A vocabulary is a set of familiar
words In linguistics Linguistics is the scientific study of language A language is a structured system of communication used by humans, including speech (spoken language), gestures (Signed language, sign language) and writing. Most lang ...

within a person's
language A language is a structured system of communication Communication (from Latin Latin (, or , ) is a classical language belonging to the Italic languages, Italic branch of the Indo-European languages. Latin was originally spoken in the ...

. A vocabulary, usually developed with age, serves as a useful and fundamental tool for
communication Communication (from Latin Latin (, or , ) is a classical language A classical language is a language A language is a structured system of communication Communication (from Latin ''communicare'', meaning "to share" or "to b ...

acquiring knowledge
acquiring knowledge
. Acquiring an extensive vocabulary is one of the largest challenges in learning a
second language A person's second language, or L2, is a language that is not the native language A first language, native tongue, native language, or mother/father/parent tongue (also known as arterial language or L1) is a language A language is a struc ...

Definition and usage

Vocabulary is commonly defined as "all the words known and used by a particular person".

Productive and receptive knowledge

The first major change distinction that must be made when evaluating word knowledge is whether the knowledge is productive (also called achieve) or receptive (also called receive); even within those opposing categories, there is often no clear distinction. Words that are generally understood when heard or read or seen constitute a person's receptive vocabulary. These words may range from well known to barely known (see degree of knowledge below). A person's receptive vocabulary is usually the larger of the two. For example, although a young child may not yet be able to speak, write, or sign, they may be able to follow simple commands and appear to understand a good portion of the language to which they are exposed. In this case, the child's receptive vocabulary is likely tens, if not hundreds of words, but their active vocabulary is zero. When that child learns to speak or sign, however, the child's active vocabulary begins to increase. It is also possible for the productive vocabulary to be larger than the receptive vocabulary, for example in a second-language learner who has learned words through study rather than exposure, and can produce them, but has difficulty recognizing them in conversation. Productive vocabulary, therefore, generally refers to words that can be produced within an appropriate context and match the intended meaning of the speaker or signer. As with receptive vocabulary, however, there are many degrees at which a particular word may be considered part of an active vocabulary. Knowing how to pronounce, sign, or write a word does not necessarily mean that the word that has been used correctly or accurately reflects the intended message; but it does reflect a minimal amount of productive knowledge.

Degree of knowledge

Within the receptive–productive distinction lies a range of abilities that are often referred to as ''degree of knowledge''. This simply indicates that a word gradually enters a person's vocabulary over a period of time as more aspects of word knowledge are learnt. Roughly, these stages could be described as: # Never encountered the word. # Heard the word, but cannot define it. # Recognizes the word due to context or tone of voice. # Able to use the word and understand the general and/or intended meaning, but cannot clearly explain it. # Fluent with the word – its use and definition.

Depth of knowledge

The differing degrees of word knowledge imply a greater ''depth of knowledge'', but the process is more complex than that. There are many facets to knowing a word, some of which are not hierarchical so their acquisition does not necessarily follow a linear progression suggested by ''degree of knowledge''. Several frameworks of word knowledge have been proposed to better operationalise this concept. One such framework includes nine facets: #
orthography An orthography is a set of conventions for writing Writing is a medium of human communication Communication (from Latin ''communicare'', meaning "to share" or "to be in relation with") is "an apparent answer to the painful divisions b ...
– written form #
phonology Phonology is a branch of linguistics Linguistics is the scientific study of language, meaning that it is a comprehensive, systematic, objective, and precise study of language. Linguistics encompasses the analysis of every aspect of lan ...

