Have you ever wondered how many words there are in the Russian language? Russian is an old – and constantly evolving – language, so it does contain a high humber of words. But finding out how much exactly can be very tough. After all, with al its declensions, perfective/imperfective verbs and loanwords from English, which words are really Russian? And which words count?
In the above video I explain how I learned Russian.
Note: in this article we’re going to find out how many words to learn the Russian language. We’re going to take a look at the common estimates, and how relevant they are. Most of the time the question behind ‘how many words in the Russian language?’ is ‘how many words to learn to speak Russian fluently?’. It’s a very good question if you’re learning Russian. We’ll discuss that and at the end I’ll give you my strategy for quickly and effectively increasing your vocabulary.
How many words are there in the Russian language?
There are many estimates. However, several of the larger Russian dictionaries quote around 130,000 to 150,000. Now, that’s a lot of Russian words. But if you compare it to English for instance – which has more than 400,000, then it’s not that bad. The main reason for that is that Russian doesn’t have to many so-called loanwords included in the dictionaries (yet). English has a lot more of those. But Russia wasn’t exposed to many other languages in the time of communism.
So some of the estimates are around 150,000 – which means there a lot of Russian words to learn.
That’s a lot – and there are even more
Unfortunately, the truth is there is an even higher number of words in the Russian language. You see, it all depends on how you go and count them. Do you count красивый-красиво as 1 word or 2? And what about all the other forms of the adverb?
On top of that, you have all the perfective and imperfective verbs. Some of them are counted twice (such as идти/ходить). But others were the difference is a simple change of а for an и (получить – получать), they might not be included.
And then of course you’ve got all the loanwords that are entering the language in the last ten years – because of the internet this has gone a lot faster than before. But this is the case in virtually ever language. So Russian words like милкшейк (milkshake) also have to be counted, since they are used pretty often.
On top of that, you also got all the regional dialects, which also contain a lot of Russian words that are not in the dictionaries. And I’m also doubting if some of the creative Russian swearing is counted in all of the estimates.
So if you take all this together, then the estimates take on a whole new form. How many words in the Russian language? Well, including all these, the number of words you’re going to get anything from 250,000 to 500,000.
But the good news is you don’t need to learn them all
That’s a lot of Russian words. if you were to learn 100 words every single day – it would still take you 7 to 15 years to learn all of them.
That’s crazy. But the good thing is that you really don’t need to learn all of them. Think of English, I’m sure every once in a while you come across a word that you don’t know its meaning. Plus there are tens of thousands of other words that you will probably never hear in your lifetime. Or others that are simply not relevant for you – and will never be. Think of all the Russian words that are only used in specific professions. All the lingo that is being used in law, or construction, or accounting, or politics even will most likely never apply to you (unless you work in one of these fields of course).
So the real question is:
How many words to be fluent in Russian?
When we approach the question from this angle – everything becomes a lot more fun. Instead of feeling overwhelmed with such a higher number of words to learn, everything starts feeling very manageable now. My first start with Russian was through the Michel Thomas method – and he always emphasized me that you only need to learn around a 1000 words.
His story was that some study analyzed national newspapers – and to understand around 80% of all the words, you needed to learn around a 1000 Russian words. Now, that was for English – but the same principles apply for Russian. heck for every language. Many of the words that you use in your daily life are going to be the simple words. Now, of course once a while a more difficult word will be used in specific situations – but most of the time you can guess the meaning of those words anyways.
So if you only need to learn around a 1000 words to understand around 80% of Russian, then how much do you need to learn around 90% of words? Well, the answer is maybe 2,000. So if you would learn only 20 words every day – it would take you a 100 days in total to understand virtually all spoken Russian.
Add in some cognates (words that sound the same in several languages – most famous are taxi, tobacco etc.) and your vocabulary most likely already contains a couple of 100 words. So you really shouldn’t worry that much about vocabulary. Sure, you’re not going to know 2000 words in 30 days. But if you take your time and learn a couple of words every day, you’ll find that you’ll come very far in just a couple of months.
What’s the best way to learn new words?
There are many methods out there for learning vocabulary. But the one that I personally like the most is using spaced repetition. It basically means flashcards – but with the added twist that if you get something right, you’ll practice that word again in let’s say 10 days. But if you get it wrong, you’re doing it again tomorrow. It’s like having a stack of 100 flashcards, and if you don’t know a word you put it back in the top 10 cards – and if you do know it you put it on the bottom.
Of course, there’s an app for that! It’s called Ankidroid and it’s free. Plus you can download a lot of other free decks for learning words. I’m going through a deck now which has around 5000 words. And I’m getting 20 new words every day. Needless to say, over the last 9 months tat I’m doing this my vocabulary has skyrocketed!
P.S. How many words in the Russian language? Somewhere between 250,000 and 500,000. But you don’t need them all. Install Ankidroid, download a Russian-English flash card deck and you’ll surprise yourself how fast you’ll know your first 1000 words (which consist of 80% of all regularly-spoken words in Russian). Curious how to learn the grammar that goes along with it? Sign up here for the free trial of Russianpod101!
P.S. If you want to improve your Russian on 'autopilot', my best recommendation is to just listen to 1 single Russianpod101 podcast per day (about 15 minutes). Ideally you do this when commuting to work to create a lasting habit. You can also take a daily walk. I did this for about 6 months, and it's the reason my Russian improved so quickly. There's a free 7 day trial with just an email address, so you're not risking anything. Give it a try and see how fast your Russian skills improve.