A vocabulary is a set of familia words within a person's language. A
vocabulary, usually developed with age, serves as a useful and
fundamental tool for communication and acquiring knowledge. Acquiring
an extensive vocabulary is one of the largest challenges in learning a
1 Definition and usage
1.1 Productive and receptive knowledge
1.2 Degree of knowledge
1.3 Depth of knowledge
1.4 Definition of word
2 Types of vocabulary
2.1 Reading vocabulary
2.3 Speaking vocabulary
2.4 Writing vocabulary
3 Focal vocabulary
6.1 Native-language vocabulary
6.2 Foreign-language vocabulary
6.2.1 The effects of vocabulary size on language comprehension
Second language vocabulary acquisition
6.2.4 The Keyword Method
6.3 Word lists
7 See also
10 External links
Definition and usage
Vocabulary is commonly defined as "all the words known and used by a
particular person". Knowing a word, however, is not as simple as
merely being able to recognize or use it. There are several aspects of
word knowledge that are used to measure word knowledge.
Productive and receptive knowledge
The first major 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 the larger of the two. For example, although a young child may not
yet be able to speak, write, or sign, he or she may be able to follow
simple commands and appear to understand a good portion of the
language to which he or she is exposed. In this case, the child's
receptive vocabulary is likely tens, if not hundreds of words, but his
or her 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.
Recognize 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 – written form
phonology – spoken form
reference – meaning
semantics – concept and reference
register – appropriacy of use
collocation – lexical neighbours
syntax – grammatical function
morphology – 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 uninflected 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, ...).
Another definition often used in research of vocabulary size is that
of word family. 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:
A literate person's vocabulary is all the words he or she can
recognize when reading. This is generally the largest type of
vocabulary simply because a reader tends to be exposed to more words
by reading than by listening.
A person's listening vocabulary is all the words he or she can
recognize when listening to speech. People may still understand words
they were not exposed to before using cues such as tone, gestures, the
topic of discussion and the social context of the conversation.
A person's speaking vocabulary is all the words he or she uses in
speech. It is likely to be a subset of the listening vocabulary. Due
to the spontaneous nature of speech, words are often misused. This
misuse – though slight and unintentional – may be
compensated by facial expressions, tone of voice.
Words are used in various forms of writing from formal essays to
social media feeds. Many written words do not commonly appear in
speech. Writers generally use a limited set of words when
communicating. For example, if there are a number of
synonyms, a writer may have a preference as to which of them to use,
and they are unlikely to use technical vocabulary relating to a
subject in which he has no knowledge or interest.
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. 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[clarification needed]. This kind of
comparison has elicited some linguistic controversy, as with the
number of "Eskimo words for snow". English speakers with relevant
specialised knowledge can also display elaborate and precise
vocabularies for snow and cattle when the need arises.
During its infancy, a child instinctively builds a vocabulary. Infants
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
his/her ability to self-express without relying on gestures or
babbling. Once the reading and writing vocabularies start to develop,
through questions and education, the child starts to discover the
anomalies and irregularities of language.
In first grade, 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 our entire life. Between the ages of 20
and 60, people learn some 6,000 more lemmas, or one every other
day. An average 20-year-old knows 42,000 words coming from 11,100
word families; an average 60-year-old knows 48,200 lemmas coming from
13,400 word families. People expand their vocabularies by e.g.
reading, playing word games, 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.
Linguistic vocabulary is synonymous with thinking vocabulary.
A person may be judged by others based on his or her vocabulary.
Wilkins (1972) once said, "Without grammar, very little can be
conveyed, without vocabulary, nothing can be conveyed."
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.
One most recent 2016 study shows that 20-year-old English native
speakers recognize on average 42,000 lemmas, 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.
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), it does typically require a large amount of
repetition, and spaced repetition with flashcards is an established
method for memorization, particularly used for vocabulary acquisition
in computer-assisted language learning. 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, 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 useful method of building vocabulary in a second language is the
keyword method. If time is available or one wants to emphasize a few
key words, one can create mnemonic devices or word associations.
Although these strategies tend to take longer to implement and may
take longer in recollection, they create new or unusual connections
that can increase retention. The keyword method requires deeper
cognitive processing, thus increasing the likelihood of retention
(Sagarra and Alba, 2006). This method uses fits within Paivio's
(1986) dual coding theory because it uses both verbal and image
memory systems. However, this method is best for words that represent
concrete and imageable things. Abstract concepts or words that do not
bring a distinct image to mind are difficult to associate. In
addition, studies have shown that associative vocabulary learning is
more successful with younger students (Sagarra and Alba, 2006).
Older students tend to rely less on creating word associations to
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 (850 words),
Special English (1,500 words), General Service
List (2,000 words), and Academic Word List. 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.
Swadesh list was made for investigation in linguistics.
Differences between American and British English (vocabulary)
Language proficiency: the ability of an individual to speak or perform
in an acquired language
Longest word in English: lots of the longest words in the English
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Look up vocabulary in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
Dictionary of English (ODE) Multi-media dictionary developed for
learning vocabulary. Offers audio from around the world, images, video
clips, usage samples, multiple definitions, correlations, idioms and
much more. ODE is also part of LearnThatWord's vocabulary quizzes.
Bibliography on vocabulary I.S.P. Nation's extensive collection of
research on vocabulary.
Vocabulary Acquisition Research Group Archive An extensive
bibliographic database on vocabulary acquisition maintained by Paul
Meara and the
Vocabulary Acquisition Research Group at Swansea
VocabularySize.com – a free web-based service that implements the
I.S.P. Nation's English
Vocabulary Size Test in an online format.
Vocabulary test – a free four-minute English vocabulary size test,
accurate within 10%, on which Brysbaert et al.'s (2016) estimates of
vocabulary size are based.
Vocabulary test – in 30+ languages.
TestYourVocab.com – a free five-minute English vocabulary size test,
accurate within 10%
WordsinaSentence.com – a free online dictionary that defines
vocabulary words with contextual sentences.
Types of reference works
Types of dictionaries
Language for specific purposes dictionary
List of lexicographers
List of online dictionaries