How to Learn (But Not Master) Any Language in 1 Hour (Plus: A Favor)


Deconstructing Arabic in 45 Minutes


Conversational Russian in 60 minutes?

This post is by request. How long does it take to learn Chinese or Japanese vs. Spanish or Irish Gaelic? I would argue less than an hour.

Here’s the reasoning…

Before you invest (or waste) hundreds and thousands of hours on a language, you should deconstruct it. During my thesis research at Princeton, which focused on neuroscience and unorthodox acquisition of Japanese by native English speakers, as well as when redesigning curricula for Berlitz, this neglected deconstruction step surfaced as one of the distinguishing habits of the fastest language learners…

So far, I’ve deconstructed Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, Italian, Brazilian Portuguese, German, Norwegian, Irish Gaelic, Korean, and perhaps a dozen others. I’m far from perfect in these languages, and I’m terrible at some, but I can converse in quite a few with no problems whatsoever—just ask the MIT students who came up to me last night and spoke in multiple languages.

How is it possible to become conversationally fluent in one of these languages in 2-12 months? It starts with deconstructing them, choosing wisely, and abandoning all but a few of them.

Consider a new language like a new sport.

There are certain physical prerequisites (height is an advantage in basketball), rules (a runner must touch the bases in baseball), and so on that determine if you can become proficient at all, and—if so—how long it will take.

Languages are no different. What are your tools, and how do they fit with the rules of your target?

If you’re a native Japanese speaker, respectively handicapped with a bit more than 20 phonemes in your language, some languages will seem near impossible. Picking a compatible language with similar sounds and word construction (like Spanish) instead of one with a buffet of new sounds you cannot distinguish (like Chinese) could make the difference between having meaningful conversations in 3 months instead of 3 years.

Let’s look at few of the methods I recently used to deconstructed Russian and Arabic to determine if I could reach fluency within a 3-month target time period. Both were done in an hour or less of conversation with native speakers sitting next to me on airplanes.

Six Lines of Gold

Here are a few questions that I apply from the outset. The simple versions come afterwards:

1. Are there new grammatical structures that will postpone fluency? (look at SOV vs. SVO, as well as noun cases)

2. Are there new sounds that will double or quadruple time to fluency? (especially vowels)

3. How similar is it to languages I already understand? What will help and what will interfere? (Will acquisition erase a previous language? Can I borrow structures without fatal interference like Portuguese after Spanish?)

4. All of which answer: How difficult will it be, and how long would it take to become functionally fluent?

It doesn’t take much to answer these questions. All you need are a few sentences translated from English into your target language.

Some of my favorites, with reasons, are below:

The apple is red.

It is John’s apple.

I give John the apple.

We give him the apple.

He gives it to John.

She gives it to him.

These six sentences alone expose much of the language, and quite a few potential deal killers.

First, they help me to see if and how verbs are conjugated based on speaker (both according to gender and number). I’m also able to immediately identify an uber-pain in some languages: placement of indirect objects (John), direct objects (the apple), and their respective pronouns (him, it). I would follow these sentences with a few negations (“I don’t give…”) and different tenses to see if these are expressed as separate words (“bu” in Chinese as negation, for example) or verb changes (“-nai” or “-masen” in Japanese), the latter making a language much harder to crack.

Second, I’m looking at the fundamental sentence structure: is it subject-verb-object (SVO) like English and Chinese (“I eat the apple”), is it subject-object-verb (SOV) like Japanese (“I the apple eat”), or something else? If you’re a native English speaker, SOV will be harder than the familiar SVO, but once you pick one up (Korean grammar is almost identical to Japanese, and German has a lot of verb-at-the-end construction), your brain will be formatted for new SOV languages.

Third, the first three sentences expose if the language has much-dreaded noun cases. What are noun cases? In German, for example, “the” isn’t so simple. It might be der, das, die, dem, den and more depending on whether “the apple” is an object, indirect object, possessed by someone else, etc. Headaches galore. Russian is even worse. This is one of the reasons I continue to put it off.

All the above from just 6-10 sentences! Here are two more:

I must give it to him.

