Can you be fluent with a small vocabulary?

I recently responded to a video by Luca Lamporiello and Anthony Lauder where they favoured the idea that one could be fluent even with a small vocabulary. Their definition of fluent was simply the ability to have words flow. I see this quite differently. I think that the acquisition of a solid vocabulary is essential in order to be able to communicate effectively and articulately in a language. If you are interested in this subject please watch my video and the one provided by Luca and Anthony. All comments welcome.

My video: Levels of Proficiency in a Foreign Language - YouTube
Luca and Anthony’s video: What is fluency in a foreign language? - YouTube


Theres so much trying to weasel the definition of ‘fluent’. It seems to be beside the point.

Its like the reasoning goes: If fluency is technically being able to express myself articulately and with ease, and I want to achieve this label called ‘fluency’, then I’ll choose to only want to express a very limited amount of things which I already know. Yay now I am ‘fluent’!

They’re really only cheating themselves. I’m going to guess that the majority of people learning a language have a slightly more ambitious goal:

To be able to express myself articulately and easily in a foreign language all common topics I might discuss daily in my native language while also being able to understand people I am talking to when they discuss topics which are common in their lives.

Thats my 2c.


Even if in some situations you can speak a foreign language fluently with a limited vocabulary, your life will always bring you into an unexpected situation, which requires a larger vocabulary.

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I guess it’s all about context. I can be fluent in a few sentences of a foreign language quite easily. But to be fluent in a foreign language is a completely different thing. For me fluency is to be fluent in the language.

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I think what they mean on the youtube video is “basic fluency”, when you can speak about all basic topics which are close and familiar to you… I think thats the only kind of fluency which is attainable with small vocabulary. In order to have REAL fluency with basic vocabulary you should be really talented in guessiing the meaning of unknown words during a conversation, and having the hability to express complex ideas with basic estructures. Maybe some people can do that, but i Can´t.

Besides, I think the level of speaking, doesnt have to be parallel with your level of understanding on the language.
There are people who can say many things on the language but understand little, and the opposite.

Steve always says that listening and reading are the key to learn a language, and that after massive INPUT, if you put yourself in the situation of talking, you will natuarlly activate all this passive vocabulary. I believe that was true for him, but i dont fully agree thats how works for everybody.

And dont get me wrong please, I think Lingq is a FANTASTIC TOOL, i probably will continue being member for many many years. But from my point of view is only a piece on the PUZZLE. To speak good a language you need 3 main things INPUT, OUTPUT , and GRAMMAR (in that order of relevance). And my experience shows me that they all 3 are important, and the 3 help each other to get better. Take for instance my English, i had during my life massive input and massive output on this language, however i never bother studying its grammar (in school i never passed any English exam), also never i had any feedback or somebody correcting my mistakes. As a result, i can speak “fluently”, I can express my ideas, but my English is full of mistakes. There you have it. Do a lot of input and you will understand everything, do a lot of Grammar and you will talk with less or no mistakes, do a lot of Output (better with feedback) and you will be able to express better your ideas. My personal experience confirmed me that. I think a lot of massive Input will HELP you to speak good, but it wont MAKE you talk good.

I know some people can disagree with me. Another case, i remember that after almost 2 years using Lingq everyday to learn Russian, i could understand a lot, i would say like at a B2 level. But my speaking was A2. At that time i could understand almost everything but i was struggling to convey my ideas to form simple sentences (maybe because of the type of language, since in Russian you have to declinate a lot of stuff in order to make a sentence, when you listen/read, all phrases are already declinated by the native speaker and you must only understand the meaning which is much easier).

To speak more or less decently it took me another year, and to achieve this i had to force myself to do other things than Lingq… I had to TALK a lot with native speakers, and i forced myself to use the estructures and words i was seeing at Lingq and i considered they were useful and i wanted to use them. I think during this time i was creating conexions of my brain between the ideas i wanted to say and the proper phrases that i should use to express them. I firmly believe that every idea has a different sentence, and estructure in every language to express it, and you have to make this sentences go out of your mouth while you having this idea in your mind in order to make this brain conexion IDEA / PHRASE (thats just my theory, but i guess somebody said something like that before, i dont think im the first who thought about it).

