How many words are in your vocabulary?

I have to say, if asked, I would find it difficult to say how many Spanish or French words I know. An article on the BBC website reported that Fabio Capello recently claimed he uses just 100 English words to communicate with players.

He commented that: “If I need to speak about the economy or other things, I can’t speak. But when you speak about tactics, you don’t use a lot of words. I don’t have to speak about a lot of different things. Maximum 100 words.”

Bearing in mind that in those two sentences alone, he used 27 different English words, perhaps his 100 word guess is slightly self-deprecating, taking into account the football terminology he must use on an everyday basis. He certainly doesn’t come across as a man short of words!

The BBC reporter (perhaps quite harshly!) commented that “communicating with Wayne Rooney does not require a Shakespearean command of English”, but Capello’s statement does raise the question of language and how many words are necessary to get by, have an advanced level, or be fluent. I can’t imagine that there can ever be a fixed number for any of these levels, and surely proficiency, accent and standard of vocabulary must also be taken into account when assigning a level to a speaker of a foreign language.

The deputy director of the language centre at Leeds University, Peter Howarth, dismissed Capello’s claim, saying that “It’s a ridiculously small number, you could learn 100 words in a couple of days, particularly when you’re in the country surrounded by the language”. He advised that a vocabulary consisting of 1,500 words is necessary in order to achieve an intermediate level with some range. Fiona Douglas, an English language lecturer at the same university, commented that 100 words is much lower than the number of words a beginner language student would acquire.

Susie Dent, a TV lexicographer and dictionary expert, said that “It may be that for simple instruction on the pitch, 100 words is all he needs – it’s not as absurd as perhaps it looks at face value.” She encouraged us to take into account the difference between active words and passive words (passive words are words that are understood but not necessarily used, whilst active words are words that are understood, and used, both in speech and writing), explaining that Capello’s passive vocabulary must be acknowledged, as “otherwise how would he handle press conferences?”.

It is certainly an interesting topic, and one that has made me wonder about my vocabulary, in English and other foreign languages, and just how many words I have stored in my head!