The 80-20 Rule

“Give me the fruitful error any time, full of seeds, bursting with its own corrections. You can keep your sterile truth for yourself.” – Vilfredo Pareto

If you’ve spent any time looking up kanji in a dictionary, researching all the many pronunciations, and finding all the words that use a particular kanji, you’ll know that kanji learning can be incredibly complicated and time consuming. Even worse, if you’re a beginner at Japanese, in these instances you have no idea what is important and what is not. Should I learn these three meanings? Or do I only really need to know one of them (because it’s used 99% of the time, and the other few are so archaic and unused you wasted your time learning them)?

This is where I introduce someone particularly remarkable. Meet Vilfredo Pareto, an economist who did most of his work in the early 1900s. He came up with the “80-20 Rule” (i.e. the “Pareto Principle”), which states that “80% of the efforts of something come from roughly 20% of the causes.” Start looking around your life, and you’ll see it happening everywhere.

  • 20% of people make 80% of the world’s income.
  • Microsoft found that by fixing the top 20% of most reported bugs, 80% of all problems were fixed.
  • 20% of your time spent gets 80% of the results done (at work, school, etc)
  • In the United States, 20% of health patients use 80% of health care resources.

…and so on. These are some pretty big claims, but I think you’ll grow to love this concept. We’ll be using the 80-20 rule all throughout TextFugu, especially the kanji section. Here’s what I believe, when it comes to kanji:

20% of kanji makes up 80% of all that is written, therefore we’re going to learn that 20% first, so you can start using your reading abilities in real-life situations as quickly as possible (which is really the best way to practice, anyways).

Luckily, a lot of this work has been done for us by the Japanese government. They have compiled a kanji list (called the Joyo Kanji List) which contains the 2000ish kanji you’re supposed to learn in order to be able to read (newspapers also use this list to make sure they try and use only these kanji in their publications). This Joyo Kanji List on its own is probably around 20% of kanji you could learn out there, and in reality, it probably actually makes up 99% of all kanji used.

TextFugu takes that a few steps further, though. The goal is to get you reading as soon as possible, as well as to help you study the things that will be useful first.

Now, each kanji has multiple pronunciations (on’yomi and kun’yomi, which you will learn about soon) associated with them. Sometimes there will be 6, 7, or 8+ pronunciations for one kanji. That’s absolutely ridiculous, right? You could spend eight times the effort learning all the pronunciations… or, you can use the 80-20 (or 90-10, or 95-5, as the case may be) rule and learn just one or two of the available pronunciations, and still get nearly the same result (except now you can spend all your extra time learning other useful things).

Lucky for you, TextFugu does almost all that work for you. When you’re learning kanji on TextFugu, you’ll very rarely have to learn more than one on’yomi and kun’yomi pronunciation. I’ve gone through and removed anything that isn’t all that useful (so, so, so many things really aren’t, too) so that you can focus on what really matters. With kanji, the 80-20 rule is absolutely everywhere.

Takeaway You’re going to be extremely smart about what you learn. TextFugu helps you pinpoint that 20% which gives you almost all the benefit. This means you’re spending less time and getting way more out of the time you do spend. Luckily, TextFugu has done all this work for you, so if you just follow along, you’ll be doing the right thing!

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