I came to conclusiont that understanding a sentence at lingq, even if you meet it in different contexts many times, does not guarantee that you will be able to use it properly in a real conversation. In order to do that, like i said, you have to force yourself to use it 1 or 2 times in real conversations until will be automatic in your speech (but of course to do that you still need Lingq or another input source, you cant reproduce what you haven´t seen before). Thats why I believe that when you´re using lingq you have to judge with senteces/words are the most important and delibertely start using them in real conversations. Another great way is writing historys using this words/estructures that you´d like to activate and use more, and to get a feedback later.

This was my experience, i guess it also depends from the person, i guess to another people maybe just reading and listening would be enough. And they can easily speak after. But that was not my case in Russian. Everyone is different.


Thank you for your insight. Always interesting hearing how other people learn languages.

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This is exactly how i feel about it. Fluency is fluency. They can distort the meaning because they desperately want the ‘fluent’ tag, but normal everyday people will just laugh at them.

If i tell a group of French people that i’m fluent in French because i can order food, make small talk, buy groceries and ask for directions in the street, but then the group of people ask me what i feel about the new bypass they’re planning to build in the village and i haven’t got a clue what they’re saying, they will all, every single one of them, tell me i’m not fluent.

If you can’t deal with every single situation that an uneducated, low IQ-d bog standard member of society can, then you’re not fluent. I said this to Anthony and he claimed that kids are fluent yet they can’t talk about politics.

My response was that if speaking to the level of a bumbling child, and expecting normal, uneducated adult natives to dumb down normal, uneducated language for you to understand and be understood, then you’re not fluent. It’s that simple.

It’s a dagger of truth to the heart of those that desperately seek the tag of fluency, but reality is reality.

I personally don’t see what the problem is with calling yourself ‘very able’ rather than fluent. It’s not some big downer to merely be very good in a language instead of totally fluent.

They seem to cling to this definition of ‘flow’ and claim that because they can ‘flow’ with the language whilst explaining why they like Cannes (or some other random small talk) that they are therefore fluent, when we all know that specific definition of fluency is dubious.

I like your idea of being able to guess from context. I’m university educated and i still have to look up English words all the time. I think the fluency brigade cling onto this fact and say ‘we can never know every word’ so therefore them not knowing how to tell a mechanic that they have a flat tyre shouldn’t detract from their ‘fluency’ status.

If for instance there’s a sentence with something like ‘He is very empathetic towards his friends.’ - even if someone doesn’t know what empathy as a concept is they will still know that it’s a feeling which he has towards his friends. You can be fluent without knowing these details of what the words specifically mean, but it’s when you don’t know whether that word was a verb, a noun, whether it describes a concept, a feeling… etc. When you take this even further and you can’t guess from the context what simple words are that’s when you have a problem, which is why i like to say that if you have to look up lots of words that an uneducated, dregs-of-society type native speaker (google Jeremy Kyle for English examples) would never need to look up, then you’re not fluent.

To me we have to have a marker and the bottom of what is acceptable as an adult native of that language is the goal. Until you get there, you’re not fluent regardless of whether you can speak like a 5 year old ‘fluently’.

"With all that being said, I can say with confidence, using data available in the public record, that Trump does say some pretty idiotic things. And he does so at the fourth grade level. I just can’t say one way or the other whether he’s capable of saying those same idiotic things with a richer vocabulary. "

I agree with this statement. If you want to say idiotic things, you cannot help sticking to the fourth-grade vocabulary. Of course, it goes without saying that most of the fourth-grade students in the US are not as idiotic as Donald Trump.


In my experience, I have a limited vocabulary when I have limited exposure to a language, i.e. in the early stages of learning the language. In that situation I find it very difficult to converse on anything, even using a limited number of words. I just don’t see how a person can be fluent with a few hundred words. I have never had that experience.


Of course we need output and grammar as well as input. How much output and grammar, and when, is a matter of taste and circumstances. It is best, in my view, when this decision is made by the learner. If we are hungry to learn to grammar, or look up some aspect of the grammar, or hungry to speak, we will benefit more. If this order of things is imposed by a teacher, the results can be not so great.

