How Does Vocabulary Affect Fluency? (Explained!)
Vocabulary affects fluency in language. A rich and diverse vocabulary enables you to express yourself more effectively and with greater precision. A larger vocabulary enables you to convey thoughts, ideas, and emotions in a nuanced manner, leading to improved communication skills.
Learning a new language can be both exciting and daunting. To become proficient, most people spend hours browsing textbooks, practicing grammatical exercises, speaking with a practice buddy, and viewing the occasional Netflix episode in their target language.
At some point, you realize your effort is paying off. You know the basics; however, when it’s time to test your language skills, you end up flipping through your mental dictionary more than you’d like.
Such a situation begs the question, “What’s the key to mastering a language and achieving true fluency?”
Initially, educators favored grammar as the key to mastery. However, many are beginning to realize that working on your vocabulary is important when it comes to success in learning a foreign language.
This perspective is gaining momentum, thanks to many language learners who’ve succeeded by bolstering their vocabulary through innovative tools like vocabulary learning apps.
This article will examine how vocabulary affects fluency, exploring the relationship between both.
What is the relationship between vocabulary and fluency?
It’s crucial to grasp their roles in the language learning journey to understand how vocabulary and fluency are interconnected.
Vocabulary encompasses the words we employ to convey meaning.
When it comes to language fluency, it manifests in some essential ways that include: reading fluency and speaking fluency.
Reading fluency is recognizing and reading words easily with sufficient accuracy, speed, and appropriate prosody or expression when reading aloud. In other words, fluency is the ability to read like you are speaking!
On the other hand, speaking fluency is the ability to articulate words and ideas smoothly, without hesitation, and with appropriate grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation.
In simple terms, fluency in reading and speaking means not only comprehending and generating language effectively but also doing so with the ease and confidence that comes from a deep understanding of vocabulary and language structure.
So, what is the relationship between both?
There is a strong relationship between a student’s vocabulary knowledge and fluency.
As you become more automatic in word identification, you are able to give less attention and cognitive resources to word decoding and more to text comprehension.
Also, fluent readers can cover more text, resulting in greater improvements in reading vocabulary.
Can an expanded vocabulary enhance fluency?
The short answer is an emphatic yes! Vocabulary is the bedrock upon which fluency is built. Picture yourself in a foreign land, trying to converse with the locals. The more words you know, the smoother your communication will be.
With that said, Here are four compelling reasons why an expanded vocabulary can enhance fluency:
1. Without vocabulary, nothing can be conveyed
When you dissect language into its core components, you’re left with vocabulary and grammar.
Grammar provides the structure, but vocabulary supplies the meaning. Imagine trying to communicate without vocabulary; it’s like having the building blocks but no blueprint.
Grammar rules may guide you, but your message remains incomplete without vocabulary.
Consider this: Even in a jumbled sentence like the one you would find an alien speaking in a Star Wars movie, the absence of proper grammar doesn’t prevent you from grasping what the alien is saying.
For example, if a person says, “Home go I want,” you can tell that this person probably wants to go home.
Vocabulary, in this case, triumphs over grammar.
A particular example that emphasizes how having an extensive vocabulary in your word bank can enhance fluency is indicated in a story shared by Dr. Keith Folse, a Professor of TESOL.
Dr. Keith Folse shares his experience as a language learner. He recalls a scenario where he struggled to purchase flour in Japan without knowing the Japanese word for it.
Despite mastering basic polite phrases, the absence of the word “flour” left him unable to complete the transaction. This anecdote highlights how vocabulary gaps can hinder even the most skilled learners.
For aspiring language learners, it’s vital to recognize that while grammar serves as a framework, vocabulary breathes life into your conversations. To attain fluency, you must bridge the vocabulary gap.
You may also like: Expand Your Word Bank: 19 Strategies for Students to Improve Vocabulary.
2. The larger your vocabulary, the easier it becomes to learn new words
Learning new words can be a formidable challenge for beginners and intermediate learners. Rote memorization often dominates vocabulary acquisition during this stage.
For instance, while studying German, you might repeatedly rehearse word-meaning pairs, such as “rot is red, gelb is yellow, blau is blue.” This repeated reading method, though effective, is time-intensive.
However, a remarkable shift occurs as your vocabulary expands and your language skills evolve. Learning new words transitions from rote memorization to contextual comprehension.
Consider this English sentence:
“The bright ochre sun warmed the entire playground.”
As an English learner, you may initially encounter the unfamiliar word “ochre.” However, by analyzing the context within the sentence (mention of “bright,” “sun,” and “playground”), you can reasonably infer that “ochre” refers to the color of the sun.
