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According to the research of the German linguist Wolfgang Klein, there were 5.328.000 words in the German language between 1994 and 2004. In Duden® Spelling Dictionary there are 135.000 keywords. The ten-volume "Große Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache" from the Duden Publishing House includes 200.000 keywords. The Leo online dictionary has 801.277 entries.

In view of the enormity of the above-referenced numbers, how large should my German vocabulary be to understand major German newspapers?

P.S.: I’m re-asking the question after consulting about doing so on German Language meta. I will also be answering my own question below.

  • Cross-reference … Or would you prefer I copypaste my answer here? ;) – Jan Aug 18 '16 at 22:12
  • @Jan In the Die Welt article I refer to in my question above (link at "research"), it's stated: "Auf etwa 70.000 wird der so genannte Standardwortschatz geschätzt." As I understand it, this number refers to non-technical, non-dialect German words. In your answer to another question you write: "...a lot more important to understand context, place unknown words into a context...". Now, let's say one's vocab is 5000 words. He'll then have to understand from context the remaining 65000 words. Why do Germans study English at school for 10 years? To be continued... – Eugene Str. Aug 18 '16 at 23:42
  • Continuation: Among other things, it's to learn oodles of English words, so as to understand an occasional unknown word from context. To understand words from context, one has to have a pretty large starting vocabulary. And in reading newspapers, understanding from context doesn't always work, because sometimes you come across articles dealing with (completely) unfamiliar topics. – Eugene Str. Aug 18 '16 at 23:50
  • Oh that’s not the main point of my other answer. The main point is that fixing a number of words to learn (even more defining the important words, but that’s not part of this question) is a nonproductive thing to do. 5000 words can be 5000 general words that get you far in everyday speech or 5000 words that are mainly used in the sports section of a newspaper (implying that different sections tend to use different words — no citation here but I hope we can agree on that). In one case you can get a lot further if you’re just interested in the sports section than in the other. – Jan Aug 19 '16 at 9:18
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    I even reject GI’s ‘rough estimate’ for being a ballpark, so … yeah ;) – Jan Aug 19 '16 at 17:19
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With a vocabulary of 23500 German words and phrases, you should be able to understand in excess of 99% of what you read in German newspapers (provided, of course, that your knowledge of German grammar is adequate for newspaper texts).

I did a little research to come up with the above percentage.

Because I write out nearly all unfamiliar German words and phrases** from German newspapers into my German-English wordlist, I know almost exactly the size of the German vocabulary I’ve learned. In early July 2016, it constituted 23500 words and phrases. Since then I have read 100 articles in different German newspapers (Der Spiegel, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and others). The total length of the articles is 63687 words. Of these, as it turned out, only 333 words and phrases were new to me (0,5%).

Sometimes, if you don’t know a word or a phrase, the entire sentence or paragraph in which it occurs, may not be understood, which would drive down your understanding of the text from about 99% to a lower percentage. This should at least partially be offset by your being able to understand quite a few German words that you have not learned, but still recognize (e.g. from context, from the semblance of a German word you haven’t encountered before to a similar word in your native language etc.)

** To clarify what I mean by "words and phrases", here are some examples: die Biegsamkeit, belehren, packend (words); einen Rekord aufstellen, jdn. von etw. abbringen (phrases).

  • Words appear in vastly different frequencies. Your list of 23500 words almost surely contains a number of words that you happened to come across, but will not encounter again for the next year of reading newspaper articles. You could drop them from your list without losing coverage. On the other hand, you may have missed a few more common words. Both would lead to an overestimation of the number of words required. Therefore, I don’t believe in your number of 23500. – Note that proper research, such as the one cited by Ralph M. Rickenbach in his answer, considers the N most common words. – chirlu Aug 10 '16 at 13:21
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A study by Mark Davies calculated some astonishing numbers for Spanish.

The numbers in Table 4 in above link tell you, how much of either a written body of written or oral text you would be able to recognize with a certain number of words/lexems.

He bases the numbers for German on a study by Jones, Randall. (2003) “An analysis of lexical text coverage in contemporary German”.

Newspapers would be seen as non-fictional, therefore 1000 words would have you understand 64.7%, 2000 words some 71.9%. Since 90-95% of textual recognition would allow for contextual fill-in, and the gain for each additional 1000 words is less and less (in Spanish, the second 1000 words bring twice the gain than the third), I agree with the number of 23'500 to do the job.

Maybe even a bit less, say 20'000, because of our ability to guess from context.

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