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

arabic-script.jpg

Deconstructing Arabic in 45 Minutes

deconstructing-russian.jpg

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.

russian-alphabet.jpg

The Russian Phonetic Menu, and…

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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?]

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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…

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

  1. What the heck, I’ll throw my $0.02 into the ring.

    Background: Native speaker of (Canadian) English. Was a student of French from Grade 7 through to 2nd year university. Studied German for 4 years in high school, then majored in German at university. Studied Spanish for 4 years in HS (teacher was born/raised in Holland, French was his 2nd language, English his 3rd). Studied Mandarin Chinese for 2 years and Japanese for 1 year at university.

    My first wife was German, born and raised. When exposed to snippets of Dutch, it completely baffled her. Conversely, I recall watching a documentary on current technology which was entirely in Dutch, and was able to understand at least 50% of what was being said.

    I’ve heard Portuguese spoken, and it’s completely befuddled me. Didn’t sound like anything I should have recognized.

    I also majored in Linguistics, so I got exposed to various other language snippets along the way.

    I took a look at that GR Wikipedia reference and didn’t find it intuitive at all. Granted, when I studied Chinese, I was only exposed to pinyin as a tool, but I found that looking at the symbol above the syllable, it was quite easy to figure out what tone was being used there. If anything (and I’m sure my Linguistics background helped), I just sort of loped along for the first part of the course, then it was like a light went on one night. After that, I breezed my way through the pronunciation. Blew away my instructor (native Chinese) the first time I read for the class after that epiphany, too. The only roadblock after that was the writing system.

    Regarding Japanese, you left out the bit about the syllables being sliced up into equally-timed pieces called morae. And the bit about the spoken sentence consisting of raised 3rds and raised 5ths (musically speaking), which was a useful tip for me when I studied it. Not sure how you’d flesh out those details using your system. (Conversely, Chinese speakers learning English would do well to understand that the duration of a vowel gives English speakers a clue as to whether the consonant immediately following is voiced or voiceless, eg, ‘beat’ vs ‘bead’, or ‘bit’ vs ‘bid’.

    I tried Italian self-study about 7 years ago, as it was a language I’d always wanted to learn, and figured that given my French and Spanish studies in the past, it should be fairly straightforward. And it was. I was making progress (enjoyably so), but it’s a lot like the difference between weightlifting in your boring basement, or weightlifting in a nice, well-lit gym with other people around to help motivate. It’s also a little challenging to respond to a recording when the recording can’t correct you. While I typically know when I’m mispronouncing words, a lot of newbies might not pick up on that when left to their own devices. Then they go forth into the foreign land and are puzzled when native speakers have no clue what they’re talking about. 😉

    I like the sports reference, though. I’ve been doing various martial arts for years, and I always compare learning MA to learning 2 other things: language and music.

    I haven’t really taken any deep language dives in many years, and having been exposed to other dialects (eg, Quebecois, Cantonese) has taken its toll on my vocabulary.

    Actually, this is probably my biggest issue. I can learn grammar, tones, etc and lock that logic away permanently, but when it comes to vocabulary, it’s very challenging to hang onto those words I’ve learned. Doesn’t seem to matter how many times I write down lists, write in margins, write on cheat sheets, the words are like smoke in the breeze. Could be because I have a touch of ADD. *shrug*

  2. Tim,

    Thanks for this article. I’d love to see more on languages. I’m learning Serbian right now, and found the same thing…in 20-30 minutes I could read cyrillic easily. It was just a process of deconstructing the language, but I didn’t realize that’s what I was doing until I read this. Peace.

  3. Russ…I’m bilingual and I speak Mandarin and English fluently. It’s not a matter of a sense of humor as much as the language it’s interpreted in. The Kancho in Anime is regarded as basically sodomy here. I’m not even kidding you. I’m hilarious to my friends in Chinese but in English, it’s kind of a dead silence going on. Language and culture play a huge part. Sorry to say this but judging from your posts, you don’t seem to know what Chinese people see as humor. American humor isn’t universal. Since I actually know what Chinese humor and American humor is, I can safely and honestly say that the language barrier issue isn’t resolved here.

    And I have to side with Ben on the pinyin thing. I’ve never heard of or been in any Chinese school using GR. It’s disgraceful if they do.

  4. I speak nine languages well, working on three more.

    My Mandarin tones are OK (check my name and Mandarin Chinese on youtube). Phonetic writing system is irrelevant to learning tones. Just listen repetitively to natural(not text book) content you like, that grabs you. Listen for the rhythm, even if you do not understand it all, over and over. I used comic dialogues (xiangsheng).

