What is vocabulary


The term vocabulary has two basic meanings:

  1. the words of a language (the vocabulary of German).
  2. the words that are available to a person (individual vocabulary).

In point 2 a distinction is made between active (= useful vocabulary) and passive vocabulary (= comprehension vocabulary).

If you want to learn a language, it is necessary to build up an individual vocabulary. Ultimately, acquiring vocabulary is even more important than acquiring grammar. If you make mistakes in grammar, you can still speak, but you can't say anything without words.

The vocabulary of the German language

Quantity in the mother tongue

  • Total vocabulary of contemporary German: 300,000 to 500,000 words (Duden gives 500,000, Wahrig 260,000, source)
  • Average active vocabulary (written, oral) of a German native speaker: 12,000 and 16,000 words
  • receptive vocabulary: 50,000 words

Basic vocabulary - advanced vocabulary

  • is the vocabulary that is necessary to understand approx. 85% of the texts in a language.
  • Pfeffer determined the basic vocabulary to be around 1285 words. (Source)
  • "Advanced vocabulary" is required in order to cope with higher proportions of texts and can be designed differently as required.

Vocabulary and foreign language acquisition

A foreign language learner should actively:

  • A1 level 600 words
  • A2 level approx. 1200 words
  • B1 level approx. 2500
  • B2 level approx. 3000 words

Vocabulary acquisition

Under the term Vocabulary acquisition one understands the various aspects that lead to being able to speak a word. This includes:

  1. learning a word
  2. keeping a word
  3. finding and using a word in the right situation

Learning words is seemingly easy. You write them down or try to memorize them in a certain way. However, if you are not studying properly (or have a bad memory), it is important to memorize the words in an effective way or you will not be able to remember or use a word. There are many methods of learning words, in this case one speaks of strategies, in this case of vocabulary (acquisition) strategies. Which strategy is the right one depends on the word, on the learner and also on the learning situation. A beginner needs different words than an advanced one, if you live in Germany and learn German, you need different words than if you only studied in Germany for a few years and otherwise live in countries where you cannot use German.

Vocabulary and culture

→ Language # food for thought→ Wolfram Wilss: Translation and Interpreting in the 20th Century

When learning a new language, sooner or later every learner notices that some words cannot simply be translated from one language to another. An example sentence:

"Last night I met a friend in a cozy pub and we spent the whole evening discussing our relationship boxes."

Many of the words in this sentence are difficult to translate for a variety of reasons. The word “cozy” is difficult to translate, especially because of its connotation (a link to the Wikipedia article of the same name) and therefore difficult to understand even for beginners to learn German. In addition, the word has a different connotation depending on the age or social environment of the speaker (what does a cozy pub look like?). The word "pub" can be explained well, for example by giving a definition:

“Pub” is a place where people meet to have (mostly alcoholic) drinks together. Often people eat or play (skat, bowling, billiards). "

In a certain way, this definition shows the essential elements of a pub and yet it seems strange because, in its necessary brevity, it just shortens the cultural connotations. Sure, in many countries there are places like pubs where people meet, but what these places MEAN for the life of the individual is hardly reflected in the definition. The sometimes difficult to understand meaning is also shown in the word "relationship box". It is a metaphor (a link to the Wikipedia article of the same name) and metaphors in particular are difficult to translate from one language to another. But this is where the productive potential of language learning becomes apparent. Metaphors that a native speaker (usually) do not notice, must be consciously learned by learners of a new language and thus also questioned:

"Why is it called a relationship box?"

would be a learner's obvious question here. This means that understanding can be placed on a different, perhaps more reflective, basis (the term meta-communicative competence[1] been coined). This is shown by the term "girlfriend" in this article. If the speaker of this sentence is a man, then the question arises as to the meaning of the word girlfriend, the plural "relationship boxes" suggests that friendship here does not mean an intimate relationship (in the sense of a marriage-like community), but "only" one close personal relationship.

All of these complex relationships play an important role in the vocabulary of a language and particularly show the complexity of the word "culture", which should not be equated with the culture of a country or the culture of a language community. “Cozy” is a term that shows that a country (or a language community) consists of different cultures, because a “cozy pub” has different connotations. The word “pub” is used very differently in the German-speaking world.

learn words


  • Hear and read meaningful, motivating texts and actively process them (books, journalistic texts ...) also broadly (different subject areas)

Process and practice:

  • Look up unknown words in dictionaries, lexicons, strategies for exploring meanings, for example: extracting meaning from the context or asking interlocutors about the meaning of an unknown word


  • Applying learned words in meaningful situations: speaking, writing, communicating

Flash cards and other learning techniques

In foreign language lessons, but also in other subjects, learning words, terms, idioms etc. with the help of a flash card has proven itself. In addition, there are other useful learning techniques for learning vocabulary.

More under:

Learn by listening

Those who learn their mother tongue first hear others speak and repeat them. When learning a foreign language, too, it makes sense not only to read words, but also to hear them first, or at least to hear them too.

LanguageGuide offers an online picture dictionary in multiple languages ​​that is created by volunteers and can be used free of charge and without advertising. If you touch a picture or a symbol that refers to a picture element with the mouse pointer, the playback of a suitable language file starts automatically.

Vocabulary exercises

→ Vocabulary work

Link explanations of words in a wiki

A wiki text can be quickly transformed into a real hypertext if you know how to use the possibilities of the already numerous vocabulary lexicons on the Internet correctly.

→ Link explanations of words in a wiki

Dictionaries, encyclopedias

"The current vocabulary database contains 35 million sentences with 500 million consecutive words. The most recent example sentences are from the spring of 2003. More than 9 million different words and phrases can be looked up."
  • DWDS: The dictionary of contemporary German language of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences
In order to be able to use the dictionary optimally, it is worthwhile to study the page Help on word information of the DWDS.
The dictionary is interesting because it is very well suited to building up word fields in order to independently expand one's personal vocabulary.


Web links

See also