100,000, 300, 1,000.
Or is it 12,345?
How many words do you think you need to know to understand 80% of French texts? How important is it to learn the most common French words first?
The answer may surprise you!
How many words are there in French?
That’s a tricky question!
To start with, what do you consider a word? Some words have several definitions.
Take the French word “plus” for example.
It means “more”, or the opposite “no more”.
And it’s far from being an isolated case.
Le Grand Robert de la langue française, one of the biggest French dictionaries contains 100,000 words and 350,000 definitions.
This means that each word has an average of 3 definitions.
Luckily you don’t need to learn all these words and definitions to become conversational.
You speak English fluently, but if you open an English dictionary, I am sure you’ll find many unknown words.
Words like entomophagy, adscititious, orrery and doryphore.
You don’t know these words because you never needed them (and most likely never will).
The same is true in French.
How many words do you need to know to speak French fluently?
According to l’encyclopédie Incomplète, the same 600 French words represent 90% of words used in common French texts.
That’s very few of course and you can’t expect to understand everything with such a limited vocabulary but it’s enough to understand most of what people talk and write about in everyday situations.
While you need very few words to get by on a trip to France and order food in a restaurant, you’ll need thousands of words to fully understand all the wonderful nuances of the French language.
That’s when the Pareto Principle comes in handy.
Vilfredo Pareto was an Italian economist famous for the principle he formulated, also known as the 80-20 rule.
Applied to languages, the Pareto principle means that 20% of words are used in 80% of conversations.
These numbers are not perfectly accurate, however, they highlight something important.
You should make it a priority to learn the most common French words because these are the words you will find in 80% of conversations.
In the case of the French language, these are the 600 most used French words that account for 90% of words used in most French texts. These are the words conversational French courses like French Together focus on.
Why knowing the most common French words isn’t enough
You could argue that knowing a list of words isn’t enough to speak French fluently. And you would be right.
Knowing many French words is useless if you don’t know how to use these words and create sentences.
That’s why I recommend you to always learn sentences, not words.
This way you know how to use the words in real-life situations and get used to the grammar of the French language at the same time.
The best way to do that is to use a conversational French course like French Together because it teaches you the most common French words in the context of real-life conversations.
How many words do you think you need to know to speak French fluently? I look forward to reading your comment!