This contextual learning approach significantly accelerates vocabulary acquisition and fluency in a language.
3. Increasing your vocabulary frees mental space for complex language aspects
Language learners often face a common scenario when conversing with native speakers.
Initially, conversations revolve around simple questions and responses. Yet, as confidence grows, learners aim to delve deeper into complex language aspects, such as pronunciation, writing systems, idiomatic expressions, and cultural nuances.
In such moments, a rich vocabulary proves to be the liberator. When you no longer recall word meanings and spellings, you can redirect your cognitive resources toward these more intricate language facets that will help you achieve fluency.
4. A large vocabulary unlocks diverse and engaging learning methods
Traditional language learning methods often involve textbooks, audio recordings, and written exercises. While these methods are essential for building a solid linguistic foundation, they can become monotonous over time.
For languages with steep learning curves, like Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, sustaining motivation throughout the journey can be challenging.
However, a rich vocabulary opens doors to more engaging and enjoyable learning avenues. Consider these alternatives:
- Reading foreign language newspapers and books.
- Watching TV programs, movies, and YouTube clips in the target language.
- Listening to foreign language music and podcasts.
- Playing video games in the target language.
- Incorporating a foreign language operating system on your devices.
- Leveraging language study apps.
- Engaging with social media in the target language.
These methods diversify your learning experience and expose you to authentic, real-world language usage. You transition from learning “textbook language” to acquiring the nuances and idioms that native speakers employ daily.
However, a substantial vocabulary foundation is indispensable to capitalize on these dynamic learning opportunities fully. As Mark Davies’ research on word frequency suggests, language students aiming to read non-fiction or fiction books in Spanish must grasp approximately 3000 words to understand around 90% of the content.
Is there a relationship between fluency and comprehension?
There is a strong direct relationship between fluency and reading comprehension in language learning. However, the exact nature of the relationship is only partially understood because comprehension is very complex.
Studies reveal that fluency is vital for comprehension in first- to fourth-grade students. At this level, word recognition and fluency are moderately correlated with comprehension.
However, the correlation becomes weaker as students become more skilled at reading and graduate to higher grade levels.
If you are an English language learner, you need to be fluent in reading, or you won’t be able to make connections and fully comprehend what you are reading.
Being a fluent reader allows you to focus on the content of the reading rather than focusing on decoding each word.
As you become fluent, you will be able to interact with text on a higher level.
Students who struggle to understand individual words may find it challenging to understand and remember the text because they spend a significant amount of time decoding and trying to break down words, leading to a loss of meaning and an unclear understanding of the text.
However, the interactive reading model suggests that higher-level processes can start simultaneously with lower-level ones.
This idea raises the possibility that the relationship between reading fluency and comprehension might work both ways.
In other words, a reader who isn’t great at recognizing words might compensate with strong comprehension skills, and their fluency could reflect their ability to understand rather than their skill at reading basic words.
How vocabulary affects fluency
Vocabulary is crucial as it forms the foundation of language, allowing us to express thoughts, share information, understand others, and build personal relationships.
Even without grammar, communication can still be effective. For instance, think about how children acquire language through simple words like “dada,” “ball,” and “teddy.”
For ESL students, learning the language can be challenging. It is even more complicated when they lack English vocabulary.
However, like children, ESL students who develop the habit of learning new words daily can communicate using single words before attempting complex structures.
As their language abilities develop, their ability to communicate becomes more effective.
The fact that English language learners can still communicate using vocabulary alone indicates a solid connection between students’ vocabulary knowledge and their reading fluency, confirming the words of British linguist David A. Wilkins, who emphasized that nothing can be conveyed without vocabulary.
With that said, the following highlights the impact of vocabulary on fluency:
Vocabulary as building blocks
Vocabulary is the foundation of language. Your ability to construct coherent sentences and express ideas is limited without an extensive vocabulary.
A rich vocabulary allows for fluid and expressive communication. You can express your thoughts and emotions precisely, which makes your communication more engaging and relatable.
With a broad vocabulary at your disposal, you’re less likely to hesitate during conversations. You can quickly select the most appropriate words to express yourself, resulting in more fluid conversations.
A large vocabulary allows you to discuss a wide range of subjects. You can easily engage in various chats, from casual chit-chat to specialized debates.
A robust vocabulary enables you to adapt your language to different contexts. Whether in a formal meeting or a casual gathering, you can choose words that suit the situation, enhancing your fluency.
Enhanced listening skills
Understanding a wide array of words improves your listening skills. You can comprehend spoken language more efficiently, which helps keep conversations flowing.
Vocabulary precision reduces the risk of miscommunication. You can accurately convey your intended message, minimizing misunderstandings that can disrupt fluency.