    Re grammatical differences in languages, what seems strange at first, becomes familiar and natural thru listening and reading.Not the decisive factor. Nor are sound differences.

    Choose the language you WANT to learn. Your desire to learn it is your biggest asset, which will connect you to the language and keep you going.

    The biggest challenge is vocabulary. You need lots of words to sound intelligent in a language. There are no shortcuts. But some methods are more fun and more effective than others.

    Treat language learning as an ongoing activity that needs to be fun, because you need to spend a long time at it.Listen to and read what you like,whenever you want, talk when you want, and avoid the classroom. Treat it like jogging or Sudoku.

  5. Tim – This has been a fascinating post. You said earlier that you received “angry” responses from PhDs, but I haven’t seen anything like that here. What am I missing? Are they posted to another part of the site, or did you just not allow them to be posted? If the latter, why? I think we can make up our own minds about what is and is not reasonable on this topic.

    My two cents…

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    Hi R!

    Thanks for the comment and good question. For the angry e-mails/comments: criticism is great can be great, and there is plenty of it on this blog… BUT, I view this blog like my living room. I invite people in to discuss and compare notes, and if there is someone who attacks not only me but others in an abusive way, I don’t want them in my house.

    This blog is a labor of love for me, and uncool angry people make me not love it. So… I delete them. Simple. I have plenty of time for disagreement and spirited debate, but there is a right tone and a wrong tone to use. If people are abusive, they can find another blog. I prefer to keep the blog more civil and less full of vitriol. Some bloggers feel they “have to” allow all comments to be published. Any they suffer for it — they tell me. I just keep the cool people (including those who post criticisms/questions) and delete the uncool ones who seem like they’ll be continued pains in the ass.

    Hope that explains it!

    Tim

  6. Tim,

    Good for you keeping this blog free from negativity, I fully support that – there is plenty of time for that nonsense elsewhere. Plus it just gets in the way of those of us who want better things for ourselves… like logging into this blog after my first week long info-diet from Heathrow: just wanted to see what you have been up to 🙂

    -Erik

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    Thank you, Erik, and congrats on the detox! All of recovery information addicts salute you 🙂

    Tim

  7. Tim,

    I don’t know if anyone else has pointed this out in the comments, but the process you describe leaves out a method for performing the required analysis. It’s somewhat like telling someone to learn the layout of a city before they get there, but without a map.

    Are there any books that describe these structures for specific languages? Have you published your own investigations? That sounds like an ebook, or series of ebooks that people would want to buy.

  8. Thanks Tim! I can support fully that your method works. I have myself learn to speak 6 languages in a rather short amount of time. I’ve created a course on the subject called “How To Learn Any Language in a Flash” and I’d be happy to send you a copy if you are interested. I did interviews with people who learned 25 languages and included them in my course. I imagine you must not read all of these comments but if someone on your staff would be kind enough to forward this comment to you I can certainly send you a copy of this course and maybe you’ll find a few ideas useful for you in it as well. Keep up the great work! Fred

  9. I was very glad to find this article! I have been asking around (posts on other blogs, mostly) looking for stuff like this. My plan to learn a new language is to start with the foreign grammatical structure *in English*, then fill in the actual words later.

    For instance, if I wanted to (re)learn German I would have a lovely time driving my family crazy saying things like “would you with me to the store and shopping do go?” all the time.

    Are there resources for getting this material on various languages (that don’t actually require me to do the work myself)? Most of what I find is (unsurprisingly) *in* the target language, not in English (English structure) to English (Foreign structure) format.

    I would prefer Mandarin but since my daughter is learning French I might try that first; I don’t want her to talk about me with her classmates in a language I don’t understand…

    Any suggestions?

  10. Identifying patterns is the name of the game in breaking any kind of activity down, that applies to language as much as it applies to life goals, but when it comes to language there is one other thing that is helpful and that is learning to think in the foreign language.

    Thinking in the other language as opposed to simply speaking means that the immersion is complete, and that is important because we don’t often recognize that just because a person is responding to us in English, that they are still thinking in their own language.

    That is where the bridge between SOV and SVO for instance is a good basic building block also when it comes to learning to synchronize thinking language with spoken language wherever that phonetic difference exists, something that we might otherwise ordinarily take for granted.

    M.

  11. This is excellent. Many thanks for taking the time to breakdown the structure of any language and post it up in such a simple way. This is like having a master key to the door of languages.

  12. I agree with a couple of the previous posters who said that there is no method of language-learning mentioned here and that what is given instead is a method of choosing which are the easiest languages relative to a given language. Several people posting here (#130, #154, and #155, for example) have given actual advice, and the only useful thing this blogger said was to try Michel Thomas’s CDs instead of Pimsleur.

    Anyway, by his reckoning, I shouldn’t bother with Arabic. Arabic has many sounds not found in English, but in fact I don’t mind that. My biggest hurdle in learning Arabic has been the extremely poor materials available. The standard textbook is al-kitaab, but the authors have a very strange view of what words one should learn first. They include “United Nations” in their first chapter, although that is of limited value at the beginning. They give the verb “to be cut off” before they give the verb “to take.” This is madness. “To take” should have been in the first chapter, or at worst the second. Instead, it is in chapter 12, and in my class we didn’t get to that until the second year.

    Also, I agree with #69 concerning open vowels in Portuguese. Is there a problem there that I missed? The nasal diphthongs were the problem, I thought, but definitely fun to produce once you learn how. Ditto for the q in Arabic.

  13. After two and a half years living in China, I’ve never met anyone who’s used GR to learn Mandarin. I have, however met huge numbers of people whose tones are perfect and who’ve only used pinyin. Why? Because pinyin is easy.

    Recommending that people use GR is actually detrimental to their learning, because there are absolutely NO study materials available using that system. Learning it would be a colossal waste of time.

    I must say, however, that by recommending an obscure system that nobody uses, it does make it harder to find any real evidence to prove you wrong, and at the same time allows you to appear to be much more than a dilettante. Well done.

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    Hi Kevin,

    Princeton University has a great book series called “A Chines Primer,” I believe, that uses GR beautifully. GR is a lot harder to learn than pinyin, but I’ve found — again, just in my experience — that GR learners have less re-learning to tones to do when they arrive in a native environment. No doubt that there are some great Mandarin speakers who learned on pinyin, but %-wise, I find the GR learners to have more accurate tones. Results may vary, of course.

    Thanks for the comment and for adding to the discussion,

    Tim

  14. I am a Spanish teacher and languages fascinate me. My husband forwarded this to me and I really enjoyed reading it. I would love to hear more!

  15. Tim, thanks for the quick reply. Sorry for my slightly hot-blooded response initially, but I tend to have very short patience for suggestions that any language (especially Chinese) can be learned quickly by an average or even highly intelligent person. I’ve met many people here who do speak Chinese well, and the only thing that they have in common is that they have spent years and years studying it.

    As for the Princeton textbook, I am aware that there are some materials available for GR, so I am certainly guilty of a bit of hyperbole. The problem is that once you move beyond the very basic lessons these books provide, your GR will be pretty useless, as almost all other truly useful material is in pinyin. The fantastic resources of Chinesepod, for instance, or any number of excellent online Chinese dictionaries, are all in pinyin. In fact, is there a single, modern Chinese-English dictionary available in GR?

    And, anyway, like I said originally, pinyin really isn’t that hard, and it’s not worth all this trouble to avoid it.

  16. Thanks, this is really useful! I’ve been trying to figure out what language to learn next, now I’m going to try this out before committing to my first non-Romance one (besides English!).

    I just have to find enough bilingual people willing to sit down and deconstruct their language with me first…

  17. Very interesting. I’d like to see an analysis from anyone who knows Polish and a bit about grammar/linguistics. The only person I know who speaks it is not too knowledgeable about grammatical structures.

  18. These are great, great, great tips. However:

    1) I feel like you’re suggesting we give up on language that different too greatly from our own. I just don’t agree with that.

    2) I think the fact that you were a Princeton student says alot about your capability and capacity to learn. This may be simple puzzles for you, but for others, it’s easier to learn quantum physics then language (and many do actually take a year of physics as opposed to a fourth year of language).

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    Hi Kp!

    Good comments. I’ll address these more in a future post, but quickly: 1) I’m not suggesting one avoid “hard” languages, even if it might seem that way. My first real fluent second language was Japanese, and I’m glad I started with that. 2) I actually attempted Spanish in junior high school and didn’t get anywhere with it, as I was only exposed to ineffective in-class methods. So, I don’t think going to Princeton means I have a special faculty for language. More to come soon 🙂

    Tim

  19. Interesting – I’d love to see higher quality scans, also. Along with the others I think this post is more about picking a language to learn…funnily enough I happen to be learning Chinese, Japanese, and Russian. Bad choices by this method. [PS, got any info on people who learned Mandarin through zhuyin? Exceedingly rare but I don’t think it’s as rare as GR]

    For some reason ‘deconstructing’ reminded me a bit of Japanese Step by Step.

