from this thread on HTLAL
In French something like 25 verbs make up over 50% of the verb forms in ordinary spoken speech. My statistics may be off, but the point is clear. Instead of trying to learn 500 French verbs, master the 25 first and then progressively work your work through the others as they come up. For these very reasons I believe that with a vocabulary of 1000 words well learned one could get by very well in French and probably fool a lot of people.
The problem with these percentages is that even if you know those 25 words, and they come up in every sentence, you still won’t understand those sentences as they are spoken to you. Also, once you add in some more specific (but less frequent) words that help you in a couple of everyday situations, then the number starts to shoot upwards. Having a low limit like 1000 is a difficult task.
In principle, though, I mostly agree. There is really a core of the language that you need to master and have it always ready. If you can fluidly produce the basic things from that core, then it becomes an easy task to learn another 20 – 100 new words in a short time period in order to deal with a new potential situation.
I think it’s possible to go the other way around, though. Taking what Iverson said earlier about learning many many more words right at the start, I’m starting to imagine that one should actually do this backwards. Instead of learning the core really well and then expanding your vocab later, you could learn tons of vocab as fast as you can and then use your extensive vocabulary superpowers to read and listen to tons of native material that would help you cement the core parts.
I think this relates well to the idea of having a good balance of “intensive” and “extensive” reading, but I’ll have to think more about just concentrating on massive vocab, which is a slightly different path than intensive reading (which is more well-rounded, not focusing entirely on vocab).
This relates to my current Swedish project quite well, because I have a wonderful frequency-based wordlist of 2000 common words that each have an example sentence. I keep thinking that I’m not using this list to its full potential, since I’ve only made flashcards for the “A” up to the “E” words so far. It’s just much easier to stay interested if I’m reading a real book instead of playing with a wordlist. It does look like my ability to read would be greatly increased if I spent more time on the list first, though. Maybe I just need more hours in the day 😉
Overall, the importance should rest on finding something fun, but if you can manage short bursts of interest in something like a wordlist, then perhaps it would be worth it if it then enhanced your enjoyment of the really fun stuff. Don’t overdo it though, or else it’ll start to seem too much like a chore instead of your super-fun hobby!