This article is about one of our favourite 80-20 language-learning concepts: focusing on a limited vocabulary learning them really well.
People often wonder how many words they need to know to learn a language. You might think this if you’re using an app that counts the words that you use.
But it doesn’t take knowing thousands of words to fluency. You can get learn languages the 80-20 way and get fluent faster with just 1,000 words — or fewer.
The secret is to not just focus on words, but to build many sentences out of each word (overlapping with other words, of course). I talk about this more in my “One sentence a day language learning” article.
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Overview: 80-20 Language Learning
To learn to speak a language well with just 1,000 words, you need to learn to use those 1,000 words really well.
Knowing those words fluently means you can use them in lots of situations, and get a lot of value of them. That’s why we call it “80-20”, a common word for the Pareto principle — getting 80% of the value from 20% of the effort.
I often think back to this cartoon on XKCD, “Up Goer Five”, which describes a rocket ship using only the 1,000 most common words in English.
This is a great example of our “80-20” approach to language learning that we used for Egyptian Arabic, Swahili, and more languages to come. We think it works pretty well, so we want to share it with more people.
Think how much you can say in English using only one- or two-syllable words in daily conversation. Here are some examples. Most of our conversations in foreign countries are like this:
- “Hey, I don’t know how to do this. Can you show me?” (at a shrimp fishing restaurant in Taiwan)
- “What kinds of beans are these? OK, how much is a bag? Wow, that’s cheap!” (at a coffee roaster in Egypt, later realising I was just way off on the exchange rate)
- “Where are you from? You sound like you’re from North China. I used to live in Beijing.” (In Australia to some lonely-looking Chinese folk)
Look how simple those sentences are! They use mostly one-syllable words, which in English is a good proxy for “easy”.
It’s amazing how much you can get by with just a few simple words spoken fluently. You don’t have to learn complex phrases just to go outside.
Here are some translations from hard words to easy:
|Complex vocabulary||Small words|
|“I’m just trying to manage your expectations.”||“I just want to say it’s not good, so later when it’s good you’re happy.”|
|“This restaurant is such great value for money!”||“This place has such good food for a good price!”|
|“Would you prefer to eat something local, or something western?”||“You want to eat hot pot or pizza?” (We learn food words quickly. We have to eat!)|
Like this guide to 80-20 language learning? You might also like…
- A review of italki, our favourite place to get online language teachers
- Our huge list of language exchange conversation topics that aren’t boring
- A list of pro-tips for using Anki
How many words do you need to be “fluent” in a language?
It’s an incomplete question, because of course you can’t become fluent just by learning words. But how many words you know is definitely an indicator of how much you know.
In our experience, here’s how many words you have to know to “speak” a language at different levels:
- Knowing about 250-500 words gets you to base tourist-level fluency: able to buy food, negotiate taxi fares, ask for directions and generally be polite. This is where you focus on things like “hello”, “how much is it”, numbers, names of foods and simple modifiers like “enough” and “too”.
- Knowing about 1,000 words gets you to base fluency, where you can begin to learn more advanced words using only the language (if you try). This is where you have mastered the 80-20 vocab and phrase list, and can express more complex things like “this is taking a lot of time” or “I’m scared of walking on the road”.
- Knowing about 2,500 words gets you to “fluency”. This is where you can express more complex ideas, like “I would have booked a room if I knew it’d be booked out right now – I didn’t know it was high-season”.
- Knowing more than 2,500 words if “professional fluency”. You have to learn extra words for your specific occupation, like education, medicine, or law.
The important thing is that the definition of a “word” changes a lot between languages.
In French, a “word” implies conjugation. You can’t just know manger (to eat) but have to know all the conjugations: je mange, j’ai mangé, tu mangeras and so on.
In Chinese, learning a character means knowing where to put it in a sentence, or how to combine it into words (most words are more than one character).
In Arabic, you learn words in related groups of three letters. Every word has related words with really clear relationships.
A caveat: you still need a vocabulary of 2,500 (or more) words to understand fluently. While you can get by with fewer words, to have a rich conversation about culture and politics or even one that’s slangy and playful with friends, you’re really going to struggle with less! The 80-20 approach is for those of us who want to be understood and to understand.
Why 80-20 language learning works
Using an 80-20 approach to language learning means you can very quickly get to the point where you can communicate and understand all essential ideas without requiring a rich vocabulary and learn only using the target language without using English (or your mother tongue)
You’re probably familiar with the 80-20 principle, that 80% of the value comes from 20% of the effort. Also known as the Pareto principle, named after a guy who got away with doing most of his homework on the last day (well, this is how I applied it).
