Home Language Resources 80/20 Rule: How to Learn Languages with the Pareto Principle

80/20 Rule: How to Learn Languages with the Pareto Principle

by Michele
0 comment
11 Ways to Master Language Learning with Pareto's 80/20 Rule
The Intrepid Guide contains affiliate links. At no cost to you, I will earn a commission which helps reduce the ever-increasing costs of keeping this site active. Thank you for your support.

If there was a shortcut to language learning, using Pareto’s 80/20 rule would be it. By focusing on the most powerful 20% of your target language, you’ll achieve a massive 80% of your results.

Learning a foreign language usually requires quite a lot of effort: there’s vocabulary to memorize, grammar to learn, skills to practice… All this can be a lot of fun and very rewarding, but it still requires effort. 

But what if I were to tell you that most of your success in learning is the result of about 20% of your effort? Or that most of the conversations you’ll have in your target language will only use about 20% of the vocabulary you are cramming? 

This may sound like another overly sensational clickbait phrase, but bear with me for a moment! This concept is called ‘the Pareto Principle’ and it influences lots of things in life – including language learning! In this guide, we will look at what the Pareto Principle is and how to use it to make your language learning more efficient so you can progress faster.

What is the Pareto Principle? 

In its essence, the Pareto Principle states roughly 80% of results come from 20% of the effort – that is why it is also widely known as the 80/20 rule, as well as the law of the vital few. 

This principle was coined by Management consultant, Joseph M. Juran and named after the Italian economist, Vilfredo Pareto who in 1896 showed that approximately 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population. 

Similar distribution can be applied to many other areas. Here are a few other Pareto Principle examples:

  • 20% of the world’s population hold 80% of wealth
  • 80% of pollution originates from 20% of all factories
  • 20% of drivers cause 80% of all traffic accidents
  • 80% of software can be written in 20% of the allocated time
  • 20% of posts generate 80% of traffic
  • 20% of workers produce 80% of the results 
  • 20% of customers contribute to 80% of the profit 

The percentage is sometimes approximate, but what matters is not the exact numbers. The key thing here is that most results come from just a fraction of the effort you put in. 

Using the Pareto Principle in language learning 

11 Ways to Master Language Learning with Pareto's 80/20 Rule - What is the Pareto Principle

What does it have to do with language learning? The Pareto Principle can be observed – and used for higher efficiency – in this sphere as well! In fact, this is how I teach languages in my Intrepid Languages courses – using my own 80/20 method.

The 80/20 rule in language learning means that most of your success is the result of only about 20% of the effort you make. It also means that only about 20% of the things you learn contributes to most (around 80%) of your improvement. 

For instance, quite a few language learners make the following mistake: they try to learn as much as possible, expand their vocabulary as wide as possible before they start speaking their target language. Don’t get me wrong: it is good to have a large vocabulary and it is important to never stop learning. However, you should never wait until you ‘learn everything’ before you start speaking. 

The fact is, only a small percentage of the vocabulary of a language (around 2,000 – 3,000 of the most frequently used words) cover about 80% of all conversations and texts – this includes anything from chatting with friends and reading comic books to lectures and academic articles. 

It might seem like 2,000 words is a large number, however, considering that there can be hundreds of thousands of words in a language (for instance, Spanish has around 150,000 words), it is not that much, and is, in fact, quite manageable. 

Generally speaking, you can use the 80/20 rule to learn languages by concentrating on the most common words. But that’s not all you can do.

Let us dive in and take a closer look at some of the ways the Pareto Principle can help you master your target language.

1. Focus on the most frequent words and phrases

As you’ve just learned, a relatively small number of the most common words can get you quite far in practicing and using your target language – this is the 80/20 rule in language learning. 

Of course, the most frequent words will differ from language to language, but there are a few key categories you can single out. Using French as an example, here are a few key areas you should focus on:

  • Pronouns: je (I), toi, vous (you), il (he, it), elle (she)
  • Basic verbs: être (to be), avoir (to have), apprendre (to learn), vivre (to live), vouloir (to want), partir (to go), venir (to come)
  • Basic grammar: the word order, verb conjugations, use of articles
  • Time indicators: maintenant (now), aujourd’hui (today), demain (tomorrow), hier (yesterday), plus tard (later)
  • Basic nouns 

You can often find lists of the most common words in your target language online or in language apps. For instance, you can seek out the most common Russian words for travel and by working with a teacher, you can also ask them to help you concentrate on the most essential words for your target language.

