One of the most popular teaching approaches that language learning companies are using these days is one the focuses heavily on acquiring a large vocabulary. So how many words do you need to be fluent in Japanese?
It’s a good question to ask because it can give you a solid language learning goal to work towards achieving each and every day.
I think that in order to come to a satisfying answer, we have to take a couple of things into consideration.
I’m going to talk about a few things when it comes to the number of words people know, and then draw a conclusion that can help you in your studies.
How Many Words Does A Native Know?
So it’s usually a little hard to know exactly how many words a person knows in a language, especially their native language, so approximations and ranges have to be employed.
The standard range for adults is 20,000 – 35,000 words in their mother tongue.
This huge number is what is known as “passive vocabulary” because a person can recognize and understand these words when they encounter them.
On the other hand, the words that a person not only understands, but uses regularly are a part of their “active vocabulary.”
The reason why it’s important to distinguish between these two is because when it comes to learning a second language, the fastest way to achieve fluency is to focus on learning the words that will naturally become a part of your active vocabulary for that language.
Now there are several definitions for what “fluency” is in a language, but the general consensus is that a person is fluent when they can communicate easily and accurately in the target language.
How many words do you need in order to do that?
What Is The Magic Vocabulary Number?
When you think about the rather small amount of words that are needed on a day to day basis for communication, you begin to realize that fluency is vastly different from an adult level command of a native language.
Think about a four year old kid who can communicate with friends and family with few problems.
They know approximately 5,000 words [source] and even though they still make the occasional grammar mistake, for all intents and purposes they are fluent!
By the way, I’ve said nothing about literacy at this point. You can be fluent without knowing how to read Japanese!
Isn’t 5,000 words a lot more manageable than 35,000?
This fact has often lead people who want to become fluent quickly to the conclusion that you should study the top 2,000 frequently used words first in order to gain the maximum benefit from your study time.
This would allow you to reach the point of easy communication among natives, and from there you can expand the amount of words you know gradually.
It’s a smart way to go about it, and it reveals something that is pretty interesting, which is this:
Having a large vocabulary helps, but is not necessary for fluency.
This is because there are additional factors besides the words themselves that are required to understand a language. Some of these things are grammar, and others are simply a mastery of the words you know.
I’m sure I don’t need to go into too much detail right now on these, as grammar is the “glue” that holds complete sentences together, and there is obviously a difference in skill when a person has used a word 10 times compared to when they’ve used it 100 times (or 1,000!).
The 1,000 – 2,000 word range is what most polyglots (people who know several languages) aim for when they take on a new language.
Unfortunately, the number of Japanese words you will need is actually a bit higher than this.
Do you know why?
Why Is The Number Higher For Japanese?
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I think there are a couple of reasons why you need to know more words in Japanese to reach fluency when compared to others (English for example).
From my own experiences, I believe this to be true for two reasons:
- The different levels of formality in Japanese.
- The high level of precision in the Japanese language.
Let me illustrate each one of these with some actual English and Japanese words.
(1) – The different levels of formality in Japanese.
In English, for the most part, we use the same words when we are talking to our friends or our superiors.
For example, regardless of who asked you the question “When will Mr. Smith come to visit us?” your answer would be “Mr. Smith already came on Monday.”
But this one answer uses different words in Japanese depending on the social status of the person you’re talking to.
(I will color the words that change)
If it was to someone close to you, or of a lower status you would say:
If it was to someone of equal status like a coworker, you would say:
And if it was to someone higher than you like the company president, you would say:
Each time something changes. Sometimes it’s simply a different form of the same verb, but other times it’s a completely different word that still means the same thing.
So to wrap up reason #1: Japanese has multiple words where other languages only have a single word and the reason is because the different Japanese words show varying levels of respect towards the listener.
(2) – The high level of precision in the Japanese language.
One of the things that I was shocked to discover was just how much gets lost during translation for manga and anime!
A simple example of this is the singular pronoun “I” in English. There are a ton of them in Japanese and they all have a slightly difference nuance!
There’s not enough time to go into all of them, so let me just give you four:
私 – gender neutral, polite
僕 – (usually) used by boys, casual
あたし – used by young girls, casual
俺– used by men, rough
Or how about the English word “wear” as in “what should I wear to school today?”
In Japanese there are several different words and it all depends upon what part of the body the clothing goes onto:
被る – to wear (on one’s head)
着る – to wear (on one’s torso)
履く – to wear (on one’s lower body)
Once you begin learning all of these different words, it becomes obvious why you have to know a larger amount of words for Japanese in order to hit that fluency number.
If Not A Large Vocabulary, Then What Is Needed?
Generally speaking, you need to know about 3,000 – 5,000 Japanese words to be fluent in the language.
But it can’t just be any words, as you could simply learn the names of people, places, and Pokémon to hit one or two thousand.
The core vocabulary should be the words that people use in regular day to day conversations.
You can pick this up rather naturally by speaking with (or just listening to) natives, by reading lots of books in Japanese, by watching anime that’s centered around school life, and so on.
But in addition to that, you need to have a working knowledge of the grammar of the language. By “working” I mean that you can conjugate verbs, or inflect adjectives into the desired state in a swift and natural manner.
This doesn’t mean treating Japanese like a math equation such as:
- First take the verb in its masu-form and remove the masu
- Now you have the root, and you can then add tai to it
- Since tai is actually an i-adjective, you inflect it as such
- So you then remove the final i in tai and replace it with kunakatta
- Now you’re ready to use the word!
Rather it means that when you think, “I didn’t want to eat it” in English, and you want to say it in Japanese, you just go straight to “食べたくなかった” without going through that whole 5-step process I explained earlier.
See, you’ve used this Japanese word enough so that you don’t need to start at the base and conjugate/inflect it all the way down from the base to its final form according to the rules.
You simply know that “didn’t want to eat” = 「食べたくなかった」 and you use it instantly.
The way to get to this point is simply by getting lots of exposure to the conjugated/inflected forms of words, and practicing them over and over again.
Fluency is Not The End, It’s Actually The Beginning!
Most people set fluency as their end goal with learning a language, but it’s actually more like a second beginning.
At first you know nothing, and so you want to get to the point where you can use the language fairly easily in your life.
But as I’ve explained, it’s actually a shorter journey to this level of skill than most people think. Once you reach that point however, you get to work on attaining a native adult’s command of the language, if you want to.
This would mean that you can not only communicate what you need to, but you can understand and enjoy pretty much everything that you come into contact with.
This would be like, being as good at Japanese as you currently are in your native tongue!
Further Resources for Learning Japanese: