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80/20 Rule – You Have To Be Selective About What You Learn!

Pareto Principle - 80/20 Rule

Have you ever heard of the 80/20 rule, also known as the Pareto Principle or law of the vital few?

If you have – most likely you’ve heard it mentioned in connection with mathematics (Pareto distribution) or economics, but it’s also very relevant for us – foreign English speakers, so just bear with me for a moment and I’ll reveal all you need to know about the rule of 80% or results coming from only 20% of input!

Before we touch on the subject of spoken English, let me bring up a few practical examples of how the 80/20 distribution works.

Back in the early 20th century an Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto observed that 80% of the land in the country was owned only by 20% of its population. His findings lead to similar observations across other sectors of economy – 20% of crops yielding 80% of harvest, 80% of sales coming from only 20% of company’s customers and notably, Microsoft Corporation observed that if they fixed 20% of the bugs in their software, the error and malfunction levels dropped by a massive 80%.

So what does it all tell you? That one should stick with the previous Windows version for a good while after a new version is released to give them time to fix software bugs? Well… Probably not a bad idea 😀

What I want you to realize, however, is a much broader connection between actions and consequences in everything that happens in every aspect of our lives.

Basically it boils down to this:

Not all of our efforts are equally relevant; the majority of results in any human activity come from the minority of action contributed into achieving those results ❗

And how does the English learning and improvement come into play here? Well, my friends foreign English speakers, it’s quite simple – to see a significant improvement to your spoken, written and listening English skills, you don’t have to spend your lifetime and learn tens of thousands of words large English vocabulary, hammer the most intricate English grammar rules into your head and marry a native English speaker to have 24/7/365 immersion into the English language!

You can achieve tremendous success by just by acquiring the necessary minimum and leaving the rest of the knowledge to soak in naturally. In other words – you HAVE TO BE SELECTIVE when it comes to learning and improving English and make real effort to memorize only the relevant information!

Did you know that the first 100 most commonly used English words make up about a half of all written English material? And that 2000 General Service List Words account for 95% of all vocabulary used in daily English conversations?

Yes, that’s a fact, and it’s possible to be a fluent speaker with limited English vocabulary as well as read English fiction knowing only about 70 – 80% of its vocabulary. Over time, as you spend more and more time in an English speaking environment or whatever it is that you do to maintain your English improvement, the gaps will fill in naturally.

Memorize The Essential 20% – But Don’t
Discard The Rest!

Now you might be thinking – “Hold on, hold on Robby, are you saying that from now on I have to start carefully analyzing what I should learn, and what I should ignore? That’s nonsense; if I analyze too much, I’ll end up developing a permanent anxiety preventing me from ever achieving English fluency!”

Well, it’s not quite what I meant.

I suggest you to be selective when it comes to CONSCIOUS EFFORT – memorizing using spaced repetition when you build your vocabulary or learning grammar rules so that you can apply them when speaking English.

I’m not saying at all that you should discard some elements of the English language as useless. THAT WOULD BE WRONG! Why?

Because every single English vocabulary word is there for a reason, and it won’t do you any harm to constantly build your vocabulary. Also, if you speak correctly and know practical application of hundreds of English grammar rules – fair enough, I’d only envy you!

Within the context of this blog post, and actually the whole English Harmony project, however, I’m focusing on how to become most efficient in terms of time contributed into the English learning and improvement process for the fastest results leading you to English fluency.


Your English fluency is largely determined by your active vocabulary which is built by memorization for the most part, so why should you give equal focus to all new English words if some of them are very, very rarely used in daily spoken English, if at all?

The key aspect here is the following – if a certain word, phrase, expression or grammar aspect is relevant, you should memorize it (which involves writing it down for later repetition), if it’s not – just leave it. If you hear it again (read – if it’s relevant) after a while, and then again – there’s a big chance that this word or phrase will remain in your passive vocabulary and after some time you can add it onto your active one by making effort to repeat it until it becomes your second nature to use it in conversations.

But how to determine which aspects of the English language are worth memorizing and which should be just allowed to soak in by themselves over time?

Well, I have a few tips up my sleeve, and now I’m going to share them with you!