Even a couple of hundred of ‘the right’ most common words is enough to start practicing your speaking skills in basic conversation and to read simple texts. 

Don’t worry about advanced words and impressing people with your vocabulary. Don’t be afraid of sounding ‘simple’ or ‘primitive’ – people you talk to will use most of the same words, and simple phrases can be meaningful and effective, too. 

You can – and should – expand your vocabulary as you learn, and advanced words will enter your vocabulary in the future. However, don’t chase them at the beginning of your learning process – learn the most common simple words and make the most of them.

2. Start using your target language right now

Just memorizing the most common words and learning basic grammar is, of course, not enough for learning a language properly: after all, what’s the use of knowing 2,000 words if you can’t, well, use them? 

Too many learners make the mistake of waiting until they reach a certain level to start speaking – don’t be one of them. To make the Pareto Principle in language learning work for you, you need to start using the things you learn as soon as possible in conversation. 

The earlier you start speaking the language the easier it gets and the faster you learn, so don’t waste time waiting. Waiting until you learn X words or reach level X is a waste of time. 

In the beginning, you’ll be able to say just a few sentences, but the important thing is that you do say them frequently: wish someone a good morning, chat about the weather, ask what time it is… You may hear some new words in reply, but you’ll often understand them from context or at least get the general idea of what the person is saying – which is totally fine at the initial stages of learning. 

You’ll be able to say and understand more in the future, but to get there you need to start speaking right now.

3. Make the most of what you know

The thing about the most common words in a language is that they are not only common – they are also quite versatile. There are many polysemantic words with several meanings among them, as well as words that can simply come in handy in many situations. You can learn to make the most of the vocabulary you know to be able to speak in a large variety of situations.

Here are a few strategies you can use to do that: 

  • Pay close attention to the context, including the whole sentence or text as well as such non-verbal things as the surrounding situation or the speaker’s gestures. This way you can often easily understand the meaning of a new or polysemantic word.
  • Aim for general understanding first. After all, it is not quite about the individual words. When someone is telling you something, it is more important to understand the message, the main idea, than each individual word.
  • Work around the words you don’t know. There is a board game called Taboo where you need to explain words to other players without using the words themselves: for instance, explain what a cat or a chair is without saying ‘cat’ or ‘chair’. The game can be quite fun – and it is also a good language learning strategy. There may come a time, even at higher language levels, when you don’t know or don’t remember a word – don’t worry too much, just use other words you know to explain the idea. With some words it is quite easy: if you forget the Italian word ‘piccolo’ (small), you can just say ‘non grande’ (not big) to convey a similar message. With other words, you’ll need to be more creative, but it is part of the fun of using the 80/20 rule to learn languages.
  • Simplify things. For instance, if you haven’t learned past tenses, use present tenses with past time markers – ‘mangio ieri’ (literally: I eat yesterday) – and your message will come across. Don’t worry about speaking ‘too simple’ or ‘making mistakes’. First of all, it is impossible to learn to speak correctly and beautifully without making some mistakes and using some simple sentences first. Secondly, most people you talk to, be it native speakers or other learners, will likely be very accepting – or won’t even notice. 

4. Don’t try to learn EVERYTHING

11 Ways to Master Language Learning with Pareto's 80/20 Rule - Don’t try to learn everythingFirst of all, it is simply impossible. There are too many words and phrases in any language and too many possible usages. Moreover, words become obsolete and new words get coined all the time. Also, your target language most likely has a few dialects with their own unique words, pronunciation rules, and even different grammar. One simply can’t learn ALL of a language. 

Secondly, as discussed above, even if you manage to learn nearly all the words of your target language, you won’t ever use most of them. Take, for instance, archaic words that were used a few centuries ago or the slang of teens playing a particular computer game – if you are not one of these teens or a student of history or ancient literature, both of these vocabulary categories are useless to you. 

