Research-backed insights for language learning

80/20 Rule: Reach Fluency Faster With These 3 Steps

The Pareto Principle

Picking up a giant 800-page dictionary in your target language at the start of your fluency journey is a sure-fire way to make yourself feel discouraged and defeated before you’ve even begun.

How will you ever memorize all of those words, their meanings, and pronunciations?

The good news is the Pareto principle. The Pareto principle, also known as the 80/20 rule, is a theory maintaining that 80 percent of the output from a given situation is determined by 20 percent of the input.

In other words, you really only need to start by focusing on 20 percent of your target language to achieve conversational fluency. So relax. I just sliced your big scary dictionary down by 80 percent.

Simply, follow these 3 steps to start applying the Pareto Principle in your foreign language practice.

Step 1: Learn in context

Many people turn to index cards, spaced-repetition apps, and rote learning-based drills because they are familiar with them from years of use in school.

These methods are good, but there is a better, more effective way. By learning vocabulary words in context you’ll be working smarter, not harder. This is why it’s more productive to learn words in the form of complete sentences.

When you learned your first, native language, you didn’t learn to speak by reading a complicated grammar book. You learned through context.

Your mother telling you she loved you as she kissed you goodnight. Being asked if you were hungry and offered some milk when a few hours had passed since your last meal.

You learned by actually listening to language and not by memorizing flashcards with individual words on them. Hearing words in context helped you learn to mimic the sounds and have your needs met. The same is true when learning a foreign language.

Learning words out of context is technically impossible. There is always context. When we link language to an experience, then we have a better chance of remembering it. I can remember the specific moment I learned a vast majority of the words I know in Portuguese.

There is a big stray dog that lives at the beach by our house in Brazil. He seems pretty friendly but because of his size, he makes me feel a little nervous when he approaches my children. I used to feel pretty ridiculous yelling at him to “Get out of here! Leave the kids alone!”

He clearly didn’t understand English and cared only about eating my daughter’s picolé (popsicle.)

One day, I was enjoying the beach and some freshly cooked corn on the cob with my Brazilian friend, when the black beast of a dog decided he was hungry too. My friend and the dog clearly spoke the same language as she yelled for him to “Sai fora! Sai daqui!” (Get out of here! Leave!) Finally! The words I’d been looking for!

The dog scampered off like he knew the drill and I felt a little more empowered to use my own voice in a new and foreign language.

Linking this experience to the phrase has helped me commit the words to my memory.

Step 2: Focus on useful words

While any input is good and will move you closer to your goal of fluency, we are looking to focus on the best process possible to reduce the workload. Consider focusing on input that is meaningful and relevant to your life. You’ll learn new vocabulary words faster this way.

The primary words you learn will translate into other situations and reappear when you least expect them.

Since I live on an island, I could predict that learning to say “Eu amo assistir as ondas!” (“I love watching the waves!”) would be a relevant phrase for me to learn in Portuguese. But what I couldn’t predict was the Uber driver talking about the “onda de calor” (“heat wave”) we were experiencing last week.

In every language, the most frequent word occurs twice as often as the second most frequent word. This phenomenon is called Zipf’s law and should be another encouraging observation as you choose what words and phrases to focus on learning.

Remember, focus on only 20 percent of the dictionary.

Similarly, a phrase or sentence that, at first glance, appears to have little to no use for you will likely prove to be very useful once it’s been deconstructed and rearranged.

I remember being impatient and critical when learning in Portuguese the sentence, “Minha irmã é uma enfermeira.” (My sister is a nurse.) Because there are no nurses in my family, I inaccurately assumed that this sentence wasn’t applicable to me.

Although my sister is not, in fact, a nurse, all of these words and the sentence structure are actually very useful and relevant. I have a sister and I know many people who have sisters. And ‘enfermeira’ is among the 1000 most common words in Portuguese.

To become conversationally fluent in most languages you will need to know between 1,000 – 3,000 words. So, start with learning words that are useful and common.

Step 3: Repeat and apply what you learn immediately

Another way to accomplish learning more of your target language in a shorter amount of time is to plan and prepare in advance.

If I know that I am going to be speaking with someone in my target language, I spend time preparing and studying beforehand. This helps accomplish two things: engage in deliberate practice and have repeat exposure to new concepts and words.

For example, if you’re in France and preparing to head into Paris for the evening for dinner and a show, you might want to learn and practice a few phrases in French before you leave the hotel.

  • “Do you have any vegetarian dishes?
  • “Check, please.”
  • “I need two tickets, please.”

Practicing the phrases in a low anxiety setting (your hotel room) will give you a moment of focused attention and help you retain the information. Immediately using what you’d practiced in a real-life situation will not only help link the words to an experience, but help you solidify what you’d learned through the beginnings of spaced repetition.

This will transform your study time from simply memorizing to really learning your target language. And learning just one new phrase before meeting someone new or heading to the pharmacy will help propel you towards fluency faster.

Remember, whether you’re learning Spanish, French, or Portuguese, study smarter, not harder.

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