How many words in French to be fluent?

Updated: July 1, 2023 by Mylene in French Vocabulary  ▪  

number 5000 words to speak french language

The number of words in French is not relevant to telling us the level of fluency of a person in the language. No doubt that some words are a lot more valuable than other words, simply because they’re used much more often. In this article, I’m going to discuss the following question:

  1. How many words does a native speaker know?
  2. How many words in French to be fluent?
  3. How to improve your vocabulary?

How many words are in the French language?

Larousse and Le Robert, the two well-known french dictionaries, contain around 60,000 words and 300,000 definitions. This means that each word has an average of 5 definitions.

Scary, right? 

This blog answers the question that many of you are asking regarding improving your ability to communicate effectively in French.

Words in French aren’t equally important

First, let’s talk about the definition of a word.

What is a word?

A word is a sound or series of sounds that symbolizes and communicates a meaning. Chat and chats are two different words.

Some words are needed to communicate effectively in French

The number of words a person knows is one of the most reliable indicators of his/her current level. Assuming, of course, that you learn the right words. 

Indeed memorizing all the names of countries in French is nice, or retaining French words used in cooking is wonderful. It might be helpful when playing Scrabble but will that be truly helpful for you to communicate effectively?

Let’s put aside the number of words in dictionaries and get interested in how many words do we use. I’m French and, of course, my vocabulary doesn’t reach 60,000 words! 

How many words does a native speaker know?

Typically native speakers know 15,000 to 20,000-word families according to this BBC article.

Do you know the Pareto principle?

Vilfredo Pareto was an Italian economist famous for the principle he formulated, also known as the 80-20 rule. Applied to language learning, the Pareto principle means that 20% of the words are used in 80% of the conversations.

Hu and Nation (1992) found that a vocabulary of 5,000 words was needed to read short, non-trivial novels (for pleasure).

So how many words in French to be fluent?

You don’t have to learn 60,000, 30,000, or 10,000 words to be able to understand a French conversation! If you want to reach an upper-intermediate level, you need to know 5,000 words.

pareto law 80 20 to speak french

How many words do French speakers use?

It is estimated that you have to learn 5000 words to be fluent in French. Be selective and learn the 5000 most used words in French!

Think about it. Some words are more valuable than others. For example, it’s better to know the word “manger” than the word “fulminer”. Do you want my advice? 

Learn the useful French vocabulary

Which French words you already know?

There are many French words that are commonly used in English every day and sometimes English speakers don’t realize that they are speaking with French words. Here are a few French words used in English:

  • Passion
  • Suggestion
  • Nature
  • Intelligent

It is estimated that up to 30% of the English vocabulary is influenced by the French language. For instance, words like Accident, Nature, Impossible, Intelligent are the same words in English and French. They are called cognates. 

To find more words that are similar in English and in French you can read French words used in English.

It’s not only about French vocabulary

The best indicator of fluency is that you can speak to native speakers easily with no difficulty. So what are you waiting for?  

But… knowing too many French words will be useless if you don’t know how to use these words and use them to create sentences. You need to 1) improve your grammar, 2) your pronunciation and 3) your listening skills when speaking with native speakers! 

number of words and the different levels when learning french

how to improve vocabulary?

Linguistic studies have shown that an average French person uses 3000 words on a daily basis. This is the active vocabulary. Yet an average adult can understand many more words by reading or listening but he does not use these words on a daily basis: this is passive vocabulary. An average adult can understand some 30,000 words of passive vocabulary. It is therefore necessary to manage to transform this passive vocabulary into an active vocabulary.

Now that you know how many words in French to be fluent, I recommend that you go and explore more on this topic. Learn more useful French vocabulary by reading the beginner’s guide to learn French vocabulary.

Subscribe to my YouTube channel where you can find many French lessons in videos so that you can practice and improve your listening skills.

In Master Your French online French courses I teach the most common French words in the context of real-life conversations. This course is the best way to improve these 3 skills. In addition, if you’d like you can book a private coaching session in order to learn and to practice French.

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2 Responses to “How many words in French to be fluent?”

  1. Robert
    February 19, 2020 at 7:18 pm

    Thanks Mylene. I found this very helpful! C’est bien entendu que le numéro de mots compris est moins important que les mots plus communs.

    • Mylene Raad
      February 23, 2020 at 12:04 pm

      Thank you for the comment, Robert. I’m glad that you find this article helpful. Mylène

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