If you try to learn everything, at best you will end up knowing a bunch of random words and phrases that you won’t even be able to use. And, as we all know, in language learning, what doesn’t get used gets forgotten quickly, which will completely negate the effort you made. 

Don’t chase the achievement of ‘knowing all the words’ – it sounds cool only on the surface. Our time and effort are limited – better make use of the Pareto Principle and invest it into what’s really effective. 

5. Learn about language learning itself

The Pareto Principle in language learning is not only about high-frequency words, it is about effort as well: most likely, only 20% of your effort brings you 80% of your progress in your target language. Some people’s learning is even less effective, and they keep on learning a foreign language for ages without practically any results. Don’t worry, though. There are a few things you can do to make your learning more efficient. 

One of the things you can do to achieve that is to educate yourself about language learning. In the fast-developing world of today, language learning doesn’t stand still either. Whole new approaches to language learning appear, new techniques and strategies, new types of exercises, new websites and apps. 

A textbook written 50 years ago could have been good for its time. But today, at least part of the material in it will be obsolete. Moreover, nowadays, working with a textbook is just one of the hundreds of options you have in language learning. 

By learning what different options are out there, you can find the ones that fit you the most, make your language learning more efficient, but also more varied and fun. 

6. Pay attention to your experiences and results

We are all different people with individual habits and tastes – and we all learn differently, too. There are visual and auditory learners, people who need more preparation and those who are more spontaneous, social and solitary learners, etc. 

Whether you know for sure what your learner type is or not, it is important to pay attention to your learning experiences. Over time, you will see what works for you and what doesn’t, and which techniques and exercises bring the most results.

This doesn’t mean that you have to eliminate everything that doesn’t work quite so well. For instance, even if you are a visual learner, you will still need listening practice – otherwise, your listening skills will suffer. 

However, by noticing what type of learning is more effective for you, you’ll be able to concentrate on it and make faster progress as a result.

7. Optimize your learning habits 

11 Ways to Master Language Learning with Pareto's 80/20 Rule - Optimize your learning habitsThis tip is similar to the previous one but it has less to do with the language itself and language learning techniques, and more to do with the day-to-day details of your learning: when you do it and how, what learning tools you use, what distractions there are, and so on. 

Optimizing learning habits will look different for different learners, but here are a few things you might consider:

  • When do you learn best during the day? If your learning is most effective in the morning but you only have free time in the evening – take a look at your schedule and see if you can free up a little time for learning in the morning at least a couple of days a week. It can be hard to do with a busy schedule, but give it a try – if you are a ‘morning learner’, 10 minutes of learning in the morning may actually be more effective than half an hour of learning in the evening. 
  • Are there many distractions when you learn? Work emails, social media notifications, kids or pets that want attention… On the one hand, we do need to pay attention to our work, families, and friends. On the other hand, if you try to do it and learn a language at the same time, neither will be successful – multitasking doesn’t really work. While not all distractions can be eliminated every time you sit down for a learning session, do your best to lower their number. Find a quiet room, turn off smartphone notifications, ask your family to give you some alone time. And again, 10 minutes of uninterrupted concentration will be more effective than half an hour or more of juggling multiple tasks.
  • Are you using modern technology? Faster Internet allows you easier access to language learning resources. Good headphones will make listening practice more effective and more enjoyable. A smartphone with a handful of language learning apps will allow you to learn and practice on the go wherever you are. Of course, you don’t need the latest most expensive tech to learn a language. However, if your tech is obsolete or broken, it may actually slow down your learning – consider replacing it. 

These are just a few general examples. Your personal habits and the possible ways of optimizing them may be different. But, as with the previous tip, it is important to pay attention to what works and what doesn’t. Find the 20% that brings you all the results and make the most of it!. 

8. Set measurable short-term goals 

Imagine you have to travel somewhere – but you don’t know the destination. There is a chance you will get there somehow by roaming around, but it will take you a huge amount of time and effort. 

Traveling somewhere without knowing the destination may sound weird. Learning a language without setting goals is exactly the same. Without clear goals, you ‘roam around’, learn a bit here and a bit there, maybe even make some progress. But truly mastering your target language is impossible without clear goals. 

