Originally posted: Oct 2018. Updated: Feb 2019
It doesn’t take knowing 10,000 words or more to get 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 learn to use those 1,000 words really well.
Think how much you can say in English using only one- or two-syllable words.
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 saying “they’re really easy words”.
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.
Try translating hard sentences to easy ones like these
- Hard sentence: “I’m just trying to manage your expectations.”
- Easy sentence: “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!)
We could go on.
How many words do you need to be “fluent” in a language?
This is a question that comes up various times on Quora. It also comes up often in the forms of “how many characters do I need to know in Chinese/Kanji”.
It’s somewhat misleading, because of course you can’t become fluent just by learning words. But how many words you know is definitely an indicator.
In my experience
- 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”.
The important thing is that the definition of a “word” changes a lot between languages. In French, it implies conjugation. You can’t just know manger (to eat) but have to know all the conjucations: 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).
This is our experience from our language logs in other languages, including French, Arabic (Egyptian) and Chinese (Mandarin).
Note, you can say that last sentence in a simpler way: “I would have gotten a room but I didn’t know it was so busy now”. Using simple words to get fluent faster is the focus of 80-20 language learning. Thus, you don’t really need the 2,500 words if you need to communicate; the same concept could be expressed with the 1,000 word approach.
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 value comes from 20% of the effort. Also know as the Pareto principle, named after a guy who got away with doing most of his homework on the last day (I presume, because 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 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 how “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 and speak with people less educated than the norm, 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 make your own list of words. But the good news is that we offer a starter pack!
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 phrase books before. The Fluent Forever team grouped essential words and phrases by theme 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 never use the word “bicycle” because it’s not part of my life right now.
Similarly, you might look at our 80-20 list, and think “wait a second… I don’t need to learn the word for exercise. What kind of person needs to say “exercise” while travelling?” (Me! Sorry.)
The second part of bad news is you have to make your own phrase list. We could definitely provide them for you in a bunch of languages. But the act of making your own sentences is more powerful than just learning pre-made ones.
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 includes some customisation in the list itself. But we wanted 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.
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!
Where to get the 80-20 Vocabulary list
You can download the 80-20 vocabulary list here, alongside with instructions on how to use it.
But also, sign up to our email list for updates, because we make them regularly (we’re using it right now for our fourth language, and constantly reviewing how to use it).
You’ll also get tips on and stories about exploring the world with purpose: connecting with people different to us through immersive learning.