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The Pareto (80-20) principle in language learning

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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!

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Benny Lewis

Founder, Fluent in 3 Months

Fun-loving Irish guy, full-time globe trotter and international bestselling author. Benny believes the best approach to language learning is to speak from day one.

Speaks: Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Esperanto, Mandarin Chinese, American Sign Language, Dutch, Irish

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