I want to give it to her.

These two are to see if auxiliary verbs exist, or if the end of the each verb changes. A good short-cut to independent learner status, when you no longer need a teacher to improve, is to learn conjugations for “helping” verbs like “to want,” “to need,” “to have to,” “should,” etc. In Spanish and many others, this allows you to express yourself with “I need/want/must/should” + the infinite of any verb. Learning the variations of a half dozen verbs gives you access to all verbs. This doesn’t help when someone else is speaking, but it does help get the training wheels off self-expression as quickly as possible.

If these auxiliaries are expressed as changes in the verb (often the case with Japanese) instead of separate words (Chinese, for example), you are in for a rough time in the beginning.

Sounds and Scripts

I ask my impromptu teacher to write down the translations twice: once in the proper native writing system (also called “script” or “orthography”), and again in English phonetics, or I’ll write down approximations or use IPA.

If possible, I will have them take me through their alphabet, giving me one example word for each consonant and vowel. Look hard for difficult vowels, which will take, in my experience, at least 10 times longer to master than any unfamiliar consonant or combination thereof (“tsu” in Japanese poses few problems, for example). Think Portuguese is just slower Spanish with a few different words? Think again. Spend an hour practicing the “open” vowels of Brazilian Portuguese. I recommend you get some ice for your mouth and throat first.


The Russian Phonetic Menu, and…


Reading Real Cyrillic 20 Minutes Later

Going through the characters of a language’s writing system is really only practical for languages that have at least one phonetic writing system of 50 or fewer sounds—Spanish, Russian, and Japanese would all be fine. Chinese fails since tones multiply variations of otherwise simple sounds, and it also fails miserably on phonetic systems. If you go after Mandarin, choose the somewhat uncommon GR over pinyin romanization if at all possible. It’s harder to learn at first, but I’ve never met a pinyin learner with tones even half as accurate as a decent GR user. Long story short, this is because tones are indicated by spelling in GR, not by diacritical marks above the syllables.

In all cases, treat language as sport.

Learn the rules first, determine if it’s worth the investment of time (will you, at best, become mediocre?), then focus on the training. Picking your target is often more important than your method.

[To be continued?]


Is this helpful or just too dense? Would you like me to write more about this or other topics? Please let me know in the comments. Here’s something from Harvard Business School to play with in the meantime…

Other Popular Posts on this Blog:

How to Lose 20 lbs. of Fat in 30 Days… Without Doing Any Exercise

From Geek to Freak: How I Gained 34 lbs. of Muscle in 4 Weeks

Relax Like A Pro: 5 Steps to Hacking Your Sleep

How to Travel the World with 10 Pounds or Less (Plus: How to Negotiate Convertibles and Luxury Treehouses)

The Art of Letting Bad Things Happen (and Weapons of Mass Distraction)

How to Outsource the Inbox and Never Check Email Again


Odds and Ends:

Please help me break the Technorati 1000 today!

I’m around 1070 on Technorati’s rankings, and it’s killing me. Can those of you with blogs PULEEEEASE register your blogs with Technorati and find something interesting to link to on this 4HWW blog? It would really be a milestone for me and I’m so close! Just breaking 1000 would be enough. If you can find something to link to in the most popular posts or elsewhere, please do whatever you can in the next 24-36 hours! Thanks so much 🙂

The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

Leave a Reply

Comment Rules: Remember what Fonzie was like? Cool. That’s how we’re gonna be — cool. Critical is fine, but if you’re rude, we’ll delete your stuff. Please do not put your URL in the comment text and please use your PERSONAL name or initials and not your business name, as the latter comes off like spam. Have fun and thanks for adding to the conversation! (Thanks to Brian Oberkirch for the inspiration.)

760 Replies to “How to Learn (But Not Master) Any Language in 1 Hour (Plus: A Favor)”

  1. In the following line, shouldn’t it read “(SVO)” instead of “(SOV)”?

    “Second, I’m looking at the fundamental sentence structure: is it subject-verb-object (SOV)”

  2. Tim,

    Excellent article.

