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Native English speakers recognise ‘42,000 words’ by age 20

Online test finds the average 20-year-old American can recognise as many as 42,000, jumping to 48,000 by the age of 60.

If you were to thumb your way through the dictionary, how many words do you honestly think you would be able to recognise and how many would leave you baffled as to how they are even pronounced, let alone exist in English?

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Well now, in a new study researchers have devised and online quiz to estimate that the average 20 year-old American recognises 42,000 words and an average 60 year-old does significantly better, recognising 48,000 words.

Belgian psycholingustic researchers led by Professor Marc Brysbaert of Ghent University compiled a list of 62,000 words and then devised an engaging online quiz to see how many of them people recognised. The quiz shows participants a series of 100 words, some easy (like keep or march), some more obscure (like windhoveror wedel) and others computer-generated nonsense (like betregs or waxfer). The test doesn’t require them to know what each word means, just whether or not they recognise it as a real word. Oh, and dictionaries are strictly forbidden.

In the definition of word of mouth, the quiz went viral on Twitter and Facebook, generating a mass of data for the research team to analyse when it featured on popular TV show. “Our research got a huge push when a television station in the Netherlands asked us to organise a nation-wide study on vocabulary knowledge,” admits Professor Brysbaert. “The test we developed was featured on TV and, in the first weekend, over 300,000 Dutch speakers had done it – it really went viral.”

You can take the test in English at vocabulary.ugent.be. Don’t forget to let us know how you did on Twitter and Facebook.

Professor Brysbaert plans to extend and improve his word bank to make the online quiz more accurate: “This work is part of the big data movement in research, where big datasets are collected to be mined. It also gives us a snapshot of English word knowledge at the beginning of the 21st century. I can imagine future language researchers will be interested in this database to see how English has evolved over 100 years, 1,000 years and maybe even longer”.


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