The Pareto (80-20) principle in language learning

Being a perfectionist when it comes to language learning is one of the main reasons so many people never end up using a language they’ve studied. They are paralysed by the thought of making a mistake. They don’t know all the words & all the grammar, therefore they “can’t” speak yet.

It’s sad how much this bogus mentality slows people down and even prevents them from ever trying.

Today I want to share a fundamental concept behind how I can speak languages shortly after arriving in a country, and progress so quickly, as many others in efficient immersion environments do. It is based on my interpretation of the 80/20 rule, also known as the Pareto principle.

The Pareto principle

This rule is applied in so many fields and in its simplest form, basically states that you get 80% of the results from 20% of the work. (Other interpretations are possible, like 80% of the wealth of a country typically belonging to 20% of its population).

While there is some merit to using the number 80, the actual quantity doesn’t interest me as much as the fact that you get most of the end-results from a fraction of what you put into something.

And the other way around is that a certain percentage of a language is simply irrelevant to me in my day to day dealings. Why do I need to bother with it right now?

The irrelevant top percentage

A non-Pareto approach to language learning would imply that you need to know everything before you can speak. If you don’t know how to say aardvark or armadillo in French or Chinese, then your level simply isn’t good enough.

I say differently; many words like these are so uncommon and unlikely to show up, that not knowing them will make no difference at all in your life. If you compare two natives of a language, where one knows the word armadillo and the other doesn’t, then will their lives really be that different given the same circumstances?

I extend this to slightly more common words: at the moment I don’t believe I know how to say “shoelace” in any of my target languages (even if I was awarded a C2 diploma in that language), although I’d recognise that word based on seeing and hearing it previously a few times and especially based on extrapolating thanks to the context and perhaps word etymology.

So when given the option, which do you think I choose between studying the word shoelace, or to just walking up to a native and conversing and socialising, and ignoring the fact that such a silly word isn’t in my head yet and isn’t going to ultimately lead to the end of the world.

When starting off

Taking this even further you’d be surprised to see what you can do with very little vocabulary and a good sense of understanding the context of what is going on around you and non-verbal communication.

With this in mind, I speak a language pretty much immediately after I start learning it. Maybe I won’t know how to conjugate verbs in the past tense? Well then I’ll just say “yesterday I eat” while waving behind me (a gesture which I’ve found to be pretty international; if I ever get met with confused looks I’ll figure out how it’s different there). Maybe I don’t know how to say small yet; then I’ll just say “not big”.

Learning new languages in spoken contexts for as long as I have means that I’ve come up with many ways to get around not knowing a word, usually good enough to even make the other person unaware that I’m using a workaround.

You can’t know everything, so I try not to think about my limitations and try my best to figure out how to get my point across.

When I hear a reply I’ll try to understand individual words (since getting the whole phrase will be out of reach), and extrapolate thanks to the usually extremely generous context the word is sandwiched into, and get a pretty good idea what they’re talking about.

Is this a good place to be in forever and if you want to have deep meaningful conversations in a language? No. But saying that you can’t get value out of this stage and it should be avoided entirely is an extreme, unnecessary approach for people too scared to try and see what they can get out of it.

When you do it well enough, natives will not lose their patience with you. Here in the Netherlands, I was warned that nobody would ever speak Dutch to me in the early stages. It turns out it was nothing more than lazy excuses from expats that weren’t trying hard enough, or doing it in an awkward way that makes the other person feel uncomfortable, regardless of their actual language use. I have ways to make it more fun for the other person to listen to me.

As well as this, I suspect people aren’t speaking English with me because I am rolling my R so it’s harder to even guess that I may be an English speaker. (You can hear what I sound like after a week and a half of Dutch here). This is of course yet another aspect of languages independent of grammar and vocabulary.

