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…

reading-real-russian.jpg

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

  1. Hi Tim,

    I’m in the midst of putting together a site on the best methods available around the world for learning anything faster and better. I found your information fascinating because, in my opinion, it forms a great left brain foundation for how we learn languages – through our right brain functions.

    Let me explain in as few words as possible for the sake of these reading.

    We actually have more than five senses. The senses our left brain are associated with are: Sight, sound, taste, touch and smell. What many do not know is our right brain functioning is associated with the “inner” senses of: Perfect memory, computer-like math calculation, rapid language acquisition, perfect pitch (musical aptitude) and subconscious intuition. Many call these inner senses “the 6th sense.”

    My site (not launched yet) goes into each of these right brain senses in detail, but, when focusing on “rapid language acquisition”, I’ve found that immersion in the language is the best way to “pick it up”. I’ve witnessed families where both parents speak a different language, yet their young children can speak both fluently without mixing them up. That’s because most of the brain functioning of these young children takes place in the right hemisphere, where they are easily able to synthesize the subtle patterns of rhythm, frequencies, tone, pitch and accents. All these are stored in their subconscious mind and are easily accessed by their outer consciousness.

    As we grow and learn, especially in our American culture, our left brain functions become dominant and it becomes difficult to tap into the vast knowledge locked in our subconscious mind where everything we see, hear, taste, touch and smell are stored as images.

    I have many right brain-based games and training methods to help develop our natural right brain senses including rapid language acquisition, but let me end by echoing that your formula seems like a key that can open the door to the brain functions responsible for learning any language, especially when immersed in the language through recordings, foreign TV, culture, music and environment, where all our senses are stimulated and the synapses between left and right brain functions are formed – the bridge between subconscious and conscious thought.

    Take care,

    Brad

  2. Brad Davis

    I have a degree in neuroscience and feel you should use some of your statements with care. This whole left right brian thing is a simplified version of the way it actually works. Saying the subconcoius, or x function resides at y locations strictly speaking isn’t true. Brain functions for virtually all things is distributed throughout the brain with EMPHASIS (more activity)on some areas who’s location can vary form one person to another for various reasons. I’m not debunking what you are doing here only suggesting to be careful how you state what you are doing and how it works. Most people don’t know or care about the details, BUT to position yourself as a potential expert on learning and brain function be careful how you word it so as not to debunk your own expert status with your wording.

    That said, I am interested in what you are doing and a long time student of learning techniques and strategies. Please post your URL when you are ready to, I am FAR MORE interested in valid and effective methods I can USE for stuff like this (I’m currently and ESL teacher, and perpetual student of ….almost everything), rather than neuroscience technicalities no one but a neuroscience geek like myself would pick up on. Do a little homework on brain plasticity and you’ll probably have it covered. Academic experts are a pain in the butt, and often don’t have any USABLE information outside their lab, but know some details could prevent you from losing credibility as an expert on brain stuff. Again please post that URL!!! I want more more more ways to teach and learn better.

    Take care Brad,

    Tim

  3. Hi Tim,

    Thank you for the clarification. I appreciate your follow up.

    I believe what we might call right and left brain functions span throughout the brain rather than residing in one particular area. Millions of cells scattered throughout may hold one memory. In my opinion, simplification is a way to bring this concept down to earth. I’m no expert in neuroscience and appreciate your expertise.

    What has fascinated me about brain function are the subtle hidden features that we all have in one form or another. For example: (Giving no credit to myself), I’ve always wondered why I can add, subtract, multiply and divide numbers without thinking. The answer just pops into my mind. Doubting the solution, I check with a calculator and I’ve always been correct. My wondering ended when I saw young children in a Japanese academy solving even larger math problems in the exact same way. What they told me is it’s a natural right brain function called “rapid math calculation”. (Google Shichida Child Academies)

    There’s a lot more that I share on my site based on my experiences and the experiences of others which point to functions of the brain that go beyond what science has been able to prove. I feel the unique gifts we all being to the table can be developed by almost anyone. In my opinion, rapid math calculation, and other “genius” abilities, are brain functions that can be developed with the proper training, which I will be putting on my site.

    The site will include exercises, games, tips and training methods which help develop what some call “right brain senses” (please see my last entry). I have a lot to write and prep before it’s launched though. I’m building the entire site myself while holding a full-time job, holding a family together and helping others through my freelancing business. It’s taking some time!

    What I can add is, these controversial and unorthodox learning methods I hope will spur interest and experimentation. They just may awaken abilities we never knew we possessed.

    Again, many thanks for your tremendous insights!

    Take care,

    Brad

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    Hi Brad,

    Thanks. Just one thing: please don’t put your URL in the body text or it comes off as comment spam. These will be getting deleted/blacklisted in the future, so please keep your URL to the URL field.

    Thanks!

    Tim

  4. Sorry. Not helpful at all. You might overlook this comment, 300 positive are more than enough to boost your article. But.

    “[German/Russian noun cases] This is one of the reasons I continue to put it off.”

    This is only one example why I found your article uninteresting.

    Treating languages as sports? Fine, but giving up on a particular sport/language before you begin just because you gained the insight that you won’t ever become a true master of it is … unsportsmanlike.

