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A person's vocabulary is the set of words they are familiar with in a language. A vocabulary usually grows and evolves with age, and serves as a useful and fundamental tool for communication and acquiring knowledge.


Knowing and using a word

A vocabulary is defined as "all the words known and used by a particular person".[1] However, the words known and used by a particular person do not constitute all the words a person is exposed to. By definition, a vocabulary includes the last two categories of this list:[2]

  1. Never encountered the word.
  2. Heard the word, but cannot define it.
  3. Recognize the word due to context or tone of voice.
  4. Able to use the word but cannot clearly explain it.
  5. Fluent with the word – its use and definition.

Types of vocabulary

Listed in order of most ample to most limited:[3]


Reading vocabulary

A person's reading vocabulary is all the words he or she can recognize when reading. This is the largest type of vocabulary simply because it includes the other three.

Listening vocabulary

A person's listening vocabulary is all the words he or she can recognize when listening to speech. This vocabulary is aided in size by context and tone of voice.

Writing vocabulary

A person's writing vocabulary is all the words he or she can employ in writing. Contrary to the previous two vocabulary types, the writing vocabulary is stimulated by its user.

Speaking vocabulary

A person's speaking vocabulary is all the words he or she can use in speech. Due to the spontaneous nature of the speaking vocabulary, words are often misused. This misuse – though slight and unintentional – may be compensated by facial expressions, tone of voice, or hand gestures.

Focal vocabulary

"Focal vocabulary" is a specialized set of terms and distinctions that is particularly important to a certain group; those with particular focuses of experience or activity. A lexicon, or vocabulary, is a language's dictionary, its set of names for things, events, and ideas. Some linguists believe that lexicon influences people's perception on things, the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis. For example, the Nuer of Sudan have an elaborate vocabulary to describe cattle. The Nuer have dozens of names for cattle because of the cattle's particular histories, economies, and environments. This kind of comparison has elicited some linguistic controversy, as with the number of "Eskimo words for snow". English speakers can also elaborate their snow and cattle vocabularies when the need arises.[4][5]

Vocabulary growth

Initially, in the infancy phase, vocabulary growth requires no effort. Infants hear words and mimic them, eventually associating them with objects and actions. This is the listening vocabulary. The speaking vocabulary follows, as a child's thoughts become more reliant on its ability to express itself without gestures and mere sounds. Once the reading and writing vocabularies are attained – through questions and education – the anomalies and irregularities of language can be discovered.

In first grade, an advantaged student (i.e. a literate student) knows about twice as many words as a disadvantaged student. Generally, this gap does not tighten. This translates into a wide range of vocabulary size by age five or six, at which time an English-speaking child will know about 2,500–5,000 words. An average student learns some 3,000 words per year, or approximately eight words per day.[6]

After leaving school, vocabulary growth plateaus. People may then expand their vocabularies by reading, playing word games, participating in vocabulary programs, etc.

Passive vs. active vocabulary

Even if we learn a word, it takes a lot of practice and context connections for us to learn it well. A rough grouping of words we understand when we hear them encompasses our "passive" vocabulary, whereas our "active" vocabulary is made up of words that come to our mind immediately when we have to use them in a sentence, as we speak. In this case, we often have to come up with a word in the timeframe of milliseconds, so one has to know it well, often in combinations with other words in phrases, where it is commonly used.

The importance of a vocabulary

  • An extensive vocabulary aids expressions and communication
  • Vocabulary size has been directly linked to reading comprehension.[7]
  • Linguistic vocabulary is synonymous with thinking vocabulary[8]
  • A person may be judged by others based on his or her vocabulary

Native- and foreign-language vocabulary

Native-language vocabulary

Native speakers' vocabularies vary widely within a language, and are especially dependent on the level of the speaker's education. A 1995 study estimated the vocabulary size of college-educated speakers at about 17,000 word families, and that of first-year college students (high-school educated) at about 12,000.[9]

Foreign-language vocabulary

The effects of vocabulary size on language comprehension

Francis and Kucera[10] studied texts totaling one million words and found that if one knows the words with the highest frequency, they will quickly know most of the words in a text:

Vocabulary Size Written Text Coverage
0 words 0%
1000 72.0
2000 79.7
3000 84.0
4000 86.8
5000 88.7
6000 89.9
15,851 97.8

By knowing the 2000 words with the highest frequency, one would know 80% of the words in those texts. The numbers look even better than this if we want to cover the words we come across in an informally spoken context. Then the 2000 most common words would cover 96% of the vocabulary.[11] These numbers should be encouraging to beginning language learners, especially because the numbers in the table are for word lemmas and knowing that many word families would give even higher coverage. But before you start thinking you would learn a language in no time, think how well you would understand a book in your own language where every fifth word was blacked-out! We cannot usually guess meanings from context when that many words are missing.[12] We need to understand about 95% of a text[13] in order to gain close to full understanding and it looks like one needs to know more than 10,000 words for that.

