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"Vocab" redirects here. For the song by Fugees, see Vocab (song).

A person's vocabulary is the set of words within a language that are familiar to that person. A vocabulary usually develops with age, and serves as a useful and fundamental tool for communication and acquiring knowledge. Acquiring an extensive vocabulary is one of the largest challenges in learning a second language.

Definition and usage[edit]

Vocabulary is commonly defined as "all the words known and used by a particular person".[1] Knowing a word, however, is not as simple as simply being able to recognize or use it. There are several aspects of word knowledge which are used to measure word knowledge.

Productive and receptive[edit]

The first major distinction that must be made when evaluating word knowledge is whether the knowledge is productive (also called achieve) or receptive (also called receive) and even within those opposing categories, there is often no clear distinction. Words that are generally understood when heard or read or seen constitute a person's receptive vocabulary. These words may range from well known to barely known (see degree of knowledge below). A person's receptive vocabulary is the larger of the two. For example, although a young child may not yet be able to speak, write, or sign, he or she may be able to follow simple commands and appear to understand a good portion of the language to which he or she is exposed. In this case, the child's receptive vocabulary is likely tens, if not hundreds of words but his or her active vocabulary is zero. When that child learns to speak or sign, however, the child's active vocabulary begins to increase. It is possible for the productive vocabulary to be larger than the receptive vocabulary, for example in a second-language learner who has learned words through study rather than exposure, and can produce them, but has difficulty recognizing them in conversation.

Productive vocabulary, therefore, generally refers to words which can be produced within an appropriate context and match the intended meaning of the speaker or signer. As with receptive vocabulary, however, there are many degrees at which a particular word may be considered part of an active vocabulary. Knowing how to pronounce, sign, or write a word does not necessarily mean that the word has been used to correctly or accurately reflect the intended message of the utterance, but it does reflect a minimal amount of productive knowledge.

Degree of knowledge[edit]

Within the receptive–productive distinction lies a range of abilities which are often referred to as degree of knowledge. This simply indicates that a word gradually enters a person's vocabulary over a period of time as more aspects of word knowledge are learnt. Roughly, these stages could be described as:

  1. Never encountered the word.
  2. Heard the word, but cannot define it.
  3. Recognize the word due to context or tone of voice.
  4. Able to use the word and understand the general and/or intended meaning, but cannot clearly explain it.
  5. Fluent with the word – its use and definition.

Depth of knowledge[edit]

The differing degrees of word knowledge imply a greater depth of knowledge, but the process is more complex than that. There are many facets to knowing a word, some of which are not hierarchical so their acquisition does not necessarily follow a linear progression suggested by degree of knowledge. Several frameworks of word knowledge have been proposed to better operationalise this concept. One such framework includes nine facets:

  1. orthography - written form
  2. phonology - spoken form
  3. reference - meaning
  4. semantics - concept and reference
  5. register - appropriacy of use
  6. collocation - lexical neighbours
  7. word associations
  8. syntax - grammatical function
  9. morphology - word parts

Types of vocabulary[edit]

Listed in order of most ample to most limited:[2][3]

Reading vocabulary[edit]

A literate person's reading vocabulary is all the words he or she can recognize when reading. This is generally the largest type of vocabulary simply because a reader tends to be exposed to more words by reading than by listening. In many cases, notably Chinese characters, as in Chinese and Japanese kanji, where the pronunciation is not indicated by the written word, some words may be part of the written vocabulary but not the commonly spoken language. For example, a Chinese speaker may not recognize that 麒麟 (giraffe) is pronounced qi lin, a Japanese speaker may not recognize that 麒麟 (giraffe) is pronounced kirin.

Listening vocabulary[edit]

A person's listening vocabulary is all the words he or she can recognize when listening to speech. People may still understand words they were not exposed to before using cues such as tone, gestures, the topic of discussion and the social context of the conversation.

Speaking vocabulary[edit]

A person's speaking vocabulary is all the words he or she uses in speech. It is likely to be a subset of the listening vocabulary. Due to the spontaneous nature of speech, words are often misused. This misuse – though slight and unintentional – may be compensated by facial expressions, tone of voice, or hand gestures.

Writing vocabulary[edit]

Words are used in various forms of writing from formal essays to Twitter feeds. Many written words do not commonly appear in speech. Writers generally use a limited set of words when communicating: for example

  • if there are a number of synonyms, a writer will have his own preference as to which of them to use.
  • he is unlikely to use technical vocabulary relating to a subject in which he has no knowledge or interest.