    What I’m most curious about is your neuroscience research. There’s been a lot of discussion/clashes on language learning and learning styles on the how-to-learn-any-language.com/forum site (search ‘learning style’). Did you find any indication of this or do you believe more in a ‘one style should fit most people’ approach?

  20. I came over from Copyblogger. When I read the subject title, it was a loud “FOOF!” from me. So I came over to lurk.

    You see, I’ve lived all over the world and have struggled with Japanese, Russian, French, Malay (ok, not much of a struggle) and Spanish. Although the opportunities were there, I knew better than attempt Chinese and Mandarin.

    I’m now living in Thailand and dealing with tonal Thai. But, in Thai, it’s easier to learn to speak by reading first so I’m coming in from that angle. Wish me luck.

    “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.”

    Too dense? No. I found it amazing. I can already see how it fits for Thai.

    For more? I would love see what you come up with for Thai.

    ps: I have your book. I just didn’t think about reading your blog. After this, I certainly will.

  21. Tim,

    Great article! I have always been interested in deconstructing languages I don’t speak, but it’s interesting to see how you can use that information to select the next language to learn.

    As a native Turkish speaker and fluent in English and German, I bet you are a good candidate to learn Turkish in less than 6 months, which has similar grammar to Japanese, I have been told, and has its roots common with Finnish and Hungarian and although it is somewhat complicated and has a few unique sounds, the lack of exceptions should make it easy to learn for a methodical learner like you are.

    Let me know if you need help deconstructing.

  22. Fascinating – and, I echo some other comments, in that I’d like more about how to go about learning a language. French is on my plate next; I’ve studied German and Italian many years ago.

    Main question: Once we’ve chosen a language to learn, what’s the best way to go about it (short of plopping yourself down on foreign soil and having a trial-by-fire)?

  23. Hey Tim. Great post. When you hear a foreign language being spoken that you’re learning are you mentaly trying to translate it into English, or do you try to convert the foreign language directly into meaning?

  24. hey this article is great. i find it very useful. and i would like to request if you could send me the notes on your japanese please. if not that is cool. but anyway nice article.

  25. “this neglected deconstruction step surfaced as one of the distinguishing habits of the fastest language learners…”

    My Latin book used this neglected deconstruction the other way round: Simple construction – and after the first hour I knew – learnable. My English book did, and I knew: learnable, easier – after my first hour of French, I thought: learnable, but a little bit more complicated, due to the differences/exceptions – I am Austrian.

    To be honest, I think you describend what anybody who wants to learn a language will figure out during his or her first hour: Basic sentence building.How complicated is this language – spelling…

    Teacher or book. No idea what webcasts or podcasts are like

    But there is something strange going on today – are you all serious about what you describe?

    Maybe you can help me – the last article I read complained, that you could not really tell how to talk fluently within an hour. so i clicked, thinking wow, what could be a decent excuse for the guy to expect it ? And the article before was this one:

    http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/120/at-frog-being-green-isnt-easy-its-essential.html?partner=rss

    Excuse me, if this sounded rude, I just wondered.

  26. Way cool and clear. That’s how I learned English (I’m from Romania) and how I’m learning other languages now. And to reply to Julia: I’ve found it easier to get exposed to the full structures of a language and analyze them than to construct structures without a certain grasp on their rules. Very tiring, very frustrating. The other way around, the structure just embedded itself in time and I could construct much more easily after having it already in my head. I still can’t explain exactly how I can tell if an English sentence is correct or not, it just “sounds” or “looks” that way.

    Success with your (psycho)linguistic pursuits, all!

  27. Hi Alexandra !

    I did already feel sorry for my harshness/being nosy short after, or maybe even before having pressed “send”.

    I was in a strange mood.

    But though: Personally, I always experienced construction and deconstruction at the same time – and have still problems to see the big difference, to me it seems to be more a “congruent perspective”, though “put into words from a different angle” (dangerous expression :-)in this post.

    I think you have to deconstruct in order to be able to construct, somehow naturally – we focussed on grammar first, and that did not stay with simple structures, it just started there, similar to “This is John’s apple”, going on, and never neglecting the rules.