Basic English vocabulary

Several word lists have been developed to provide people with a limited vocabulary either quick language proficiency or an effective means of communication. In 1930, Charles Kay Ogden created Basic English (850 words). Other lists include Simplified English (1000 words) and Special English (1500 words). The General Service List,[14] 2000 high frequency words compiled by Michael West from a 5,000,000 word corpus, has been used to create a number of adapted reading texts for English language learners. Knowing 2000 English words, one could understand quite a lot of English, and even read a lot of simple material without problems.

See also


  1. ^ Cambridge Advanced Learners Dictionary [1]
  2. ^ Partially composed using: "Vocabulary". Sebastian Wren, Ph.D. [2]
  3. ^ The World Book Dictionary. Clarence L. Barnhart. 1968 Edition. Published by Thorndike-Barnhart, Chicago, Illinois.
  4. ^ Miller,B.,(1999). Cultural Anthropology(4th. ed.,pg 315). New York: Allyn and Bacon
  5. ^ Roberta Lenkeit "Cultural Anthropology" (3rd. ed.)
  6. ^ "Vocabulary". Sebastian Wren, Ph.D.
  7. ^ Stahl, Steven A. Vocabulary Development. Cambridge: Brookline Books, 1999. p. 3. "The Cognitive Foundations of Learning to Read: A Framework", Southwest Educational Development Laboratory, [3], p. 14.
  8. ^ Ibid
  9. ^ E.B. Zechmeister, A.M. Chronis, W.L. Cull, C.A. D'Anna and N.A. Healy, Growth of a functionally important lexicon, Journal of Reading Behavior, 1995, 27(2), 201-212
  10. ^ W.N. Francis, and H. Kucera. Frequency Analysis of English Usage, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1982
  11. ^ F.J. Schonell, I.G. Meddleton and B.A. Shaw, A Study of the Oral Vocabulary of Adults, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, 1956
  12. ^ Liu Na and I.S.P. Nation, Factors affecting guessing vocabulary in context, RELC Journal, 1985,16, 1, pp. 33-42
  13. ^ B. Laufer, What percentage of text-lexis is essential for comprehension? in C. Lauren and M. Nordman (eds.), Special Language: From Humans Thinking to Thinking Machines, Multilingual Matters Ltd., Clevedon, 1989.
  14. ^ Michael West, A General Service List of English Words, Longman, Green & Co., London, 1953


Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary




Late Latin vocabularium, vocabularius: French vocabulaire. See vocable.





vocabulary (plural vocabularies)

  1. A usually alphabetized and explained collection of words e.g. of a particular field, or prepared for a specific purpose, often for learning.
  2. The collection of words a person knows and uses.
    My Russian vocabulary is very limited.
  3. The stock of words used in a particular field.
    The vocabulary of social sciences is often incomprehensible to ordinary people.
  4. The words of a language collectively.
    The vocabulary of any language is influenced by contacts with other cultures.

Derived terms

Coordinate terms


The translations below need to be checked and inserted above into the appropriate translation tables, removing any numbers. Numbers do not necessarily match those in definitions. See instructions at Help:How to check translations.

Simple English

Vocabulary means a list of words. Someone's vocabulary is all the words that he or she knows. A five year old would probably know about 5000 words. An adult who has studied at university or college may know at least 20000 words in their language.[needs proof]

The vocabulary of a language is always changing. New words are invented or words change their meaning. This means that dictionaries have to be updated. Words to do with computers such as "download" are new to the English language. The new word "bling" came from hip hop. Words like "cool" have developed new meanings.[needs proof]

If someone wanted to try to find out roughly how many words they knew, they could look at a page in a dictionary and count how many of those words they knew (counting things like “sing”, “sang”, “sung”, “singing” as one word). If they multiplied that by how many pages there were in the dictionary they could estimate how many words they knew.[needs proof]

It is difficult to be exact. Some words may be understood but not known well enough to be used. Words that are used are part of a person's “active vocabulary”. Words that are only understood and not used are called “passive vocabulary”.[needs proof]

Sometimes it may not be easy to decide if a word is understood. It may depend on the context, or the words around it. Knowing the “context” the word is being used in may make it possible to guess what it means. Without knowing what a chough is, the phrase “I saw a chough fly off from its nest” would let someone guess that it is a kind of bird.[needs proof]

Someone who knows many words is said to have a wide vocabulary.[needs proof]

It is good to develop a wide vocabulary. Knowing lots of words helps with reading, listening, writing, and talking to people. The English language has a very large vocabulary. This is because of Britain’s history. Every time Britain was invaded, the new people brought new words. There are words from the Celts, Anglo Saxons, Vikings, Romans, and French. There are also many words from Ancient Greek and Latin. Many of these new words were used as well as the old ones but they may have a different meaning. For example: "pork" came from the old French word porc (pig), but it means food that comes from a pig.[needs proof]

In English, some long words may be hard to understand. This could be because they were taken from Latin or Greek. That makes it difficult to guess the meaning of the word.[needs proof]

Using big words does not always make the meaning clear. This “Simple English” website tries to use a small vocabulary. There is a lot that can be said in very simple ways.[needs proof]

Other websites

Complicated vocabulary detector simplevocab

Other pages

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