What Is the Pareto Principle and How Can You Use It to Learn English More Effectively?

Published on
January 13, 2023
Updated on
January 12, 2023
min read
This article may contain affiliate links
Written by
Emile Dodds

Some people say that 20% of your effort produces 80% of your results. Is this true for language learning? If it is, how can you use this knowledge to learn more effectively?

What Is the Pareto Principle and How Can You Use It to Learn English More Effectively?
Table of contents

What Is the Pareto Principle?

The Pareto Principle states that 20% of our effort produces 80% of the results that we want.

It’s an interesting thought. It implies that we are being productive only 20% of the time and we are wasting effort 80% of the time.

Furthermore, it implies that we could focus on that 20% for maximum effectiveness.

Is the Pareto Principle scientific? Well, yes and no. It’s based on observation, and many things in life are distributed unevenly although not at a ratio of 80:20. For example, 1% of the population commits 63% of violent crime.

In language learning, it certainly feels to be true that a lot of our effort is wasted. We learn words that we forget or never use. We learn grammar rules, but still make mistakes.

So, let’s explore together how we can apply the Pareto Principle to language learning and how it can help us.

The Pareto Principle and Your Study Routine

Do you sometimes feel that your study time is wasted?

Time is precious and you want to make sure that you can maximise your study time. To do this, you need to select your study activities very carefully.

As an example, spending time reading or listening to texts that are too easy is a waste of time. Similarly, spending time looking for things to read or listen to is a waste of time. (Instead, use our guides - we have spent thousands of hours writing (free) practice guides for all the skills you need that are ready to go!)

As you go through this article, think about which activities will help you to be more efficient in your study. For instance, is it better to spend two hours just watching an English movie, or 20 minutes shadowing a podcast?

Before we continue, let me add something that I learned from a book called The One Minute Manager. One single minute of planning can save hours of frustration. Always think carefully about what you want to study and why - don’t just pick up an English newspaper and start reading or turn on an English show on TV.

The Pareto Principle and Vocabulary

The most obvious area to apply the principle is to vocabulary.

How many words are there in English? Actually, this is not a simple question to answer.

According to one study, there are over a million words in English. However, this includes “lexical dark matter” - words that most people don’t know and never use. These could be archaic words from hundreds of years ago. They could be jargon, such as emphysematous pyelonephritis - only a specialist doctor would know the meaning (“an acute severe necrotizing infection of the renal parenchyma and its surrounding tissues” - see, told you you didn’t need it!).

The full Oxford Dictionary lists about 600,000 words, but claims that only around 170,000 are in common use. (Notice that we have gone from 1,000,000 words to 170,000. Is this the Pareto Principle in action?)

170,000 words is still too much for a language learner to handle. While a native speaker may recognise most of the 170,000, they would have a working vocabulary of 20,000-35,000 words. (The Pareto Principle again?)

This still sounds unachievable!

If we take the example of English Learning for Curious Minds, when we last checked there were 10,468 unique words and phrases that we have provided custom definitions for. These are typically B1 and above words and phrases.

But how about this: 80% of all English conversation is made up of only 3,000 words, and according to some sources 50% of all conversation is made up of only 100 words.

Now, we can set targets! We need 3,000 words to engage in meaningful conversation and 20,000 words to reach native speaker level.

Of course, everyone has different needs. If you need to study in an English-speaking university, for example, you’re going to need a larger vocabulary, and you’ll need to learn academic words.

If you’re learning English just for fun, perhaps you can set a lower target. If you enjoy reading novels, you’ll need a slightly higher target if you want to understand more of what you read.

The context matters, but you can be sure that 100 words is not enough and 600,000 words is impossible! 

Would you like to learn a way to measure your size of vocabulary? For that, you can use this tool. How did you do? The tool gave my vocabulary size as 30,218 (I’m an English teacher and I read a lot).