    (I am sorry Tim !:)

    I just do not think that the deconstruction method is neglected, more included.

    If tim’s method would allow to tell quite exactly how long it takes to learn one language compared to another, I would be more convinced of the approach, but 2-12 months seems to be a sign for huge individual differences – still.

    And are there really a lot of people who invest hundreds to thousands of waisted hours until they find out that Chinese is harder to learn than Spanish ? (Starting from English)

    I seem to have got into that strange mood again 🙂

    I should start to learn a new language now, before I go on being (maybe unfounded) nosy here and maybe I will come back soon,in order to tell: I was wrong.

    I try to approach my 4-h week first 😉

  28. thanks for the article, it seems very useful. I speak English and Cantonese but I’ve spent years learning Mandarin without success. part of that is to blame on the Hanyu Pinyin, which never really worked for me. I never learnt about Gwoyeu Romatzyh until your article, GR seems much more easier for English speakers. thanks again!

  29. What I find even more fascinating than your ability to create brilliant content over and over again such as this–

    Is your ability to market it!

    I mean really, if a linguistics geek had written this same post on their blog, they’d have titled it something like:

    “How to efficiently deconstruct the grammar, phonemes and other elements of multiple languages.”

    Not nearly as sexy, eh?

    This post floored me. I already held you in the HIGHEST regards, but this post gave me a glimpse into the brilliance of your incredible intellectual (and marketing) skills.

    BTW, your post reminded me of something–

    My wife used to have a friend in college who made it his ambition to know how to say, “The Cheese is in the restroom” in as many languages as he could find… (he was up to 12 or 13).

    The force is strong in this one…

    David Gonzalez

  30. Deconstruct all you want. Probably a good idea if you are searching for a language / languages to learn. Maybe problematic with japanese – don’t know. Have you thought about Swahili and probably the majority of African languages where they put their grammatical add-ons as prefixes, not as suffixes.

    Anyway I’ve got mine. I fell in love with Spanish at a young age, and have finally mastered it so that I can usefully read and write it. I, didn’t know it then but I do now, what a perfect choice. My access to the world through especially the internet, has practically doubled since I started surfing the web in Spanish. I don’t want to learn chinese – that’s too much. And I don’t need to deconstruct to know that. The size of the vocabulary, which consists of for me entirely new words is far too large. That is actually an aspect of the difficulty of learning a language that you left out. It is much more the size of unknown / (unrelated to yours) vocabulary that is the biggest obstacle to learning it. For example in the language that you are close to, Spanish, but probably as a learner – what is the meaning of “lograr”? – this is a word that I have serious problems in remembering the meaning for, because it is not connected, that I can see, to any of my other languages, Nordic, English, German, French, Italian, (Portuguese).

    I think I disagree about your super claim – deconstuct and four hours, nonsense. The idea is good for the grammar but most of the language is vocabulary, so you are wrong.

  31. I wonder a bit how this article actually helps to LEARN a language that fast.

    It merely helps to DECIDE which language you could pick up quickly if you wanted to try.

  32. I’m learning a lot from you! If you have broken down the Vietnamese language could you send it to me. I’m here in Vietnam for awhile and haven’t been able to “get it”. Thanks!

    Amy

  33. Tim,

    I think this article is great, however, I started learning Arabic this summer, and while being close to fluent in 7 weeks, at 16 hours x 5 days a week, i don’t see how you can say it is possible to learn any language in 1 hour. Although that really depends on your definition of “learn”, which from your book is one of the most important things to do, define. 🙂

    Sure, the basic greetings and the essential “where is the bathroom”, but more than the basic 10 phrases or so seems the problem. Sure, the equivalent of the first chapter of a language book is reasonable, but even with mapping out the tensing can be more than an hour unless you have resources available that have pre-consolidated all of it into only one location.

    But, I am going to be learning another language this spring, probably Portuguese. Any advice? I already speak English, Español, ????????

  34. Hello Tim and others,

    I live in Prague and have written some learning tips to allow someone to understand and speak Czech (and I’m sure other Slavic languages) quickly, mostly because it is written from and for an English speaker’s perspective.

    Czech is easy and it is possible to not only recollect words you might have heard months before, but to also invent perfectly acceptable words according to the system of the language.

    I don’t know how to make the information readily available for download, but I’ll send it to anyone interested.

