Zipf’s Law in learning a new language

With so many words in any language, it can be intimidating for any language learner. However, have you ever noticed that some words are more “important”/”frequently used” than others?  If we understand this, why not just start with these most frequent words – to know their sound and meaning and usage, as an easy goal to bootstrap your language learning experience? This means: we learn few important words -> we understand a lot of the texts and conversations in the language you learning. The more of these words we know, the more we’ll understand.

This observation about the frequency and importance of certain words is based on something called “Zipf’s Law“.  It is similar to Pareto principle (also known as the 80/20 rule, the law of the vital few). This law indicates ” the frequency of any word is inversely proportional to its rank in the frequency table”. So in English, the word with # 1 rank is “the”, and it  accounts for nearly 7% of all the words in a large collection of text, then the word “of” accounts for about 3.5% of all the words. And same for the most frequent words at the head of this dinosaur in the graph, then words with medium ranking and frequency, then a long tail of words that are used less frequently.

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Illustration of Zipf's Law
Illustration of Zipf’s Law

Figure to the left from:

Figure to the right from:

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