You’re ready either NOW or you never will be

I hate it when I hear people saying they’ll wait until they are “ready” before they speak. This is a procrastination technique motivated by nothing more than fear of failure. Fail fast & fail often and you’ll succeed way more regularly. Slipping up and making some mistakes while learning a language is totally natural; avoiding doing it is avoiding using the language as it was meant to be used; for communication!

There will never be a day after years of pure study when you wake up, look at yourself in the mirror and realise that the promised day has finally arrived and you suddenly start effortlessly speaking like a native. It’s ridiculous to consider such a thing if you haven’t already been practising.

Saying you have “no words” is ludicrous. If it’s a European (or otherwise related) language you have tons before you even start, and even if it isn’t, then sit down for a few hours and learn some crucial basic vocabulary and phrases. Then you no longer have “no words”, simple as that.

Learn 20 words now and then use the hell out of them. Be imaginative. Then learn more words and you’ll see that it’s ever so slightly easier. By the time you can hold an OK conversation, a few short weeks or months into intensive use with natives, you’ll be able to survive 80% of normal situations in that language, despite putting in way less than 20% of the work most people do to get to a similar stage after years. It’s not the years you put in after all that make you successful.

Efficiency at its best

As I’ve said before, my background is in engineering, so I like to look at the most efficient way to reach my end-goals and will experiment until I see something that produces real results. I’ll produce something within a deadline, no matter what. That means speaking now.

If this doesn’t float perfectionists’ boat, then frankly I don’t care. I don’t use my languages in exam situations where each mistake is a big red X. My priority is communication, and using the little I have imaginatively is how I do it. Necessity forces you to progress, so you will reach a higher level much quicker.

Mastering a language does take time. I have reached fluency in a language in a matter of months several times, but continue to try to improve on what I have. You will never reach a day when you say you are “ready” and your work is done. Fluency is not necessarily an end-goal, it’s just a useful milestone to aim for after a few months.

But the fact that I need to tidy up a few edges of something that is definitely fluent, does not take away what I can do now with the language, and all the incredible things you can indeed do in the mean time before reaching fluency.

Successful language learners find ways to use the little they know in the maximum possible ways; this adaptation of Pareto’s principle is an absolute must for people focused on speaking well as quickly as possible. Hell, it’s important for achieving anything. If you wait until it’s perfect (the 100% stage), then you’ll be waiting forever.

Squeeze the little information currently available to you to get the best out of it!

And let me know your thoughts on this as always in the comments below ;)



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  • Zane Claes

    My fist goal with the first few weeks of a new language is to describe the hell out of everything. I aim to become comfortable with not knowing the word and also to develop the key vocabulary to fill in for the word. It is no coincidence that these key vocabulary words are also the most used in any language. With a solid base of prepositions, basic adjectives etc. I can understand anyone who is willing to take a second to explain (and describe to anyone willing to listen) within a week or two. This has the added benefit of extending the conversation, which means even more practice :)

    • Zane Claes

      Great pic, btw

    • Benny the Irish polyglot

      Well said. People don’t realise the power of a few dozen words in reaching levels of some pretty decent communication!

      • Zane Claes

        Yep :) Oh, and one more piece: I try to restate descriptions back to the speaker happily and then move on, for example:
        “What is a ‘hat’?”
        “It is something you wear on your head”
        “Oh! Like a piece of clothing for the head. Great, so why was the hat funny?”
        (or whatever we were talking about ;)

  • Kristian

    Seems about right. After just 4-5 months of very casual self-studying, I was able to have a basic conversation when I arrived in Peru in february. I mostly read up on basic phrases I thought would come up in conversations, and conversational connectors. Entering funny stuff in Google Translate also helped, even though those translations were of course so-so.

    I’m constantly feeling more and more comfortable speaking and understanding spanish. I’ve talked to taxi drivers, gone to parties, made jokes, asked for help, had dinners etc. completely in spanish. I’ve basically just had fun with the language. I still find things difficult to understand every day, but context and people being nice helps.

