“‘Round here we only speak two-dollar words”, someone told me last year once, after I used a word with more than two syllables in it.
There’s a LOT you can do with words of only one syllable. Like that whole sentence, except for (annoyingly) the word “syllable”. I realized this recently when returning to China (well, Taiwan), most of my vocabulary having gone down the toilet, but still feeling like I could talk.
How simple words and phrases get the point across
Most of my conversations have been like this:
- “Hey, I don’t know how to do this. Can you show me?” (me to some old guy at a fishing spot, learning how to catch shrimp)
- “What kinds of beans are these? OK, how much is a bag? What? That’s too much!” (at a coffee roaster, later realizing I was just way off on the exchange rate)
- “Where are you from? You sound like you’re from North China. That’s where I used to live, too.”
Look how simple those sentences are! In English they’re mostly words of one syllable (not a directly translatable idea, but it corresponds roughly to how complicated the words are).
It’s amazing how much you can get by with just a few words, spoken fluently. It avoids having to learn complex phraseology just to go outside. I started playing with it recently, speaking to Jo in absurdly simple sentences.
- “I just want to say it’s not good, so later when it’s good you’re happy.” (formerly: “I’m just trying to manage your expectations”)
- “This place has good food for a good price!” (“formerly: “This restaurant is such great value for money!”)
- “You want to eat hot pot or pizza?” (formerly: “would you prefer to eat something local, or something western?”)
I could go on.
Why 80-20 language learning works
You’re probably familiar with the 80-20 principle, that 80% of
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
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 optimized 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 80-20 list of words and phrases
OK, people have done similar projects before. To a degree, many phrase books have the same goal. But those are tools, ostensibly used as travel aids. We are focusing on fluency with a minimal set of words and phrases, never having to look things up.
Gabriel Wyner of Fluent Forever has a list of words and phrases that he’s grouped by theme, to make them easier to absorb. His idea is that you don’t learn words in isolation, which is absolutely true.
For any given language, the Languages 101 team have created base vocabularies. These start at 100, and go up to 2,000 (at least for Korean, my current side hustle).
The thing is, it’s important to realize that no two people have the same vocabulary needs.
Years ago, when I was learning Spanish out of textbooks and physical dictionaries (horror!), I realized I needed to learn a bunch of words to talk about the things I liked talking about at the time: cars, computers and photography. Of course no pocket dictionary could teach me how to say “memory” or “horsepower”. So I had to get magazines and pick it up by inference.
Similarly, you might look at our 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?” (This kind of person, that’s what kind.)
Another thing that’s important to bear in mind is that we have to make our own phrase lists. The act of writing things down is far more powerful than just learning them out of a list of pre-made sentences. We have to deconstruct the sentences, analyse them for the words they contain and understand how to make our own.
That’s why we’ve been putting it together.
How to use the 80-20 Vocabulary List
First, we includes some customization in the list itself. But we wanted to draw your attention to a few things that need customizing 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 customize 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
languagesthey’re the same (or with the addition of a word). Customize 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. Customize!
- 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 customize.
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
Drop your email by clicking here and we’ll send the link right over.