How much vocabulary do you need to attain fluency?
One of the most common questions students of a new language have in mind is: “How many words do I need to know to be fluent?”
It’s a reasonable question, but the answer is far from straightforward. In the pursuit of fluency, counting vocabulary words can be a deceiving metric. Here’s why:
- It’s impossible to produce an exact number of words demonstrating fluency.
- Language experts do not agree on the exact method for measuring vocabulary size.
- When learning a language, not all words are the same.
- Languages differ in complexity and structure
- Vocabulary alone doesn’t guarantee fluency
- Some words are more important for people to learn than others.
- And the order in which they learn words matters.
As we mentioned above, stating the exact number of words one must know to attain fluency is tricky, so it’s difficult to get experts to agree on the precise number of words.
For instance, one expert states the average native English speaker, who is a high school graduate, knows around 30,000 words.
Another says the average native English speaker who is more highly educated has a vocabulary of 10,000 words.
Why is there a discrepancy in results? Does it even make sense to state that people with more education have smaller vocabularies than those with less education?
The discrepancy is a result of the methodology used in the measurement.
First, they measure differently. Second, experts don’t always agree on the definition of “word” or “know.”
Considering these complexities, it becomes evident that there’s no precise numerical answer to the question of how many words you need to know to be fluent.
Instead, it’s more practical to examine vocabulary proficiency in ranges, offering a rough estimate of language competence
- Those who know between 250 to 500 words would be termed beginners.
- Those who know around 1,000 to 3,000 words would be called everyday conversationalists.
- Those who know around 4,000 to 10,000 words would be termed advanced language users.
- If you know more than 10,000 words, you can be said to be at a fluent or native-speaker level.
Related reading: 15 Vocabulary Exercises to Refine Your Linguistic Abilities.
How to improve your vocabulary to attain fluency
Achieving fluency in a new language involves more than just a basic understanding of terminology; it demands a rich and refined lexicon. Here are some excellent ways to expand your vocabulary and progress toward fluency:
Start by learning the most common words
Working on your vocabulary is an excellent approach to increasing your fluency when learning a foreign language. But how do you do it efficiently?
By studying the most commonly used words, you will ensure that you are covering the fundamentals and will be able to utilize these words in a range of scenarios. This will assist you in becoming more proficient and at ease with the language.
Write down new words and their definitions
Another strategy you can implement is writing down new words and their definitions. You can do this using an online dictionary or using flashcards. By so doing, you’ll increase your fluency as you learn the new words and their meanings.
Revise new vocabulary regularly
Studies indicate that we forget 50% of what we learn within 24 hours; hence, as a language student, revising the new words learned regularly is critical to developing fluency in the target language.
Perhaps you have been implementing the above tip of writing down new words and their definition. Do not stop there. Periodically revising them will ensure that 100% of what you learn is stored in your long-term memory.
You can achieve this by spending five minutes daily to brush up on your English vocabulary.
Practice speaking the language as often as possible
An exciting strategy to improve your vocabulary and fluency is to practice speaking the language with a native speaker as often as possible. This strategy applies the use it or lose it principle.
The more you expose yourself to the language you want to learn, the more words you know, and the more words you understand and use, the more fluent you become. Joining a conversation group is also an excellent idea.
Take a writing class
Remember, we said vocabulary development is essential to becoming fluent in a language.
Another strategy you can implement to help improve your vocabulary and attain fluency is to take an online writing course or register at a local adult educational institution that incorporates assignments and tests to help you boost your ability to communicate effectively through writing.
The more words you learn from such classes and incorporate into your reading, writing, and oral language, the more fluent you become.
Remember: use it or lose it.
You may also like: How Can I Improve My Vocabulary? (9 Expert Recommendations).
Takeaway: Use the power of vocabulary to unlock the keys to language fluency
Evidently, vocabulary is crucial to becoming proficient in speaking, reading, and comprehending a language. The number of words you know can directly impact fluency.
As we mentioned, you need to know around 1,000 to 3,000 words to be conversational in a new language.
However, at this level, you are yet to achieve fluency. To achieve fluent reading, you must work on your vocabulary. Tips like learning the most common words, writing down new words and their definitions, and revising new vocabulary regularly can help you learn new words fast and attain fluency.
The words of David A. Wilkins summarize it all: “Without grammar, very little can be conveyed; without vocabulary, nothing can be conveyed.”
Ready to jump-start your skill in learning vocabulary and reading fluently? Iris reading has a maximizing memory course that will make learning new words to attain fluency a breeze.
This course teaches several memory techniques that will help you quickly remember the new language you are learning.