What if there was a really smart guy out there who created such a list?
You're in luck pal...there am such a smart guy. And that smart guy am me.
THE 200 MOST IMPORTANT WORDS TO LEARN IN ANY LANGUAGE
A few folks have attempted to compile such a list in the past. One of the most well-known lists was published by Tony Buzan in his book, "Using Your Memory." Unfortunately, Buzan's list of 100 words is very Anglocentric. It includes many words that do not exist in other languages.
As a person who speaks ten languages, I have figured out a thing or two about what words and concepts are the most important.
Of course, it's impossible to claim that this list is universal. That's the beauty of linguistic diversity--certain languages have words, concepts, and structures that don't exist anywhere else in the world. Still, if you can learn how to say these 200 words in a language, you'll be well on your way to speaking it.
It goes without saying, learning these 200 words is just the beginning. It's not enough to just translate an English sentence word-for-word. In addition to basic vocabulary, you'll need to learn:
How do you conjugate verbs? Do adjectives change? Are there genders? Are there declensions and grammatical cases? (These can make one noun change, depending on where it is in a sentence.) Does the language use certain articles before or after words, to show how the word is being used?
2. Sentence structure
Word order can vastly vary from one language to the next. If you don't believe me, watch an old kung fu movie with a very literal translation.
3. Certain concepts aren't contained in just one word
I've singled one of them out in my list: the idea of possession, "to have." In many languages, there isn't a simple verb to say "to have."
EXAMPLE: In Russian, to say "I have a cat," you literally say, "By me [genitive case] there is a cat."
Many indigenous languages of the Americas are the same.
4. Tonal languages
Some languages, like Mandarin Chinese, Mixtec, Barí, are tonal. The tone (musical note) you give to a word will change its meaning. This means you don't just have to learn the words and grammar--you have to take a music lesson as well.
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Without further ado, here's the list, with words roughly arranged by category. I'm always open to suggestions for perfecting it.
they (male, female, both)
possessives - my, your
hear / listen
be able to (do something)
make / do
to exist, be around ("there is / are" in English, "haber" in Spanish)
comparisons: more, less
town / city
land / earth
arm / hand
leg / foot
Other random common words
either / or
a little bit
Numbers, one through ten