    I am a non-linguist learning Irish and I am watching my children (8 and 5) learn Hebrew with my wife. My children are also keen to learn Irish so, all in all, language acquisition strategies are very close to my heart.

    As a matter of curiosity how did you find learning Irish and do you, or indeed anybody else, have a take on how easy or hard Hebrew is to learn compared to other languages?

    Another question: would a moderately bright child learning Irish side-by-side with Hebrew be a mistake or a good thing?

    Keep up the good work.

  3. Would you be willing to do an article per language? Like a series of sorts. Ive always wanted to learn Japanese, I know it a bit, but not enough to have a conversation. It would be really interesting to see how you came up with your system to learn it. I tried the Rosetta Stone program, but its awful.

  4. I’d love to see the notes you had on Russian. I have been thinking about learning it enough to carry a conversation. This method is fascinating. Thanks for the post!

  5. Great post. My only problem is that I can’t even deconstruct my primary language, English, with such detail. I think a post explaining the deconstruction of the English sentences with examples and comparison of the same for a few different languages, like at least a similar and a very different, would be a great learning experience, at least for me.


  6. awesome blog, really dug it mang…actually it game me a lot of hope and drive to continue pursuing one of my dreams; To speak, or at least understand, Japanese.

    Is it at all possible for you to post your deconstruction of Japanese, I don’t have anyone to ask the favor, so i figure i ask you. If you, do that would be great.

    thanks either way

  7. Excellent article. I’m one for learning as many languages as I can, even for just conversation purposes because my career could be overwhelmingly boosted with a few fluent languages.

    Thanks for the post and please do continue with this subject!

  8. Wait…so your advice for “How to Learn (But Not Master) Any Language in 1 Hour” amounts to…choose an easy language?

    That’s basically what I’m reading out of this. You’re saying that I should consider my own strengths and weaknesses, consider the various languages I might study, and choose the easiest.

    What if I don’t want the easiest? What if I want to learn Chinese or Japanese, because I’m interested in those cultures? How does your deconstructing technique speed up the learning process? How much vocabulary can I possibly memorize in 60 minutes?

    That’s another thing. Under one picture it says “Conversational Russian in 60 minutes?”. But later you imply that meaningful speech takes 2-12 months.

    So really, this is not how to *learn* a language in 1 hour, but rather how to *analyze* a language in 1 hour, to determine how long it will take to achieve fluency. That’s useful, I guess. But what I really want is a method of *learning*.

  9. Tim,

    Would you be willing to break down a full example, and show your work so us laymen might have a better chance of understanding? I think I get it, but I’m certain I couldn’t reproduce what you’ve done without a full example.


  10. Hey, Tim!

    I’ll tranlate your article to portuguese and I’ll posting on my blog, ok? My blog ( is focused in translate the best Digg posts to portuguese, and your is very cool!

  11. that was a pretty insightful article, i am trying to learn Japanese some-what on my own could you e-mail me what you have broken down yourself?


  12. wow! i just started studying language at university and what you wrote catapulted me like into next year’s matters.


  13. I’ve never gone out of my way to learn another language, though I’ve picked things up here and there. For me, it’s an issue of investment and return. If I know that I will spend my career dealing with Japanese speaking people, living in Japan or otherwise indulging in their culture, then the strong return on the time and effort invested in learning the Japanese language would be a necessity.

    On the other hand, learning Spanish, French, German or other languages over a period of four years in high school (a pre-requisite for college acceptance, usually) and then more years in college just so I can speak the language for the six days of my life that I actually spend in one of those countries or for the rare occasion where I meet someone who speaks that language and I want to show off (all four times in my life), then that is a terrible allocation of resources.

    Most people in the world that you will ever deal with can speak English. Especially in the professional world. If you’re visiting somewhere, it doesn’t hurt to pick up a few things, but unless you’re going to spend months or years in another country, it’s another waste of energy.

    So if you have a specific obligation or situation that would necessitate the investment of your time and effort to learn a specific language for a specific purpose – great. Otherwise, it just seems like a lot of masturbation so that you can tell people “I speak four languages”.

