How Many Words Do You Know?

wordsThere is an old adage that says, ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’. The saying means that the older you get the less you are able to learn and yet it could not be further from the truth.

From the moment we are born we are learning and taking in information. Right now, in this very second while you are reading these words you are taking in new information and (hopefully) learning something new. This does not depend on your age or any other factor, the only determinant is that you are reading and using your mental lexicon which is like your personal dictionary to put meaning to each word and sentence.

Sometimes when reading you may come across words such as anathema (a cursed, detested person) or harangue (a ranting speech) which you have never come across before. These words are meaningless until you look them up and save the word’s meaning, what it sounds like and how it is spelled. This is the information that is stored in your mental lexicon.

But how many words do we actually have situated within our mental lexicon ready for use in talking with someone or when writing?

According to the Economist, who took aggregate data from a vocabulary testing website, most adult native English speakers have a mental vocabulary of twenty to thirty-five thousand words. At the age of eight it is estimated that we have a vocabulary of ten thousand words while at age four we already know four thousand words. For non-native speakers the average vocabulary is around four thousand five hundred words unless they live abroad in an English speaking country then that number increases to ten thousand.

Although these numbers pale In comparison to Shakespeare as he used more than thirty thousand different words in his written works and is estimated to have had a working knowledge of around sixty-six thousand words. More than two times that of the average native English speaker.

With those averages in mind it is astounding that there are more than five hundred thousand words in a standard English dictionary with a further one million words floating around the English language that are undocumented but in use. It would require nineteen people with vocabularies that have no overlap to complete an English dictionary and you would have to add another thirty-eight people to complete the entire language. Simply put there are a lot of English words.

Given that, how many words do we use day-to-day?

There are two answers to this question. First, how many total words are spoken and second, how many unique words are spoken.

To answer the first part of the question (how many total words are spoken) we look to the results of a recent study which found that on average people speak just over sixteen thousand words in any given day. That is just shy of seven hundred words per hour and just over eleven words a minute. But that is based on being awake for twenty-four hours. If we were to take off eight hours for sleep those numbers jump to a thousand words per hour and seventeen words per minute.

Now onto the second part of the question (how many unique words are spoken).  We now turn to a book entitled ‘The Reading Teachers Book of Lists’ which stated that around three thousand is the number of unique words we use on the average day. If we do some math what we find is that we only use eleven percent of our active vocabulary in each day. Most of the words that we know lay unused just awaiting their moment to shine.

Despite the fact that we are fast talkers, given that we use seventeen words per minute while awake, in a lot of our days we do not actually use that many different words. Only nineteen percent of the words we speak are previously unused words from that day while the other eighty-one percent are a repetition of previously used words.

What then is the purpose of all those other words filling up your mental dictionary?

While you may not personally say them or write them down you may need them to read an article or a book or understand something that someone else is saying. Or maybe this is just a sign that we all need to be more colourful in our language and try to spice up our conversations with words like anathema or harangue. With a plethora of delightful words to select from the question shouldn’t be why but why not.

Thanks for reading this week’s blog post and visit us every Wednesday for a new post.

Want to test the vastness of your mental lexicon? Check out this site and then let us know your score in the comment section below.

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