How Many Words Do You Know? Researchers Say Over 40,000

I've always had a big vocabulary.  In fact, in one of my (only) stellar academic moments, I tested at an 11th grade level in 7th grade.

Too bad that and a dollar won't even get me a cup of coffee!

But a surprising new study says most adults know 42,000 words.  

Now, I've met some people who I doubt know even half that many (we won't talk about political candidates), but the study has found that by the age of 20, a native English speaking American knows 42,000 dictionary words, according to

"Our research got a huge push when a television station in the Netherlands asked us to organize a nation-wide study on vocabulary knowledge," states Professor Marc Brysbaert of Ghent University in Belgium and leader of this study at the web site. "The test we developed was featured on TV and, in the first weekend, over 300 thousand Dutch speakers had done it - it really went viral."

Realizing how interested people are in finding out their vocabulary size, the team then made similar tests in English and Spanish. The English test has now been taken by almost one million people. It takes up to four minutes to complete and has been shared widely on Facebook and Twitter, giving the team access to an unprecedented amount of data.

"At the Centre of Reading Research we are investigating what determines the ease with which words are recognized;" explains Professor Brysbaert. The test includes a list of 62,000 words that he and his team have compiled.

Researchers performed tests to see how well each word they used was known in a language.  

"In Dutch, we have seen that this explains a lot about word processing times," says the professor about one of the languages studied. "People respond much faster to words known by all people than to words known by 95% of the population, even if the words used with the same frequency. We are convinced that word prevalence will become an important variable in word recognition research."


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