  14. Absolutely – this is very much why I read your book, your blog, and think you’re a hero for the modern age – you’re maximizing time and turning what was impossible into the possible.

    Learn to speak a different language in an hour – holy sh*t!!! I’m definitely interested in detailed step by step clarity that’s in your books.

    The integrity, credibility, and consistency you’ve built will mean that this is truly possible.

    -Dave Ross


  15. Tim,

    Your method sounds similar to that used by the 19th century explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton (no relation to the actor). In his book “The Devil Drives,” he describes his method of deconstructing languages. From what I recall, he was fluent in 29 and passable in 72. Burton was the first Westerner in the forbidden city of Mecca, translator of 1001 Nights, discoverer of lakes in Africa among other achievements. I recommend his book to you if you want to compare methods.

  16. Hi Tim,

    This post is very good. Any suggestions about reading Chinese characters?

    When I found out the Mandarin word for cat was ‘mao1’ I laughed and laughed, because my cat says that all the time 😉

    Also, mother being ma1ma. Coincidence? Also, that the character is a woman and a horse together, i.e. a woman that does the job of a horse…another coincidence?

    FOr languages where it makes sense, learn the conjugations of ‘to be’ and the gerund of everything else…so you don’t have to say, ‘I go, he goes, they go’, but ‘I am going, he is going, they are going’, plus ‘I will be going, I was going, I must be going’ etc. My husband was studying (see, there it is again) Italian and struggling with the verb conjugations, I suggested he just learn the gerunds. He mentioned it to his instructor the last day of class, who agreed it would work but said, ‘but we want you to learn the language properly’.

    I lived in Italy for six months and could get through whole days with nothing more than ‘Prego, dai, forza ragazzi, basta cosi’. And not just for sex either.

    In Argentina, I’ve learned not to ask for a taxi by saying ‘Donde puedo coher un taxi’ because the reply (with much smirking) will be ‘para el tubo’.

    Anyway, I’d be interested to hear from native speakers which languanges the gerund shortcut works for.

  17. I learned Spanish and English simultaneously as I was growing up. Those two have given me a good base to go on and learn French and then Portuguese. I want to learn Arabic and Japanese next. I really enjoyed the article. I want more.

  18. It’s funny I came across this today. Great post! I was thinking of learning Russian. I’ve been browsing through music and sites but this is helpful. If you have better images of your notes, I’d love to see a copy. Thanks again!

  19. What a great idea. I really enjoy the content of your blog. Keep up the awesome work.

    Love & Gratitude,


    Think Simple. Be Decisive.

    ~ Productivity, Motivation & Happine

  20. please continue. I’m fascinated by your idea, I would like to learn how to learn new languages. I speak fluently Italian, Spanish and English and I would like to go for Germanic, Arabic and Chinese.

    keep on writing, please

    Good work


  21. You may want to add Hungarian at the top of the list where Russian and German are. Ridiculously complex language from what I hear, though sounds similar to Finnish.

  22. This approach is intriguing. It would be very handy if you had the time to post your deconstructions of the languages you mention.

  23. i have to agree with Lauren Muney’s comments about the density of your post. it was so Interesting but very academic as well – a good thing in many ways but a bit intense. (however, people knew what they’d be reading in the heading.)

    I’m a big LISTS fan. it would be neat to see ‘lists’ of useful things: favorite websites, top 5 things to do on a saturday if you’re bored, a list of businesses you’d open if you had all the time/energy in the world, short tips for people who want to maximize their day, that sort of thing. the kind of stuff you talk about at dinner 🙂

    Keep up the great work, I love your website!

  24. Tim –

    This is fascinating. Two things.

    First of all, as some of your commentators seem to misunderstand, there are those of us who think best in terms of structures. I have wanted to learn other languages for a while now, but am terribly daunted by a never-ending procession of vocabulary words and verb conjugations. I have often felt that if someone could simply offer me the theory of given language, its operative conceits and tropes, no matter how complex, I would be much better off, as this is how I learn. Thus, the assertion, repeated above, that this wouldn’t work because some people won’t understand it ignores those of us for whom an approach like this might be the only option.

