80-20% rule in learning languages?
Dear all,

Studies say only 20% of the entire lexicon accounts for 80% of every day communications  in any given language.

In 2005 a professor named Mark Davis of Applied Linguistics at Brigham Young University did extensive research in this area. He holds a bachelor’s with double major in linguistics and Spanish language, a master’s in Spanish linguistics, and a doctorate in linguistics and Iberoromance philology. This man knows what he is talking about and, you’d better pay attention.

He published his findings in is titled Selected Proceedings of the 7th Hispanic Linguistics Symposium, here is a very small summary:

<ul style="box-sizing: inherit; margin-bottom: 1rem;"><li style="box-sizing: inherit;">1,000 words: This will have you covered for around 77% of all written and 90% of all verbal communications.</li><li style="box-sizing: inherit;">2,000 words: This many words cover 85% of all text and 93% of all speech.</li><li style="box-sizing: inherit;">3,000 words: Master this many words and you’re good for 90% of all written and 94% of all verbal stuff</li></ul>

If I am correct Spanish has about 500.000 words, and an average native speaker has a vocabulary of 20.000 words.

What do we think of applying the 80-20% rule here, do we believe in this? Does anyone has experience with this? Would love to hear your comments.

Kind regards, Wouter

p.s. the word Hablar = To talk, counts for 1 word. So all conjugations included.

May 9, 2018 7:34 PM
Comments · 5
Sure, Wouter / Walter. Actually, I believe English and Dutch would be considered variants of the same language under different political conditions, but anyhow….

The 80/20 number is just a rule of thumb — it’s not necessarily exact. The nearly million words in the English language are an accident of history (Anglo-Frisian meets French meets colonialism and the industrial revolution), and most of them are completely irrelevant to the average speaker. I’d say we should consider the working vocabulary of a “typical native speaker” rather than the entire unabridged dictionary. By the way, note that in any large enough corpus, nearly half of the words are used only one single time — amazing, isn’t it?

By the way, studies show that if you understand 90% of the words in a text, you’ll be able to figure out a lot of the rest by context. On the other hand, if we go with the 80% / 20% number, you will *not* be able to figure out the crucial 20% from context, and you’ll quit in frustration. (Since those 20% are in fact the content words, your subjective experience will be that you only understand half.)

I’d say Qutaiba is absolutely right — vocabulary is only one aspect of language. We also need to learn the most common grammar points. The basic and intermediate grammar is used 90% of the time, so you need to absolutely MASTER them before bothering with the advanced grammar. Likewise, pronunciation is used 100% of the time that you are speaking (and listening…), so make that a priority. Idiomatic expressions are just a form of vocabulary to me — it should really be the top 1000 words and expressions — not just words. Also, note that simply knowing the word “get” gets you nowhere, since most of it’s usefulness is in the form of idiomatic expressions.
May 9, 2018
Yes, absolutely. In fact, the first 100 most frequent words are used 50% of the time (in English: the, a, he, it, get, etc.). There’s just one caveat — although 3000 words will cover 90% of the words you encounter in writing, it’s the 10% you don’t know that contain all the important content. 

May 9, 2018
I dont any know of any studies on it, but I have heard from more than one linguistics professor at Harvard that an average college student, around age 20, knows about 60,000 words in his native language. I’ve also heard that English has about 1,000,000 words in it. This is probably true of most languages. But, a better question is what counts as a „word“? Is it every proposition, noun, verb? How do idioms play into the puzzle people use everyday? And what about words that come in and out of a language during various generations? Some words are old fashioned in German, for instance, and known better to older people than younger ones. Do those words count in that 60,000? Just as an example, German has several words and verbs that have more or less the same meanings, but depending on the situation, one verb and/or noun is better used for that situation. But, it’s more complex than that. They’re certain verb pairings with certain nouns that have to go together, then there’s the correct preposition to use with the combination. All I can say is the broader the vocabulary the better. But, intense knowledge of the nuances of the words and verb meanings is all the more important. 
May 9, 2018
English has more words, If I am not mistaken allmost 1.000.000, but the same rule applies for all languages. @Phil, would you be able to comment on that?
May 9, 2018
Thanks, great article. But how would an English learner use the 20\80 method? is it the most important 20% words, with the most important 20% grammar rules, with the most important 20% expression and with the most important 20% idioms?
May 9, 2018
Language Skills
Dutch, English, French, German, Portuguese, Spanish
Learning Language