How many words do you know?

I’ve been working on my Spanish lately, and people often tell me that building up your range of vocabulary is one of the main ways of improving your communication skills. Which is advice I cling onto, because of my natural aversion of thinking about grammar. I prefer grammar to somehow get into my brain by osmosis, and to be able to make grammatical choices without having to consciously think. I don’t mind having to consciously think to remember vocabulary. Anyway, curiosity got the better of me when I heard about these research projects that aim to estimate the percentage of words that a person knows, as a proportion of the total words available in the language.

Firstly, I tried it in English. I’ll admit that the first time I scored a modest 66%, but I’d like to hide behind the excuse of “getting distracted by flatmates chatting in the next room”. So, I let myself have a second go. My result came back as

“You said yes to 71% of the existing words. You said yes to 0% of the nonwords. This gives you a corrected score of 71% – 0% = 71%. This is a high level for a native speaker.”

Some of the words I had not been aware of until today included: railbird, arseniuret, linocut and hoer. I now know that a railbird is not, as I’d initially thought, a female version of a trainspotter, but is in fact a horseracing enthusiast. Arsenuiret is in some way related to Arsenide, but I can’t quite figure out in what way. Linocut is a design cut into linoleum. And a hoer is obviously a person that uses a hoe, but I felt somewhat reluctant to select is as a “real” word because the pronunciation sounds too much like the word whore when said with an Irish accent(!).

After my success with English, I thought I’d be brave and give the test a try in Spanish. I’ve been making serious efforts to learn Spanish for the last 2.5 years and I live in Spain. I would say I have intermediate level. I’m not a particularly confident writer of Spanish, but I can navigate with reasonable independence in social chit chat. So, I gave the Spanish version a go!

“Has respondido SÍ al 39% de las palabras correctas. Has respondido SÍ al 0% de las palabras inventadas. Este resultado te otorga una puntuación corregida de 39% – 0% = 39%.”

[You said yes to 39% of the existing words. You said yes to 0% of the nonwords. This gives you a corrected score of 39% – 0% = 39%.]

This was a welcome confidence boost as lately I’ve been a bit down on my Spanish. I have been feeling like my level has reached a plataeu and I’m lacking energy/motivation to really focus on improving my grammar in Spanish. So I certainly hadn’t expected to get over a third of Spanish words. Which got me thinking, perhaps Spanish is easier to recognise than English?

Spelling rules in Spanish are much more regular. There are fewer exceptions, fewer cases of combined consonants appearing in the written word but remaining silent in the spoken word. Also, the stressed/strong vowels are visually easier to spot, as Spanish highlights them using an accent sign (á, é, í, ó, ú). Additionally, there is a the issue of the total number of words. The Second Edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary says that there are 171,476 words in current use. In contrast, Spanish has, according to the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española, approximately 100,000 words. So, statistically, knowing 39% of English words, is a much bigger quantity of words knowing 39% of Spanish words.

It is said that the average active vocabulary of an adult English speaker is of around 20,000 words, with a passive one of around 40,000 words. A vocabulary of just 3000 words provides coverage for around 95% of common texts. Which is just 1.75% of the total number of words in use! So I’m feeling a bit smug about my 39% Spanish score 😉 although, there is still some work to do, poco a poco!

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