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Trump uses a limited vocabulary to express the same concepts over and over. He apparently does not read very much and that would influence his active vocabulary. However, as a university graduate, and living in an English speaking environment, it is not possible that he does not have a sufficiently large passive vocabulary to access a wide variety of material, if he were so inclined. He could easily become more informed about many things if he read more. Fluency does not require knowing all the words in the dictionary. There is a threshold however, and I don’t know if it is 10,000 words or 15,000 words but somewhere around there. A university graduate like Trump probably has over 50,000 passively known words.

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I agree with Josu88. I have over 9000 word recognition in Russian, but I struggle to have even the most basic exchange with my Russian wife and mother-in-law. I sometimes forget even the most basic words. This is due to a lack of actually using the language. I now understand a lot of what I read and listen to on Lingq, but the Russian I hear at home goes over my head except for a few words here and there. My wife thinks my 9000 words are therefore useless because I can’t actually communicate. This, of course, is not true, because I understand a lot more now than when I only had one or two thousand words of passive Russian. The road is long and hard and slow to acquire proficiency in a foreign language, especially one as complex as Russian.

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Thetortoise. You just have to keep pushing, when i had 9.000 words i couldnt understand a lot when Russians were talking between them. I started to understand more or less in 30.000 words.
But like a said, in order to talk i had to do a lot of talking with language partners by skype,(not good idea to speak Russian with your own wife, at least that was in my case), you need a partner who will be patient to listen to you , to help you to say exactly what u want to say in Russian and gives you written feedback. In exchange you can do the same for them.

In my case, i started having this conversations when i had 25.000 words and at the same time i kept pushing with more reading and listening. I have currently 36.000 known words and i feel i still have a lot of work to do. Many words i still dont understand, but not so much like before.

And about my current speaking habilities, i think you have listened my conversations with Evgeny, you can get an idea of the level of talking one can achieve with 36.000 words and one year practise on output. I still make a lot of mistakes, and my pronunciation is not the best, but im able to keep conversations and to express many ideas.

Hope it can motivate you to keep going.

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I wanted to say something about one of your comments, and I’ll paste it here. "I said this to Anthony and he claimed that kids are fluent yet they can’t talk about politics. "

Wouldn’t fluency be different depending on your age? Of course, a 50 year old man is going to know more vocabulary than a middle school child. Even a 50 year old man may know nothing about politics, maybe that’s not what he is interested in, does that make him not fluent? Do you know what every word means when you read Shakespeare? If not, I guess that means you’re not fluent, right?

Your situation is different from what mine was and you may want to adjust your strategy. I was learning on my own and spent years getting to where I could speak fairly comfortably (granted it took up to 5-6 seconds to create a LingQ in the early days). I was content to slog through Tolstoy and Turgenev or Echo Moskvi, listening, reading and not fully understanding, regularly reviewing the grammar and still being confused about case endings, verbs of motion and the rest. Maybe it was 2 years before I started talking to tutors at LingQ.
I would still not call myself fluent in Russian, since I have not used the language enough to become fluent. However, when I visited Russia 5 years ago, and used the language every day, I did achieve a level of near fluency. I can converse now, but there are gaps and I often grope for words, not to speak of grammar mistakes
You have the need and the opportunity to use the language. You are lucky. Use it with your family whenever you can. Better still ask them to record the basic conversations that they have with each other and then to transcribe them for you. Study these at LingQ. Save phrases, key phrases that you know you want to use, phrases that are relevant to your situation now. Then study these in flashcards and using our dictation and other exercises. But mostly, after you have saved all the words and phrases, listen to the conversations over and over.Make sure you get lots of these conversations too, or you will get bored with the same ones.
You could even ask your wife or mother in law to record the list of phrases, and then you should listen to them over and over. This is going to speed up getting you to where you can use these phrases.
If you do all of this, think of sharing it all with our members at LingQ, in our library. Let me know how you get on. Cheers.


You’ve taken the quote out of context. I said to Anthony that you need to be able to talk and understand like any uneducated, low IQ adult to be considered fluent as AN ADULT. HE replied that in that case then, kids must not be fluent in their native language. Which i responded to saying that fluency doesn’t mean ‘to be able, as an adult, to speak to the level of a child, and expect the adults around you to compensate for your lack of knowledge and comprehension when speaking to you’. He disagrees. He’s, of course, wrong. But there you go.

