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You can say a surprising amount with ~300 words


VIDEO 100 English Sentences You Can Use in Conversation

VIDEO Learn ALL TENSES Easily in 30 Minutes – Present, Past, Future | Simple, Continuous, Perfect

You can express yourself surprisingly flexibly when you know 300 well-chosen words (and grammar) in a language. (By “words”, I really mean lemmas, i.e. I’m counting “run” and “runs” as one word.) When trying to talk about a topic, there will probably be some key words that you don’t know, but you can ask for or look up those words and then use them for the rest of the time that you’re talking about the topic. You can see an example of how using the 300 words works.

Here’s the list of 300. I hope it’s a useful guideline and starting point for you. I may revise it, so please refer to the original post for the most up-to-date version. In addition to these general words, there will probably be some others that will be among the most useful for you (e.g. “class” if you’re a student). When you find yourself using them again and again, learn them too.

* Note: You should really think of this as a list of concepts. Your goal isn’t to translate each word to a word in your target language, but to figure out how to express that concept in your target language. In some cases, a concept may translate to multiple words (for example, I listed “you” as a concept, but in some languages there are different words for “formal you” and “informal you”). Some concepts may translate to no word at all, but rather a certain grammatical structure (for example, Russian doesn’t use the verb “have”; to say “I have a cat” in Russian, you say “at me there is a cat”).

Use a dictionary to find out how to express these concepts in your target language (for some subtleties, you’ll need to google or ask in a forum). After that, I suggest memorizing the words by making yourself a Memrise course with the words and going through the course. Learn to be able to go from the concept to the word in your target language, not the other way around; you want to be able to produce the word, not just recognize it. You should also learn how to pronounce your target language. To hear native speakers pronounce words in your target language, check out Forvo.

This list has been translated into: Cantonese, Finnish, French, Spanish.

Version 1 of this list, which had 200 words, was translated into: Afrikaans, Czech, Dutch, Esperanto, Finnish, French, German, Hungarian, Icelandic, Mandarin Chinese, Norwegian, Swedish, Thai.

If you’d like to translate this list into another language, please feel free! 🙂 Just include a link back to this post, and let me know when you’re done so that I can link to your list here.

First Verbs

be
there is
have
do
go
want
can
need
think
know
say
like
speak
learn
understand
Conjunctions

that (as in “I think that…” or “the woman that…”)
and
or
but
because
though
so (meaning “therefore”; e.g. “I wanted it, so I bought it”)
if
Prepositions

of
to
from
in
at (a place)
at (a time)
with
about
like (meaning “similar to”)
for (warning, this one has several meanings that you need to take care of)
before (also as a conjunction)
after (also as a conjunction)
during
Question Words

who
what
where
when
why
how
how much
which
Adverbs

a lot
a little
well
badly
only
also
very
too (as in “too tall”)
too much
so (as in “so tall”)
so much
more (know how to say “more … than …”)
less (know how to say “less … than …”)
as … as … (e.g. “as tall as”)
most
least
better
best
worse
worst
now
then
here
there
maybe
always
usually
often
sometimes
never
today
yesterday
tomorrow
soon
almost
already
still
even
enough
Adjectives

the, a (technically articles)
this
that
good
bad
all
some
no
any
many
few
most
other
same
different
enough
one
two
a few
first
next
last (meaning “past”, e.g. “last Friday”)
last (meaning “final”)
easy
hard
early
late
important
interesting
fun
boring
beautiful
big
small
happy
sad
busy
excited
tired
ready
favorite
new
right (meaning “correct”)
wrong
true
Pronouns

Know them in the subject (“I”), direct object (“me”), indirect object (“to me”), and possessive (“my”) forms.

I
you
she
he
it
we
you (plural)
they
Nouns

If your language has grammatical gender, then learn each noun as “the [noun]” with “the” in the correct gender. (e.g. in Spanish, instead of learning language = “idioma”, learn language = “el idioma”.) This will help you remember the gender.

everything
something
nothing
everyone
someone
no one
(name of the language you’re studying)
English
thing
person
place
time (as in “a long time”)
time (as in “I did it 3 times”)
friend
woman
man
money
country
(name of your home country)
city
language
word
food
house
store
office
company
manager
coworker
job
work (as in “I have a lot of work to do”)
problem
question
idea
life
world
day
year
week
month
hour
mother, father, parent
daughter, son, child
wife, husband
girlfriend, boyfriend
More Verbs

work (as in a person working)
work (meaning “to function”, e.g. “the TV works”)
see
use
should
believe
practice
seem
come
leave
return
give
take
bring
look for
find
get (meaning “obtain”)
receive
buy
try
start
stop (doing something)
finish
continue
wake up
get up
eat
eat breakfast (in several languages, this is a verb)
eat lunch
eat dinner
happen
feel
create (aka “make”)
cause (aka “make”)
meet (meeting someone for the first time)
meet (meaning “to bump into”)
meet (an arranged meeting)
ask (a question)
ask for (aka “request”)
wonder
reply
mean
read
write
listen
hear
remember
forget
choose
decide
be born
die
kill
live
stay
change
help
send
study
improve
hope
care
Phrases

hello
goodbye
thank you
you’re welcome
excuse me (to get someone’s attention)
sorry
it’s fine (response to an apology)
please
yes
no
okay
My name is
What’s your name?
Nice to meet you.
How are you?
I’m doing well, how about you?
Sorry? / What? (if you didn’t hear something)
How do you say ______?
What does ______ mean?
I don’t understand.
Could you repeat that?
Could you speak more slowly, please?
Well (as in “well, I think…”)
Really?
I guess that
It’s hot. (talking about the weather)
It’s cold. (talking about the weather)

Example

Here’s a demonstration of how you can express your thoughts with 300 words. I took a paragraph from a website, and rephrased it using only the 300 basic words + a few others.

Here’s the paragraph:

I have had a good run, producing more films than virtually anyone else. And I believe better films (okay, maybe I am biased, but..), and ones with more consistent returns, but damn! It is harder now to justify investment or commitment than ever before — even when the tools have improved and the talent pool grown like never before. Film, like all the culture economies, has been turned on it’s head, but unlike the others, since the work at the top still delivers a return, our leaders and corporations act like business is as it’s always been.

Here’s the rephrased version. It doesn’t sound as nice as the original, but it’s still completely understandable. I bolded the words that aren’t in the basic word list the first time that they appear. When writing or talking, you can ask for or look up those words and then keep using them.

I have done well and made more films than almost all other people. And I think that my films were better (okay, it is me saying that…) and they almost always made money. But! It is harder now than at any time before to say why you’re making films – though the things we use are better and better people want to work for us. Films, like other things that make money from culture, are not like they were before. But what’s different for films is: because the films that make the most still make a lot of money, the companies that make films work like nothing is different.

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