Have you ever wondered what an average person’s vocabulary size is?
We take language for granted and most of the time, we’re not even aware of how many words we’ve already assimilated through the course of our lives. We probably don’t even realize the number of words we use on a day-to-day while communicating either through speaking or writing.
In 2013, The Economist published a blog article about “Lexical facts,” based on results gathered by researchers at TestYourVocab.com. The study (which was based on the English language) revealed the following:
Most adult native test-takers have a vocabulary range of about 20,000-35,000 words
Adult native test-takers learn almost 1 new word a day until middle age
Vocabulary growth stops at middle age
How Many Words do Native English Speakers Absorb by Age?
So now you’re probably wondering — how many words can the average native English- speaking person assimilate by age? Resources vary when it comes to findings and figures, but according to the same Economist article, average native-test takers aged 8 years old have a vocabulary size of about 10,000 words, while those aged 4 years know about 5,000 words.
A more recent academic publication on vocabulary size and auditory word recognition among pre-school aged kids was published in May 2016. The study made use of “the visual world paradigm with semantic and phonological competitors to study lexical processing efficiency in children ages 2-5 years old.”
The publication gave the following insights in its manuscript:
At age one, a child will recognize about 50 words
At age three, a child will recognize about 1,000 words
At age five, a child will recognize about 10,000 words
“Given that the average speaking rate is approximately four to five syllables per second, even small differences in the efficiency of spoken word recognition will place some children at an advantage and others at a disadvantage,” the manuscript further states, adding that “although children’s vocabularies are much smaller than those of adults, their lexical processing is remarkably similar.”
In August 2016, UPI.com conducted its own study which yielded a much higher figure — twice the size of what was previously perceived in 2013. According to UPI’s findings, “most U.S. adults have a vocabulary of more than 42,000 words.”
After careful analysis of tests taken by one million respondents via social media, the results showed that U.S. native English speakers would have acquired a vocabulary of 42,000 words at age 20 and about 48,000 words by age 60.
Is Shakespeare the Master Wordsmith?
Here’s an interesting discovery: linguistics enthusiast Kono Kim made a comparison between William Shakespeare’s vocabulary vs. the number of words used in a 10-year compilation of the Wall Street Journal.
According to Kim, Shakespeare’s combined written works totaled 25,000 unique words compared to the Wall Street Journal which used less than 20,000 unique words in its newspapers for a decade. (Note: Several other sources cite around over 30,000 words for all of Shakespeare’s collected writings).
It’s a well-known fact that Shakespeare’s aptitude for learning words is beyond average — but knowing his unique magnitude gives us an idea of the human mind’s capacity when it comes to assimilating words. So, based on UPI’s recent findings, we’ve become Shakespeares in our own right, at our own time!
And while we’re measuring our human capabilities when it comes to increasing our vocabulary, it would be also good to note that new words are being created every single day — which means as the English language continues to expand, so does our vocabulary.
What are Active and Passive Vocabularies?
This is all probably overwhelming to discover, albeit in a good way. But realistically though, how many words do we actually use in our daily lives as native English speakers?
Unbeknown to most, there exists an active and passive vocabulary. An active vocabulary consists of the words we have learned and actually use when speaking or writing. On the other hand, a passive vocabulary refers to words we’ve assimilated but have not been able to use.
According to lexicographer and dictionary expert Susie Dent, “the average active vocabulary of an adult English speaker is around 20,000 words, while his passive vocabulary is around 40,000 words.”
In terms of actual word usage, The Reading Teachers Book of Lists claims that:
the first 25 words are used in 33% of every day writing
the first 100 words are used in 50% of adult and student writing
the first 1,000 words are used in 89% of every day writing
While we’ve been patting ourselves on the back for beating Shakespeare, the truth is that the English poet-playwright-actor still outnumbers us when it comes to active vocabulary and actual word usage.
According to Kottke.org’s statistical estimate, Shakespeare probably had about 35,000 words in his passive vocabulary. With both vocabularies combined, he would have known a total of about 65,000 words!
That’s one staggering achievement that we still have yet to conquer in our lifetimes.