    Pedro

  35. Great article, I’m interested in Korean. My wife is from Korea but she came the US when she was 11 and has forgotten all of her Korean. Her mother is here now (for a couple of weeks) but this is the first time they have seen each other since my wife’s adoption. Her mother only speaks Korean. My wife and I would love to become fluent in Korean as quick as possible. Can you help? Right now all we have is Rosetta Stone.

  36. Tim:

    I was tweaking my BlogLines account for any new feeds on language learning and this post on your blog came up several times (so, I guess that is one advantage of being in the Technorati top 2000). I am a language teacher and technologist and run a blog (with a very small Technorati score) called Language Lab Unleashed. I blogged your post over there and thought you might be interested to see what the responses are… they are slow in coming, indeed, but we have an audience of teachers who are slowly, carefully and thoughtfully taking exception to your “learning but not mastering” ideas. C’mon over and take a look sometime.

  37. Hello!

    In the spirit of sharing related knowledge, those of you who are interested in more links related to the subject of language-learning should check out the follwing websites (I am not affiliated with any of these websites…I’m just a keen langauge teacher and learner):

    Dynamic “language and media immersion called YABLA:

    http://home.yabla.com/product/home.php?

    BICS & CALPS explained in easy-to-understand format:

    http://www.everythingesl.net/inservices/bics_calp.php

    Yes, there are NEW approaches to teaching second languages in schools based on new research about how additional languages are acquired (i.e. AIM method by Wendy Maxwell):

    http://www.aimlanguagelearning.com/hot-topics.htm

    For those who want to learn on their own, another simple resource is LanguageGuide:

    http://www.languageguide.org/eng/

    Happy learning!

  38. Though I’m a semi-native Mandarin Chinese speaker (closer to native fluency in English, due to moving around), I agree that GR is easier for native English speakers than pinyin. However, it’d be good to learn pinyin after mastering the various pronounciations because pinyin is used far more widely than GR.

  39. HI Tim, you should either wirte a how to book to learn these languages, there is a good angle there or recommend to us where the best progrm is to elarn a language. Anybody else have a suggestion on the best way to take basic french and portuguese into functional ability

  40. The Arabic is wrong: “I ate” is “akaltu”, “you (f.) ate” is “akalti”, but without a “ya”-ending, just a kasra…

  41. Hmmm… sorry to gripe, but I’ve spotted a slight flaw in the method: your inital English sentences.

    > The apple is red.

    > It is John’s apple.

    These two are OKish, if slightly unnatural (I doubt you’d ever say either of these.

    > I give John the apple.

    > We give him the apple.

    > He gives it to John.

    > She gives it to him.

    But these four subscribe to the curious myth of a present simple in English. In modern English, that’s led to the curious existence of a “present historic” (that you’re seemingly using), which only exists in stories and sports commentaries, not conversation.

    If you fail to respect the “normal” form of English, then your correspondent won’t be able to equate the norm in your target language with that of English.

    Furthermore, while you’ve examined the complexity of the noun case system, you’ve not explored the range of tenses of verbs, which can also contribute to the complexity of a language.

  42. Hi all. Has anyone tried the Learning Spanish Like Crazy method? I’m looking at that vs Pimsleur to learn conversational Spanish for Latin America and any advice is appreciated.

  43. This is just daft, very clever but also very daft.

    Most people don’t give a gnats fig about the structure of their own language so this is essentially a useless idea.

    Clever people will work out how to deconstruct (even without a knowledge of grammar etc.) in their own way using their own special strengths, and may be just as successful but not the same. Not so clever people will follow what you describe to the letter, and wonder why it doesn’t work for them.

    You are obviously smart but do you have the ability to look beyond your own brain. Your comment about pinyin? I hope you haven’t led anybody astray. Some people can easily remember via the normal pinyin because they are already used to languge with diacritical marks. I couldn’t but my solution was to quickly get used to five new letters (1,2,3,4,5) very easy then for me to remember ni3 as a word with three letters. Glad I didn’t learn an obscure system that I would not be able to use in online dictionaries, in my handheld electronic dictionary, in my paper dictionary and wouldn’t be known by Chinese people I language exchanged with.

  44. fantastic post. I’m thinking Noam Chomsky would be very very proud. Have you thought about applying for the patent right to some of your processes?

    Regards,

    Mitch Ronco

    Immortality International, Inc.

  45. Practical post – I’m an English native-speaker fluent in French, German, Dutch and Spanish. Having learned most of these formally I had informally applied some of your approaches to deconstructing when faced with new languages. Now finally, with your inspiration I am going to meet the challenge of a Swahili-influenced Punjabi (my partner’s native language). If you – or anyone else – has any pointers, I’d be glad to know.