    Second, as I am somewhat familiar with the term’s origin, I don’t think deconstruction is the word you are looking for. A deconstruction would aim to highlight precisely those aspects of a given tongue that your approach necessarily leaves out; idioms, local semantics, and various other irreducibles. Which is to say that deconstruction proceeds precisely by virtue of language’s ability to constantly elude or exceed a given architecture, and correspondingly that is perhaps its only virtue, strictly speaking. The proper term from the same lexicon for what your doing remains ‘structuralist;’ that is, highlighting and schematizing convergences and equivalencies across different contexts, with an aim toward easing learning and consumption – quite the opposite of a deconstructive praxis. Not that this is a bad thing, mind you, or that it really matters, but structuralist, though less sexy, is the more accurate term. (If it makes you feel better, if your structure is well founded, and becomes the standard, you can come back and deconstruct later if you like)

    Anyway, found you on digg. Love the idea, please elaborate soon.

  25. I find it almost too simplistic. I don’t mean to say that this article isn’t useful, but it almost sounds misleading to me. Maybe it’s just how I interpret the article.

    I just think that being conversationally fluent is one thing, but it’s implied in the title sounds a bit braggy. One may be conversationally fluent, but is one sure of what they are saying? Not everyone is language oriented and I know my share of people who aren’t.

    You see (or possibly know, cause I don’t know you at all), English is a very difficult language to translate into, despite the fact that it’s still Anglo-Saxon. Anyhoo, I kind of see a problem with this because in China, there are so many dialects of Chinese, some with 9 sounds, some with 7 etc. and standard Mandarin has only 4. Furthermore, native speakers of Mandarin retain an accent from their own dialect, actually making it harder for the person who is using your tips to comprehend. Also, what about slang? Say that all the people you’ve met who spoke Mandarin spoke just Mandarin and no dialect. Simple right? Well, then comes the problem of local influence on the language. In Mandarin, there are 4 words for the exact same thing (Eg: Popsicle) and it’s all depending on where you are.

    Same with Slovenian. There really is no actual standard dialect because there are 48 dialects with a population of just above 2 mill.

    In addition, the more esoteric a language is (Euskara anyone?) the (sooooo much) harder it is to pick it up in any method. Also, since there are language isolates, their sense of humor (Japan’s for example) is much different, as well as semantics. Intonation also plays a big role. In French, it’s much more common to say Tu as faim? Instead of As-tu faim? The voice rises instead of the obvious VSO. Or even in German: Ich muß viel studieren dafür instead of Ich muß viel dafür studieren. The purest of any foreign language is spoken in a classroom, not in the country itself.

    And on a closing note, Pinyin is much much more natural. GR and Wade-Giles are (to me) nothing but a western take on Chinese romanization. It angers me to see everyone use Wade-Giles instead of what is truly Chinese. It annoys me just as much to see other languages get botched up too.

    PS: Alex, Hungarian and Finnish are related and both are ridiculously complex since there are like no languages related to either of them.

  26. Fascinating!

    On my fifth language (dutch) and using all kinds of “instinctive” technics to learn it without going to school (no time)

    Nevertheless on learning my fourth one (danish) i went to the KISS (Kobenhavn International Sprog Skole). Their method although extremely boring was the most efficient one in order to gain sufficient fluency without being the best in grammar and spelling. The concept was based on repeting (hence the boredom) with a few “head sentences” where one word was change in order to form new sentances. (more or less your apple exemple, that is to say:

    I like eating apples

    I like eating fruits …..

    It worked extremely well. No fantasy was ever allowed as how the teachers put it “we (student) were not there to express ourselves but to be able to comunicate in order that the personn in front get the message”. It worked perfectly alright and the difference between students who went to regular danish schools and those who attended KISS was striking.

    Now don’t you think that some people have a natural ability to learn more and more languages?

    Again i will take my own kids as an exemple and their best friends who are also brothers.