– spoken form #
reference Reference is a relationship between objects in which one object designates, or acts as a means by which to connect to or link to, another object. The first object in this relation is said to ''refer to'' the second object. It is called a ''name ...
– meaning #
semantics Semantics (from grc, σημαντικός ''sēmantikós'', "significant") is the study of reference Reference is a relationship between objects in which one object designates, or acts as a means by which to connect to or link to, another ...
– concept and reference #
register A register is an authoritative list of one kind of information. Register or registration may refer to: Arts entertainment, and media Music * Register (music), the relative "height" or range of a note, melody, part, instrument, etc. * ''Regis ...
– appropriacy of use or register #
collocation In corpus linguistics Corpus linguistics is the study of language as a language is expressed in its text corpus (plural ''corpora''), its body of "real world" text. Corpus linguistics proposes that reliable language analysis is more feasible w ...
– lexical neighbours # word associations #
syntax In linguistics Linguistics is the scientific study of language, meaning that it is a comprehensive, systematic, objective, and precise study of language. Linguistics encompasses the analysis of every aspect of language, as well as the ...

– grammatical function #
morphology Morphology, from the Greek and meaning "study of shape", may refer to: Disciplines * Morphology (archaeology), study of the shapes or forms of artifacts * Morphology (astronomy), study of the shape of astronomical objects such as nebulae, galaxies ...
– word parts

Definition of word

Words can be defined in various ways, and estimates of vocabulary size differ depending on the definition used. The most common definition is that of a lemma (the inflected or dictionary form; this includes ''walk'', but not ''walks, walked or walking''). Most of the time lemmas do not include proper nouns (names of people, places, companies, etc.). Another definition often used in research of vocabulary size is that of
word family A word family is the base form of a word plus its inflected forms and derived forms made with suffixes and prefixes plus its cognate In linguistics Linguistics is the scientific study of language A language is a structured system ...
. These are all the words that can be derived from a ground word (e.g., the words ''effortless, effortlessly, effortful, effortfully'' are all part of the word family ''effort''). Estimates of vocabulary size range from as high as 200 thousand to as low as 10 thousand, depending on the definition used.

Types of vocabulary

''Listed in order of most ample to most limited:''

Reading vocabulary

A person's reading vocabulary is all the words recognized when reading. This class of vocabulary is generally the most ample, as new words are more commonly encountered when reading than when listening.

Listening vocabulary

A person's
listening To listen is to give attention to sound or action. When listening, one is hearing what others are saying, and trying to understand what it means. The act of listening involves complex affective, cognitive, and behavioral processes. Affective proc ...

vocabulary comprises the words recognized when listening to speech. Cues such as the speaker's tone and gestures, the topic of discussion, and the conversation's social context may convey the meaning of an unfamiliar word.

Speaking vocabulary

A person's speaking vocabulary comprises the words used in
speech Speech is human vocal communication Communication (from Latin Latin (, or , ) is a classical language A classical language is a language A language is a structured system of communication Communication (from Latin ''c ...

and is generally a subset of the listening vocabulary. Due to the spontaneous nature of speech, words are often misused slightly and unintentionally, but facial expressions and tone of voice can compensate for this misuse.

Writing vocabulary

The written word appears in registers as different as formal essays and social media feeds. While many written words rarely appear in speech, a person's written vocabulary is generally limited by preference and context: a writer may prefer one synonym over another, and they will be unlikely to use technical vocabulary relating to a subject in which they have no interest or knowledge.

Final vocabulary

The American philosopher
Richard Rorty Richard McKay Rorty (October 4, 1931 – June 8, 2007) was an American philosopher. Educated at the University of Chicago and Yale University, he had strong interests and training in both the history of philosophy and contemporary analytic philoso ...
characterized a person's "final vocabulary" as follows:
All human beings carry about a set of words which they employ to justify their actions, their beliefs, and their lives. These are the words in which we formulate praise of our friends and contempt for our enemies, our long-term projects, our deepest self-doubts and our highest hopes… I shall call these words a person's “final vocabulary”. Those words are as far as he can go with language; beyond them is only helpless passivity or a resort to force. (''
Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity ''Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity'' is a 1989 book by the American philosopher A philosopher is someone who practices philosophy. The term ''philosopher'' comes from the grc, φιλόσοφος, , translit=philosophos, meaning 'lover of wi ...
'' p. 73)

