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This is our 80-20 vocabulary list we use to get started in any language. We make updates to this as we learn languages too, so sign up for updates (see the bottom).
First, here’s the download link. But check out the five steps in the instrucitons below, too, to make the most of it.
Make a copy in Google Sheets (or download it, to use in Excel)
Step one is to make your own copy. It’s no use to you as just a list of words in English. If you’re new to Google Sheets, you can do this from the File menu. If you’d rather move things to Excel, of course that’s your choice.
Customise the list for your language (and you)
We want to draw your attention to a few things that need customising for every language. We do this ourselves, but have tried to keep this list fairly generic for your purposes.
- Pronouns: Words like “I”, “This” and “We” change in every language. They also change depending on how they’re used (direct object, subject, indirect object etc.). In some languages, there are words used that don’t exist in other ones (like the plural of “you” in most languages other than English). You need to customise this section according to each language.
- Numbers: In many languages, you need to count up to millions to be able to deal with currencies. In some languages, ordinal numbers are different (e.g. first, second vs. one, two), but in some languages they’re the same (or with the addition of a word). Customise this section accordingly.
- Currencies: People talk about money in many different ways. Euros have cents that are frequently used, whereas in Taiwan the dollars never break into cents (in everyday use). People might commonly say “bucks” or something equivalent. Customise!
- Phrases & formality: Some languages have tiered formality systems, like Korean, French and Farsi, while some do but it’s only used regionally, like Spanish, where fewer and fewer people are referred to as “usted”. There may be a local “hi” and there may not be. Learn to customise.
Make your own translations with a teacher
The reason this is not filled out (except for examples) is you should do many of the translations yourself. It won’t be hard for things like nouns. It will be harder for sample sentences. You can either try, and then work with a tutor from italki (that’s a link to our complete review & guide) to improve them, or you can get them professionally translated after having a crack yourself. But do try. It’ll help you learn!
Some good sources for translations free on the internet are:
- 101 Languages lists, e.g. Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Spanish. These have good example sentences in them.
- Work with a tutor from italki
- Or just use Google Translate, but be wary of mistranslations… double check with other dictionaries!
Use the list to learn with flashcards
The best way to use your list with flashcards is to import it into an Anki deck when it’s done. Here’s a quick start to learning Anki for language learning.
You only need two columns: your base language (probably English) and your target language. If you have a column with tags (like “Food” or “Pronouns”), you can import that into tags. (Don’t import them into separate decks, per Anki’s own advice.)
My favourite, much simpler way of making a Google Sheet into flashcards is to make the rows really wide, so there’s only one per page. Go down, and it’s the next ‘card’. Super easy.
Keep in touch for updates!
We make periodic updates, plus send out travel notes/language learning tips.
If you’d like to stay in touch, sign up below.