The (somewhat) pointless argument of word counts vs. fluency

I wanted to share this thought I had based on another thread where we have devolved into the old argument of “How many words you need to be ‘fluent’?”

I have made the argument that one can be fluent with 30K known words on LingQ for French, Spanish, or German, and of course the counter argument is “No, you need 50K to 100K” etc.

Here is my problem with that: If you’re acquiring words through reading and listening and marking on LingQ, AND you’re getting a LOT of speaking practice at the same time, two things will happen. 1) you will reach a relatively comfortable conversational fluency by the time you reach 30K known words on LingQ, and 2) your status as a “Person who Knows 30,000 Words” will last about TWO MINUTES. Because in the next two minutes you’ll add another 2 words, then 5 after that and soon you’ll be at 31K and then 32K etc. etc. And of course at the same time your conversation skills will continue to improve.

So this 30K milestone is not a stagnant state you’ve entered, but a fleeting moment on your journey. You’ll keep adding on vocabulary from different subject matters as needed. If you start a new hobby, the necessary vocab will be easy to pick up just by engaging in the activity.

And yes, if you keep talking and reading you will get to 50-100K fairly easily after that. But you technically don’t HAVE TO have those “extra” words (yet) to reach the stages of what we’d generally qualify as conversational fluency in a language. What you need is a solid foundation and a LOT of speaking practice.

BUT, here is the rub: A lot of us here on LingQ probably concentrate mostly on passive vocab accusation and mostly we are doing it from home, away from the countries of our target languages, and opportunities to speak are harder to come by, so in general, a LingQ user could acquire 40-50K++ known words, before they’d have the opportunity to get the amount of speaking practice that would make a person with 30K words fluent.

If you don’t converse in the language on a daily bases — which is fine, most of us don’t have the opportunity — your passive vocab may be a lot higher by the time you become conversationally fluent vs. a person who lives in the country and speaks the language fluently with quite possibly a lower set of vocab words.

I would say that the group of “People who happen to know 30K words at this particular moment” mostly break down into 3 categories*.

  1. People on LingQ, (or some other reading based method,) who reach a 30K word count, but who are studying from home maybe with occasional speaking: This group is likely NOT fluent with 30K words because they’re likely haven’t had the chance to speak enough yet.
  2. People who are living in country and speaking a lot, who happen to just have a 30K passive vocabulary for the next two minutes, but no one knows it, not even them, because they’re not on LingQ and they don’t keep track(but the ghost of Kato Lomb sees everything, and it’s 30K right now): This group is speaking fluently with 30K, no problem.
    And the smallest group:
  3. People who are on LingQ and have just hit 30K and also happen to be conversing on a daily bases, with lots of practice. I believe that members of this very small group would tell you they feel pretty fluent at conversations at this point.

Unfortunately, only this last group would be able to confirm my hypothesis, but I just have a feeling that most people who live in country may not stick around on LingQ once they get passed the 20-25K mark or so because things can pick up very fast for you from that point just by themselves in those scenarios, but I might be proven wrong.

*I don’t think you can get to 30K without being in one of these groups. If you’re not reading books on a regular bases in you TL, (group 1.) or you’re not living in country (group 2.) you won’t have enough input to be able to reach 30K. — I know what you’re gonna say: Netflix. But if you’re studying with subtitles, you’re reading, so you’re technically in group 1. Though my supposition would be that it would be unlikely that someone reaches 30K relying on subtitle based studies alone but someone may prove me wrong about that as well.


I am just curious to know “what speaking a lot means to you” in minutes/hours if it is a daily activity, hypothetically speaking?

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That’s a good question, and of course it’s hard to define. I’d say there are different benchmarks for it.
How much would one be speaking if they were living and working / studying in the country? I’d say 2+hrs per day, depending on a bunch of things. So that would be my top benchmark. That would be hard to do if you’re not living there, but if you created a situation where you speak 2-3 times a week, at least an hour each time that would qualify as a lot – and a consistent 1 hr each week would also give you a decent amount of practice.