    Thanks and regards,

    Michael Rivers

  46. You have pointed out a number of issues which make languages difficult to learn. I can speak Czech, German and French fairly fluently (i.e., normal business conversation, not tourist phrases), plus Hungarian and some Spanish.

    The problem is getting from the basic level to proper fluency: this means an increase in vocabulary of at least an order of magnitude. To be able to use a language professionally needs at least another 5x increase in vocabulary.

    Thus it’s clear that, whereas the problems in starting to learn a language are related to how different it is from one’s native language, these differences soon disappear. By far the biggest problem in learning a language properly is learning the vocabulary.

    Romance languages are easy in this respect because more complicated, abstract English words usually come from Romance roots (via Norman French). However Hungarian is also surprisingly easy. Although the vocabulary is entirely foreign, it is built up of a core vocabulary of pure Hungarian roots using very logical rules. Thus, while it is extremely difficult to get started in Hungarian, it is not so difficult once once gets over the initial hurdles.

  47. Very good points, Castle Steps. Everyone I’ve told about this idea immediately brings up the issue of vocabulary. And as I mentioned in my earlier post (above)… I marvel at Tim’s ability to to market ideas such as learning a language within one hour! It’s a great way to get people ‘in the door’– thinking about learning new language(s) and then mastering them after they’ve got the basic structure.

    Again, very good points Castle Steps. I will one day be fluent in at least 4 languages too. 0 down, 4 to go.

    The force is strong in this one…

    David Gonzalez

  48. I am young and want to learn many languages before highschool is over. i do not know what you are talking and would love some help. please e-mail me at dragonreborn3475@yahoo.com with futher instructions. maybe you can tutor on line. Please i need your help.

  49. Tim,

    This is the first article I read from you. I found it while looking for better techniques to teach ESL in Japan. Sadly and truly ESL in Asia is a joke students pay big bucks to attend one hour a week and ultimately learn almost nothing after YEARS of study. The same is true in China and Korea in my experiences there. Most people here have been convinced by school owners that grammar is the way to learn a language, I believe grammar is the HARDEST way, and I think most school owners know that, so they stay in business forever. I am striving to get out of the industry mainly because it is a meaningless jobs since either the student don’t care to learn or the schools have a vested interest in teaching students as slow as possible English. I really like this article,and would ESPECIALLY like any suggestion you have about applying this to teaching ESL, while I MUST do it in the mean time, I want to make the most positive difference that I can. I am going to take these sentences and their gender, tense… variants and try using them in my classes, I will report back anything of note.

    Tim

  50. I’ve just been reading the posts on language acquisition and feel compelled to mention someone I’ve known for many years, Powell Janulus. He lives in a suburb of Vancouver and can easily lay claim to being the best there is regarding languages spoken and speed of language acquisition. His Guinness Book title, years ago, as Greatest Living Linguist said 41. I asked him at the time “I thought you were court certified in 42?” He replied, ” I am, they forgot English.” That was 20 years ago. I once bolted large plywood letters to the side of his small language school in Vancouver that read “WE GUARANTEE FLUENCY” along with his phone number. 50 hours of his time (at $20/hour) and he would guarantee that you could read, write and speak in any language. He meant it and has done so for many years. He’s that good. Not only that, but he gives a Hell of a Christmas Party. Don’t know the name of his current company, but it used to be The Geneva Language Institute and the Certified Legal Interpreters of BC. Still lives in New Westminster. Track him down if you’re fanatical about languages, he’s still the best kept secret and worth a Vancouver stopover. Good Luck!

    1. I met Powell around 84/85. Took some German at that school, but he didn’t/doesn’t teach the classes. My instructor was a German woman. The method was largely pattern-drills, and that may have been the general method he had teachers use there, I don’t know.

      We talked in his office and it wasn’t possible to parse from the convo what his approach in learning languages for himself was, but gathered from the sort of materials he discussed and showed me that he could learn from just about anything. He had a substantial collection of those horrible old Language30 2-tape + booklet things, and pulled one out and said, “Look, THIS is linguistics: you can figure out how a language works by just 5 minutes of this stuff.” Something like that, and I believe he meant the surface phonotaxis, prosody, syntax, basic vocab, and also implicit was that it was something Powell could do.

