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How many words do you know?

The Bell Team
Written by the Bell Team

How many English words do you recognise? Test your knowledge of English vocabulary. 

Student reading a dictionary

In class last week we were trying out vocabulary websites that estimated how many English words we knew . The students in the class found that, on average, they recognised about 5,000 words. What about native speakers of English? How many words do they recognise and use?

Read the article below to find out and before reading have a look at the 8 highlighted words and phrases to see if you know their meaning. Use a dictionary to find out if you are unsure.


Most experts believe that the English language has about one million words. It is not an easy number for the experts to agree on as many words have more than just one meaning. Take the word ‘SET’ for example, how many different meanings can you think of for this word? Take a quick look in a dictionary and you will find numerous meanings (verbs: to fix; to represent; to mount, and nouns: equipment; a group; a band). And then there are all the phrasal verbs like ‘set off’ (leave), ‘set up’ (create) and ‘set on’ (attack). Furthermore, there are the many compound words where two words put together create a whole new word: sister+hood = sisterhood. Also English has things like singular and plural words (car/cars, box/boxes, knife/knives), and prefixes (UNhappy) and suffixes (happiNESS). As well as the problem of word counting there is the distinction between receptive knowledge, referring our ability to understand a word while listening to someone speaking or when reading, and productive knowledge, which is our ability to use a word when speaking or writing. As a rule of thumb, our receptive vocabulary is at least twice the size of our productive vocabulary. So, what is the number of words that native speakers actually know and use, and how many words do most English language learners need to know and use? Studies have shown that the average English native speaker knows about 20,000 words with university-educated people knowing around 40,000 words. When actually speaking and with everyday writing (emails, letters, notes etc.) this goes down to about 5,000 very common words that are used repeatedly. If you learn these first and use them as well as just recognising them you can communicate very well in most situations.

Gain language confidence and the skills you need to succeed with Bell’s English courses for students aged 16 and over. Choose to study in the academic city of Cambridge or London, a vibrant capital. 

The Bell Team
Written by the Bell Team,
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