Focal vocabulary[edit]

Focal vocabulary is a specialized set of terms and distinctions that is particularly important to a certain group: those with a particular focus of experience or activity. A lexicon, or vocabulary, is a language's dictionary: its set of names for things, events, and ideas. Some linguists believe that lexicon influences people's perception of things, the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis. For example, the Nuer of Sudan have an elaborate vocabulary to describe cattle. The Nuer have dozens of names for cattle because of the cattle's particular histories, economies, and environments[clarification needed]. This kind of comparison has elicited some linguistic controversy, as with the number of "Eskimo words for snow". English speakers with relevant specialised knowledge can also display elaborate and precise vocabularies for snow and cattle when the need arises.[4][5]

Vocabulary growth[edit]

During its infancy, a child instinctively builds a vocabulary. Infants imitate words that they hear and then associate those words with objects and actions. This is the listening vocabulary. The speaking vocabulary follows, as a child's thoughts become more reliant on his/her ability to self-express without relying on gestures or babbling. Once the reading and writing vocabularies start to develop, through questions and education, the child starts to discover the anomalies and irregularities of language.

In first grade, a child who can read learns about twice as many words as one who cannot. Generally, this gap does not narrow later. This results in a wide range of vocabulary by age five or six, when an English-speaking child will have learned about 1500 words.[6]

After leaving school, vocabulary growth reaches a plateau[clarification needed]. People usually then expand their vocabularies by e.g. reading, playing word games, and by participating in vocabulary-related programs. Exposure to traditional print media teaches correct spelling and vocabulary, while exposure to text messaging leads to more relaxed word acceptability constraints.[7]

The importance of a vocabulary[edit]

  • An extensive vocabulary aids expression and communication.
  • Vocabulary size has been directly linked to reading comprehension.[8]
  • Linguistic vocabulary is synonymous with thinking vocabulary.[8]
  • A person may be judged by others based on his or her vocabulary.
  • Wilkins (1972) once said," Without grammar, very little can be conveyed, without vocabulary, nothing can be conveyed."[9]

Native- and foreign-language vocabulary size[edit]

Native-language vocabulary size[edit]

Native speakers' vocabularies vary widely within a language, and are especially dependent on the level of the speaker's education. A 1995 study shows that junior-high students would be able to recognize the meanings of about 10,000–12,000 words, whereas for college students this number grows up to about 12,000–17,000 and for elderly adults up to about 17,000 or more.[10]

Foreign-language vocabulary[edit]

The effects of vocabulary size on language comprehension[edit]

The knowledge of the words deriving from the 3000 most frequent English word families and the 5000 most frequent words provides a comprehension of 95% of word use,[11] and knowledge of 5000 word families is necessary for 99.9% word coverage.[citation needed]

Second language vocabulary acquisition[edit]

Learning vocabulary is one of the first steps in learning a second language, but a learner never finishes vocabulary acquisition. Whether in one's native language or a second language, the acquisition of new vocabulary is an ongoing process. There are many techniques which help one acquire new vocabulary.


Although memorization can be seen as tedious or boring, associating one word in the native language with the corresponding word in the second language until memorized is considered one of the best methods of vocabulary acquisition. By the time students reach adulthood, they generally have gathered a number of personalized memorization methods. Although many argue that memorization does not typically require the complex cognitive processing that increases retention (Sagarra & Alba, 2006),[12] it does typically require a large amount of repetition, and spaced repetition with flashcards is an established method for memorization, particularly used for vocabulary acquisition in computer-assisted language learning. Other methods typically require more time and longer to recall.

Some words cannot be easily linked through association or other methods. When a word in the second language is phonologically or visually similar to a word in the native language, one often assumes they also share similar meanings. Though this is frequently the case, it is not always true. When faced with a false friend, memorization and repetition are the keys to mastery. If a second language learner relies solely on word associations to learn new vocabulary, that person will have a very difficult time mastering false friends. When large amounts of vocabulary must be acquired in a limited amount of time, when the learner needs to recall information quickly, when words represent abstract concepts or are difficult to picture in a mental image, or when discriminating between false friends, rote memorization is the method to use. A neural network model of novel word learning across orthographies, accounting for L1-specific memorization abilities of L2-learners has recently been introduced (Hadzibeganovic & Cannas, 2009).[13]

