In this post I'll briefly describe the 80/20 rule, give some real-world examples of how it can be applied to language learning, and then give you eight simple steps to figuring out how to apply it to your own learning.
You work hard.
Question: does each individual hour you put in result in equal output in your work?
You study hard.
Question: do you feel that every hour of study improves your language ability by a proportional amount?
You know a lot of people.
Question: does each relationship enrich your life as much as every other?
There's a strong chance that you answered No to the above questions. In looking for why that might be the case, the Pareto Principle offers an explanation. Otherwise known as the 80/20 Rule, it states that input and output is rarely balanced. 80% of your results are produced by only 20% of your efforts.
In fact, the 80/20 relationship is far more pervasive than just this. When you start looking, it manifests itself throughout life. 80% of the world's wealth, for example, is thought to be controlled by 20% of the people. It's often the case that in the world of sales, 80% of revenue is generated by a dynamic 20% of salespeople.
While this is all very interesting, there is a serious point. Namely, if you know that 80% of what you do will have little impact on your results, then it makes sense to identify the other 20% that really matters, and then focus all your energy on that.
My video on the same topic:
Armed with this insight, we then have to examine the way we learn languages and ask ourselves: what is that 20% for me? Identifying that 20% can be tricky. More on that later. First, some examples.
Think of the last language course you took (self-study or face-to-face). Think of how it contributed to your language level. Now, what proportion of that course was truly valuable to you, or made a big impact on your level? Chances are you ploughed through a lot of stuff and only remembered those things which you found really useful. While it's true that all the other stuff might have had some long-term benefits, in reality, as with any long-term project, you need more tangible short-term aims in order to maintain momentum and stay motivated.
When I was in Japan, I spent a long time studying and learning but didn't seem to make progress in speaking. I determined that it was because I hadn't been putting my language into practice and as a result nothing became automated. My 80/20 in that situation was clear: any real improvement was going to come from practising speaking with native speakers – putting into practice everything I'd been learning at home. I focused all my efforts on setting up speaking opportunities with teachers and language partners. I also came up with some brutal exercises and a regular language-learning routine to put my speaking through its paces in everyday situations. My level went through the roof over the next few months.
Have a look at what I wrote about in this post, describing my early stages in learning Cantonese:
To get really good at a language you need to read and listen a lot to authentic language. But you can't do that before you know enough words to understand it all. Therefore, as a beginner, an 80/20 analysis tells you that you need to prioritise one thing: vocabulary.
It's all very well for me to say “identify those 20% of things that will make 80% of the difference”, but you'd be justified in throwing it back at me: “Fine!” you say, “but how do I identify that 20%?”
A. “I can't speak!”
B. “Why not?”
A. “I don't know enough words.”
A. “Then learn more words!”
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