How Many Words Do You Need to Know to Speak French Fluently?

Tired of endless grammar rules and useless vocabulary?

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100,000, 300, 1,000.

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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.

Scary, right?

Luckily you don’t need to learn all these words and definitions to speak French fluently.

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.

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 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!

Benjamin Houy

Benjamin Houy is a native French speaker and tea drinker with a BA degree in Applied Foreign Languages and a passion for languages. After teaching French and English in South Korea for 7 months as part of a French government program, he created French Together™ to help English speakers learn the 20% of French that truly matters.

18 thoughts on “How Many Words Do You Need to Know to Speak French Fluently?”

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  1. From my experience, which words are needed is dependent on the experiences and habits of one’s daily life. If you were studying in culinary school, the types of words you would need to learn first would be different from someone studying art and how to draw or paint.
    What I have done to help myself become more fluent, is to take ordinary sentences I say throughout the day, sentences and questions I need to communicate with others wherever I am, and I ask myself how would I say the same thing en français?
    What one person in one field would say in their day would differ from someone else navigating a day in their own life. You become familiar with what is familiar to you. Those words you repeatedly use are the common words YOU need to learn. The phrases you use in your first language are the phrases and phrase equivalents you should target and focus on learning in your second language, no matter what that second language is.
    That’s your list. Learn those first. And build from there. That is what helped me.

    • Jacqueline, that’s exactly what I think too. I’ve been writing little essays and then getting them translated into French. I note the verbs I’m using and work on learning their conjugations. I add the nouns I’m using to the list. The other thing I do is list phrases I use frequently in English when I speak to my wife and learn to speak them in French. I use them with her since she’s fluent in French.
      That said, I still think there is value in learning the list of commonly used words. I think you’ll find that many of the words in that list are words you use anyway.

  2. Interesting that l’encyclopédie Incomplète reckons that the basic vocabulary is 600 French words; I read that for a child to go to school, especially if the class is not in their mother tongue, they need about 800 words. That applied to English classes, so maybe there is a different core in French.

    One trick is to listen to (and read) the news in Francaise Facile on RFI. The news usually has a limited number of subjects, which means words are restricted and tend to repeat.

  3. I think you don’t need any specific number of words..
    All that’s needed is learn and understand sentences, then you good to go. Merci beaucoup

  4. While the statistics on word usage are informative, they understate the number of words that you have to know to to understand most conversations. If I know all of the words used in 90% of conversations, that doesn’t indicate how many words I need to know to understand a typical conversation. Think about it…those are two distinctly different things.
    And in a single sentence of, say, 10 words, if I don’t understand one word (10%) that happens to be the verb or a key noun, I wouldn’t understand the sentence.
    If it’s the first sentence, I may not even understand what the conversation is about until it’s half over 🙂
    I’m not trying to be a downer, just pointing out that a really really good vocabulary is necessary to get beyond tourist-level French.

    • I totally agree. The statistics are here to give a general idea of the vocabulary needed and to highlight the fact that a few common words are used most of the time but one would need to know much more than 600 words to be fluent.

      I still think it’s important to start by learning the most common vocabulary but you are absolutely right that it’s not enough.

    • Curtis,
      You make a good point.

      What is then your answer to the question?
      How many words do you need to speak French fluently?

      Duolingo has less than 3,000 words in their French tree. As a English speaker trying to learn French, how many words do you think I should learn?


      • This reply is probably way too late, but I just found this article. Duolingo definitely (at least as of today, the last day of 2019) has way more than 3000 words. The ‘Words’ tab on the browser version of Duolingo shows how many words you’ve learned. Mine is just shy of 4000, and my skill tree is only complete on level 1!

    • This is a very interesting point. If one can’t put a communication in context at the start, one can lose the entire sense of it. If knowledge of a key noun or verb is missing it is almost impossible to catch up.

  5. I want to learn french, my first language is spanish so I think that french will be easy to learn for me.
    I got a book with the 7000 most common words in french, I memorized 500 words by the time but I can’t make sentences properly yet.

    • Hi doenso!

      That’s always the problem when you learn words instead of sentences. You know many, but don’t know how to use them.

      That’s why I always recommend to learn sentences instead of word.

      If you subscribe to French Together, you will receive an ebook with the 100 most common French words for free. It would help you a lot :).

      • Hi Benjamine,

        I have been learning French, but mainly the common words. The website I am using only focused on; avoir and être but without the opportunity to practice. I typed into google, ” practice the French present tense”. I clicked on your page and already I have learnt a lot. Am looking forward to receiving the 100 most words. This will really me to put my French to test, as I have only been learning words.

    • Bonjour @doenso. Je suis cubain, alors ma première langue est l’espagnol. Je peux t’aider à apprendre le français librement. Si tu est intéressé tu peux m’écrit à À bientôt et bon chance!!???

    • starts with some noun, like 20,30 words , proper noun and helping verbs then start to make very basic sentences …
      any help needed I am available ….

  6. Je voulais juste corriger une petite erreur dans ta mini-biographie au-dessous de l’article (qui était très bien rédigé et fort interessant sinon). En anglais le pluriel de ice cream c’est en fait …ice cream ! Ça ne me paraît pas trop idiomatique à dire ice creams comme ça avec le ‘s’ à la fin. Une petite correction – à part de ça c’est parfait 🙂 Un jour j’espère d’être bilingue moi-même, mais j’ai du boulot à faire pour perfectionner mon français. J’attends le prochain article avec impatience!

    • Merci Alex, c’est corrigé :).

      Tu parles déjà très bien français ! Tu as appris comment ?

      Le prochain article devrait être publié demain 🙂

      • This is incorrect. Ice cream can be used as a noun or a collective noun. When used as a collective noun, of course there is no plural. But if you were talking about individual ice creams, there is a plural form. If you look in the Oxford Dictionary online there is the mass noun form and the count noun form. I am a native English speaker (UK).


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