But, I would say the minimum, to qualify for “a lot” is an amount that adds up to above 2 hr each week for two years, so above 208 hours. This is a ballpark, not an exact amount.

But say you did 6 months of no talking, just studying, and then a year of 1 hr per week with a tutor, so you’re at 52 hrs, and then you did a semester in your target country and did 2 hrs of talking a day, you’d reach 208 hrs 78 days after getting to the country and 20.6 months after you’ve started. If in that amount of time you’ve also accumulated 30K+ known words, I’m pretty sure you could call yourself fluent at that point.


I totally agree with you. Conversational fluency is a very different beast from understanding media content or reading literature without a dictionary. You need a lot of vocabulary plus enough practice to achieve each of those goals but the requirements in terms of amount of known words and the kind of practice you need differ a lot.
To get enough speaking practice you can engage in frequent conversations, as you mention but there’s another way: going through intense immersion experiences from time to time.
I also agree that many Lingq users belong in the first group you mention, which sometimes lead to relying too much on known word count as the sole important metric. Many forum threads show this bias, which makes your post very useful.
I have the same experience you describe. I’ve been through a series of immersions in Russia as I learned Russian using mostly Lingq. Every time I have gone through the process I’ve felt more confident and I have been able to reach a comfortable conversational level even when my word count was not all that high, by Lingq standards.
When I learned other languages I can converse in, there was no Lingq-like system to keep track of my passive vocabulary but I’m pretty sure that something similar took place.

To restate the obvious: This doesn’t mean that passive vocabulary is not important for conversational fluency: it is but you can get very far before you get to very high word counts if you practice conversation.

As I have mentioned in my reply above, you can get a good level of conversation through less frequent but more intense immersion in the language.

The problem with the “(oral) fluency” concept presented here is the primary focus on “word knowledge”. However, word knowledge, especially collocations as highly conventionalized groups of words (and “not” just single words), isn’t sufficient for a learner to call him-/herself “conversationally fluent” in an L2.
What’s missing in this context are at least four dimensions:

  1. General factual knowledge
  • Example 1. It doesn’t matter whether a learner of German knows 30k, 50k, etc. words. He or she can’t, for example, speak meaningfully about the very complex German education system if he / she doesn’t have a more or less profound knowledge of Grundschule, Hauptschule/Werksrealschule, Realschule, Allgemeines Gymnasium, Berufsfachschule, Berufskolleg, etc. However, much of this is simply general background knowledge / experience for many German adults.
  • Example 2: Regardless of how many words I know in English, I’ve no clue about popular US sports like “American football” or “baseball”. I know that these sports exist, but I can say almost nothing about them. :slight_smile:
  1. Domain-specific factual knowledge: IT, for example, is everywhere these days. But most people don’t know enough about hard- or software to talk meaningfully about these topics unless they have a background in IT. This is true for native speakers as well as for learners of an L2.

  2. Communicative norms / cultural background knowledge: There’s more to communication than just “words”. Some cultures (Germany, Netherlands, Israel, etc.) have a very “direct” communication style. If someone comes from a culture that prefers an “indirect” communication style (such as China, Japan, etc.), he / she may be completely shocked when talking to German, Dutch, etc. native speakers!.

  3. The para- / nonverbal dimension of oral interactions, i.e. facial expression, gestures, hexis, intonation patterns, emotional expressiveness, etc. The success of an eye-to-eye communication depends a lot on this dimension - beyond mere “word knowledge”.

Point 2 is a general communication problem because it refers to the interaction of specialists and non-specialists. But, it doesn’t make much sense to call a learner of an L2 “conversationally fluent” without the points 1, 3, and 4.

In short, having XY words under one’s belt (with or without Audio Readers à la LingQ) is important, but it’s not enough for achieving conversational fluency!


can you improve speaking skills by extensive reading as some websites and youtube videos say? If yes, then you would need to spend less time speaking before achieving fluency. I think the argument goes such that fluent speaking happens once you have enough words and phrases in the comfort zone, and this comes from experience with the language which can be achieved by reading and listening a lot. I guess you still need to practice speaking as well.