    My kids were raised in one language with english and danish talked on regular basis around them. They’ve traveled and tend to have some kind of ease to pick up languages. But the older one has an accent in all languages even his mother tongue whereas the youger one seems to be a native of the three languages he speaks and the fouth that he is learing (dutch). My japanese sister in law also says that whenever he repeats words in japanese it is the perfect accent!!

    Their friends were raised in three languages at the same time and the oldest one is actually on his 6th’s one (spanish) wheras the second struggle more. They are both polish which has (if understood correctly) a huge phonem potential! (oh all those kids are only 10 and 12!!!)

    So my conclusion will be that you may get the best method to quickly learn a new language, you may not be gifted with the potential of being polyglot!!

    By the way, which musical instrument are you playing??


  27. Good article-I have used many of the same points in my teaching and language learning.

    One key point is that the learner has to learn to stop looking for comparisions to first language and instead look for patterns and tendencies in the new language.

  28. Tim: thanks for the article. I would very much like to see more of this.

    And you finally got me to get off my butt, head down to my local indy bookstore, and buy the 4HWW.

    Now to find the ways I can cut down my current 75-hour work week to something more reasonable.

  29. Pingback: Foreign Language
  30. I really like your analytical approach to languages in general. If more language courses taught this kind of thing, instead of mainly just “wrote memory” or “repetition” tactics, I would have learned a lot more at a younger age. When I was younger I lived in northern China (learning Mandarin) for a couple years before “discovering” various ways that helped me learn the language better. It was very frustrating to waste so much time first.

    Here are a couple of my tips specifically for Mandarin Chinese:

    1. Syllables and words: First of all, Chinese is a language where virtually every syllable is one word (or at least carries meaning all by itself). And also virtually every syllable is represented by just one written character. Since it is a pictographic language, and new pictographs cannot be invented (they wouldn’t become usable until after everyone learned them), they do not invent new words the way we do. Instead, they only invent new “compound words” (words made up of multiple smaller words). When you learn these, it does you well to learn the meanings of the individual pieces too, as that helps remember and notice patterns in how they are combined.

    2. Pinyin and pronunciation: Don’t treat pinyin like an “alphabet” of individual letters, each one having a sound! It is not designed that way and doesn’t make sense that way, because the language isn’t natural that way like it is for English and many other alphabetic languages! Instead, treat “initials” and “finals” as the smallest possible atomic elements of their phonetics, and each word is made up of a combination of one of each, plus a tone added. You will have a much simpler time with the pronunciation after learning this. See: for a table illustrating this.

    3. Homonyms and context: By the way, notice how that last table of every possible phonetic word in the language is surprisingly small. There are a *ton* of homonyms. Everyone has to use context to understand the spoken language, much more so than many other languages. Even native speakers frequently ask each other which word they are referring to, so don’t feel bad if you have trouble with that too. The normal written language (the characters) is not as bad in this respect.

    4. Characters: If you learn their writing system, learn the parts of the character (called “radicals”), what they mean and where they come from. Sometimes the radicals give hints about meaning, and sometimes they give hints about pronunciation. Some are obscure and the etymology has been lost, but if you find a story about them (or even make one up if necessary), they’re much easier to remember. I don’t know of many good resources for this, very few people even in China ever think about this, they mostly learn them by memorization.

    Speaking of memorizing… a big part of their culture is memorizing and following orders, not so much reasoning things out on their own using logic. So you will to a large extent be on your own if you use an analytical approach to help you learn their language. Good luck to those who attempt to learn Chinese, they will be enamored with you for taking the time!

  31. I have found that finding a list of the 100 most commonly used words in any language is very helpful.

    Then you memorize those first not whatever your text says.

    these lists exist on the internet.

    you can find lists of the most common 1000 words too.

    since most people converse using only a couple thousand words you are well on your way to the ability to communicate if not grammatically correctly – at least you can get the intended message across.

  32. I would like to know which MMA opponents you have fought–dates, names…..thank you


    Hi Kirk,

    Please search for “Blogosphere Self-Defense” on this blog and I’ve listed them in the comments. Thanks!


