100 words of English: How far can it get you?

By Peter Jackson
BBC News

Girl speaking to teenager

England's Italian football manager Fabio Capello claims he can manage his players with just 100 words. So how far could you get with a vocabulary of that size?

Despite his sometimes colourful language, communicating with Wayne Rooney does not require a Shakespearean command of English.

That's just as well, as the England manager has admitted he's having problems learning some of the basics.

"If I need to speak about the economy or other things, I can't speak," he told reporters.

"But when you speak about tactics, you don't use a lot of words. I don't have to speak about a lot of different things. Maximum 100 words."

In Capello's defence, his vocabulary appears to be far wider than 100 words and it was probably a throwaway remark. But his comment raises an interesting question - how far could such a limited knowledge of English take you?

Not very far, says Peter Howarth, deputy director of Leeds University's language centre.

"It's a ridiculously small number, you could learn 100 words in a couple of days, particularly when you're in the country surrounded by the language," he says.

"People do say that from a learner's point of view, English is relatively easy to use without too much grammar... but Fabio Capello needs a range, presumably, and to communicate emotions and a bit of nuance."

20,000 words

He says when you start to learn English, it's fairly easy to get some kind of meaning across - which is why the language has spread so widely - but people end up speaking "tourist English".

"A hundred words wouldn't get you beyond some very familiar situations in a phrase book - a weekend in London, how to get a hotel room or order a meal," he says.

"A lot of us have done that in foreign countries: managed to get by, but in a pretty limited range of situations."

A grasp of 1,500 words is needed to communicate at an intermediate level with "some range", he suggests.

Estimates for the average size of a person's vocabulary vary, but TV lexicographer and dictionary expert Susie Dent says it's about 20,000 active words and 40,000 passive ones.

She says it's important to distinguish between the active words we know and use and those we might know but don't use.

"Of course 100 words is limiting, but it's important to stress his [Capello's] passive language, otherwise how would he handle press conferences?" she says.

"It may be that for simple instruction on the pitch, 100 words is all he needs - it's not as absurd as perhaps it looks at face value."

She says the 100 most frequently used words - predominantly Old English - form the bedrock of everyday language (although you may find the task of writing something meaningful with them quite a challenge).

Ripe v mature

But according to Fiona Douglas, an English language lecturer at Leeds University, that figure of 100 is still well short of the number of words even a basic foreign language student usually commands.

She says advanced students using learner dictionaries to grasp the most frequently used and useful words, typically master around 7,500, and basic learners about 2,000.

NHS guidelines suggest that by two years old, toddlers can say around 100 words and start putting them into short sentences.

Ms Douglas questioned whether somebody with just 100 words at their disposal would be able to form sentences with full grammatical syntax structures.

"Perhaps they would just concentrate on nouns or verbs like 'football', 'kick' or 'harder'," she says.

"It seems very optimistic that you could get by on that number, but then do people know what their active lexicon is? It's quite a hard question to answer."

Part of the problem when learning a language is understanding the context in which words should be used, she adds.

"If you read a dictionary, the words 'old', 'ripe' and 'mature' share something in meaning," she says.

"If you called an older woman 'mature' you might get away with it, but if you called her 'ripe' you might get a cuff round the ear.

"It's about learning how and when to use the vocabulary, which is why learner dictionaries are very useful."