The Keyword Method[edit]

One useful method of building vocabulary in a second language is the keyword method. If time is available or one wants to emphasize a few key words, one can create mnemonic devices or word associations. Although these strategies tend to take longer to implement and may take longer in recollection, they create new or unusual connections that can increase retention. The keyword method requires deeper cognitive processing, thus increasing the likelihood of retention (Sagarra & Alba, 2006).[12] This method uses fits within Paivio's (1986)[14] dual coding theory because it uses both verbal and image memory systems. However, this method is best for words that represent concrete and imageable things. Abstract concepts or words that do not bring a distinct image to mind are difficult to associate. In addition, studies have shown that associative vocabulary learning is more successful with younger students (Sagarra & Alba, 2006).[12] Older students tend to rely less on creating word associations to remember vocabulary.

Word lists[edit]

Several word lists have been developed to provide people with a limited vocabulary either for the purpose of rapid language proficiency or for effective communication. These include Basic English (850 words), Special English (1500 words) and Oxford 3000. The Swadesh list was made for investigation in Linguistics.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Cambridge Advanced Learners Dictionary
  2. ^ Barnhart, Clarence L. (1968).
  3. ^ The World Book Dictionary. Clarence L. Barnhart. 1968 Edition. Published by Thorndike-Barnhart, Chicago, Illinois.
  4. ^ Miller (1989)
  5. ^ Lenkeit
  6. ^ "Vocabulary". Sebastian Wren, Ph.D. BalancedReading.com http://www.balancedreading.com/vocabulary.html
  7. ^ Joan H. Lee (2011). What does txting do 2 language: The influences of exposure to messaging and print media on acceptability constraints (M.A.). University of Calgary. Retrieved 20 November 2013. Lay summary. 
  8. ^ a b Stahl, Steven A. Vocabulary Development. Cambridge: Brookline Books, 1999. p. 3. "The Cognitive Foundations of Learning to Read: A Framework", Southwest Educational Development Laboratory, [1], p. 14.
  9. ^ Wilkins, David A. (1972). Linguistics in Language Teaching. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 111.
  10. ^ E.B. Zechmeister, A.M. Chronis, W.L. Cull, C.A. D'Anna and N.A. Healy, Growth of a functionally important lexicon, Journal of Reading Behavior, 1995, 27(2), 201-212
  11. ^ "Lexical Coverage of Spoken Discourse", Adolphs and Schmitt (2003). http://applij.oxfordjournals.org/content/24/4/425.full.pdf+html
  12. ^ a b c Sagarra, Nuria, & Alba, Matthew. (2006). The Key Is in the Keyword: L2 Vocabulary Learning Methods With Beginning Learners of Spanish. The Modern Language Journal, 90, ii. pp. 228-243.
  13. ^ Hadzibeganovic Tarik & Cannas, Sergio A. (2009). A Tsallis' statistics based neural network model for novel word learning. Physica A, 388, pp. 732-746.
  14. ^ Paivio, A. (1986). Mental Representations: A Dual Coding Approach. New York: Oxford University Press.


  • Barnhart, Clarence Lewis (ed.) (1968). The World Book Dictionary. Chicago: Thorndike-Barnhart, OCLC 437494
  • Flynn, James Robert (2008). Where have all the liberals gone? : race, class, and ideals in America. Cambridge University Press; 1st edition. ISBN 978-0-521-49431-1 OCLC 231580885
  • Lenkeit, Roberta Edwards (2007) Introducing cultural anthropology Boston: McGraw-Hill (3rd. ed.) OCLC 64230435
  • Liu, Na and I.S.P. Nation. "Factors affecting guessing vocabulary in context", RELC Journal, 1985,16 1, pp. 33–42. doi:10.1177/003368828501600103
  • Miller, Barbara D. (1999). Cultural Anthropology(4th ed.) Boston: Allyn and Bacon, p. 315 OCLC 39101950
  • Schonell, Sir Fred Joyce, Ivor G. Meddleton and B. A. Shaw, A study of the oral vocabulary of adults : an investigation into the spoken vocabulary of the Australian worker, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, 1956. OCLC 606593777
  • West, Michael (1953). A general service list of English words, with semantic frequencies and a supplementary word-list for the writing of popular science and technology London, New York: Longman, Green OCLC 318957

External links[edit]

Original courtesy of Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vocabulary — Please support Wikipedia.
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