  33. I’ve always wanted to learn a lot of languages – ever since I met a guy (he worked with my folks) who spoke something like 16 languages. Thanks for the great intro to a fascinating method. I would love to know more about this method and others that would help me learn more languages. I’ve studied French, Arabic, Swahili. Can’t speak any of them!

  34. Dear Tim,

    great post…by the way I’m trying to spread 4HWW in Italy

    where I live now, with great results between my friends…I do something similar to LitLib in Africa…but that’s another story.

    I just wanted to say that decostructing languages and phonetics are the key issues…and in particular I’m a big fan of Phonetics symbology…thanks to it when I was 19 years old I could already speak English fluently without ever being in an English speaking country before (I’m Italian)! Now (32 yrs old) I’ve been travelling a lot and I can really tell you you’re absolutely right!

    My fav website (hoping to help the readers interested) for this is the Website of IOWA Univ. dedicated to Phonetics…

    Brilliant for Eng (USA), German and Spanish…give it a try!


    My next big challenge is chinese and japanese…I’ll keep you informed 😉


  35. This is a fascinating article. I’d love to know, in your experience, which are the easiest languages to learn for a native (American) English speaker.

  36. Thanks, Tim.

    I’ve linked to you in where I’ve talked about languages recently. My free ebook ‘The 20 Things You Must Know About Music Online’ has now been translated into Chinese, meaning it’s now available in six languages — five of which I can’t speak or read, which is a real shame.

    I’m looking around for the ‘right’ language for me to learn, having invested a bit of time in French, and being reasonably fluent in English from a young age, since it was all that my parents, sisters, friends and schoolteachers knew how to speak.

    Considering Dutch, though not because of the deconstruction. Just in love with the place and want to spend as much time there as I possibly can. It would seem rude not to try and speak the language, even though everyone there is pretty much fluent in English.

  37. Thanks for put a voice to something that “looked” to be true to me for years. Native English speaker and book-fluent in German, I have been able to pick up some French, Spanish, and Italian vocabulary here and there. Lately I’ve been learning the Korean alphabet, whose sounds are very easy and whose syllabic structure is very logical. I am looking forward to tackling the grammar (variant of SOV).

  38. VERY interesting and helpful! Thanks for writing this, and please do write more detail about this subject when you have the time.

  39. Pingback:
  40. So…is this article mainly to pick up a language quickly and for future use or just for a short period of time?

    I really like this article but it sounds so businessy to me. God I’m such a critic. But it honestly sounds like it’s just for business. Someone may know 6 languages fluently or even 29 etc. but the real question is, do they get the ‘real meaning’ of the language? I don’t mean lexicon. I mean that innate feeling.

    I think that this is a great jumpstart to learn a language but the time and true sense of a language will never develop properly. I mean you can say ‘spa-see-ba’ or ‘xie xie’ or ‘arigatoo’ but there will never be that native hold over a language.

    I still think that although the language is covered, the meaning isn’t. What’s funny in one isn’t funny in another. I can truthfully say that I’m funny in one language and flat in another.

    And Russ, I was referring to the lack of languages related to the Finno-Ugric group. (Although I might have written it as none, my bad.) Didn’t I say how fast you picked a language up depended on what language you spoke in the first place?

  41. As a speaker of several quite different languages, I must admit I feel compelled to bookmark your page for later reading.

    But I can’t stifle my bemusement. Do you speak a few languages yourself? I mean, have you tested your ideas and found them to work, or have others confirmed your methods? I still think you may be onto something. But if you haven’t tried it all out it strikes me as all a bit cheeky.


    Hi Steve!

    Thanks for the comment. I’ve used this on quite a few languages — see the beginning of the post — but this is definitely a blog post. It is not intended to be a peer-reviewed clinical review of language acquisition, not by any means. This is my subjective take, and that’s it. There have been a number of really angry posts and emails from PhDs and such with questions like “you’re ignorant — where is your clinical research?.” It’s just a blog post. All that said, I’m pretty cheeky regardless 🙂

    Thanks for contributing!


  42. “To be continued?”

    Yes please, but you must include a link to larger versions of the images otherwise there’s no point having them.

