How Many Words Do We Know? Practical Estimates of Vocabulary Size Dependent on Word Definition, the Degree of Language Input and the Participant's Age

Front Psychol. 2016 Jul 29;7:1116. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01116. eCollection 2016.

Abstract

Based on an analysis of the literature and a large scale crowdsourcing experiment, we estimate that an average 20-year-old native speaker of American English knows 42,000 lemmas and 4,200 non-transparent multiword expressions, derived from 11,100 word families. The numbers range from 27,000 lemmas for the lowest 5% to 52,000 for the highest 5%. Between the ages of 20 and 60, the average person learns 6,000 extra lemmas or about one new lemma every 2 days. The knowledge of the words can be as shallow as knowing that the word exists. In addition, people learn tens of thousands of inflected forms and proper nouns (names), which account for the substantially high numbers of 'words known' mentioned in other publications.

Keywords: reading; vocabulary size; word knowledge.