how many words do we need?

How many words do we need to know before we can say; “I speak Spanish, Hungarian, Danish, Swedish, English” or whatever the case may be? Some people, such as Benny the Irish Polyglot, say you can be fluent with a few hundred words in a few months, and others, like Steve Kaufmann, say we need a lot more.

Personally I think it depends on how brave you are. If you are comfortable speaking early on with a small vocabulary, then why on earth wouldn’t you? And in that case the answer to the question “How many words do I need to know?” is “not that many”.

How many words do you need to know

If you want to sound very smart and sophisticated as soon as you start speaking, or perhaps be able to read books by esteemed authors then the answer to the question “How many words do I need to know?” becomes A LOT.

How Many Words Do I Need?

I currently know 589 words, which means fluency is still in the distant future, but I feel really good about getting this far in under three months. Remember, I knew close to ZERO Spanish words when I started the 90-Day Challenge on January 20th, so there was only one way and that was up.

In the LingQ universe I am now considered a Beginner Level 2, which means that I have in fact reached almost all of my goals ahead of time. I haven’t completely finished the challenge in that I am a few hours behind on listening – I have a week to catch up, but that shouldn’t be a problem.

 LingQ avatar for beginner 2

So Many Theories, So Little Time

Andrew at has done a lot of research on the research (hhhhmmm) on how many words we need to know and found that learning the top 1000 words may be enough if you are mostly interested in speaking to people, and not super keen on getting deep into grammar or major philosophical conversations, as is the case for me.

He says that with around 1000 words you may be able to understand about 90% of a spoken conversation.  You may have to ask people to slow down – especially fast-talking Spanish speakers – but at least you’ll understand the essence of a conversation. As mentioned above, Steve Kaufmann does not believe that to be the case, he believes that in order to speak we need to know a lot more words, especially if we want to be fluent.

How Many Words Do We Need?

With A Little Help From My Friends

I recorded my first video speaking Spanish this week. In preparation I wrote the content in Spanish to the best of my ability, put it on the Exchange on LingQ and asked for a writing correction as well as an audio file. I wanted to hear how a native Spanish speaker would pronounce what I wanted to say. I really like that feature, and not many people know about it.

Quite a few people submitted a writing correction, and I got audio files from Liszeth and Pablo who are both from Mexico. I imported the responses including the audio files and corrected texts as lessons, in order to practice reading correct Spanish and my pronunciation.

 How Many Words Lesson

In these last few months I have learned that one of the main differences between the Spanish spoken in Spain and the Spanish spoken in Latin-America and Mexico is that many Spaniards often pronounce thez and the ‘c’ before ‘i’ or ‘e’ like the ‘th’ in ‘thin’, while many Latin Americans pronounce it the same as the ‘s’.

Also, speakers in some areas (Argentina in particular) often pronounce ‘thell’ and ‘y’ like the ‘s’ in ‘measure.’ The point is, since I get my audio files from Mexicans, I suppose my Spanish will have a Mexican feel to it if I ever get to the stage where I can have an actual conversation.


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About Lykke

Lykke is a Spanish learner and part of the LingQ team. You can follow her Spanish learning journey on LingQ in her posts!
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24 thoughts on “How Many Words Do We Need?

  1. Tony

    That was very brave of you. Your pronunciation was pretty good. I understood all you said. There was no shyness or hesitation. I find it interesting that Spanish learners gravitate to the tu form. I was born in Mexico but moved to USA when young. I am fluent in Spanish. Yet the usted form is my default style and more natural sounding.

    Best to you with your language journey.

  2. Mariano Yalour

    I think you’re doing great so far. Your pronunciation is quite all right considering that you started studying 90 days ago. The only thing that gives away the fact that you’re not a native speaker is that you do many pauses, but that will fix itself if you just keep practicing 🙂 Saludos desde Argentina!

  3. Carol

    Wow, amazing! I did not know about the audio file feature. I will try it. I thought of a little composition about my cat. I could try that one. I think I met my goal too. I have 600 known words, and made it to Beginner 2. Congrats! Also, a big thank you for the posts! It was great to know I was not alone!

    1. Lykke

      It is so great that you found out about a feature from reading this 🙂 That’s one of the main things I am trying to get out of writing this. Sounds fun with the bit about your cat 😀 And congratulations on getting to 600 words and Beginner 2. Keep going I think it will only get better as we learn to understand even more words.

  4. Carol

    You are really great on camera too. I am envious, because I have thought of teaching violin online, but I am worried about being on video.

  5. Roberto

    As a Portuguese speaker I understand Spanish .
    I understood every word You spoke. For me You sound like fluente in Spanish.

  6. Myra

    Good job! Thanks for sharing your skills with us, and also for sharing the different perspectives floating around out there concerning how many words it takes to speak the way we wish to speak. Now I have a goal 🙂

  7. Sarah MUNLEEN

    Hi! Your Spanish sounds very good and it is even more for someone who could say a word of it 90 days ago!!!
    I’m fairly new aboard so I was wondering I much time you would put into the study on a daily base and if it was an every single day effort?
    Thanks a lot and all the VERY BEST:)!!

  8. Sarah MUNLEEN

    Hi! Your Spanish sounds very good and it is even more so for someone who could not say a word of it 90 days ago!!!
    I’m fairly new aboard so I was wondering how much time you would put into the study on a daily base and if it was an every single day effort?
    Thanks a lot and all the VERY BEST:)!!

    1. Lykke

      Hi Sarah – I try to put in an hour a day. It isn’t always easy – but then there’s the app. I try to listen while at the gym (that’s so boring anyway. So while I am on the lipitical (or whatever you call those monstrosities) I listen to some Spanish 🙂 At night if I have nothing better to do I like to watch a Spanish movie, they make some great ones. Spanish people are exceptionally great at making zombie movies – maybe I should do a post on that 😉

  9. Sarah MUNLEEN

    The problem with using smartphones is that you skip words or get them automatically replaced in a wrong manner 😉
    Sarah Moon

  10. ColibrEve

    Hola Lykke,

    Porque he aprendido el español,para mi tu manera de hablar y tus pronunciación estan muy bien.
    ¡ Reconocida te para hacer esfuerzo de hablar à nosotros en este video aunque qué te molesta. Felicitaciones ¡ ¡ Buen Día ¡



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