How many words do you need to speak Polish? A mathematician’s opinion
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~Nath

How many words do you need to speak Polish? Even in English there are some words in the dictionary that you don’t know and certainly don’t use. This is proof of an undeniable truth. You don’t need to know all of the words of language to speak it – even at a native level.

So, how many words do you need to speak Polish? Mathematics says that by learning the one thousand most frequent Polish words you’ll understand the vast majority of everything you hear or read. Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it?

Zipf’s law – and why it’s good news for learning Polish

Although a Polish native speaker might recognise thousands of words, they won’t necessarily use all of them on a daily basis. A mathematical phenomenon called Zipf’s law says that in every language there are a few words which we use all the time and a handful of words which we hardly every use.

Focus on learning the most common, everyday Polish vocabulary first and you can start having conversations, instead of wasting time learning rarely used vocabulary. You’re much more likely to use the word “mother” than you are to use the word “blender”. Learn “mother” first and – unless you really need it – don’t learn the word “blender” at all.

How many words should I learn?

With all of this mathematics involved, you might think that someone has calculated an exact number for how many Polish words you need to know. The number varies, but by my calculations, a good starting point is the most common 1,145 words. According to Zipf’s law, those 1,145 words account for more than 70% of usage of the average native speaker’s 30,000 word vocabulary.

The catch

Learning these might allow you to understand 70% of the words that a native speaker uses. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll understand 70% of the message that they’re trying to convey. Knowing words is not equal to understanding. As many of these are function words (e.g. “the” “of” “a”), they don’t have much meaning by themselves. It’s the remaining 30% of words used that provide the real message.

Why you shouldn’t keep learning the most commonly used words

The most common 1,145 words might account for more than 70% of everything that you read or hear in Polish. However, 80% of coverage would require you to learn the most common 3,399 words. That’s almost THREE TIMES as many.

A better use of time would be to learn the first 1,000 words or so, before focusing on learning the words relevant to your interests. How do you learn the words relevant to your interests? Have a look at the media you consume (TV, radio, books, websites) and the hobbies which you have. Translate the topic into Polish and then search for it online. Regardless of your language ability, you should understand quite a bit of the vocabulary by simply being interested in the topic. Anything that you don’t know, you can add to Anki in the form of a flashcard to make sure that you never forget the meaning.

A useful resource for beginners

Although I’d highly discourage you from learning individual words, when I was first starting to learn Polish, I borrowed this Polish-English Bilingual Visual Dictionary from the library. It contains more than 6,000 useful words and phrases and because they are all accompanied with images, it might help words to stick in your mind better if you’re more of a visual learner.

To find out more about the book and take a look inside, click here:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/1405331062/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1634&creative=6738&creativeASIN=1405331062&linkCode=as2&tag=howtocom0f-21

TL;DR

You only need to learn a fraction of the most common words in order to speak Polish.

How many Polish words do you think that you know?

I reckon that I have a passive vocabulary of more than 11,000 Polish words, but it’s hard to tell. How many Polish words do you think that you know? Leave me a comment below with your estimate.

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