What is the 80/20 Rule for Learning Spanish?

The 80/20 rule applies to learning Spanish Vocabulary and Grammar, but the rule has limitations and should not be fully relied upon.
The 80/20 rule (also called the Pareto Principle) simply states that roughly 80% of the effects or outcomes result from 20% of the causes or inputs.

No, it’s not a bingo combo, calculus equation, or famous sports jersey. The 80/20 rule (also called the Pareto Principle) simply states that roughly 80% of the effects or outcomes result from 20% of the causes or inputs. 19th century Italian economist, Vilfredo Pareto, observed that approximately 80% of Italy’s land was owned by 20% of the population and experimented in applying this ratio to many areas of life. It is theorized that 80% of a company’s profits come from 20% of its customers so it’s important to target those loyal customers, or 20% of your efforts produce 80% of your results, so focusing on the right tasks can make a huge difference in your life. 


When it is applied to language learning, the 80/20 rule suggests that you can achieve 80% of your desired language proficiency by focusing on the most important and frequently used 20% of the language’s vocabulary and grammar. Let’s look at some examples:




As in any language, there are “high-frequency” words and phrases that will come up a higher percentage of the time in natural conversation and expression of thought. According to the 80/20 rule, mastering this 20% of the core vocabulary, you can better understand the general context of 80% of the meaning of a conversation or idea. Consider the top twelve most used Spanish verbs below:


Estar – to be

Ser – to be

Tener – to have

Haber – to have

Hacer – to do, make

Ir – to go

Venir – to come

Decir – to say, tell

Poder – to be able

Dar – to give

Ver – to see

Saber – to know


Putting the 80/20 rule into practice, if you memorize these verbs and their declensions, you can use context clues to more readily understand simple conversations such as this one:


“¿Dónde estás?” (Estar) – “Where are you?”

Fui a la tienda.” (Ir) – “I went to the store”

“¿Puedes venir a casa por favor?” (Venir) – “Can you come home please.”

Tengo que terminar de comprar huevos y luego vendré.” (Tener)  – “I have to finish buying eggs and then I will come.” 




Similarly to vocabulary, there are key grammatical rules and structures found in every language that are essential for basic communication. Focusing on these 20% foundational grammar concepts will allow you to understand and communicate in 80% of the situations more efficiently. For example, take the grammatical rule in Spanish that adjectives must match their nouns in both number and gender. 


If you know this grammar rule and hear, “¿Puedes pasarme la roja?” (Can you hand me the red one?) you will understand in context that the person is asking you to hand them the red jacket and not the red book, because ‘roja’ is feminine and must match the feminine noun ‘chaqueta’ (jacket) and not the male noun ‘libro’ (book).  


Limitations of the 80/20 Rule


Because language learning is such a personal practice, any pedagogy ‘rule’ must be assessed by the individual and not too heavily emphasized by the teacher. In Cultural Bytes classes, our native-language speaking teachers speak the language as it is naturally spoken and meant to be heard, patient to answer questions and re-word sentences for better comprehension by the student. Though higher frequency words and phrases are sure to come up simply because of the nature of language, we believe it’s important for an individual to immerse themselves in the entire language because the process builds on itself and every word has meaning. Check out our Online and In Person Classes to learn more about Cultural Immersion.


Do you see the 80/20 pattern in other areas of your life now that you are aware of it?

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