      His scope and depth was immense. He had old “Learn Ancient Assyrian” on that shelf, probably something only a university antiquities boffin would care about. We talked about learning classical Greek. He knew all the textbooks, even weird obscure ones. “What do you think about ‘Greek: A Structural Programme’ “? [Schachter and Ellis]. We were probably the only 2 people in 10,000 in that city that had even seen that title in the local library, let alone looked into it. He thought highly of its pattern-drill format, and that re-inforces my impression that his general approach would be along the lines of FSI old-school drill-and-kill.

  51. hey hey hey mon gars!

    alors ça parle le français ou bien?

    ^_^

    j’espère qu’tu te décourage pas, tu sais il y a aussi des tonnes de langues “non officielles”, parlées juste par quelques minoritées, qui sont dignes d’intérêt.

    Ce que j’aimerai savoir c’est si il est possible de les apprendre de la même manière sans que cela ne vienne perturber les langues déjà apprises??

    allez, kiss kiss.

    __________________________________________________________

    Hey hey hey guy!

    So you know french, don’t you?

    I hope you will stay so hard-worker. You know there are still tonns of “unofficial” languages, so interesting at all.

    What I want to know is if it’s possible to learn these dialects with the same method, or if it would conflict with previously learned languages??

    ????!

    .-SrB-.

    (ps: what is the reliability of a site such as http://www.mangolanguages.com ??)

  52. Wow! Great and insightful thinking. It’s so refreshing to discover new ways of approaching language learning.

    What really bugs me about language learning is that 80% or more of using a language usage depends upon memory recall and I suck at that. I surely do wish that someone would come up with a language learning system that recognized that and built it into the process. I would have thought that in this day and age we could come up with something better than parrot-fashion learning.

    Does anyone know of a system that builds memorization right into the heart of the process?

  53. To Nick Pagan:

    I am an ESL teacher in Japan and have been looking for the same so that I can teach my students better (it’s how I found Tim Ferris and his site).

    Though it is specific to ESL there is a guy out of the U.S. who has a website called “Effortless English” and his ideas seems excellent to me, he may well be able to give you a template of how to apply his ideas to learning other languages. At the very least sign up for his 7 day newsletter which has some excellent suggestions, some of which may surprise you other’s you have seen before. I have come to several of the same conclusions as this guy, but from my psychology and learning background instead of his ESL background. This principles in this newsletter could be applied to learning language.

    I recently demonstrated some of the same ideas he discusses in my adult classes and had my students tell me a classic Japanese fairytale in English, they won’t forget it and neither will I (my memory also sucks;-) Remember BEFORE writing people told stories and remembered the there NOT a rote list of words. I bet you remember near every fairy tale you ever heard as a kid 🙂

    Hope this helps,

    Tim

  54. Hallo Timothy,

    bin nicht der beste Sprachenlerner, aber versuche es gerade mit Spanisch, weil ich in vier Wochen nach Argentinien will. Kannst Du mir ein gutes Sprach-Institut in B.A. empfehlen? Und ein paar gute Tangoclubs?

    Habe Dein Buch verschlungen und warte jetzt auf die deutsche Übersetzung. Kommst Du auf Tour nach Deutschland? Und wenn ja, wann?

    Hi Timothy,

    I am not the best learner of languages, but your advice (and your additional hiodden material on your website) makes a lot of sense to me after being frustrated with usual learning material. However, I am embarking on a trip to Argentina. Can you recommend a good school in B.A. (comparable to Hartnackschule in Berlin)? And, while you are at it, would you have some tango clubs, you could recommend?

    Thank you and I am looking forward to rereading your book in German. Are you going on a reading tour in my country?

    Best wishes

    Holger

  55. I don’t really think this post is so clever, in fact I think the title should be more like “How to find how close is a language to yours in 1 Hour (Plus: A Favor) so that you can choose to learn the closest one possible.”

  56. Bravo and thanks for much of your stuff but the title of this post is completely inaccurate. The post tells you how to determine how relatively difficult a language will be for you in an hour, NOT how to learn it in an hour.

    If that’s the goal, why not just ask a native speaker of your language who learned the target language how difficult it was to learn? That lets you skip the deconstruction and save 55 minutes. Or have I overlooked something?

  57. Tim,

    Loved the article. I would love to see more on the subject. Formal classroom study (at least in my experience) is one of the worst ways to get your foot in the door and start using a foreign language.

  58. Great page and also great site dude!!

    Loved the concept!!

    You would love it if you are an Indian as I am doing now, coz all of our languages are so similar….

    I can surely try out this stuff on the languages!!