Practical Application of the 80/20 Rule to Your
Spoken English Improvement

Tip #1 – When you’re about to learn a particular English grammar construct, ask yourself the following question – “Have I heard native English speakers speak like that?”

To be conversationally fluent, you just need about 20% of English grammar rules (according to the 80/20 principle); the rest are not so important that you should make conscious effort and hammer them into your brain. Your time can be used more efficiently learning new English phrases and practicing spoken English which is going to have a much bigger impact on your English fluency than sophisticated grammar rules. And after all – after some time you’ll have acquired a big part of them anyway by just being exposed to natural English language patterns!

I, for instance, would reduce the whole English Grammar Tenses table down to the most commonly used ones. Why on Earth should beginner and even intermediate English students learn Future Perfect Tenses in Passive Voice – “The task will have been accomplished by 9:00 AM tomorrow morning” if they can convey the same message by saying “The task will be accomplished by 9:00 AM tomorrow morning”?

Using very complicated Tenses right off the bat may add to the confusion which is no help at all!

You’re much better off using the 80/20 principle – make CONSCIOUS EFFORT to learn simpler tenses first, and let the other ones soak in over time. Sooner or later you will realize how to use the more complex ones, but you will have made your road to English fluency so much more relaxed and natural!

After all – useful English phrases and idioms follow the very basic grammar patterns and they’ll be ten times more useful in practical terms than some abstract grammar rules!

Tip #2When you come across a new English word while reading – don’t rush to write it into your pocket dictionary for memorization!

Back in the days when I was focusing on building my vocabulary, I would write down nearly any new English word that would come along and then I would memorize it. I wasn’t being selective at all, and to make things worse, I would translate them into Latvian (never do that – you’ll impede your English fluency if you build your English vocabulary through your native language!).

As a result, I built thousands of words large English vocabulary, a big percentage of which I never actually used in real life. Hundreds of words have disappeared from my memory long ago, simply because they were very specific terms.

A couple of days ago, for instance, I came across an English word ‘consternation’. I immediately recognized it, yet I couldn’t remember what it meant. Well, had I known how to create strong mental associations between English words all those years ago, it wouldn’t have happened. That’s not the point, however.

What I’m trying to say is – what was the point in learning that word in the first place if it’s so rarely used that its meaning faded from my memory? And frankly speakingI HAD’NT HEARD THAT WORD during all those years ❗ All the books that I had read, all interpersonal communication that had been going on between me and hundreds of English speaking people – and not a single time the word ‘consternation’ had been used!

The bottom line here is – when you read and encounter a new word – see if you come across it again and again. If you do, it’s a sure sign it’s worth memorizing!

Tip #3 – Learn most commonly used English phrases and expressions and you’ll achieve conversational fluency much faster!

If you’re still following the old-school approach towards English learning, you probably build English sentences based on your native language speech patterns which isn’t an effective way of speaking English – on many occasions your speech will sound unnatural.

If you want to accelerate your improvement curve, you may want to learn common phrases and expressions instead – and you’ll see how effective they are when it comes to conveying your message to someone in English!

Have you ever thought why phrase-books are such an effective tool for tourists and backpackers? They provide the essential real-life conversation building blocks; someone who can effectively use 50 useful English phrases will probably be a more effective communicator on the street than the average English student having only ever learnt separate words and grammar rules on how to stick those words together!

Basically it’s all the same – learn the essentials first (most commonly used words and phrases) and let the rest follow at its natural pace! 😉


P.S. Are you ready to get on the fast track to spoken English fluency? Check out my English Harmony System HERE! It’s based on the 80/20 rule – only the most relevant spoken English phrases and expressions have been included in it!

English Harmony System

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Thanks for your positive feedback, and of course I’ll keep on writing – there’s so much I have to say to the audience that I can’t see me running out of content any time soon!

  • Anonymous

    Robby,nnIts a very nice advise to memorize the phrases, not the words. I love your all lessons which i have just gone through.nPlease keep on writing. I would be the first one to read your new article.

  • Anonymous

    Robby,nnIts a very nice advise to memorize the phrases, not the words. I love your all lessons which i have just gone through.nPlease keep on writing. I would be the first one to read your new article.