    If you are interested in another culture and thus its language you just won’t care about the difficulty. As most foreign speakers won’t really care about your mistakes as long as you can communicate at all.

    So the only gist of your article I really find interesting is the decomposing and “… pick your target”.

  5. Very good post, although it is a short one, it gives good pointers that will make learning a new language faster, but in my direct expirience people focus on learning a new language they need and not one for a hobby, so looking for the fastest or easiest to learn is not an option, so i would like to learn more about the deconstruction of languages to make the learning easier regardles of background.

    You are on the right track on this and I wish this technique for learning a foreign language was abailible to me a few years sooner (it would have make it easier for me to learn the 3 extra languages i’m conversational in)

  6. I would love to hear whatever else you have to say about languages. I’m trying to learn as much as possible. I know a decent amount of german but would like to learn (at least grasp) a few other languages.

    PS, I just found your blog yesterday and am really enjoying it.

  7. Tim, most impressive. Methinks you are a Jedi.

    OBI-WAN: These are not the droids you’re looking for.

    STORMTROOPER: These are not the droids we’re looking for.

    TIM FERRISS: This blog post will teach you how to learn any language in 1 hour.

    HUNDREDS OF COMMENTERS: This blog post taught me how to learn any language in 1 hour.

    Teach me your secrets, o Jedi master!

  8. Hi Tim,

    Are there any locations where one could find such information for particular languages? How would one go about utilising this method?

  9. Hi Tim,

    Just a vote for you to please continue this series and post more on it if possible. A list of your Language Hacking tips tricks and resources would be great.

    JD

  10. Great! I’ve been trying to find a way to learn Danish and thought of a way to learn it faster. I wil try this method. Thanks!

  11. Answer to Debbie,

    Regarding Danish, i have learned it a few years ago in DK in a school called KISS (Koebenhavn International Sprog Skole) and it has been the most efficient way for me to learn a language (maybe not in 4 hours but in a few months). I already mentionned that school before on this blog. Although it was a very boring way to learn danish, it has been the most efficient so far. (on my fifth language) Unfortunatly i have heard it is closing (or is closed) but you might be able to get the course and/or teacher that will be willing to help you . The way they teach was basically to repeat sentances as many times you could and change just one word in it. No creativity but tremendously efficient!

    Good Luck!

    Farvel!

  12. Thank you anne for the info. I will ask my danish fiance about the school. No worries if it is closed. We will look for another school. Tak!

  13. Hi Tim,

    This article was how I found you, your book and the inventright guys. You mention in the original article that the sentences listed are some, but not all of the sentences you use in your language deconstruction. I would love to see a list of ALL of the sentences you use, so that I might use them as a basis for teaching my ESL students English as well as a basis I can use to learn Japanese.

    Thanks Tim

  14. Tim,

    I just want to weigh in on the Mandarin Chinese debate here, and support calls for an article specifically dealing with Chinese learning – in particular, I’d like to see your take on learning to read Chinese. I’ve been learning Chinese for many years and my speech is near fluent, but I still struggle with reading; I’m a long way from being able to read everyday media and just using Chinese versions of software and Chinese websites is a struggle that requires 100% attention. As on blogger already commented, the Chinese culture currently doesn’t really fit with anlaytical techniques for language learning – ask a Chinese person and they’ll just tell you to sit down and memorize characters, because that’s how they did it.

    Re: Portuguese and Spanish, could you elaborate on why learning Portuguese is bad for your Spanish? I also speak Spanish proficiently, and am considering attempting to cross-over to French, Portuguese and Italian (and the sad thing is, after all these year of Chinese study, I can still read more French!), because, like you said, it’s a path of less resistance. Do you have any caveats about doing this?

  15. Benson,

    I would like to answer your two questions, 1) how to improve your reading skills in Chinese and 2) how much of an obstacle Spanish is to learning Portuguese.

    The simple answers are:

    1) to get better at reading Chinese you need to do two things. a) have an efficient system for learning the first 1,000 characters and b) do a lot of reading while continuing to add characters efficiently. You need to get to the point where you can enjoy reading Chinese, and even enjoy reading a novel. It will always be easier to read an alphabetical language. I speak Chinese fluently and have been studying Russian off and on for 2 years. I do not speak well but can read Tolstoi. I prefer to read Russian, even with 10-20% unknown words, to Chinese where I have very few unknown words. Our (non-Chinese) brains have been trained on reading alphabets.

    Still, I learned 4,000 characters in 8 months and read Chinese quite comfortably and can provide more information about what I did if you want.

    2) Spanish is a the easiest entry point to the world of Romance language speakers, a world of close to 750 million people. The biggest task in learning a language is mastering the vocabulary. Once you have one Romance language, and Spanish is the easiest in my opinion, the others are all “low hanging fruit.” Again I can elaborate on a strategy for leveraging your Spanish to learn the other Romance languages if you are interested.

    Steve Kaufmann

    1. Steve,

      I wouldn’t mind learning the strategy of leveraging my Spanish to learn other romance languages. I am trying to learn french and italian. Merci beau coup in advance.

