Most people have heard of the 80/20 rule.
This law was coined by mathematician Vilfredo Pareto. The concept is simple: in anything you do, 20% of your efforts will yield 80% of the results.
What is this 20% in language learning? What should you focus your efforts on to get 80% of the results with as little efforts as possible?
I have been looking for answers to these questions for many years. And I am about to show you my findings.
I was born and raised unilingual in French Polynesia. I attended 7 years of English classes. But after graduating from high school, I had little to show for it.
However, something was about to change as I went to college.
After high school, I attended a university called EPFL (École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne). This university is situated in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. More than half of the students there are from foreign countries!
Switzerland is very expensive, so I was living in a dorm, like most international students. Most of them didn’t speak a word of French, because their classes were held in English.
As a result, I found myself speaking English every day.
In addition, a lot of the classes I took were in English (because professors were also from foreign countries). My English was improving exponentially. But I wanted more! I started writing on the internet, and I created a small golf site called Golfer Authority.
A few days ago, I actually took a look at this website that I had left on the side. I think I got less than 100 visitors in 2 years! But my goal was to improve my writing, not to create a popular blog. I am currently rewriting the articles to improve my English even more!
But let’s go back to the story.
After I reached a good level in English, I was craving a new challenge. So I decided to start learning Japanese.
But here’s the thing: I didn’t know how to teach myself a new language.
Yes, I had become good at English, but that’s mostly because I was immersed in the right environment. I couldn’t give up everything and fly to Japan!
After doing some research, I decided to use a method named Assimil. This is a popular language-learning method, but the results were slow to come.
After about a year of making slow progress, I decided I needed to step up my game.
The 20% you should focus on
Why is it that most people struggle with languages?
After about a year of studying Japanese, I had a pretty good sense of Japanese grammar and pronunciation. But I was struggling with vocabulary.
Around the same period, I stumbled upon an interesting statistic. It turns out that the 2000 most common words in English make up around 90% of conversations.
I don’t know whether this is the same for Japanese, but I’m willing to bet it’s a good estimate.
And this is the turning point of the story.
From this point, I focused on acquiring new vocabulary every single day.
The result? After about 3 years of studying Japanese, focusing on vocabulary, I can truly call myself fluent. Don’t get me wrong, I can’t have deep political conversations in Japanese, but I can easily talk about most topics with a normal Japanese person.
I was able to acquire Japanese (a complex language for French speakers) much faster than English (an easy language for French speakers). And I never attended any classes!
This leads me back to the main question of this article: what is the Pareto law for language learning?
And here is the “secret”: words.
By focusing on acquiring new words every day, you are effectively doing the 20% that get 80% of the results.
Steve Kaufmann said pretty much the same thing in his video “The importance of vocabulary”. Steve Kaufmann uses words as a measure of progress, and you should too.
Learning a foreign language can be time-consuming.
However, you can save yourself a bunch of time and start learning new vocabulary every day. By doing this, you are focusing your efforts on the 20% of the material that will get you 80% of the results.–You‘ve been reading a guest post by Loïs Talagrand