The Pareto Principle in Language Learning

The Pareto Principle in Language Learning – The 80:20 Rule

Learning a language, at times, will be inefficient. Learning anything involves its ups and downs, some things we try and learn simply do not go in! We can’t learn everything perfectly after all! We’ll often encounter the kinds of learning that just frustrate us, whether it’s going through grammar tables, memorisation techniques or reading comprehension. Often, we realise that our input doesn’t equal our output – that we aren’t getting a fair return on our efforts. On the flip side to all of this, sometimes we really hit upon a technique or style of learning that drives us forward in leaps and bounds. This can be one of the most satisfying things about learning a language, as you’ll really feel your improvement accelerate. The imbalance in your input into learning and the output is called The Pareto Principle. Here is how you can apply the Pareto Principle in Language Learning.

What is the Pareto Principle?

The Pareto Principle helps illustrate that the majority of results come from the minority of input. These are some examples:

20% of workers form 80% of results: Reward these employees for greater productivity.

20% of Mosquitos contribute 80% of Malaria: Exterminate these first.

20% of customers contribute 80% of profit: Focus on satisfying these customers.

The Pareto Principle in language learning means that 20% of the things you learn contribute 80% of your total improvement. In other words, much of the things you learn aren’t nearly as relevant as a select few, which are the things that really drive your learning. Like in these examples, if you focus on these, your overall output will increase.

The mostly irrelevant 80%

Ultimately, it depends entirely on you and your learning style. If you took the opposite stance to the Pareto principle then you’d want to learn everything before you begin to speak and use a language. Meticulously learning vocab will go to waste if you’re not writing and speaking it, and grammar won’t be remembered if you aren’t frequently employing it. By learning too much before you begin to use the information, you’re often wasting time. If you learnt 100% of the dictionary, the amount you’d retain would be miniscule! It’d be tremendously inefficient.

The Pareto Principle in Language Learning

Apply the Pareto Principle in language learning from day 1

A big reason as to why we like to learn as much as possible before using a language practically is nervousness. We’d prefer to get really good at something before externalising it and using it in the real world. Overall, though, this approach will slow down your learning. It’s better to quickly establish that certain ways you learn have a greater effect on your learning than others and apply this from day 1. A great way to do this is to just start speaking a language you’re learning almost immediately if you can. Even if your grasp on its vocab is poor, you can deduce ways of talking to others on the go. Don’t worry about your limitations.

You’re as ready now as you’ll ever be, you can’t just keep learning and learning in your own time without trying to use the things you’re learning in a real world situation. Stop telling yourself you’ll be ready after you learn this, or learn that, and instead, just start speaking with what you have.

Increase efficiency, learn better

The Pareto Principle in language learning revolves around finding your efficient groove. You want to strike a balance between learning and using a language. If you can concentrate on the things that really help you learn and cut the stuff which doesn’t help you at all then you’re sure to see big improvements. The more efficient you learn, the more satisfying it’ll be.

Find your 20%

The Pareto Principle in Language Learning

Create a list of most frequent words

You need to lay down some groundwork so find some frequently used vocab and learn them to the best of your ability to begin with. Worrying about advanced words or too many words isn’t important when you begin to learn a language.

Make your goals short term

Don’t set goals that’ll take ages and ages to complete. If you set shorter term goals then you’re more likely to realise which ones take longer to complete. See if the info you’re missing out on is pivotal to your learning and if it isn’t, stop and dedicate that time to types of learning you excel at.

Educate yourself

Get involved with the vast amount of information available on language learning. The more you’re familiar with, the wider your knowledge of the whole topic will get, increasing your overall general comprehension.

Look at past experiences

Think back to things you’ve been good at in the past and how you learnt them. Was there anything about your favourite subject and the teacher that taught it which you can replicate?

Optimise your study habits

Have a look at the main 3 areas of reading, writing and speaking. Is there one which you find tricky and do you spend more time on it than on others? That seems like the right thing to do but in reality, spending more time on something that yields less results can be inefficient. Concentrate on things you find easier and eventually, the harder things will come more naturally too.

The Pareto Principle in Language Learning

Face your fears

No pain, no gain! Face the things you’re most nervous about. In the vast majority of cases, this is speaking. Speak and don’t be afraid to speak up! There’s nothing really to lose! Most native speakers appreciate any efforts of others speaking their language.

Be honest with yourself

Don’t kid yourself down the wrong route of learning. Convincing yourself you do enough, or too little, is damaging. Keep a realistic perspective of how much work you do, so you can sense how the output coincides with your inputs.

Think practically

Think about the things you want to be able to do, the actions that you want to feel confident about in the language you want to learn. Instead of thinking about theory too often, concentrate on the real-life impact of your learning.


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Also published on Medium.

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