Focal vocabulary

Focal vocabulary is a specialized set of terms and distinctions that is particularly important to a certain group: those with a particular focus of experience or activity. A lexicon, or vocabulary, is a language's dictionary: its set of names for things, events, and ideas. Some linguists believe that lexicon influences people's perception of things, the
Sapir–Whorf hypothesis The hypothesis of linguistic relativity, also known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis , the Whorf hypothesis, or Whorfianism, is a principle suggesting that the structure of a language A language is a structured system of communication used b ...
. For example, the Nuer of Sudan have an elaborate vocabulary to describe cattle. The Nuer have dozens of names for cattle because of the cattle's particular histories, economies, and environments. This kind of comparison has elicited some linguistic controversy, as with the number of "
Eskimo words for snow The claim that Eskimo words for snow (specifically YupikYupik may refer to: * Yupik peoples, a group of indigenous peoples of Alaska and the Russian Far East * Yupik languages, a group of Inuit-Aleut languages Yupꞌik (with the apostrophe) may ...
". English speakers with relevant specialised knowledge can also display elaborate and precise vocabularies for snow and cattle when the need arises.

Vocabulary growth

During its infancy, a child instinctively builds a vocabulary.
Infant An infant (from the Latin word ''infans'', meaning 'unable to speak' or 'speechless') is the more formal or specialised synonym for the common term ''baby'', meaning the very young offspring of human beings Humans (''Homo sapiens'' ...

s imitate words that they hear and then associate those words with objects and actions. This is the listening vocabulary. The speaking vocabulary follows, as a child's thoughts become more reliant on their ability to self-express without relying on gestures or babbling. Once the
reading Reading is the process of taking in the sense or meaning of letters, symbols, ''etc.'', especially by sight or touch. For educators and researchers, reading is a multifaceted process involving such areas as word recognition, orthography An ...
and writing vocabularies start to develop, through questions and
education Education is the process of facilitating learning, or the acquisition of knowledge, skills, value (ethics), values, morals, beliefs, habits, and personal development. Educational methods include teaching, training, storytelling, discussion ...

, the child starts to discover the anomalies and irregularities of language. In
first grade First grade (also called Grade One, called ''Year 2 Year Two is an educational year group in schools in many countries including England, Wales, Australia and New Zealand. It is usually the second year of compulsory education and incorporates s ...
, a child who can read learns about twice as many words as one who cannot. Generally, this gap does not narrow later. This results in a wide range of vocabulary by age five or six, when an English-speaking child will have learned about 1500 words. Vocabulary grows throughout one's life. Between the ages of 20 and 60, people learn about 6,000 more lemmas, or one every other day. An average 20-year-old knows 42,000 lemmas coming from 11,100 word families. People expand their vocabularies by for e.g. reading, playing
word game Word games (also called word game puzzles or word search games) are spoken or board games often designed to test ability with language A language is a structured system of communication used by humans, including speech (spoken language), g ...
s, and participating in vocabulary-related programs. Exposure to traditional print media teaches correct spelling and vocabulary, while exposure to text messaging leads to more relaxed word acceptability constraints.


* An extensive vocabulary aids expression and communication. * Vocabulary size has been directly linked to
reading comprehension Reading comprehension is the ability to process text, understand Understanding is a psychological Psychology is the science of mind and behavior. Psychology includes the study of consciousness, conscious and Unconscious mind, unconsc ...
.Stahl, Steven A. ''Vocabulary Development''. Cambridge: Brookline Books, 1999. p. 3. "The Cognitive Foundations of Learning to Read: A Framework", Southwest Educational Development Laboratory

p. 14.
* Linguistic vocabulary is synonymous with thinking vocabulary. * A person may be judged by others based on their vocabulary. * Wilkins (1972) said, "Without
grammar In linguistics Linguistics is the scientific study of language, meaning that it is a comprehensive, systematic, objective, and precise study of language. Linguistics encompasses the analysis of every aspect of language, as well as the ...
, very little can be conveyed; without vocabulary, nothing can be conveyed."

