Learning A Language? You Need A Frequency List

In general, I hate the idea of lists or any form of measure or statistic when it comes to fluency. I believe that being fluent means being able to communicate on common subjects without a translator or dictionary, not some numerical measure of how many words you know or how many lessons you've completed. Remember, it's not a contest.

Nevertheless, there are a few lists available that will be extremely beneficial to you regardless of where you are in the learning process. Of course I'm referring to frequency lists.

What the heck is a frequency list?

A frequency list is simply a list of the most commonly used words in a language. Linguists compile books, transcripts, subtitles from television and movies, etc., and feed them into a computer, and the the computer reports how many times each word appeared in the sample data.

In general, more samples means more accurate data. But often it's more interesting to choose more targeted data. Wiktionary, for instance, tends to prefer movie and television subtitles over literature, probably on the assumption that it is more representative of actual use of a language.

Frequency lists are usually sorted by popularity, with the most commonly used words appearing first. Sometimes, if you can get your hands on a well-prepared frequency list, it will also provide lemma data — that is, word usage, part of speech, infinitive form, etc.

They're generally easy to find on Google. Just search for "frequency list [language]", where [language] is the language you are studying. For instance, frequency list italian.

How to use a frequency list

The beautiful thing about having a frequency list is that you can always start at the top with the full confidence that the next word you learn is the next most commonly used word. It's like someone has done the work of finding out what the most important words are and handed them to you on a silver platter!

Just print out your list, and then periodically — maybe once every few days, or once each week — start at the top and mark out the words you know. You should be able to describe the word's meaning in English (or whatever your native language is), and you should also feel confident that you would know that word if you needed it in a conversation. Keep in mind that it's not a race — crossing out a word you don't know is only cheating yourself later on.

Take breaks, do it one page at a time, etc. (Space it out; don't make it hard on yourself.) Your first time through, you'll cross out a lot. After that, it'll just be the new words you've learned that week.

It's usually pretty easy to find the top 1000 words, and without a doubt you should know all of them. After your first pass, focus your attention on learning the most commonly used words on the list which you don't already know. Look them up on WordReference, try them out in conversation, and make yourself comfortable with their use.

If you look a bit harder, you can usually find more, like the top 5000 words. It's nice to set a high goals, and I certainly encourage you to try to learn all 5000 in one year, but that's a very aggressive goal.

Last year I tried to learn the top 5000 words in Russian and ended up around 3300. One might consider it a huge failure, but that means understanding almost 80% of word forms in text. That's good enough to understand most of what's printed in the news, and almost all of what is said in a typical chat with a friend.

If you're studying Italian, I have already done the work of formatting the top 5000 words into a convenient, four-column, 24 page PDF "Italian frequency list (PDF)") so it should be compatible with Mac, Window, Linux, iPad, Kindle, iPhone, or just send it to a printer and carry the pages with you.


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Author: Yearlyglot
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  • Hi, I'm studying Italian too at the moment, so your pdf with the 5000 most frequent words sure comes in handy. Thanks for sharing and good luck with your studies!

  • Great! I'm glad you find it useful.

  • I find it kind of humorous, after scanning the Italian list that English names like Lenny, John, Jen, James, Harry and Jack are included. Also, not entirely sure that these are really rated according to usage...I think Italians are using giornalisti, frutto, minore and già (which appear on the last page 24) much more frequently over "prue" (prow of a boat) which appears on page 6. (maybe I'm not getting the ranking system)

  • My understanding is that it's collected by analysis of all the Italian books made available under Project Gutenberg. I'm guessing those names come up a lot in fiction, whereas journalists are probably not a common topic of Italian fiction -- especially those books old enough to be included in the Gutenberg Project. :)I noticed similar oddities in the top 5000 words list I used when learning Russian, but it's easy to ignore names, or words that you don't expect to use very often. In the end, this is just a tool (just like everything else), and it's meant to be quick, easy, and free... perfection is never any of those things! :)

  • ***** (five stars) ...One of most useful posts you gave us ...I ask permission to repost it on my blog in Greek (with links to your website, of course)...Great job Randy (I had this technique in mind , due to a Russian friend, but never imagined how useful it can be).

  • Check this also https://www.wordle.net/

  • And here is my repost in Greek language
    https://glavkos.blogspot.com...

  • What a great thing to have! I've been needing to increase my vocabulary, but not knowing how to choose which words to learn. However, I can't find a Hindi frequency list or a top 1000 words! :(

  • After only a few minutes on Google, I've found this tool which helps to create your own frequency lists. I'm sure there are more such tools if you look around.If you do happen to go to the work of feeding the software and making your own list, be sure to post it online and let me know so I can link to you for others who are studying Hindi. :)

  • It's unfortunate, however, that such frequency lists are not terribly useful with languages like Chinese which have a thousand words for everything. (Okay, I'm exaggerating for effect, but still...) I've never taken the HSK before but they have a few frequency-like lists which I'm sure some people ~may~ find useful. https://en.wiktionary.org/wi...

  • Oh and I forgot to add, to make things worse in Chinese you have two sorts of frequency lists - those which list characters and those which list words, usually two very different things - and both equally important

  • Sadly, I'm honestly at a complete loss when it comes to Mandarin. The idea of characters, rather than words, is incompatible with everything I take for granted about language.I'm sure I'll eventually study it and when I do, I have no doubt I'll notice altogether different patterns and tricks that work for that different kind of thinking... but for now, I'm not in any position to offer tips for those studying Chinese.

  • *logs into Twitter* As I say to other people, everything's easy after the first decade. Your website is a good read, and your goals are inspiring, but if you announced a decision to become "fluent" in Mandarin in one year, well, all I could say would be, Good luck!

  • When the time comes that I decide to learn Mandarin, I promise you I will become fluent in one year!How's that for big talk? :)

  • Ooooh, this should be good :) I can't wait! :D

  • Sorry, you'll have to.Mandarin really isn't on my radar for a few years. While I'm still not ready to commit to a plan, I can say I'm feeling more and more confident that my next three languages will most likely be Turkish, French and Arabic, in some as yet undetermined order.

  • Yearlyglot: I think this lest is not very good and is hard to use for learning because of two reasons:a) it contains many of the forms of the same words instead of just the infinitive or whatnot
    b) it contains no English translationI'm currently searching for a list of maybe 1000 - 2000 best vocabulary where that problem would be fixed but so far there's nothing fitting for Italian.

  • I agree with you that words should be listed only in nominative, masculine, or present infinitive forms (as appropriate, based on word-type) for a truly good frequency list. However, I disagree with your second point. I prefer that the English translation be absent. When you know a word, you don't need the translation... and if you don't know it, you should look it up in a place where you can get context and multiple definitions.

  • Appreciate the post. If anyone is interested I dumped the lists into quiz format...
    https://simonkelk.adsl24.co....Apologies in advance for the translations.

  • There are some mistakes and some generally unpolished details in that quiz.

  • So is French for next year?

  • Maybe. Still too soon to say.

  • Do you know if a list like this (10k words) exists on the web for Russian, or should I get this dictionary? https://www.amazon.com/Russi...  

  • https://www.artint.ru/projec...

  • Sorry about that! Apparently the link got broken when I moved my site to a new host. It's all fixed up now. Thanks!

  • Link broken again? I am studying Italian (for the 3rd or 4th crack at it) and think your list could really help get me there this time. I know over a thousand words...maybe 1500?....but have no idea of their frequency in language.

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