The English-Learning and Languages Review Ć Homepage



 Mini System:

 Language-Learning for Beginners




The ‘Mini’ system for each foreign language one wants to learn consists of three parts:


MINIPHRASE: This consists of about 150 ‘numbers’, with almost 300 everyday phrases or expressions.

MINILEX: A list of about 500 words with their equivalents in the foreign language, including things like numbers, days of the week etc.

MINIGRAM: A basic grammar of the foreign language. Its content and size will vary according to the language concerned. The grammars for German or Italian, for example, would perhaps be about 10 pages each, while that for English could probably be considerably shorter. Because each Minigram will have to be, as it were, tailor-made, very few have been made up to now. Each one will require a lot of work.


FIRST one should learn 100 or more of the ‘miniphrases’. Learn them by heart! Then one can start on the Minilex. Learn the words there by heart too. The aim is to be able to use the phrases and words immediately, without hesitation, at any time the need arises. Erik Gunnemark points out how the mastery of a core of common phrases is invaluable for one’s self-confidence. One can then at least say something in everyday situations.


When one travels to a country where the foreign language concerned is spoken, one should take the Miniphrase and Minilex lists, plus a little dictionary.



Already by 1942 Erik V. Gunnemark, of Gothenburg, Sweden, had come to realize that he would have to change completely the way he was learning foreign languages. However, it was not until 1963, when he became a fulltime freelance translator, teacher, editor and writer, that he began serious development of his ‘Mini’ system. He travelled and spent time in many different countries, and steadily modified his lists in the light of his experiences and the sort of language he found he needed. By about 1970 he had established the main principles of the system.


But already in the 1960’s he had had one of his most important insights. As he has written in The Art and Science of Learning Languages (by A. Gethin and E.V. Gunnemark, Intellect, 1996, pp.76, 81):


“Don’t bother about marginal ‘interest’ words in the beginning

Most ‘interest’ words – words belonging to particular ‘fields of interest’ or to subject areas of various kinds – are not central to vocabulary learning; they are marginal. You should not learn these marginal interest words at the expense of central words. If you do, you are only acquiring seeming knowledge … unimportant words instead of the ones you really ought to be learning. …

One seldom needs to remember without delay the words for animals, plants, parts of the body and illnesses, any more than the names of pieces of furniture or household utensils. As a result of the spread of department stores and supermarkets, words that were previously common in speech are now used comparatively rarely in everyday life. This applies, among other things, to many of the names in different languages of items of food, clothes, writing materials and various odds and ends.

   In the teaching of beginners in some countries a lot of time is wasted on marginal words. Many students are still deceived into thinking that it is important to know the equivalents of words like monkey, donkey…snail, parrot…plum, pear…horseshoe…church bell…There is nothing wrong in itself with knowing a lot of marginal ‘interest’ words. But there is usually plenty of time to look them up in a pocket dictionary, and in principle you should learn them at a later stage, after the central words.

…………. Exercises in asking the way, shopping and ordering in restaurants are for the most part wasted time and effort. The words learned are mainly marginal ‘interest’ words. Both at the beginner’s stage and later there are a whole lot of other things which are much more important to practise and fix in the memory.”


There are unfortunately many examples of such misdirected energies in the teaching of languages to beginners: for instance, a Swedish school-book for English where the pupils are prompted to learn words associated with the bathroom like flannel, nailbrush, bidet, scales, cistern, safety razor, bath mat, tile, towel rack, bar of soap, or Italian coursebooks for use at the elementary stage of English in which the children are given lists to learn of the names of the creatures to be found at the seaside.


Erik Gunnemark could translate from 45 languages, and was the author, with Donald Kenrick, of the Geolinguistic Handbook.


See , , ,


The English-Learning and Languages Review and its individual contributors assert their Copyright © on all the material published in it. Nevertheless, the Review gives permission for unlimited reproduction of the piece above, E.V.Gunnemark’s Mini System, or parts of it, on condition that:

(1) acknowledgement is made of the source

(2) no changes are made except with the Review’s permission

(3) no restraint is imposed on further reproduction of the material

(4) copies are not sold.



    The English-Learning and Languages Review Ć Homepage