When’s the last time you used the word “minuscule”?  Probably not recently.

There’s no doubt, though, if English is your first language, you recognize this word when you hear it.  

“He put a minuscule amount of work into the project.”

“It would take a minuscule amount of money to renovate the kitchen.”

We tend to use high frequency words when we speak, rather than using words like “miniscule,” even when more precise.

“He put a minimal amount of work into the project.”

“It would take a small amount of money to renovate my kitchen.”

The truth is, we can get by with a fairly limited vocabulary to express ourselves.  However, we need a massive amount of vocabulary to understand all that is happening around us.  

So, how many words do we need to recognize?  Great question.  There are currently 171,476 words in the Oxford English dictionary.  We do not even begin to recognize all the words of our first language, let alone use them in everyday conversations.  

Still, it’s important that we have enough vocabulary in a second language to express ourselves as adults.  How many should we aim to learning?  The average English speaker at the age of four, knows 5,000 words; by eight, 10,000.  In fact, we continue to learn a new word each day until we are middle-aged.   At that point, vocabulary growth basically stops, giving the average adult between 20,000-35,000 words.  That’s in our own native tongue.  Not nearly the breadth of the Oxford Dictionary.  

As a contrast, non-native English users have an average vocabulary of just 4,500 words.  Generally, living in English speaking countries can help them eventually reach 10,000.  (via Lexical facts, The Economist, 29 May 2013)

Even if one could recognize 35,000 spoken words, that does not come close to 20% of the dictionary total.  

So why do we stress out so much when learning a new language?  Why do we insist on memorizing every single word we encounter?  What does “knowing” a word actually mean?  Is it recognizing the meaning when others use it, or using it often in our own speech?  Are all words equal in importance?  

If we get by with “small” rather than “miniscule,” will we be difficult to understand?  Obviously not, but if we fail to recognize the meaning of the word “miniscule” when we hear it, we will probably be lost when it comes to the intention of a sentence.  “What does this word ‘miniscule’ mean?  Is this host person trying to tell me they worked a great deal on the project or very little?  Is renovating the kitchen going to be costly or inexpensive?  

It’s understanding a vast amount of speech that allows us to belong.  Learning to quickly build our recognition is key.  In time, we can learn to articulate ourselves more precisely when we soak ourselves in speech we fully understand.  For now, it is essential that we come to understand people quickly as to not be left in the dark when they are communicating to us.  

How soon can you get acquainted with another 1,000 words?  Contact us to make a plan today!