You certainly wonder how many words you need to know to speak French fluently.
While it’s extremely hard to give a perfectly accurate answer, it’s possible to estimate the number of words you need to know in order to understand 80% of conversations and texts.
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 meanings. Take the French word “plus” for example. It can mean “more”, or the opposite “no more”. Should you count each definition as a different word?
To give you an idea, Le Grand Robert de la langue française, one of the biggest French dictionary contains 100,000 words and 350,000 definitions.
Quite a lot, isn’t it?
But do you really need to know all these words to speak French fluently?
You speak English fluently, but if you open an English dictionary, I am sure you will find many unknown words. Should you learn these words? No because you will most likely never need to use them.
This is the same in French, only a few thousands words are truly useful and many are words you already know, because there are many French words used in English.
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. However, you would need thousands of words to understand 95% of texts.
It means that you actually don’t need to be a human dictionary to understand most French texts and conversations.
In fact, language teachers generally consider that the 300 most common French words are enough for everyday life.
That’s very few of course and you can’t expect to understand everything with such a limited vocabulary. However, it should be enough to understand the essence of what people talk and write about in everyday situations.
You could argue that knowing a list of words isn’t enough to speak a language fluently. And you would be right.
Knowing many French words is useless if you don’t know how to use these words.
That’s why I advise you to always learn sentences, not words.
It’s also much easier to memorize sentences than words.
Why should you learn the most common French words?
Vilfredo Pareto was an Italian economist famous for the principle he formulated,, also known as the 80-20 rule. Applied to languages, Pareto principle means that 20% of words are used in 80% of conversations. See how it could be useful?
These numbers are not perfectly accurate, however they highlight something very 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 French language, these are the 600 most used French words that account for 90% of words used in most French texts.
Where can you find the most common French words?
You could use the Routledge Frequency dicitonary if you’re looking with a nice list of the most common French words.
The advantage of this last approach is that you’ll learn sentences instead of words, something I highly recommend you to do.