Infographic: How many words do you need?

How long does it take to become fluent in a foreign language? It's hard to really say. On one hand, a few weeks or months of practice can give you enough of a language to get by pretty well. On the other hand, you can study a language for years and still feel frustrated by all the things that you don't understand.

It turns out that language learning is both easier and harder than it seems. That's because the most common words and phrases are actually really, really common. So it doesn't take long to learn them. On the other hand, understanding the last 10% or so of a conversation requires knowledge of tens of thousands of rarely-used pieces of language.

To illustrate this fact, I've put together the infographic below. It uses information from the SubtlexUS American Word Frequency list at This is data taken from subtitles, so it matches spoken English patterns. You'll see how few words you really need to understand the majority of English, and how many you need to understand the rest of it.

Click on the image below or this link to download a large-sized (11" x 17") printable PDF of theEnglish Word Frequency Infographic.

Word frequency chart