In language, it’s tempting to learn everything. But this is the road to despair. You’ll try to learn 2,000 words and… for what?
Being able to half-recall 2,000 words is about as effective as not being able to recall any of them.
Look at this list below of common verbs, extracted from the analysis of commonly spoken English words.
How many of them do you actually say, hear or read when you go travelling? I’ll give you a hint. From our analysis, about half of them (boldfaced). You can get by without knowing the rest.
to be, to beat (competition), to bend, to break, to build, to burn, to buy, to call (on phone), to call (person, name), to carry, to catch (a fish), to clean, to close, to cook, to count, to cry, to cut, to dance, to die, to discount, to do, to draw, to drink, to drive, to eat, to exercise, to explode, to fall, to feed (pet), to fight, to find, to fix, to fly, to follow, to go, to grow up, to hang, to hear (a sound), to jump, to kill, to kiss, to know, to laugh, to learn, to lie down, to lift/pick up, to like, to listen (to music), to look at, to lose, to love, to mix/stir, to not know, to open, to pass/overtake, to pay, to photograph/take a photo, to play, to pray, to pull, to push, to read, to run, to say, to see (a bird), to sell, to shake, to sign, to sing, to sit, to sleep, to smell, to smile, to speak, to stand, to stop, to study, to swim, to taste (a sample), to teach, to think, to throw, to touch, to turn, to wake up, to walk, to wash, to watch (a film), to wear (clothes), to win, to work (job), to work/function, to write
Even from this highly optimised set of verbs (I don’t know why “to kill” and “to explode” are so common… I blame the news!), you are only likely to use half.
That led us to our latest project: Develop a master 80-20 list of words and phrases, and master only these.
The reason it works is that you can describe lots of words with other words. For example, if someone says “you’re wasting time” and you don’t know the word for “wasting” when you ask “what is wasting” and they’ll probably say “it means using a lot of time… spending a lot of time”… and there you go.
This definitely requires more patience. But the 80-20 approach takes you to a base level where you can start to communicate in a target language, and start to learn using only that language.
Focusing on fewer words means you can focus on more phrases and accents.
If you travel to a village outside the city, you’ll find they speak with
- More colloquial phrasing. They might blur words together, use slang, or slangy combinations of normal words.
- Thicker accents. They might be speaking totally normally to you, but just in an accent that’s harder to follow.
- Different rhythms or tones. Similar to accents, this makes the words less intelligible.
You don’t need to learn more words to understand people speaking like this — you just need to spend more time listening.
The 80-20 list of words and phrases
Let’s start with the bad news: you’ll have to customise your own list of words. But the good news is that we offer a starter pack!
Or if you’re learning French, we have good news: We have put together a list of hundreds of essential French words complete with example sentences. Check out the full post here
Why do you have to make your own list? Because no two people have the same vocabulary needs, and you need slightly different word lists in different languages.
Otherwise, people have made vocabulary and phrasebooks before. The Fluent Forever team grouped essential words and phrases thematically to make them easier to absorb, as you don’t learn words in isolation, with no context. The Languages 101 team have created base vocabularies for any given language. These start at 100 and go up to 2,000 and more.
Look at any of these lists and you’ll definitely find words missing that you use every day, and words you don’t need.
For example, every day I say the word “website”, because it’s my day-to-day. I say it a lot! And I rarely use the word “bicycle” when I’m in the Middle East.
But nonetheless, here’s a starter 80-20 vocabulary list. Go forth and expand on it, make your own words and sentences and learn fast.
How to use the 80-20 Vocabulary List
First, we include some customisation in the list itself. But we wanted to draw your attention to a few things that you need to customise 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.
Second, 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 to improve them, or you can get them professionally translated after having a crack yourself. But do try. It’ll help you learn!
Finally, make example sentences. Once you know the basics of grammar in a language (e.g. how to conjugate, and how to switch between informal and formal style) you can use Google Translate to make your own sample sentences.
Get the 80-20 Vocabulary list
Join our email list with the form at the top of this page and we’ll send you a link to the list to copy and customise.
For instructions on how to use it, go here. You can also download it from there.
If you have any questions, just email us (reply to the emails you get for joining the list). We always love banter with language learners — you’re up to interesting stuff!