How Much Vocabulary Does One Need ?

Even the supposedly most primitive languages have very large vocabularies. No single speaker of these languages is ever able to learn or master all the available words. Advanced languages have a far greater vocabulary than the primitive languages.

Since every language has such an endless stream of words, some strategy or other is needed so that one acquires a reasonable vocabulary but does not get bogged down with unnecessary words. The following comments will offer some guidelines:

1-The Actual Vocabulary: The actual vocabulary available even in supposedly primitive languages goes into tens of thousands. The major Indian languages have anywhere from fifty thousand to hundreds of thousands of words. When prefixes and suffixes are added, the number becomes astronomical.

English has several hundred thousand words. Its great capacity to assimilate and coin new words adds several thousand words to English every year ! No single individual can ever be expected learn or master all of it. However, you don’t have to despair.

Though the total number of words available in English and in Indian languages is astronomical, the actual number needed for day-to-day communication is small and manageable. A writer with the proper strategy can pick up a vocabulary several times larger than the common vocabulary.

2-The Common Vocabulary: The commonly used vocabulary numbers only few thousands. Most common people manage with different forms of a thousand words or less of their language ! Educated people tend to use a larger vocabulary, but even here the number is astonishingly small. Surveys have shown that most educated people use around 2000 words, while the more motivated ones go probably up to 3000 ! This is the case with English as well as with any other major language in the world. It is not at all difficult for a writer to master this number of words. Learning just five new words a day for eighteen months will do the job! The actual task is simpler than that considering that most educated adults already know a good number of words from the list !

3-The Vocabulary Comprehended: Most people tend to understand more words than what they commonly use. This can be called “the comprehended vocabulary” because these words are commonly understood, even if not used by most people.

The commonly comprehended vocabulary is twice (or more than that) of the actual vocabulary used by a person. For educated people and book-lovers, the vocabulary they understand tends to be vast compared to what they use. This is the range that is available to you for use !

4-The vocabulary that you need: The vocabulary that you need as a writer falls into two categories: vocabulary for comprehension, and vocabulary for expression. The vocabulary for comprehension includes all the words that you need to understand the subjects you choose to study. The vocabulary for expression is limited to those words that you can use safely and confidently for your intended readers.

The greater your vocabulary for comprehension is, the better it is. It will help you understand a larger range of subjects to greater depths. If you have a special interest in a particular subject like medicine, music, theology, sports, or gardening, you should try to widen your vocabulary net as much as possible in these subjects.

No upper limit can ever be placed on the vocabulary that you might acquire for your own benefit and comprehension. However, every writer has a saturation point after which the efforts put into learning new words does not result in corresponding benefit now or in future.

Some time after you get into a vocabulary development plan, you will be able to see up to what distance you must go. For example, if you are going to write mostly on music you will discover it useless to study names of specialized diseases — unless those diseases affect music, and vice versa !! Also, unless you specialize in lexicography, linguistics, or etymology, you will find it useless to master words that have not been used now for hundreds of years. Any dictionary will supply all this information.

The vocabulary that you use for communicating with others, however, should be limited to what they can follow easily. This requires that you restrict yourself to the common vocabulary. If this is not sufficient, you may even use the next higher category — vocabulary comprehended by them. You should not leave this boundary unless it is absolutely necessary. In such cases, when you have to use a word not understood readily by your readers, you should find a way to define it as you use it.

The common vocabulary and understandable vocabulary vary from group to group. The range will be the smallest in case of uneducated people, while it will be practically unlimited for philosophers and intellectuals. It is your duty to evaluate the verbal capacity of your readers and adjust your writings to that span. Use the right range for each category of readers for whom you write — lest it become too difficult and intimidating or too simple and boring.

5-Vocabulary Lists: Many language-related institutes have published lists of the most common, most frequent, and the simplest words in different language. Such lists are readily available in English, and you should obtain them if possible.

In the initial stages you should restrict your writings within the vocabulary given in these lists. Gradually you will recognize the limits so that these lists are no longer essential. If such lists are not readily available, you might consider purchasing simplified English-English dictionaries. (Most pocket dictionaries fall into this category). They use only the most frequently used or most easily understood words in defining dictionary words. Thus if a particular word looks too difficult for your target audience, consulting these dictionaries will tell you how you might express the same idea using simpler words. As you continue doing this, using the more readily understandable words will become a habit.