Vocabulary‏‎ and TEFL

The Vocabulary is the collection of words‏‎ in a language.

In English there are estimated to be roughly 1,000,000 words in the language; this is a huge increase on the 50,000 words available in Old English. These words are generally derived from one of several main sources:

  • Germanic (including Old English and Old Norse, back through Proto-Indo-European) for common pronouns‏‎, basic family relationships, common animals‏‎ and verbs‏‎
  • Latin for more formal and scientific words which are regarded as more educated
  • French (which is itself derived from Latin) for legal and other terms
  • Greek‏‎ for medical and political terms

The reason for the large numbers of words in the vocabulary is partly due to the ability of English to easily import new words. Thus there are approximate synonyms‏‎ such as come or arrive the former from a Germanic origin, the latter from a Latin origin. However, they are not exact synonyms as they offer a subtle difference in meaning and flavor.

Of the most common words in English, almost all are Germanic in origin. Determining word frequency‏‎ (a list of words ranked according to popularity of use) is usually achieved by counting words in a corpus‏‎. This presents its own problems though depending on the size and content of the corpus.

Part of the problem in assessing how many words there are in a language and how many an individual knows is the differing opinions of what constitutes a word. Is, for example, the verb walk the same as the noun walk? Is the verb walk the same as walks or walking or walked?

Personal Vocabulary

Looking at personal vocabulary it is estimated that

  • Shakespeare had a vocabulary of between 18,000 – 25,000 words
  • A good college graduate has a vocabulary of 40,000 words
  • A school leaver will have roughly 16,000 words
  • The average vocabulary is 20,000 words

Interestingly, however, although the average vocabulary is 20,000 words, most people use about 2,000 words for 90% of the time (especially in spoken‎ communication).

As a very approximate idea beginners‏‎ will have a vocabulary ranging from zero to about 2,000 words; intermediate students will know about 5,000 words and advanced learners of English about 10,000.

Active vs Passive Vocabulary

Active vocabulary comprises the words which a person uses regularly in their everyday speech or writing. Typically, however, they will have a much larger passive vocabulary. These are words which a person may understand but which they will not use when speaking or writing‏‎. It is common, also, for a person’s written vocabulary to be much larger than their spoken vocabulary.

For example, an educated native speaker will likely be able to read and understand this passage:

The inequity in the distribution of wealth in Australia is yet another indicator of Australia’s lack of egalitarianism. In 1995, 20% of the Australian population owned 72.2% of Australia’s wealth with the top 50% owning 92.1%. Such a significant skew in the distribution of wealth indicates that, at least in terms of economics, there is an established class system in Australia. McGregor argues that Australian society can be categorized into three levels: the Upper, Middle and Working classes. In addition, it has been shown that most Australians continue to remain in the class into which they were born despite arguments about the ease of social mobility in Australian society. The issue of class and its inherent inequity, however, is further compounded by factors such as race and gender within and across these class divisions.

However, when asked to say what they have read, a person may well paraphrase it thus:

Australia isn’t equal and this is shown by the wealth in the country not being shared out equally. In 1995 20% of the people owned over 70% of the wealth and the top few owned over 90%. This difference shows there is a class system at work when it comes to money. There is an Upper, Middle and Working class and most Australians don’t move out of the class where they were born even thought they talk about how easy it is to move between classes. But as well as money there’s also class issues when it comes to sex and race.


As well as the vocabulary being divided grammatical into parts of speech‏‎, there are major divisions which can be made within the vocabulary itself:

  • basic words (see above, about 2,000 will take care of most of our needs)
  • slang‏‎
  • jargon‏‎
  • technical or scientific words

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Posted in Vocabulary & Spelling.

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