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April 2019

How Much Do You Need to Know to Be a Native Speaker?

Adding metrics to language mastery

According to a recent study, the average adult needs to learn a little more than the amount of information that could fill a floppy disk to master English as a native speaker. We’re talking about the 90 mm floppy disks and not the even more ancient 203 mm variety, meaning language mastery takes a capacity equivalent to 1.56 mb (just slightly higher than the 1.44 mb capacity of a 90 mm floppy disk).

By technological standards, this is surprisingly small, especially given where we are today. Never mind the Zip drives, or CD- and DVD-ROM discs of days past; the amount needed for English fluency is a data amount of the Oregon Trail era.

University of Rochester researchers concluded that 2,000 bits of information needs to be acquired for daily use of a language, covering the years from birth to 18 years of age.

While the popular notion is that it requires knowledge of up to 30,000+ words to achieve a native-speaker level in any one language, the understanding of these words and their contexts takes even more data.

The researchers from the University of Rochester found that it requires about 400,000 bits (0.05 mb) to learn 40,000 words, the number of required words they chose for language mastery. To understand the full meaning of all of these words, including context and usage, one requires about 12 million bits (1.5 mb). We need even more storage to retain word frequency information and syntax, the rules of sentences, to achieve a total of 1.56 mb of necessary brain storage, just slightly more than a 90 mm floppy disk.

Something should also be said about the quality of the words known. For example, knowing variations of the same word would not be as meaningful as learning the same amount of distinct words.

An average person who has not attended university ought to know around 35,000 words “easily”, according to Professor David Crystal, an English language researcher. But that’s nowhere near the 40,000 words used for the aforementioned study. Determining the necessary number of words for mastery all comes down to the types of “words” being studied and recorded. (For example, do “run” and “ran” count as two separate words?) Others argue that knowing fewer words doesn’t mean you don’t speak and understand at a native level, for example when it comes to illiterate speakers.

Regardless of the arbitrary nature of this magic number, it requires more or less “a lot of words” for understanding and speaking at a native-speaker level. And while a floppy disk might not seem like a high capacity anymore, it means the world when you’re able to speak with another native speaker as if it were no problem at all.

How many words do you think you know now in your target language? Have you made learning new words a priority? Let us know your results on our Facebook Page, and be sure to “like” telc English for more articles on language learning!