If you have been searching for ways to learn a language, you may have found some interesting theories. One of them proposes that it only takes you 625 words to learn a language.
This theory is proposed by Gabriel Wyner in his book Fluent Forever, and can be quite popular with many. However, how true is this? Do you really only need 625 words to learn a language?
You may need only 625 words to learn a language, if you just want a rock-solid foundation. You may need to know many more words to be fluent in your target language, as 625-words vocabulary may not be enough to converse in the target language fluently.
In this article, let us explore if you only need 625 words to learn a language. We will also look into some related questions, such as the origin of the theory.
Do You Only Need 625 Words To Learn A Language?
In general, we know that a language usually contains many words. For example, English may have up to 600,000 words, while in Mandarin Chinese, over 370,000.
However, despite that many words, you may be able to learn any foreign language if you can pick up 625 words.
One way to explain why this is true could be the Minimum Viable Vocabulary concept.
The Minimum Viable Vocabulary is a concept in the language learning process where a language learner learns the basics of the language.
You aim to learn the most common words in the target language during the process. In many cases, these could be about household things, people, animals, or feelings.
The idea here is when you can use the most common words in the target language, you may be able to communicate using them in many situations.
This concept is not wrong, as many languages usually have a small number of words being used frequently enough.
For example, in Mandarin Chinese, just by learning the 100 most common words, you can already read up to 50% of the texts you see every day. This same concept can be applied to many other languages too.
Another way to see this in practice is to suppose you are learning guitar. The fastest way to be able to play many songs is to learn the basic open chords, such as A, D, Em, C, or G.
With these chords, you can now play many basic songs, although you still cannot play other, more complicated ones.
Why Are There Only 625 Words?
Suppose that you agree with the concept of minimal viable vocabulary. Chances are you may next ask this…
Why only 625 words? Why not 500, or 100 even?
625 seems popular because that is the number proposed by Gabriel Wyner himself. More on this later.
However, many other lists of minimum viable vocabulary are out there. Some lists have more than 625, while some have less than 625 words.
In many cases, these lists are built based on frequency lists, which means they list the most frequently used words in the language. These may contain words of things and feelings. There may be words to reflect the grammatical concepts of the target language.
Linguists make their frequency word lists by scanning a large body of text in the target language in many formats. This large body of the text is called a corpus.
For example, look at the Level 1 test for the HSK (Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi) Chinese Proficiency Test. It only requires you to learn up to 150 words or 174 Chinese characters. This, in itself, is a minimum viable vocabulary list.
Many linguists also proposed their own version of minimum viable vocabulary for English. These include BASIC English (British American Scientific International and Commercial English) by Charles Kay Ogden.
It contains a basic word list of 850 root English words, and Charles Key Ogden advises any learners to add around 100 to 150 specific vocabulary that may be needed for work or hobby.
For example, a butcher may need to pick up words such as sirloin, chuck, or ribeye, on top of the 850 words base vocabulary list they already learned.
Gabriel Wyner’s List of 625-Words
In the case of Gabriel Wyner, his list was initially 400 words long, based on the General Service List for English (2,000 words). He first removed any abstract concepts from the list and English-centric words.
This means the 625 words are not some magic number for you to pick up any foreign language vocab. It is just based on a list developed by a language expert.
Depending on the list you choose to learn from, your ‘magic number’ may be different.
How Fluent Can You Be Learning Only 625 Words?
Suppose so many linguists agree that you can focus on picking up the frequently used word lists to learn a language. In that case, you decided to work on Wyner’s 625-word list.
You may now wonder, how fluent can you be? Can you now happily strut into a coffee shop in Paris and talk with the waiter with your 625 French words?
Chances are you may not. This is because although you may have learned the most frequent 625 words, you only picked up a small fraction of the language.
In best cases, these 625 words may have provided you a solid basic foundation in the target language. However, you are probably not going to be fluent in it.
You should be able to read many casual texts in the target language. For example, suppose you read an article in the target language.
You may not understand every word in the text, but you may know enough to make an accurate guess about the content.
Learning only 625 words may not be enough to help you converse casually with a speaker of your target language down the street.
This is because you may not have a deep enough vocabulary range to express yourself well enough.
You may also be unable to string together coherent sentences since you do not have a strong understanding of the grammar of your target language.
It is perhaps best to consider needing only 625 words to learn a language with a dose of reality. Do not expect it as a shortcut to learning any single language, but see it as a way to build a solid foundation in the target language.
This should hopefully make your future learning process easier at the intermediate level. You still need hours of language classes and language practice to have polished language proficiency.
Are The 625 Words The Same For All Languages?
If you want to try Wyner’s 625-word system, you may notice that the list is in English.
Suppose you are trying to learn Korean or Arabic, for example. Does this mean you simply translate the English list into the target language and learn from there?
