Should You Apply the Pareto Principle to Learning?

© Jens R. Woinowski,

I don’t want to beat around the bush: Yes, you should.

That leaves the really hard question unanswered. How do you apply Pareto to learning? In this post, I want to share my thoughts. I am going to use three examples:

I need some numbers as a baseline for learning effort. There is a widely acknowledged hypothesis: To become expert in any subject matter, you need to learn and apply your knowledge about 10’000 hours to become an expert in a field.

For the sake of the argument, I want to work with this hypothesis although I am a little skeptic about it. 10’000 hours is as good as any other number, and if some time in the future somebody finds a proof that 5’000 or 20’000 is the better number, you can do the math on your own.

If you say a full (learning) day has about eight hours, you get the following rough equivalents:

  • 10’000 hours
  • 6 years (at 210 learning days a year, taking out the weekends and a lot of vacation)
  • 55 months (at 22 active days a month)
  • 250 weeks (at 5 days a week)

As you will see in my three examples, the various scales have interesting effects when you apply them.

Let’s start with acquiring your native language. For me, this is not only about vocabulary size, but also about reading, writing, grammar, and a lot more. Learning the vocabulary of your job should be the last formalized step of language skill acquisition.

The fundamental data which is available is a little weak, so I ask you to accept qualitative arguments. Nevertheless, I have done some superficial research on the internet and found some numbers about vocabulary size, which I will weave into the discussion:

  • A child with native language English has a (receptive) vocabulary of about 10’000 words at age of six.
  • After college-education (23-25 years of age), the average vocabulary of an adult has approximately 17’000 words.

Now let’s have a look at language development.

  • At an age of six, a child has learnt to speak its native language fairly well. You would not call it a language expert, so the 10’000 hour rule is at least questionable. The child can neither read nor write that language. The vocabulary size of 10’000 sounds impressing, but only a small part of that is active vocabulary. The grammar knowledge is more or less unconscious and does not include understanding of the rules.
  • At an age of 12, we may assume that the child can read and write and that the grammar knowledge is more explicit.
  • At an age of 18, formal education in the native language should be finished and language can be used to discuss all school related topics. Grammar knowledge has reached a level that is fully sufficient. Basic rhetoric knowledge (how to argue your case) is available, at least in writing.
  • After college, at an age of about 24, the vocabulary size has reached 17’000 words. Rhetoric knowledge is refined; speaking to a group should work fairly well.
  • Adding another level education, a masters or even doctoral degree will be reached at the age of 30. Language acquisition should be finished, including sufficient rhetorical skills in reading, writing and talking. I am making a wild guess here, but unless you are studying medicine I would assume that most topics need a specialized vocabulary somewhere between 500 and 2’500 words. Often, there will be re-use of words that have a different meaning outside of the topic. That makes 20’000 a reasonable upper bound for average vocabulary size.
  • Beyond the age of 30, the variations between individual people will make it extremely difficult to judge further language skills. E.g., take into account rhetorical skills, meaning a true mastery. That may reach its height at the age of 30, 40, 50, later, or never.

In the graph above, you find a typical curve depicting the Pareto Principle with age as indicator for effort put into learning. If you look at the vocabulary sizes, you will find that the simple 80/20 rule does not seem to fit very well.

Nevertheless, if I look at the qualitative arguments given above, the interpretation changes. In my opinion, we can explain full native language learning very well with the Pareto Principle. (Maybe somebody with the right profession picks this up and gives the picture a scientific background check, either by pointing me into the right direction or by doing the research…)

When you learn a second language, the situation changes. As long as you stay within the same language broad family (e.g. within most European languages), you can transfer a lot of your knowledge. This makes the task a lot easier.

The hard part is to get rid of your accent and to re-program your speech patterns. (Even after nearly 40 years of learning and using English I still wonder from time to time what is a spill-over from my native German.)

On the other hand, acquiring the vocabulary is totally different and can be quicker, if done correctly. For example, some years ago, I did a boost session to learn French. Within two weeks and at about four hours a day, I learnt enough to do some small talk in French. Maybe I had an unfair advantage, because rote learning of vocabulary is quite easy for me.

Applying the Pareto Principle in broad strokes, I suggest the following approach (assuming your new language shares the alphabet with your own). Reserve two hours per day for learning. I suggest half an hour before your job time for repeating the vocabulary, half an hour during lunch break for reading, and an hour in the evening for the remaining tasks.

For learning the vocabulary:

  • Preparation (Week 1 or before): Get a list of the thousand words used most often in the language you want to learn. The internet will be your friend for this task. If you have no translation, you can use Google or any other automatic translator.
  • Weeks 1 through 3: Learn how to pronounce the words and learn them by heart. This is tough, but at a rate of about 50 words per day it is manageable. For many languages you can find internet resources to get the pronunciation. For the rote learning there are a lot of applications for Windows, MacOS, iOS, and Android. You can also use the old fashioned flash card approach.
  • Week 4: Most languages have a lot of strong (or irregular) verbs, get a list of them. Add verbs to your vocabulary which you regularly use in your native language and that are not among the thousand words list. Learn them.
  • Week 5: Repeat the vocabulary.
  • Week 6: Get a list of the thousands words used most often in your native language. Add missing words with translation to your vocabulary list. Learn them, too.

For learning the grammar:

  • Week 1: Get some pre-school children books and browse through them. For every age between 3 and 6 years one book. These books usually have a simple grammar and vocabulary.
  • Week 2: Read the children books. In order to read them, take a dictionary (online or offline) and translate literally. Add new words to your vocabulary list.
  • Week 3: Read some comics for children. This will give you a feeling for colloquial language. Again, use a dictionary and add new words to your vocabulary.
  • Week 4: Even if you do not intend to visit the country of the language in the near future, get a tourist language guide. Add the phrases from this book to your vocabulary.
  • Week 5: Get a simple grammar book for the language. For many languages you will even find free internet resources. Identify those 20% of the grammar which you find interesting. Add these grammatical constructions to your vocabulary list.
  • Week 6: Learn the grammar rules together with your vocabulary. Get a school child or young adult book and start to read it. I suggest suspense or mistery.

After these 6 weeks, start with real life immersion.There are at least two options:

  • Find an internet forum with a topic that interests you, e.g. a hobby. Read some posts and start to reply to interesting posts. Don’t forget to mention that you just recently started to learn the language.
  • Travel to a country where the language is spoken. A prolonged weekend or a week would be good. Talk to the natives.

Furthermore, if you can get conversation partners during the first six weeks, that’s even better.

This approach focuses very much on vocabulary learning. On the one hand, it is a repeatable and measurable process. On the other hand, a native will be happy to ignore or correct your grammatical errors, but you will be lost without words. The reading part is intended to mimic how a child learns his/her native language.

By the way: in order to organize your learning, I suggest you use a Kanban solution.

Continued in this post: How to Drive a Car with the Pareto Principle

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