8 ways to apply the 80/20 rule to language learning

80 20

Source: “80:20” by Thomas M – Under Creative Commons license

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.

Input vs Output

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.

The lesson?

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.

The 80/20 rule applied to language learning

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.

Case 1

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.

Case 2

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.

Case 3

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.

How to find your 20%

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%?”

Eight ways to do your 80/20 analysis

  1. Word frequency list. If you're a beginner, you could start with a word frequency list in the language you're learning. The 100/200 most common words in the language would be a great place to start. Having said that, you could argue that you'd learn those words pretty quickly however you went about studying, so take it or leave it! However, it is the obvious point to make in relation to an 80/20 strategy.
  2. Set short-term goals. Most of the sales department's revenue was generated by 20% of the salesmen. How is that measured? By income. Would they have an income target for the month? You bet. What's your language learning target for the next month? Don't have one? Big problem. You can't measure what will bring you results if you don't have clearly defined goals. Get your short-term goals down on paper, and only then you can determine what steps will bring you 80% closer to reaching those goals. See this post if you need help with this.
  3. Educate yourself. In order to make smart, strategic decisions you need to know what you're talking about. So read up on language learning. Blogs such as this one, this one and this one are a great place to start as passionate language learners talk about their experiences.
  4. Past experience. Think back to previous language-related experiences, whether in another country or at school. Can you put your finger on anything in particular that really helped you? Can you replicate that now?
  5. Study habits. Look at your study habits. What balance of time do you spend on speaking, writing, reading and listening? If you're really down on one skill, it may be that focusing on that skill for a while really gives you a kick where you need it.
  6. Feared things. Is there something that really puts you off, or that you're afraid of? (e.g. learning Chinese characters, reading your grammar book.) It's often the case in life that tackling your feared things bring your the greatest results.
  7. Be honest with yourself. I've caught myself, at times, telling people that I study everyday, but then realising it's been a few days since I hit the books. Be honest with yourself – if you're not attending to the basics (like doing some study everyday) then that's exactly what will bring you your 80%.
  8. Common sense. Not a popular one, but it's sometimes what we need. Be practical – examine the obvious. What's frustrating you right now? What would you really like to be able to do? Now, drill down and do some straightforward thinking about what you could do that would help you get there. Often the answer is staring you in the face. See Case 2 above, for example. Don't over-complicate things. Think along the lines of the following:

A. “I can't speak!”

B. “Why not?”

A. “I don't know enough words.”

A. “Then learn more words!”

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