Vocabulary size

Native-language vocabulary

Estimating average vocabulary size poses various difficulties and limitations due to the different definitions and methods employed such as what is the word, what is to know a word, what sample dictionaries were used, how tests were conducted, and so on. Native speakers' vocabularies also vary widely within a language, and are dependent on the level of the speaker's education. As a result, estimates vary from as little as 10,000 to as many as over 50,000 for young adult native speakers of English. A 2016 study shows that 20-year-old English native speakers recognize on average 42,000
lemmas Lemma may refer to: Language and linguistics * Lemma (morphology), the canonical, dictionary or citation form of a word * Lemma (psycholinguistics), a mental abstraction of a word about to be uttered * Headword, under which a set of related dict ...
, ranging from 27,100 for the lowest 5% of the population to 51,700 lemmas for the highest 5%. These lemmas come from 6,100 word families in the lowest 5% of the population and 14,900 word families in the highest 5%. 60-year-olds know on average 6,000 lemmas more. According to another, earlier 1995 study junior-high students would be able to recognize the meanings of about 10,000–12,000 words, whereas for college students this number grows up to about 12,000–17,000 and for elderly adults up to about 17,000 or more. For native speakers of German, average absolute vocabulary sizes range from 5,900 lemmas in first grade to 73,000 for adults.

Foreign-language vocabulary

The effects of vocabulary size on language comprehension

The knowledge of the 3000 most frequent English word families or the 5000 most frequent words provides 95% vocabulary coverage of spoken discourse. For minimal reading comprehension a threshold of 3,000 word families (5,000 lexical items) was suggested and for reading for pleasure 5,000 word families (8,000 lexical items) are required. An "optimal" threshold of 8,000 word families yields the coverage of 98% (including proper nouns).

Second language vocabulary acquisition

Learning vocabulary is one of the first steps in learning a second language, but a learner never finishes vocabulary acquisition. Whether in one's native language or a second language, the acquisition of new vocabulary is an ongoing process. There are many techniques that help one acquire new vocabulary.


Although memorization can be seen as tedious or boring, associating one word in the native language with the corresponding word in the second language until memorized is considered one of the best methods of vocabulary acquisition. By the time students reach adulthood, they generally have gathered a number of personalized memorization methods. Although many argue that memorization does not typically require the complex cognitive processing that increases retention (Sagarra and Alba, 2006),Sagarra, Nuria and Alba, Matthew. (2006). "The Key Is in the Keyword: L2 Vocabulary Learning Methods With Beginning Learners of Spanish". ''The Modern Language Journal'', 90, ii. pp. 228–243. it does typically require a large amount of repetition, and
spaced repetition Spaced repetition is an evidence-based learning technique that is usually performed with flashcards. Newly introduced and more difficult flashcards are shown more frequently, while older and less difficult flashcards are shown less frequently ...
flashcard A flashcard or flash card (also known as an index card) is a card bearing information on both sides, which is intended to be used as an aid in memorization. Each flashcard bears a question on one side and an answer on the other. Flashcards are ...

s is an established method for memorization, particularly used for vocabulary acquisition in
computer-assisted language learning Computer-assisted language learning (CALL), British, or Computer-Aided Instruction (CAI)/Computer-Aided Language Instruction (CALI), American, is briefly defined in a seminal work by Levy (1997: p. 1) as "the search for and study of applicati ...
. Other methods typically require more time and longer to recall. Some words cannot be easily linked through association or other methods. When a word in the second language is phonologically or visually similar to a word in the native language, one often assumes they also share similar meanings. Though this is frequently the case, it is not always true. When faced with a
false friend In linguistics Linguistics is the scientific study of language A language is a structured system of communication Communication (from Latin Latin (, or , ) is a classical language belonging to the Italic languages, Ita ...
, memorization and repetition are the keys to mastery. If a second language learner relies solely on word associations to learn new vocabulary, that person will have a very difficult time mastering false friends. When large amounts of vocabulary must be acquired in a limited amount of time, when the learner needs to recall information quickly, when words represent abstract concepts or are difficult to picture in a mental image, or when discriminating between false friends, rote memorization is the method to use. A neural network model of novel word learning across orthographies, accounting for L1-specific memorization abilities of L2-learners has recently been introduced (Hadzibeganovic and Cannas, 2009).

