Let’s take a look on how big a vocabulary you need to reach fluency in an Indo-European language like German.
The first few landmarks are not that difficult to achieve.
If you are able to understand somewhere between the 100 and 150 most common words in German, you should be able to understand around 50% of the words in a German text.
In order to speak in sentences fairly smoothly you need to know, and actively be able to use, the 300 most frequent words in German. These words are absolutely necessary.
A person will during a typical day use somewhere between 800 and 1500 different words. The amount of words one uses depends mainly on their education level and profession.
The 3000 most common words cover 95% of an average active German vocabulary, and are you actively able to use these 3000 words, you should soon start to feel relatively fluent in German.
An average active native German vocabulary is around 5000 words.
The active vocabulary of one with a higher education is a notch higher. It consists of about 8000 words.
12 000-15 000 words
It’s not all words, which we can recognize, we actively use in our vocabulary. The number of words an average educated German can recognize is about 12,000 to 15,000 words.
15 000-17 000 words
If one has a higher education, one can typically recognise about 15,000 to 17,000 words. It sounds like a lot, which it also is, but many of these words are words which have disappeared from today’s language, technical terms or words almost only used in literary fiction.
Furthermore, you should also think about that your native language or any other language you may speak, will help you to understand quite a significant chunk of German words, you have not seen before. Especially technical terms, as they are called almost the same across the Indo-European languages.
Please keep reading. The actual hints are coming soon enough Photo: Gilbert
Before we continue with the actual hints, keep in that inflections are not included in the above counting of words. Inflections are words which change a little according to their grammatical function in a sentence.
This means, for example, “Hund” (dog) and “Hunde” (dogs) are counted as one word. The same are “groß” (big) and “größte” (biggest) together with for instance “der” (the, masculine) and “die” (the, feminine or plural).
A language is just more fun and exciting to speak if you have a large vocabulary. Photo: Jean Francois
So how can we expand our vocabulary? Here are six suggestions:
- German Films with German subtitles
- (Animation Films)
- Books and Articles
- Words Frequency Lists
- Different Online Material
As mentioned earlier, the about 300 most frequent words in German are absolute essential to be able to speak basic German. Without being able to use these words, you will lack the necessary words to express the very basics of the language. The best source to learn these words from are textbooks.
German Films with German subtitles
Watching German films with German subtitles is the best way to expand your overall vocabulary, as you will not get bored too quickly (at least not if it’s a good film). It mainly features everyday conversation, which is perfect for reaching and getting closer to the active vocabulary level of a native speaker.
It may be too difficult to watch German films with German subtitles, especially in the start. Instead of trying with subtitles in your native language, I would recommend trying to watch something in a less advanced language. Cartoons are mostly made for children and, therefore, easier to understand.
On Wikipedia, there is a list of all full length animation films ever produced. When you have found a film you find interesting, you can click yourself to the German title of the film via Wikipedia’s language list.
Read more about free German films here or by using the menu.
Books and Articles
As films mainly features everyday language it may not help you much when it comes to learning words, which are normally not a part of an active vocabulary.
Words Frequency Lists
It’s certainly not a funny way to expand your vocabulary, but it’s sometimes the most efficient. The most common 300 words are as said before essential for being able to speak basic German. If you don’t know them, you will simply not be able to speak the language.
Instead of looking through textbooks and films for words you don’t know it’s less time consuming to look up these words in frequency lists. I will also recommend these frequency lists for words finding advanced terms, which are not used very often. Do keep in mind that these two lists, which I link to, also includes inflective words.
If you would like to see a word from the frequency lists used in a context simply search for it on Google.de.
Different Online Material
The internet is packed with material that can help you with expanding your German vocabulary.
This site has almost everything you need including exercises to expand your vocabulary.
Fantastic site with a lot of podcasts.
Search for stuff like “German flashcards”, “German vocabulary”, “German beginner” etc..
Under vocabularies, there are some list of words related to different topics, excellent stuff.