I actually learned the 80/20 rule as an English teacher when I was living in Colombia. I worked for Paul Urwin at Inglés Bogotá. And you should definitely check them out if you are looking for a place to teach abroad. I also wrote a testimonial about my experiences teaching in Bogotá, which should be up soon on their site.
In any case, Paul said something that stuck with me, which was that if you can teach the students about 80% of a given grammatical structure, that’s more than good enough to get them started, and from there they will naturally pick up the other 20%. I think that was great advice, and I not only applied it with my students, I began to apply it to myself as I continued to learn Spanish.
I know there are some grammar junkies out there, and I am a freelance editor when I’m not writing, so I understand that to an extent. However, most people, including myself, find it exhausting and boring to study grammar. Think of how many rules there are for the Spanish subjunctive. At least 50 if I remember right.
I remember sitting down and trying to memorize them all and my tutor quizzing me. I finally said to myself, you know what, I’m just going to learn one rule and try to get that down. After I was doing okay with that I picked another, and after a couple rules I got lazy about studying, but it didn’t really matter. I’m not saying you should always ignore grammar–that would be silly. But take the rule that gets you most of the way there and covers the majority of situations. From there you can pick up the small exceptions case by case instead of driving yourself nuts. I’ll give you an example in English because it’s easier to think about.
Take the word get. Now get up off your ass, go get down to the store and get a dictionary, get yourself ready to study, get jiggy with it, and get a list together of all of the uses of get. Getting the point? Am I getting through to you dagnabbit?! There are literally over a 100 combinations of get with different prepositions and other words.
Think of how daunting that is for a new learner of English. What is the difference between get up and get down, and why the heck is Tupac getting around? And to make matters worse, there are literal and figurative meanings, sometimes 3 or more meanings, for almost all of those 100+ definitions. And the icing on the cake is that we use this word all the time, so someone learning this word is ready to sit down and cry.
The next time you start feeling sorry for yourself in the intricacies of learning Spanish, just remember that if it’s hard for you, it’s hard for them. And if it’s not hard for them, something else will be as equally hard.
When dealing with get, I taught my students that it meant “to retrieve something” and “to buy something.” Now of course that isn’t even close to 80% there, but it got them a whole lot of uses in common situations. From there they had a basis to distinguish from when they heard something new. And trust me, once you have a foundation, variations on what you know will really stick out to you because it doesn’t fit with what you know.
And when that moment comes when you thought you knew what you were talking about and start arguing with someone that you know what something means, you’ll probably be wrong and get pissed off!And then the only solution is to go get pissed (in the British sense) with your new buddy and laugh over the new words you learned.
Let’s take an example in Spanish. The eternal question: When do I use ser and estar? I’ll give you the annoying explanation that will probably cause you to quit learning Spanish and the easy answer to get you 80% of the way there and encourage you to continue.
Answer 1: The typical textbook or classroom answer. You use ser for instances of describing what people are like and talking about their characteristics; referring to time (unless you mean that time is passing), origin, and relationships (sort of, unless you are talking about particular emotions within those relationships); and talking about occupations, but not when people are actually working, just the actual professions they have. You use estar when want to talk about emotions, but not how someone always is, just how they are in a given moment; and also you use estar to talk about location and position, but not in certain structures or depending on how you combine an adjective with the noun. And you use estar to talk about actions, but only in the progressive tenses and as a linking verb. Oh and then of course there are certain phrases and expressions that turn the rules on their heads…
The rules and exceptions go on mi pana (South American slang for my buddy), and they actually aren’t that hard, but why try to memorize them all at once?
Answer 2: The 80/20 method. Use ser for things that sound permanent and estar for things that seem temporary.
For example, would you say that Charlie Sheen is, always has been, and always will be an asshole (ser), or is he just being an asshole these days (estar)? Apply this rule and you’ll get it right most of the time. Hey I’m 6 years into this process and I still mix them up all the time. The difference is that now I’m generally aware of my mistakes and make fewer of them, whereas in the beginning I had no clue.
I remember that I was getting halfway decent at ser and estar when I was in El Salvador in the spring of 2006 (still not very good at all, but I did have a foundation). Then one day, one of my classmates said to the professor, “Oh, no lo sabía,” which means “Oh, I didn’t know that.”
Now WTF??? I thought! Supposedly we should use ser for permanent things, and he was referring to a temporary, now finished stage in his life when he didn’t know certain information. Hmmm. There probably use an actual, specific rule for that (perhaps viewing the closed window in his life as a static whole), but really, who cares? The important part was that I had my basic rule down and was getting to the point where, when I heard something that deviated from that rule, I noticed it. I was probably frustrated at first, but I quickly realized that this was a moment of success. When you start noticing new things it means that you have firmly grasped a previous concept, and you can start learning the exceptions to or variations on rules. ¡Felicidades!
So the next time you are looking at a Spanish book, take what looks like the most important rule or at least one of several important rules, and just try to deal with that. I guarantee that you will progress faster this way because having one rule will help you to start to speak. You can retrieve that information in your mind much more quickly than trying to sift through 10 rules.
So your words will come out more quickly, which is more natural than sitting there with a concentrated look on your face while the other people get 2 miles ahead of you in the conversation. Of course you’ll be wrong plenty of times, but that will be an opportunity for people to correct you, and you’ll start to pick up those small exceptions piece by piece at a pace that you an actually handle.
And the best part is, you’ll get to have more fun speaking than you would with your nose in a book or getting paper cuts from flashcards! So throw out the rules, or most of them anyway, and get learning!