It may not be a good idea to do so for several reasons.
First, that language often reflects the geography, lifestyle, and culture of the people who speak it. For example, languages with dairy culture, such as French, English, or Italian, may have lots of words to describe cheese.
Think Brie, Gorgonzola, Wensleydale, Cheddar, or more. Non-dairy cultures may not have that many terms. The Chinese do not have a traditional dairy culture, which means they usually only use one word to describe cheese – 乳酪 (ru lao).
If you carry this concept forward, you may notice that the more frequently used words for a particular language may be different than the other.
As a result, when working with your list of 625 words, it may make sense to seek out the most common words used in the target language. Then, you build the list and start your learning process.
How Do You Remember These 625 Words Quickly?
The great thing about Wyner is that when he proposed the 625-word list, he also proposed efficient methods for learning and remembering the words quickly.
His favorite method? 625 picture-based word flashcards.
However, before you set off and make your own flash cards, Wyner does propose that the flashcards contain only two things. The image of the word, and the word itself, in your target language.
That means no English translation.
This may reflect in the immersive method, where you do not use the language you already know to learn your target language. For example, you try to use English to learn French.
This prevents you from falling trying to perform direct translations, which can be bad for the language learning process.
Aside from that, you also learn to pick up vocabulary through images instead of English translations. This should help you immensely, saving you hours of language learning since you do not need to translate everything.
Now, although not wrong, there is a concern that you would get used to doing that. As a result, you will always first think in English, then translate into French. This usually means a slower response, and you may struggle to achieve fluency.
You can make your flashcards in several ways:
DIY It Yourself
If you are into DIY, you can seek out the frequent 625 words list and make your own flashcards with 1-2 images. You can use basic flashcard designs. You can also customize your cards.
For example, you can use any pictures you like. You can also use different card colors to help indicate if the word is a noun, or verb. You can also add additional flashcards on words you want to learn.
However, it will require a large amount of time, not to say energy. You have to make 625 cards, which may not be a walk in the park.
If you intend to go this route, you can go traditional and make your flashcards manually. However, some prefer to use digital flashcards. You can create your own flashcard deck using apps such as Anki.
Anki flashcards are quite popular, not just for language learning but for other types of studying as well.
Pick-Up Pre-Made Flashcards
Another easier way to prepare your flashcard deck is to pick up pre-made flashcards.
Pre-made flashcards have everything ready for you, and you can immediately start. It will save you lots of time.
The issue is pricing. It may cost a bit to purchase these pre-made flashcards. However, these pre-made flashcards are well-made and come with large sized images. You may find them in many popular, common languages people also like to learn.
Some pre-made digital cards also come with pronunciation trainers. This means you can click on the card and hear how to pronounce the word. This helps with the basics of pronunciation and prevents you from picking up bad pronunciation habits.
If you prefer to go digital, check out pre-made Anki decks of flashcards in your target language. You can then use them as if they are your own Anki flashcards.
What Is The Next Step?
If you have picked up the 625 words, you are well on your way to achieving full-fledged fluency with your target language.
Logically speaking, now that you have picked up enough vocabulary, you can maybe start to see if you can learn the rules of putting them together, which is grammar.
You can start by picking up a grammar book. A good grammar book should contain hundreds of grammar drills, to suppose you are you go along.
Avoid very complicated grammar books, as they can make learning hard. Also, consider getting private tutors to help you along the way. They could be native language speakers or learners.
Learners may be better tutors here since they also learned the language, which means they can better explain the grammar rules to you.
As you pick up grammar with your grammar books, consider giving yourself a chance to speak the target language. You can start by listening to native audio and see if you can understand their speech and foreign sounds.
You can also join some community forums and see if there are native tutors you can speak to. During language practice, try to interact with them and test your level of comprehension.
Conversing with a native speaker can be the ultimate test of your ability to listen to foreign sounds and produce accurate sounds.
Keep practicing and speaking, and you may achieve a level of fluency you are proud of soon enough. Keep going!
In general, it is possible to claim that you need only 625 words to learn a language. However, you may not achieve high fluency or proficiency in the language, merely setting up a solid foundation for future learning.
This is because these 625 words may not be able to show you the deeper, more meaningful words. It also may be unable to reflect the target language’s grammatical concept.
Therefore, this list of 625 words should not be seen as a shortcut to success. The journey to fluency takes a long time in language learning, and you should always remember that when you learn a target language.
To learn these 625 words, it may be a good idea to create flashcards based on comprehensive word frequency lists of your target language. These cards can also be electronic, Anki cards, to simplify learning.
Electronic flash card types may also come with pronunciation trainers, which should help you with the basics of pronunciation, and producing accurate sounds. It would also prevent you from picking up bad pronunciation habits.
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