Yes, extensive reading and listening will definitely improve your speaking skills just by themselves – and I have experienced this myself. It can make up for some of the time you’d need to spend speaking, but of course it’s really hard to quantify any exact amounts of this correlation. And at the end of the day, you’d still need ample amount of physical speaking practice to really reach fluency.

But for those of us who don’t get to speak a lot, listening alone can definitely get you to, and keep you in a conversant level so you can speak at a decent level when the opportunity arises.


Let’s say, I do not get to live in Germany. In order to speak fluently with just a little bit practice when I get an opportunity to go there, how many hours of listening and reading should I get under my belt just to feel confident myself that if such an opportunity arises thus I can handle it?
I am not looking for word known statistics.

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Asad, the proper answer to this question is: As much as you can. There is really not a number I could tell you that would be accurate. If you’re trying to maintain a decent German level so that you can be confident to use it when the opportunity arises, then you need to make reading and listening to German be part of your day-to-day routine.

That’s basically what I’m doing with all my languages, I just have books, audiobooks, and TV shows on rotation and they’re just part of my daily life.

If you’re asking for a good minimum knowledge to have prior to getting into a full immersion environment like that, I would say a benchmark for me would be a person who’ve just completed Assimil 1 & 2. They would be in a pretty good place to land in Germany. They would struggle a bit at the beginning for sure, but they would get by, and they would have the right foundation to quickly build on.

I say this from experience. I actually went to Paris just after completing French 1 & 2 with Assimil and had this very distinct experience of getting by with “comfortable struggling” and feeling I could do really well if I stayed there.

Years later, I took another trip to France, and by that time I had 34K known words on LingQ, more than a million words read and dozens of books listened to and it was kinda like going home to place I’ve never been to. The radio played the same shows I’d listen to as podcasts, the TV had the same shows I’d stream at home, and speaking was very comfortable – and got me out of a jam when I got lost canoeing down the Dordogne river.

So those are kinda the benchmarks I would have. Get to a decent intermediate level, and then read and listen as much as you can and you’ll be fine.


Thanks for your informative answer. Very much appreciated. Allows me to set personal language goals when it comes to learning German.


harangi already hit on this, but yes.

Adding to this becuase of my own experience. I found that when I did a lot of reading and listening, I had accumulated A LOT of new vocabulary so when the time came to speak (either becuase of a vacation or chance encounter with a native speaker), I was able to use it–eitehr becuase THEY used it and I recognized it as well as understoond–and becuase reading it had reminded me of the word.

It is precisely for this reason that Master Steve spends “less time speaking before achieving fluency.” Yes, he/we will speak when we have the chance, but taking the plunge, say with a vacation to the country, study abroad, or sustained tutor sessions will more effective after speanding all that time reading and listening. Even people that speak comparatively little, but read and listen a lot, will still speak rather well. Someone who reads and listens AND speaks a lot will do even better. When you can do so comfortably, and the conversation is natural and the words are flowing back and forth between the speakers on a variety of topics, you are “fluent.” I put it in quotes because it is, to use Francisco’s description, “a tricky word.”

To hit on the question asad put to harangi, based on my own experience: My conversational abilities really took a jump after 400 hours of listening becuase my listening comprehension skills really increased. I had about 2 million words of reading by then and between 20 and 30,000 known words. I had about 800 hours of total Spanish learning under belt. For Spanish, this was just about the “potential fluency” I and others have talked about. All of this depends first on what your needs are when you ask whether you’ll be confdient to “handle it” when the need arises. If you’re just looking to “get by” on a trip, you’ll need a lot less. if you’re looking to be fluent, you’ll need a bit more. If you’re like the guy from the other thread who is a teacher in Mexico, you’ll need a lot more.

The second thing it depends on is the language you are studying and how close it is to one you know well. German is a little farther away from English than Spanish is, and thus a little “harder.” For that reason, I might adjust the range upward a little bit.