Speak French with a small number of words
Popular French dictionaries like the Petit Larousse illustré and the Petit Robert contain around 60,000 entries or words. How many of these do you have to know to speak French fluently?
I’ll admit it’s a bit of a trick question because the answer depends on how you define a word and on what we mean by knowing a word. The interesting things, however, is that many teachers of French believe that all it takes is about 300 of those 60,000 words to be able to carry on everyday conversation in French. In other words, you can get by very well with around 0.5% of the words in the dictionary.
300 words is not a lot. You could learn them in a month. Does that mean you could speak French in month? Obviously not, but why does it often take such a long time to learn how to use 300 words fluently? The short answer is that speaking a language is a lot more complicated–and really a lot more–than just learning a bunch of words.
Although speaking French is more difficult than learning 300 words, it still makes sense to concentrate on those words as a foundation. The standard approach here is to aim for the 300 most common words in French.
What is a word in French?
Before looking at the most important words, we should get a few technical issues out of the way. First of all, we are talking about active vocabulary; these are the words that you actually use. Your passive vocabulary is much larger because it contains many words that you understand or recognize but never use. For example, a newspaper will contain thousands of words that you can certainly recognize but are not part of your everyday speech.
Second, when lexicologists (vocabulary specialists) count words, they only count the base form of the word. For example, all the many forms of a verb are reduced to the infinitive form. Thus fais, fait, font, ferai, faisait, etc. are all instances of faire. But the noun (le) fait (fact) is considered a separate word.
By the same token, nouveau, nouveaux, nouvel, nouvelle and nouvelles are reduced to the base adjective nouveau. However, the noun (la) nouvelle (news or short story) is counted as a separate word.
And third, keep in mind that many words, especially the most common ones, can have very many different uses. This is particularly striking for verbs like avoir and faire that enter into many idiomatic expressions.
All this little preamble to say that those 300 words are really a lot more than 300 little words. In reality, when you take into account the conjugations of the verbs, the various forms of the different parts of speech and the many uses of these units, those 300 words become literally thousands of units that are stored in your brain.
The 300 most common words in spoken French
You can find on the Internet a variety of lists of the most common words in French, The words are basically the same. It’s just the order that changes a bit. These differences are due to the sample databases used. Many lists are based on written works and others on collections of spoken language. There are also some regional differences between lists.
I’m going to use a somewhat older (1963) list based on the français élémentaire derived entirely from recordings of spoken French. For our purposes, I am quite sure that the first 300 words are nearly the same today.
Rather than list all 300 words, I’ll present the first and last 25. Here are the first 25 words, organized by decreasing frequency:
(The abbreviation det. stands for determiner or what use to be called article.)
1. être (verb)
6. ce (pronoun)
7. la (det.)
8. pas (negation)
9. à (prep.)
11. le (det.)
14. un (det)
15. ça (pronoun)
16. les (det.)
17. que (conjonction)
18. ne (adv.)
20. qui (relatif)
23. une (det.)
25. des (dét.)
Notice how, outside of the three key verbs, être. avoir and faire, most of the top 25 words are short function or grammar words like ce, de, le, que, qui, un, etc. The pronouns je, on, vous, il(s) and ça are there as well. This not surprising because these are the connecting words we use to build sentences.
It is very important here to keep in mind that one of the reasons these words are in the top 25 is that they are often used in many different ways. For example, the most common preposition in French, de, is used with over 50 nuances of meaning. The second preposition à is also very rich in uses.
Now, let’s have a look at words 276-300.
278. général (adjective)
280. quoi (interrogative)
293. jeune (noun and adjective)
Notice how these words are longer than the first 25 and consist nearly entirely of meaning words such as adverbs, verbs and nouns.
As you have probably realized by now, a simple list of 300 words is rather useless in terms of actually speaking the language. The real challenge is how to put those words together correctly. Et voilà le problème.
300 words are enough for most conversations because this kind of speech consists essentially of the same elements recombined endlessly into meaningful phrases.
The size of your active vocabulary depends primarily on the subjects being discussed and the level of education.
It should also be emphasized that the same words can be used in more sophisticated ways by skilled speakers.
Conclusion: you can speak French with few words but…
You do not have to know a large number of words to speak French fluently. But this idea of 300 words is rather deceptive. Yes, you can certainly get by with a rather tiny number of words. That isn’t the problem. The problem is how to use them.
Learning to converse in French is actually learning how to put the right words with the right endings in the right order. After which you still have to pronounce everything properly. And then you have to decode what the other person or persons say, and the whole process starts over again.
Stanley Aléong is a polyglot, author, musician and language coach in French, English and Spanish. He likes to share his passion for languages and believes that anybody can learn to speak a foreign language well with the right methods and tools. He has also invented a cool visual learning tool called the Language Wall Chart Calendar that is based on his own learning experience. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.