This question is a tough one, as it’s hard to to find a sensible answer to this question. It’s almost impossible to count the total number of words in French language. Think of it this way: what actually counts as a word? Take the word boule for example. It means ball. But it may also mean eggs (plural). Now, does this count as one word or two? In Belgium, the word boule is also used for a round sweet. So, that would be three different meanings for one word.
It’s also not always easy to decide what counts as ‘French’, either. Medical terms are often borrowed from the Latin language, as are some legal and scientific terms. And what about slang words, and especially slang used in modern online communication? These change quite rapidly. Once they are used by a large part of the French online community, should you include them into the total number? And do you count abbreviations? LOL and ROFL, anyone?
On the other hand, YOLO, everybody’s favorite word a few years back, is rarely used anymore these days. But Google still finds 56 million pages containing the word. So, is it still relevant? Do we have to include it into the total number of words in French language? Or even further, do we include it into every language and count it as a word in that particular language?
The current edition of the DICTIONNAIRE DE FRANÇAIS published by the French publishing house Larousse, which specializes in reference books , contains full entries for about 135,000 words in current use.
The Dictionnaire Le Grand Robert de la langue française on the other hand claims to have about 500,000 definitions of words and meanings. But these figures take into account the number of entries with different meanings for the same word and also the different word classes (such as noun and verb).
So, as you see, the total number of words in French language isn’t easy to determine. Or that of any other language, as it happens. But there’s another question related to this, and this one is far more relevant for language learners:
How many French words do I need to know to be fluent?
It’s estimated that native speakers know 15,000 to 20,000 words in their first language. But that doesn’t mean they actively use all of them!
To have a normal everyday conversation, about 800 words are necessary in most western languages. That will get you through the day doing your supermarket shopping, having a meal in a restaurant or getting some baguette and a café au lait from your local boulangerie. And on your way back home you may still have some smalltalk with your neighbor about the weather or last night’s football match. All of this can be done with a mere 800 words. No one will think you’re French born and bred, but you will be able to understand other people and express yourself.
If you want to dive deeper into French and immerse yourself into the language, watching French TV or movies is a good method. An estimated 3,000 words are necessary to understand most of the plot.
Only if you’re really an enthusiast, more words are necessary. If you wanted to read French poetry or lyrics, you might need to remember anywhere between 8,000 and 9,000 words.
If you are able to remember that many words, I salute you!
If, on the other hand, you are more like me, you will also forget words you haven’t used for a longer period of time. But don’t despair, not all is lost! There’s a huge number of wonderful apps for your smartphone which help you to look up any unknown word in seconds. I do that regularly while watching foreign films on YouTube.
And then you could put in a little bit of extra work, by writing these words down and actively learning them. That way your vocabulary builds up very nicely!