I met Frank, who runs Lingo Interactive, at the very start of this year’s US book tour after being in touch for a while via the blog. When he sent me this great guest post, the Spartan in me couldn’t resist running with it! It’s about picking essential words to learn at the beginning of your language adventure, so you don’t get burned out – very useful!
Over to you Frank:
First, a little history lesson…
Now, if you’re a movie, comic book, or history buff, you know how the story plays out. You know that the Spartans lured the Persians into a bottleneck, where their superior numbers meant nothing. You know that the Spartans were specialists in fighting as a unit, interlocking their shields, their spears thrusting out dangerously from their phalanx, and that no army on earth had ever yet broken them out of that formation.
For five days — think about that for a second — for five days, 300 men stood toe to toe with nearly half a million men and they were not moved. More, they won decisive and demoralizing victories. In fact, their ultimate defeat came about from a spy’s betrayal and not through any chink in their own armor.
This is the analogy I remember when I tackle a new language; that 300 well-chosen words can hold their own against all the armies of words in the world.
Those 300 words — we’re talking about the 300 most frequently-used words, by the way — represent about 65% of all the words you’ll use on a regular basis. By contrast, 2000 words represents about 90%. The difference between those two is staggering.
Imagine if I had said “steps” instead of “words,” and think of language learning as a journey. With just 300 steps you can be 65% of the way to your destination, but it would take you another 1700 steps to get just 25% closer. In terms of effort vs. reward, those 300 Spartan Words win every time.
Years ago, when I was a young man learning kung fu, I had heard the following expression (straight from Bruce Lee):
“Do not fear the man who has practiced a thousand kicks once. Fear the man who has practiced one kick a thousand times.”
That holds as true today as it did for the Spartans in 480 BC. The Persian army, while superior in number, were comprised of part-time warriors who were drafted into service, spent most of their time traversing mass distances on foot, and rarely saw any action. That’s a perfect analogy for the armada of words you’ll rarely, if ever, use. Like… chrysanthemum or amniocenteses.
The Spartans, by comparison, weren’t just chosen for their utility, but were also trained to work as a unit. Each one of them had been trained since birth for just one task — in this analogy, communication — and in the proper position (a verbal phalanx), they’re unstoppable.
Together, those 300 most common foreign words can allow you introduce yourself, order food in restaurants, check in at the airport, talk about how you feel, the weather, answer basic questions and — most importantly — give you the tools you need to learn words and phrases beyond those first 300 words.
So if you’re learning a new language and you want to make useful progress quickly, focusing on the 300 most frequently-used words is a great place to start.
But allow me to share another quote I heard a lot during my kung fu days:
“Absorb what is useful. Discard what is not.” — Bruce Lee
In your search for soldiers in your own 300 Spartan Words, make sure you grab the words that will be most common to you. Throw away the ones you know you’ll never use.
So where should you start? Luckily, just about anything you could possibly you want to know is just one quick Google search away. Search for “most frequent 1000 words” and you’ll come up with a slew of resources. You’ll also find such lists available for other languages.
Personally, I like the list provided by New General Service List. Based on the original General Service List put together in 1953, this one is a bit updated and seems to have a good handle on what’s actually useful.
Of course, you may be asking… How the heck do they know what the most frequently-used words are?! Great question!
They actually cataloged all the words used over a set period of time in books, newspapers and magazines and ranked them by order of frequency. Recently, the technology has been improved to include subtitles closed captioning tracks from movies and TV, so what we’re seeing now has the benefit of being based on human speech.
Of course, not everyone wants to do all the legwork themselves. Finding that list and culling it down and then translating it into your target language and then putting together a program to learn it can be a lot of work. Trust me. I know. I’m doing it myself. (But, hey, if you want to help me get that work done, I’d appreciate it! We’re running a campaign on Kickstarter right now. Check it out.)
In the end, there are a lot of ways to learn a language, and a lot of ways to travel that road. In the end, though, we all need to traverse these 300 most common words to get where we’re going. Might as well get them done first!
Good luck and happy learning!