    I’d still make tons of grammar and vocabulary mistakes filling in a Spanish 101 textbook, but I’m able to do the above. Language isn’t linear, and I know better what I want to say than the textbooks do.

    • Benny the Irish polyglot

      Keep up the good work!

  • Sonja

    Your blog fascinates me because all my life I have envied anyone who was even bilingual. My parents are both bilingual but chose not to pass anything on to us – and so i guess i’m a bit bitter :-)
    Just like you, in my early 20’s i started dabbling in languages of cultures that interested me ( Italian, Spanish, Slovak and Maltese) , I never got far enough…I just want to be at a level where i can tell a story…its frustrating for a woman who normally likes to speak a lot, to be slowed down a limited knowledge of the language :-)
    Anyway, I’m new to your blog and I found this latest entry inspirational becuase even though I learn the basics of languages easily, I make that fundamenal mistake of being too afraid or too lazy to speak as much as I should.. now i feel like i’ll get out there and speak. tomorrow! :-)
    I live in The Netherlands (3 years now) and my ex-pat friends and I are really amused by your observations of Dutch didn’t take long at all to realise that its hard to make Dutch friends here! Out of curiousity, how many Dutch people have told you how “Dutch is a really difficult language to learn” :-) DO you get this all the time from all sorts of people in your travels?
    Success met je Nederlands Ben.

    • Benny the Irish polyglot

      Thanks Sonja! I made the observations quickly I’m sure, but I’m still working on solutions. I’ll find them definitely, but if you or your friends have any tips let me know ;) Of course, the simplest “hack” may simply be for someone who has already broken through this thick protective forcefield of a Dutch inner-circle just makes introductions for me ;) :P

      “X is a difficult language to learn” sounds like a fart in the wind to me now. The vast majority of languages I’ve learned include me hearing that phrase uttered at some stage by a native speaker. I nod politely to let them feel good about themselves.

      Here are my thoughts on hardest language:

  • Andrew

    I agree though I would’ve like you to have gone into a bit more about precise what that 20% is which gets 80% of your results, i.e. what precisely are the most efficient methods, etc.


    • Benny the Irish polyglot

      What the 20% is depends on what you’ll be talking about. Me dictating it to everyone would mean I’d just be following the same pattern as most generic courses.

  • Eri

    Where’s that GIF of that man clapping when I need it >>

    Anyway; this is so true I can’t even-
    Seriously, you always know what to say to make me feel better about my language learning. Lately I’ve been feeling I don’t know enough words, and now I’m feeling like I do, and it doesn’t matter if I truly don’t!

    But sometimes people just need a confidence booster to ensure them they’re making progress, which if you’re not spending a lot of time around natives that you can talk to and show them how good you’ve gotten, it’s not easy. But I’ve just thought of a sort of trick for building some confidence that I shall test soon: get a random list of words (or better yet, sentences) and just read it. Most people would probably be amazed with how much they know ;)
    I don’t know how well this would work if you’re learning to just speak… maybe get a show or something? I don’t know…

    Anyway, great post <3

    • Benny the Irish polyglot

      Glad to have been of help :) Hope your trick helps! It’s always good to remind ourselves how much we do indeed know!!

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Sounds like you were studying the dictionary! :P That’s probably one of the worst first words to learn in any language… although it could be an interesting ice breaker if you were clever enough with it!

    Thanks for reading ;)

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    OK, I take back what I said, that is actually quite a useful random bit of trivia :P hahaha

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Best of luck with your blog!

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    I’d also lose my languages with years of disuse.. you gotta practice regularly!! :)

  • Anonymous

    Good example of armadillo and aardvark. I don’t know a lot of animal names in other languages and I frankly could care less! I don’t think I know the word for shoelace in five of the languages I speak and that vocabulary deficit hasn’t kept me from speaking.

