When I entered my second year of hardcore Mandarin study my teacher introduced me to several lessons that involved such riveting topics as: pottery, famous puppeteers, and the cultural history of Chinese vases.
As much as I appreciate art and have the utmost respect for puppeteers, potters and epic Chinese vases that require countless hours and talent beyond my imagination – I wasn’t interested. The thing is, I almost tricked myself.
I almost tricked myself into thinking I needed to know those words. In an mad dash to absorb and learn every single word that I came into contact with, I effectively managed to squabble away all my mental resources.
K.I.S.S = Keep It Simple Stupid
When you are focusing on learning everything, you aren’t focusing on the most important things enough.
I want to introduce you to a simple concept, one that if followed, will dramatically increase your language learning.
In 1896, Italian economist, Vilfredo Pareto, discovered a unique constant in economic calculations. Later known as the 80/20 principle or Pareto’s Principle, it stated that 80% of results come from 20 % of the causes.
Person A: Has absolutely perfected those 500 most common words. He has absolutely flawless pronunciation, great intonation and no hesitation when he speaks. However, he doesn’t know many words beyond that.
Person B: Has memorized and “knows” 2500 words. He has terrible pronunciation, terrible intonation and speaks unconfidently and much too slowly.
Who do you think can communicate more effectively? Naturally, Person A.
The problem is most people don’t strive to be person A, we have all been taught to be person B. We want to learn as many words as possible. We think we can take on vocabulary lists of 1500 words without forgetting them. Then when you try to use one of your memorized words your pronunciation falls flat and no one can understand you. You are spreading your mental resources too thin.
What I am suggesting instead, if fluency and communication is your goal, is to absolutely totally overwhelmingly dominate those 500-most commonly spoken words. If you do, you will speak perfectly 80% of the time and that solidly beats knowing lots words you can’t pronounce or use correctly.
This is the method that I undertook and it seriously helped me out. I practiced the 500 most commonly spoken Chinese words day-in and day-out. I made sure I said each word perfectly, focusing on the intonation with extreme concentration. I did this for a few months and the results were great. Those five-hundred most commonly spoken words or my 80%, formed the foundation for my pronunciation and ability to communicate.
Don’t Focus on Volume over Quality
I see new learners do this all the time. Drop the vocabulary list of 1500 words and go back to the basics. That 20% effort required to master the most commonly used vocabulary will bring you an 80% increase in fluency. Once you master that 20% – great – now move onto more words; but focus on volume over quality initially.
This concept applies to a lot of themes in life and personal development, but in language acquisition, it’s an absolutely crucial concept to absorb.
I can’t stress this point enough. Keeping it simple at the beginning may be boring, but it will provide you with a great foundation. Great foundations include that 80%.
How to Build Your 80%
I’ll throw out a couple of easy steps that really work to absolutely crush that 80%. The below steps should be done for chunks of words 50-100 at a time. The smaller the better.
Identify the 50 words that are most commonly used.
Learn how to write these (by hand or by using Pinyin)
Use Mnemonics devices.
Use a web dictionary like nciku.com to understand all the related usage and “verb phrases” that each can be a part of.
Practice the pronunciation until there is no hesitation about what tone it is.
Repeat and repeat.
These words need to be perfect, especially their pronunciation. Remember, I’m not telling you to avoid learning vocabulary; instead I’m urging you to take a month or two and become incredibly fluent in those 80% of words.
This is the foundation for one of the most fundamental approaches to teaching phonics. Sight words is a common term that generally refers to a set of words that keep reappearing on almost any text or page. Kindergarten teachers teach sight words as a cornerstone of any good phonics program. This is done for two reasons:
Increase overall fluency, speed and reaction time.
Save precious cognitive resources for words that are less familiar and require cognitive decoding.
Because they are used so often it is important that readers be able to recognize these words on sight (hence the term “sight words”). When a reader masters sight words she is able to understand at least half of the words in a particular text. By eliminating the need to decode these words, the reader is able to focus on those that are more difficult and less familiar. Beyond this, sight words offer important clues about the meaning of a sentence. For example, when a reader is able to identify and understand the word and in a sentence, he knows that there will be multiple figures, actions or descriptors in the sentence. Similarly, if the reader sees the word into in the sentence, she knows there is movement from one location or idea to another.
Build Your Fluency Foundation
Stop rushing into hundreds of words. I know, you’re excited and want to learn everything. I had the same feeling, but instead stop for one month and absolutely nail those most basic words. I can promise you that by keeping it simple, you will be fluent and stay fluent.
Remember what we learned today:
Sight words save you from mentally decoding common words’ meaning and pronunciation.
Several hundred words make up the most commonly spoken words.
Use the 80/20 rule to focus on that 80% of vocabulary.
I hope this post was helpful. Drop a comment below and tell me what you think.