The keyword method

One way of learning vocabulary is to use mnemonic devices or to create associations between words, this is known as the "keyword method" (Sagarra and Alba, 2006). It also takes a long time to implement — and takes a long time to recollect — but because it makes a few new strange ideas connect it may help in learning. Also it presumably does not conflict with Paivio's dual coding system because it uses visual and verbal mental faculties. However, this is still best used for words that represent concrete things, as abstract concepts are more difficult to remember.

Word lists

Several word lists have been developed to provide people with a limited vocabulary either for the purpose of rapid language proficiency or for effective communication. These include
Basic English Basic English is an English language, English-''based'' controlled natural language, controlled language created by linguist and philosopher Charles Kay Ogden as an international auxiliary language, and as an aid for teaching English as a secon ...
(850 words),
Special English Learning English (previously known as Special English) is a controlled natural language, controlled version of the English language first used on 19 October 1959, and still presented daily by the United States broadcasting service Voice of Americ ...
(1,500 words),
General Service List The General Service List (GSL) is a list of roughly 2,000 words published by Michael Philip West, Michael West in 1953. The words were selected to represent the most frequent words of English and were taken from a text corpus, corpus of written Eng ...
(2,000 words), and
Academic Word ListThe Academic Word List' (AWL) was developed by Averil Coxhead at the School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. The list contains 5700 semantic fields which were selected because they appear ...
. Some learner's dictionaries have developed defining vocabularies which contain only most common and basic words. As a result, word definitions in such dictionaries can be understood even by learners with a limited vocabulary. Some publishers produce dictionaries based on word frequency or thematic groups.Hueber Grundwortschatz
/ref> The
Swadesh list The Swadesh list ("Swadesh" is pronounced ) is a classic compilation of tentatively universal concepts for the purposes of lexicostatistics. Translations of the Swadesh list into a set of languages allow researchers to quantify the interrelatedness ...
was made for investigation in
linguistics Linguistics is the scientific study of language A language is a structured system of communication Communication (from Latin Latin (, or , ) is a classical language belonging to the Italic languages, Italic branch of the Indo ...


See also

* Differences between American and British English (vocabulary) *
Language proficiency Language proficiency is the ability of an individual to use language with a level of accuracy that transfers meaning in production and comprehension. There is no singular definition of language proficiency, however, and this has implications for i ...
: The ability of an individual to speak or perform in an acquired language *
Lexicon A lexicon is the vocabulary A vocabulary is a set of familiar words In linguistics, a word of a spoken language can be defined as the smallest sequence of phonemes that can be uttered in isolation with semantic, objective or pragmatics, pra ...

Longest word in English The identity of the longest word in English depends upon the definition of what constitutes a word in the English language, as well as how length should be compared. Words may be derived naturally from History of English, the language's roots or ...
: Many of the longest words in the English language * Mental lexicon



* Barnhart, Clarence Lewis (ed.) (1968). ''The World Book Dictionary''. Chicago: Thorndike-Barnhart, * Brysbaert M, Stevens M, Mandera P and Keuleers E (2016) How Many Words Do We Know? Practical Estimates of Vocabulary Size Dependent on Word Definition, the Degree of Language Input and the Participant's Age. Front. Psychol. 7:1116. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01116. * Flynn, James Robert (2008). ''Where have all the liberals gone? : race, class, and ideals in America''. Cambridge University Press; 1st edition. * Lenkeit, Roberta Edwards (2007) ''Introducing cultural anthropology'' Boston: McGraw-Hill (3rd. ed.) * * Miller, Barbara D. (1999). ''Cultural Anthropology''(4th ed.) Boston: Allyn and Bacon, p. 315 * Schonell, Sir Fred Joyce, Ivor G. Meddleton and B. A. Shaw, ''A study of the oral vocabulary of adults : an investigation into the spoken vocabulary of the Australian worker'', University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, 1956. * West, Michael (1953). ''A general service list of English words, with semantic frequencies and a supplementary word-list for the writing of popular science and technology'' London, New York: Longman, Green

External links

Bibliography on vocabulary
I.S.P. Nation's extensive collection of research on vocabulary.
Vocabulary Acquisition Research Group Archive
An bibliographic database on vocabulary acquisition at Swansea University. {{Authority control Learning to read Lexicography Language