I think my comments were pretty clear.

If you don’t know everything an average uneducated native speaker would know, then you’re not fluent. There. Simple.

As for your comments, i think you’ve misunderstood where i’m coming from. You’re putting together 2+2 and getting 17.

Imagine the following discussion.

Man 1: Hello mate.
Man 2: Hello how’s it going!
Man 1: Great thanks. Hey did you hear about the new slide thingy they’ve got at Centre-Parcs?
Man 2: What…no? What’s Centre-Parcs? And what slide thingy?

At this point it’s fine. No native is expected to know what Centre-Parcs is. Or is expected to hold a discussion on a slide they’ve never seen or heard of.

Man 1: Well, Centre-Parcs is like a resort in the woods where people take their kids for a countryside break. They’ve got watersports and tennis and golf and stuff like that. Well, they have this new slide, and you can throw 8 kids at a time down it into a freezing cold pool of water!!

At this point, the ‘fluent’ speaker is lost because he doesn’t know what ‘tennis’, ‘golf’, ‘woods’ ‘countryside’ or ‘freezing’ means. He also doesn’t understand the concept of a ‘break’ or what to ‘throw’ means.

Can you imagine this scenario? No. Of course not. Because every single adult, compos mentis, low-IQ’d, uneducated fluent speaker of a language knows exactly what is being said there. There are no exceptions. They might not be able to respond by talking about it because they might not care/might not know much about resorts or anything. But they’re still fluent because they understood perfectly.

The people in this video are attempting to say that you can still be totally fluent without knowing that stuff because what you can say you ‘flow’ with.

In summary, they’re talking nonsense. Hardly surprising. They’re not going to tell people who take up their products that they’re in for a hard slog and native-like fluency is going to take years and years are they? They want people to think that ‘fluency’ can be achieved in short spaces of time. Which of course it can’t unless you’re willing to dumb down the meaning of the word (or cherry pick a specific dictionary definition) to suit your own ends.

Everything is possible and I can’t understand why I have to oppose the fluency and the vocabulary.
These processes must go simultaneosly - you are getting more fluenter and you enrich gradually your vocabulary.

The everyday dialogues contain only about 2000 words - and if someone knows 9000 words or more and yet can’t speak fluently, it means that this vocabulary is only passive and for speaking we need some quick, very active vocabulary when every word is on the tip od your tongue.
And you can activate this vocabulary only by a lot of practice.
So, my answer to this question - double ‘yes’:
Can you be fluent with a small vocabulary - YES, YOU CAN! And the native children proove this every day in their life.
Is the vocablury very important for our language? - YES, IT IS!
And the more words you know the more interesring can be your speech.

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I love Luca, and only recently discovered Anthony Lauder, and he makes some excellent videos. But I completely disagree with what they talk about it this video. I think its not only misleading, in terms of making learners think they only need a small vocabulary to be fluent, but also goes against almost everything both language learners have done to learn their own foreign languages

Luca is an incredible polyglot, but in nearly all of his interviews and videos, he stresses input (and output), but in ALL of his languages he has spent years accumulating a humungous passive vocabulary through reading and listening, and learning through interesting content IN context.

Fluency is a subjective term, of course, but to distort the meaning so much to imply that a large vocab is not needed is really disappointing to see. Yes, learning a language is about communication, and any level of communication is a success (with the idea of continual improvement), but to call whatever basic level you please as ‘fluent’ is completely wrong.

So many language learners are frustrated with the school system, which again is of the same mindset that you can make people ‘fluent’ without heavy exposure to the language. It pains me to think that other frustrated learners could see this video, and then make the assumption that the learning process doesn’t involve a mountain of native material, which in turn will lead to frustration when they see zero progress.

I love both language learners, but completely disagree with this video, and 100% agree with Steve.
I also understand that It could simply be that what they consider a ‘small’ vocabulary is actually relatively large. Similar to when Luca made a video (when he was learning Polish) saying to speak from the beginning, without realising that most people are going to hear that as gospel and now put know effort into heavy input, which is what he promotes everywhere else.

Why spend so much time and effort arguing about the definition of “fluent”?