A note on lemmas

Generally when we measure vocabulary knowledge, we look at base words. For example, the base word (lemma) of breaking, breaks, broke and broken is break. All of these forms are counted as one word, not five!

What does this mean for your vocabulary study?

If you know 3,000 words, can you stop learning vocabulary? No! It doesn’t work that way! You will always improve your English by learning new words.

Let’s say that you know exactly the 3,000 most common words in English. That means you will need to rely on context for the remaining 20% of words that you don’t know. While this shows the importance of context, it won’t be easy.

However, we can be selective when learning new vocabulary!

I have to say that a lot of English textbooks teach some very strange vocabulary. Often, they have a chapter on groups of animals. For example, a group of crows is called a murder of crows. This may be a fun fact, but it is totally useless for improving your English. It’s not an everyday phrase… or even an ‘every year’ phrase! When was the last time you had to tell someone about a “group of crows”? Never, I imagine, is the answer.

I often see Instagram posts that teach specialised vocabulary, such as “parts of a sink”. Please don’t waste your time and brainpower with such things!

Then, there are idioms. Yes, these are a lot of fun to learn and use. But there are tens of thousands of them and many are quite rare!

It is much better to guess the meaning of an idiom from the context than to try to learn each one.

A better use of your time is to get a deeper understanding of each common word that you learn. What is the plural form? What is the past participle? Is the meaning that you just learned the most common meaning? Which words does it match with?

You should keep some kind of vocabulary notebook where you write down new words and phrases. I recommend that you highlight the vocabulary items that you hear or read more than once, and then focus on those.

The Pareto Principle and Grammar

It is much harder to identify statistics for the way we use grammar. However, as an English teacher, I can tell you that some grammar topics are certainly more important to know than others.

Remember when your teacher made you do pages of exercises on when to use WHO and when to use WHOM? 

Here’s a secret: people hardly use ‘whom’ anymore, and “who” is far more common.

Here is a list of topics that you can find in many English language textbooks, but which are not actually that useful in real life:

  • The past perfect continuous tense (she had eaten a sandwich)
  • The third conditional (if she had seen him, she would have told him)
  • Sentences with neither and nor
  • Whether or not to use a comma
  • Sentences that begin with “if I were…”
  • Changing active sentences to passive sentences in any tense imaginable
  • Changing all kinds of sentences from direct speech to indirect speech (She told me, “I ate the chicken”./She told me that she had eaten the chicken.)

Now, I’m not saying that these are not valid grammar topics. What I’m saying is that your time is better spent perfecting everyday grammar.

There are twelve verb tenses, depending on how you count them. But only a handful of these are really important.

I think it’s most important to understand a few core concepts in English grammar:

  • The concept of time as expressed through verbs (ate/eats/is eating/will eat/will be eating)
  • The concept of singular and plural forms (cat/cats)
  • The concept of general and specific forms (The student is here./A student is here./Students are here/The students are here)
  • The concept of matching sentence parts (e.g. ‘nobody know’ or ‘nobody knows’?)

Only when you feel you have mastered these basics, should you venture out into topics such as the third conditional!

The Pareto Principle and Conversation

Are 20% of conversation functions used 80% of the time? It’s an interesting question, but, unfortunately, I don’t have the answer.

However, my educated guess would be that, yes, it’s true.

Think about the conversations you have at home, work or with your friends. How often do you do the following?

  • Asking for information
  • Giving information
  • Asking for clarification
  • Giving clarification
  • Elaborating
  • Asking an opinion
  • Giving an opinion
  • Agreeing with someone
  • Disagreeing with someone
  • Telling a story

Doesn’t it feel that these simple language functions cover a large part of our conversations? If we look at it this way, suddenly speaking in English doesn’t seem so scary!

However, if you look through an English textbook, the speaking practice is not presented this way. I remember spending weeks in my French class learning how to ask questions about hotel rooms. Yet in real life, I never had to do this, and I’ve visited France several times!