    • Benny the Irish polyglot

      And what if you have to tie your armadillo’s shoelaces? THEN you’ll be sorry!!! :-P

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    The guy saying it’s impossible shouldn’t interrupt the person proving it isn’t ;) Prove your relatives wrong!

  • Crno Srce

    Back in the good old days when I worked as a games programmer, the people in charge of doing the schedules would always ask how long it would take to get to 80% complete, blah, blah, blah, and programmers would give them this kind of 80-20 rule estimate. Imagine the project manager’s surprise when the last 20% turned out to take as long (in a good week!) as the first “80%” :-)

    The code could handle 80% of situations in the game, and ticked 80% of the boxes off the spec :-)

    Language learning feels like this same sort of process to me. The amount of work required to get arbitrarily close to perfection starts to become exponentially large, just like the cost to go from an internet server uptime of 99.999% to 99.9999% :-)

    Of course, if you’re a little bit too lazy or unfocused, like I can be sometimes, even getting to 80% can be quite a challenge!

  • Pak

    Her surname is actually Tautou (a funny-sounding name too, anyway).

  • Petemacleod1984

    awesome article!

    I remember a friend who refused to DJ in public until he was “good enough” when all the best DJs made loads of mistakes when they started.

  • lhae dhee

    Hello Benny,

    Im so happy i stumbled upon your article! i can relate so i am at the moment, so frustrated and wanting to speak French..have been living in switzerland for 2 yrs now and i cant even make a conversation!i can understand but so scared to speak. i have this perfectionist mentality which isnt helping at all.

    But reading your article gives me hope. You are right, it is now or never.. and your advice of doing this “workaround” with words is smart, i believe i will be using this more often for a start.


  • Armin

    Thanks for the pointers Benny. I have been checking your site for some time now for tips. I am actively learning Spanish and have progressed pretty good from knowing zero spanish to being able to hold basic conversations with native speakers. I try to use it whenever i can for practice. I can also understand native speakers talking to each other as long as they don’t speak too fast. Any other tips to speed up learning? I have a trip to Puerto Rico coming up and I really want to connect with the locals.

    I also want to learn German, French and Italian. Do you recommend I master one language first before I move on to another?

    • Kerridwen

      I would recommend getting to a ‘conversational’ level at least, before moving on to another language.

  • Laura Stijnen

    I really liked your article. This being said, I must say that at times you are really harsh in your expressing how “it is” and how everything else is wrong. I am a perfectionist, Dutch is my fourth language and I suffered from that fear that you are describing. I did not feel comfortable speaking the first 3 levels of the Dutch courses (of 6) and I rarely did. I kept hearing people saying exactly what you are saying – if you don’t try you never will. Bullshit! I reached such a level of perfection of the Dutch language that I am constantly getting compliments and astonished looks from Dutch people that sometimes cannot believe that I speak like a native. I did not speak at all before reaching level 3. And my native language has even another alphabet that the latin, so has nothing to do with the Dutch. I don’t speak Dutch at home with my husband (who is Dutch), so I have only learned Dutch in the lessons, by myself and socializing with others (then I speak Dutch). So, I really respect your way and I see why it might work for some. But the same way you say how you are sick and tired of hearing people saying that they’ll wait until they are “ready” before they speak, I am tired of hearing people saying that “you should speak, no matter how you feel, what you think and what you want”. At a certain point I started getting pimples hearing that and at the end I proved all those people wrong. So, my point is – people are different (extroverts, introverts, feelers, doers, etc) and things are never black and white. Just because you have found your way, this is not “the way”. If you don’t agree with this, then maybe we are living in a different world. I wish you all the best! Laura

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  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Certe ke vi povas! ;) Sukceson :D

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    As I’ve said in another post, your accent gives you away, so they will reply in English out of habit. I’m getting told consistently that I have an Italian accent when I speak. Roll your Rs and the problem will be solved. I guarantee you I’m not just meeting “the right people” that you’ve been missing on your Amsterdam trips.