  43. Really interesting stuff.

    I’m always interested in learning new languages but my biggest problem has been those little technicalities or ways of structuring sentences … but they were things I couldn’t identify.

    I’d love it if you could expand on this further. I’m on the edge of my seat.

  44. Hey Tim, The language articles are great. Please keep them coming. I’ve just got back from 3 weeks in Japan – having packed light and even bought a Paktowl based on the advice of a previous article on your site 🙂

    I’d already started conventional Japanese lessons and been listening both to Japanese language podcasts and Pimsleur’s Japanese audio lessons. Once I got there it felt like everything I knew went out of the window. For 3 weeks I used my truly terrible and meagre Japanese speaking ability at all times – I learnt more from this total immersion than I had from over a year’s worth of scratching my head back in the UK.

    I lived on noodles, raw fish, and custard donuts. I was lost in Tokyo, homeless in Kyoto, and set on fire at the Kurama Fire Festival. I stayed overnight in a Buddhist temple on Mt Koya (Koyasan), fed Deer biscuits in Nara (then a Deer ate my map in Miyajima!), and also traveled round Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Osaka, and Nikko, amongst many other places.

    Thanks for the advice and inspiration. My goal is to be able to speak and read Japanese before I hopefully go back to teach there next year on the JET programme from July / August, so I will be looking out for your language articles with great interest. I’m registered with technorati so I will gladly link to those articles, especially if they use Japanese as the model language!

  45. Loved this post!!! These heuristics you’ve developed are similar to a concept in software development called “design patterns” where you identify analogies of your problem domain to a more generic set of principles.

    As you have written before, this method works very well with immersion learning. Drop into a foreign country and struggle with asking directions. There’s more nuance and flavor in that conversation that can be learned than from any other contrived situation using the grammar translation method in a classroom. My wife taught German to elementary school students using “immersion”, and their brains pretty much filled in the gaps in a fashion like you have described above. Cool stuff!

  46. Post 171 – Interesting to test this on Korean. Hangul (Koran characcter set) may be esy to learn. That’s the only easy part of the Korea language.

    Why ? This technique is void of the cultural content on a language and looks like it doesn’t pretend to answer that question.

    Language is all about communication.

  47. Tim,

    Tonya Harding is doing a dinner for two with martial arts exhibition in Kansas City ands its on EBAY.

    If she goes for more than you did recently, that’s just… wrong.


  48. The Navy paid a few hundred thousand dollars to send me to language training 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, for a year and a half to learn arabic. Maybe I should send a link to this post to them 🙂

  49. Hey, sounds good. I will put it into practice. Tim, I just purchased the book and read it 3x and I am having problems developing a “product” to put on autopilot. The things of interest or from fields of work are a dime a dozen on the internet…any suggestions? From anyone? I am 38 and lost everything I had and worked in “blue collar” telecommunications. I go into heart surgery soon and I wanted to buy myself a new FJ Cruiser for surviving the surgery with no complications. Since I will have to leave my field of experience and start from square 1 and now have absolutely no credit to speak of, this is the perfect time to live life instead of living to work.

  50. Pingback:
  51. Hey Tim,

    I was so so so happy to see you in the Times today!!!

    Great surprise on a cold Sunday morning in New York.

    My friend took a picture of me reading it today

    and said I was “glowing”.

    I’m so happy for you!


  52. This is interesting.

    Tim, what would you say is the easiest second language for a native English speaker to pick up? If necessary, assume Midwestern American dialect and also that we have access to a native speaker of the language we are learning. A one word answer is fine. Thanks!

  53. I am curious as to how you came to your conclusion that Chinese learners who use GR have better tones than those who use pinyin. Tones are THE most important part of learning Chinese, and ultimately only way to properly learn them is by imitating native speakers speech, not reading them off paper. And if you use GR, you will be handicapped by the fact that native speakers do not use/know this system. Pinyin, however, is learned and mastered by Chinese students in elementary school. I learned Chinese by asking for help and assistance from many native speakers, and I think it would be virtually impossible to do so to any degree of success, without the help of native speakers. Using GR will just confuse those people who are necessary aides in your course of study.