‘I want to learn X language’ is not a good goal – there is no clear understanding of what you need to do, there is no timeline. Goals that will help you maintain motivation and learn efficiently should be:

  • Short-term. Set a goal for each month or even each week. Such goals will act as milestones, and moving from one to the other will get easier. You can have long-term goals as well, but without the short-term ones, they begin to seem distant and the temptation to put things off (‘that’s okay, I still have the whole year to do it!’) is very strong.
  • Realistic. Moving up a language level in a couple of months may be possible – if you spend several hours a day learning and practicing a lot. For most people with jobs and families, this is impossible. By setting a goal along the lines of ‘move from A2 to B1 in a month’ you will most likely set yourself up for failure. There may be some amazing stories of fast learners out there, but it is essential that you take into account your capabilities and other responsibilities you have in life. 
  • Measurable. One of the reasons ‘learn X language’ is not a good goal is because it is too vague: What level do you want to achieve? What do you want/need to be able to do in the language? What topics do you want to master? ‘Achieve B1 level’ or ‘complete the X course’ is a better example because you can actually see clearly if you have achieved the goal or not, and how well you managed to do it. Such goals will help you track your progress and move forward more efficiently. 

9. Confront your fears 

There may be some things about your target language that are quite hard, and many learners are afraid of even approaching them: Russian verb conjugation, French pronunciation, Chinese characters… Such things are also usually essential for mastering the language. 

Is there something about your target language you are ‘afraid’ of or find extremely difficult? Don’t run away from it. Chances are, it is among the 20% of the language material that is needed for 80% of all communication. 

For instance, many learners fear speaking, especially outside of the classroom environment. However, speaking is an essential skill, most of us are learning a language to be able to speak to people – and you’ll never improve your speaking by being afraid to do it.

It may be easier said than done, but facing your fears in language learning is a must. Otherwise, you will never truly reach fluency. 

10. Be honest with yourself 

Don’t deceive yourself into thinking you are doing enough when you aren’t. Don’t try to convince yourself your learning is effective when it isn’t. 

Abandoning old habits and trying out new ways of learning your target language may be challenging. But it is a good challenge that will shake you up a bit, help you stay motivated and make your learning more effective and more fun. 

On the contrary, sticking to your old learning routines will only get you so far – or hardly anywhere. After all, ‘if you always do what you have always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got’. Why waste time and effort on the things that don’t bring results? 

11. Practice – and have fun! 

11 Ways to Master Language Learning with Pareto's 80/20 Rule - Practice and have funPractice is the most effective way of improving your language level. To make the 80/20 rule in language learning work, find different ways to practice the key language skills – reading, writing, listening, and speaking – every day. 

But don’t forget to enjoy yourself as well! Some of the things you enjoy doing in your target language may not be among the most effective 20%. However, language learning is not as cut-and-dry. 

Our emotions play a great role in learning, and when we enjoy the process we usually learn much better. Thus, learn the high-frequency words and phrases, but don’t forget to find fun ways to practice them: watch movies, read books, attend language clubs, chat to people, browse the web… Bring some enjoyment into your language learning to help the Pareto Principle work its magic. 

Final Thoughts 

The Pareto Principle can be applied to language learning just like many other areas of your life. We can see proof of this when we use a relatively small number of high-frequency words in order to under the majority of texts and communicate in various situations. From this, we can see that only 20% of the effort you make is responsible for most of your progress. 

And one of the greatest things about the Pareto Principle in language learning is that if you are aware of it, you can concentrate on the things that are the most effective and actually shift this percentage, making the most of the things that work and discarding the ones that don’t – and the tips above should help you do just that.  Want to learn a language using my own 80/20 method? Check out language courses here.

Want to know more about learning languages? Start here!

Like it? Pin it for later!

11 Ways to Master Language Learning with Pareto's 80/20 Rule

Over to you!

Have you tried learning languages using the Pareto Principle? What did you think? Do you have a question?
Let me know using the comments section below or join me on social media to start a conversation.

Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed this post.

Like what you see? Subscribe using the form below to have all of my posts delivered directly to your email.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.