only cause problems later down the road.
For specific vocabulary lists on common topics, I suggest you check out the following:
- Frenchetc or Ielanguages French: Both of these websites have the most common vocabulary and grammar constructions in French sorted into topics and tutorials. They are also the best lists to consult if you are a beginner and you have no previous knowledge of French.
- 101Languages: 101Languages has compiled a list of the most common 1,000 words used in French. This list can be downloaded for easy access on your computer, tablet or phone. It includes variants as separate words so it would be most useful to learn each word in the context of their examples. The top 100 words have audio files for pronunciation help.
- Memrise: Memrise has a frequency list of the most common 5,000 words in French, which is ideal for learners. This list does not include variants, so learners should know enough about grammar to know how a word functions in a multitude of contexts such as verb conjugations, other forms, gender and plural agreement rules—and more.
Other sites use scripted content. FluentU uses a natural approach that helps you ease into the French language and culture over time. You’ll learn French as it’s actually spoken by real people.
FluentU has a wide variety of great content, like interviews and web series, as you can see here:
FluentU brings native videos within reach with interactive subtitles.
You can tap on any word to look it up instantly. Every definition has examples that have been written to help you understand how the word is used.
For example, if you tap on the word "crois," you'll see this:
Practice and reinforce all the vocabulary you've learned in a given video with FluentU's adaptive quizzes. Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning and play the mini-games found in the dynamic flashcards, like "fill in the blank."
As you study, FluentU tracks the vocabulary that you’re learning and uses this information to give you a 100% personalized experience.
You'll receive video recommendations that suit your interests and current level of progress.
Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or Google Play stores.
Reaching 2,500 Words
By the halfway point to a strong active vocabulary, learners should have moved away from the most common French words. Instead, now is the time to learn vocabulary that will allow the learner to achieve their goals with the French language.
Learners should also be actively accessing French media and recording unknown words that they come across. By doing this, learners can experience French “in the wild.” Remember: The French language is not confined to a word list; it is a changing language that is actually used by speakers every day. Try following French news or listening to French music to see French in its natural environment.
An Active Vocabulary of 5,000 Words
At 5,000 words of an active vocabulary, learners should be able to understand and use more and more French every day. Better yet, since they have probably come across a lot of French words along the way, learners should have a considerable passive vocabulary as well (no doubt larger than 5,000 words!), so understanding French should be increasingly easier.
Like with 2,500 words, learners should use the last stretch to further specialize their vocabulary. This does not mean a learner should ignore common, everyday words that are heard often in media or while reading. But again, focusing on goals can lead a learner in the appropriate direction.
Learners should work with advanced vocabulary lists. Further, Wiktionary has a collection of many advanced frequency word lists, some that even reach 50,000 words. These lists often include variants, but they are gold for learning advanced vocabulary. Besides, who said you have to stop at 5,000 words? The sky’s the limit!
Well, the limit is actually 130,000 words, but I would not be worried about exhausting all those words any time soon.
So get your device or your flashcards ready! A bountiful active French vocabulary is within your reach!
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn French with real-world videos.