Instead of worrying about hotel rooms and post offices, learn how to ask for information in general. Instead of “discussing pets”, learn how to give your opinion in many different scenarios.

In fact, if you can master about five to ten phrases for each of the functions above, you can be a great conversationalist. That’s really all it takes!

The Pareto Principle and Listening

Let’s assume that the Pareto Principle is true. At intermediate level, you should know over 3,000 words (around 2,000 at B1 level and 4,000 at B2).

This means that when you listen, you know 80% of what you hear. However, it’s going to be much more difficult to gain the vocabulary to understand the other 20%.

It also means that if you understand 90% or 100%, you’ve chosen something that is too easy for you.

With this knowledge, we can put together a listening strategy. We should try to improve our level of vocabulary, but it is much more important to learn to understand new words from context.

As I mentioned, if you’re not encountering new words, choose something more advanced.

When you read, you can look up new words, but when you listen, you need different skills. For example:

  • To focus on the main ideas, and only then on the details
  • To “fill in” information that you didn’t catch
  • To not get “stuck” when you hear a word that you don’t know
  • To ignore words that you don’t know, but which are probably not important (e.g., adjectives and adverbs) 
  • To ask for clarification

The Pareto Principle and the “Slowing Down” Effect

As you get more advanced in your English, you will find that you improve at a slower pace. Your improvement “slows down”.

Many English learners become frustrated when this happens, and they feel it is somehow their fault. In fact, it’s natural and it’s another example of the Pareto Principle.

Think of it this way. Juan is a complete beginner and he only knows one word in English. If he learns one new word, he has made a 100% improvement! Meanwhile, Julio is B2 level and he knows 4,000 words. If he learns a new word, he has made only a tiny improvement.

Sure, it might not be realistic for someone to only know “one word”, but you see my point?

It ties in with the Pareto Principle if we assume 80% of what we know is learned through the first 20% or our language journey.

So don’t beat yourself up if you feel you are making slow progress. That’s life!

Why Not Stop at 3,000 Words?

Let me return to something I mentioned earlier. If you know 3,000 words, why not just stop learning vocabulary? After all, you know 80% of the words in daily conversation. And learning  the other 20% is going to take much more effort!

The answer is that you want to be expressive.

Having a good vocabulary is a great joy. You’ll be able to choose exactly the correct word to say exactly what you want to say… with style. You will start to feel like you do in your native language…only in English.

You’ll be better able to persuade and influence people. 

You won’t get stuck in a conversation.

You’ll be able to write great stories, and funny posts on social media.

If a vocabulary of 3,000 words is average for English learners, you will become above average, then far above average! And this is a great goal.

It’s All about Learning Effectively

Let’s review the main points that we have covered:

  • It’s possible to waste a lot of effort in language learning.
  • Therefore, be selective in the vocabulary and grammar that you learn.
  • Conversation is easier if we think of it in terms of language functions.
  • As you reach upper-intermediate level, change your focus when practising listening.
  • You will improve more slowly as you get more advanced - don’t lose sleep over it!
  • 20% of vocabulary covers 80% of everyday conversation, but you need to further improve your vocabulary to express yourself at a higher level.

Good luck with your English studies!

You might also like

24 Unorthodox Ways To Stick To Your English Learning Goals in 2024
mins to read
Learning English is hard, and one of the hardest things about it is staying motivated. Here are 24 ways that you can stay motivated and hit your goals in 2024.
Any Language You Want by Fabio Cerpelloni
mins to read
Fabio Cerpelloni, a former learner of English from Italy who became a highly qualified English teacher, answers this question eighteen times in “Any Language You Want”, an inspiring book he wrote for you.
10 Ways to Learn English with the BBC
mins to read
The BBC - the British Broadcasting Corporation - has been producing videos, radio programmes, articles and even English practice materials for over 100 years. Let us guide you through our choices of the very best content for English learners.