Psycholinguists in Belgium administered an online test to ascertain the number of words that English-speaking people know. Due to the rapid pace of social media, the test reached nearly a million English-speaking people and has quickly evolved to become the largest study of its kind in the world.
The study was first conducted in Belgium, but expanded to test users in countries with more popular languages such as English and Spanish.
In order to participate in the study, participants were asked in an online quiz to identify which words were actual English words. Over 60,000 real words were input into the system. The system also included over 300,000 “nonwords,” which is a term used to refer to words that look like they could be English, but are not.
Participants were asked to select whether or not the words existed in the English language by reacting to the queries using a keyboard. The test takes approximately four minutes on average to complete and new words are generated with each attempt.
The words were not selected arbitrarily from dictionary entries because most dictionaries also include homographs and proper nouns that are too specific to a particular vernacular.
Including these kinds of words would have provided inaccurate results since most of the human population is not familiar with scientific names or specific proper nouns and may not have been able to pinpoint whether or not they were real words of the English language. The words that were left in the dictionary, however, did include multiword expressions, multiword prepositions and fixed expressions.
Research leader and psycholinguist Marc Brysbaert went into the study with the objective of determining the number of words that are known to English speakers. The study is continuous, simply because language develops endlessly and new words form every day. Findings show, however, that English is composed of roughly 20,000 words when names and acronyms are excluded.
The language expands significantly because word families can and often do stem from these 20,000 words, which are fundamental to the entirety of English.
Dictionaries boast over 400,000 words, but of this amount, only 20,000 form the core of the English language. This finding illustrates the incredible utilization of the English language for various purposes, including productivity and communication development.
The study makes several hypotheses that attempt to answer which types of people know more words. The study distinguishes between people who engage in a language solely by means of social interaction, media and literature.
Unsurprisingly, the study has shown that those who read more seemed to have a greater range of vocabulary. Those who purely relied on social interaction to increase their vocabulary had the smallest range.
Additionally, the team of psycholinguists have adopted a general theory that states that as a person ages, they become acquainted with more words. Therefore, older people tend to know additional words due to more experiences and greater exposure to vocabulary.
The study has found that the average 20-year-old knows over 42,000 words.
The researchers who executed this experiment took the extreme limits to calculate the amount of words each group, aside from the average, knows. The extreme readers who read for 16 hours of the day, at a hypothetical record limit, know approximately 300,000 to 500,000 types of words.
Therefore, education plays a huge role in the number of words that are known to the average person. Reading and studying vocabulary clearly increase the number of words recognized.
The study shows that older people know more words due to their prolonged experiences, but this finding heavily implies that people do not forget words as they age. The study only asked participants for word identification, not word definition.
Participants who agreed to the study gave personal identifying information as supplemental points of research. The test asks for age, gender and residence for demographic purposes and further research material. Over 220,000 individuals were tested and over 260,000 tests were conducted, as a result of the fact that multiple individuals requested to take the test twice.
With these results, language researchers are hoping to find new development in the English language over the next century. As new words constantly branch out in any language, language can never be a fixed entity.
The study is critical to understanding how, in particular, the English language forms its vocabulary. It gives insight into the uses of the English language and provides an understanding of how and why certain vocabulary makes its way into becoming part of everyday vernacular, lending itself as a source for further research into this topic.