How to learn a language fast – maximising return on investment

Today I would like to share a little known fact from the world of languages. In day-to-day interactions, we often use no more than 100 words. To maximise return on investment, you have to focus on acquiring the basic vocabulary ie it’s probably not going to matter if you don’t know the Chinese word for aardvark (土豚or “tu tun” for those who must know).

The key to language mastery is knowing how to string different words together (we call these ‘rules’ grammar). Here are 4 key tips on how to learn a language fast.

The 80/20 rule. In the English language, the most common 25 words make up about one-third of all printed material, and the top 100 most common words make up about one-half of all written material.

At the bottom of this article, I have reproduced a list of the top 100 most commonly used English words (thanks Wikipedia). The key words may vary depending on language, but most likely you will find that it’s only the relative ranking of the key words that change, and the top 100 most commonly used words would be pretty similar across languages. Focus on what matters.

Don’t get too stressed over mistakes. The point to remember is no native speaker expects you as a non-native speaker to speak their language perfectly so don’t get too worked up over whether you have the word order 100% right. Remember: the aim of communication is to get the message across. Unless you’re planning to be a United Nations interpreter, the locals will most likely not care if you make a few mistakes here and there. Memorise the key vocabulary first. The rules matter, but without the vocabulary, you have no ammo.

Know what to talk about. This is related to point 1. It takes a lifetime to master a language, so as you can imagine it’s not

easy to work out the order in which we learn topics. We asked our clients what they needed to know when travelling overseas and came up with a long list. Unsurprisingly, knowing how to order a beer and telling a good-loooking girl she’s beautiful ranks pretty highly. At Euroasia, we teach language learners the important stuff that you can use everyday. Here is a sample outline of what we expect to cover at the most basic beginners level.

Unit 1 – Greet people, give your name and ask how people are.

Unit 2 – Ask and answer questions about your job; you will also be able to ask about and give your phone

number.

Unit 3 – Say where you come from and give the language you speak.

Unit 4 – Talk about the people in your family and say how old they are.

Unit 5 – Tell the time and give days and months; you will also be able to ask for a ticket on public transport.

Unit 6 – Say what you like or don’t like, and also talk about your freetime activities; you will also be able to say what the weather is like at the moment or at particular times of the year.

Unit 7 – Ask about something in a shop, understand and talk about prices, and also describe clothes.

Unit 8 – Talk about different meals, also food and drink; you will know what to say to buy these things from a shop.

Unit 9 – Order a meal in a restaurant, book accommodation and check in, also know how to talk about simple problems.

Unit 10 – Talk about where places are in a town, ask for directions and understand simple instructions for getting somewhere.

Constant practice. Learning a language is all about persistence. Much like going to the gym. No pain, no gain. Attending a class on a regular basis makes a huge difference (which is why language schools still exist despite language software and internet courses having been around for the past two decades). Ultimately, to improve you would need to practice speaking the language.

p/s: Check out thelanguage courses at Euroasia.We offersummer school programmes starting 5 Jan and 18 Jan, with regular courses starting 31 Jan.

Top 100 Most Commonly Used Words

  1. the
  2. of
  3. and
  4. a
  5. to
  6. in
  7. is
  8. you
  9. that
  10. it
  11. he
  12. was
  13. for
  14. on
  15. are
  16. as
  17. with
  18. his
  19. they
  20. I
  1. at
  2. be
  3. this
  4. have
  5. from
  6. or
  7. one
  8. had
  9. by
  10. word
  11. but
  12. not
  13. what
  14. all
  15. were
  16. we
  17. when
  18. your
  19. can
  20. said
  1. there
  2. use
  3. an
  4. each
  5. which
  6. she
  7. do
  8. how
  9. their
  10. if
  11. will
  12. up
  13. other
  14. about
  15. out
  16. many
  17. then
  18. them
  19. these
  20. so
  1. some
  2. her
  3. would
  4. make
  5. like
  6. him
  7. into
  8. time
  9. has
  10. look
  11. two
  12. more
  13. write
  14. go
  15. see
  16. number
  17. no
  18. way
  19. could
  20. people
  1. my
  2. than
  3. first
  4. water
  5. been
  6. call
  7. who
  8. oil
  9. its
  10. now
  11. find
  12. long
  13. down
  14. day
  15. did
  16. get
  17. come
  18. made
  19. may
  20. part

Source:The Reading Teachers Book of Lists, Third Edition; by Edward Bernard Fry, Ph.D, Jacqueline E. Kress, Ed.D & Dona Lee Fountoukidis, Ed.D.

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About The Author

Kenneth is Director of Euroasia. He is passionate about languages and cultures.

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  1. […] out our post on how to learn a language fast for some language learning tips you can employ in […]

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