      Bill

  16. Paul,

    You can click on my name and read my latest blog post on how I choose the next language to learn. Here is what I said in answer to your specific question.

    I briefly tried to learn Portuguese a few years ago, since it is so similar to Spanish. I did a lot of listening to content from the Living Language course book, and the Colloquial Language series. It really did not penetrate. I dropped it. Recently, because of the large number of LingQ learners from Brazil, I took it up again. This time I took a different approach.

    You need a certain amount of beginner learner content, in short doses, in order to get your brain familiar with a new language, so that it is no longer just noise. Then you have to move to interesting authentic content as soon as possible. In other words, language learning is content based, not lesson or instruction based.

    If you know a very similar language, with very similar vocabulary, as is the case with attempting Portuguese when you know Spanish, you can essentially skip the introductory stage. You do not need a course book. Living Language or Colloquial Portuguese etc. are unnecessary and boring. You just need to listen and read and save words and phrases from content that you like. You can do short articles at first, but then you should move to lengthier content, including novels. You can listen and read at the same time, and you listen while not reading, and you also read without listening. The main thing is to enjoy it and do a lot of it. If you like, you can even listen in Portuguese while reading in Spanish, using translations of famous books, for which translation and audio books are available. Otherwise you just do a lot of listening and reading, and reviewing new words, word forms, and phrase patterns. I ordered audio books from Brazil and after a few weeks of listening and working on LingQ my Portuguese improved quite rapidly.

    With a lot of listening and reading, and a systematic review of words and phrases that come from this listening and reading, you will be surprised at how naturally the language starts to penetrate your brain, without you having to think of grammar rules or needing to identify the differences between the two languages. It is important not to convince yourself, as Tim Ferriss tries to do, that it is going to be difficult. You also need to be motivated, to like the language and to choose content that you like. I found some really interesting material in audio form, where the text was available. We have also been increasing our Portuguese content at LingQ thanks to our helpful Portuguese speaking members.

    Unfortunately ( for my Portuguese) I remain more motivated to learn Russian for now, since I have not yet reached the level I want to get to. When I do, I will get back to Portuguese, unless I go after Korean first (if we have it on LingQ by then).

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    Dear Steve,

    Please don’t use my blog to plug the bejesus out of your products. It puts off both readers and bloggers (me). I really like some of your suggestions, but especially after bad mouthing my approaches to language elsewhere on the web, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t use the comments on my site to sell people.

    I appreciate the contributions that don’t call me an idiot, but I will have someone delete your comments if you start to constantly refer to your products and site.

    Cheers,

    Tim Ferriss

  17. Steve Kaufmann,

    I agree with your comment that “You need a certain amount of beginner learner content, in short doses, in order to get your brain familiar with a new language, so that it is no longer just noise”.

    When I 1st heard some languages they sounded like the people were from outer space. It’s only after some meaning is acquired that the learning begins, and as you said, “the language starts to penetrate your brain”.

    I also agree with you regarding attitude: “It is important not to convince yourself, as Tim Ferriss tries to do, that it is going to be difficult. You also need to be motivated, to like the language and to choose content that you like.” Negative thoughts impede the learning process, regardless of the subject.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Paul

    ###

    Hi Paul,

    Just to defend myself here, I’m not advising being negative at all. I’m suggesting that people know and expect the challenges in each language they pursue. If you expect a dip in proficiency in country around month 6, which is my trend, than I can overcome it rather than quitting out of frustration.

    Hope for the best but plan for the hard stuff is what I was trying to convey.

    Cheers,

    Tim

  18. I still speak a bit of French and Italian, left over from college. I have been putting off learning Spanish, (which would be a much more useful language for me) afraid that 3 languages with a Latin base will just mush together in my brain. The few Spanish words that I have picked up already sound so much like Italian to me that I sometimes can’t distinguish between the two. What is your experience with this?

  19. Sandra,

    In my view you need to focus on one Latin based language for a while. If you only “speak a bit” of a language it is easy to get confused when learning a little bit of a similar language.

    Spanish is the best “entry door” into the world of Romance languages, because of its consistent spelling, relatively easy pronunciation and wide use. Just go for Spanish, spend a year on it if necessary, do a lot of listening and reading of material that you find interesting. Try to do a little bit almost every day, listening in the car, while doing chores etc. Always carry a little Spanish reader around with you.

    Do not worry too much about how well you speak, at least for 6 months. Do not try to nail down the grammar. You may want a small grammar book for reference, but mostly you just want to get used to the language and learn words. And try to find a way to enjoy the language. Use the Internet where you can find lots of content and use online dictionaries. Your bits of French and Italian, and the Latin based words of English will help you.

    Once you have a good grasp of Spanish, you can go back to French and Italian and you will find that you have improved in those languages without having studied them.

  20. Dear Tim,

    I will respect you wishes and will keep my comments constructive and general. Although we have our areas of disagreement, we also agree on many aspects of language learning. I think it makes for a lively discussion of language learning if a variety of perspectives are available for the readers.

    Regards

    Steve

  21. tim…this is extraordinary… although most people i know are bilingual. this is where it stops..

    i had latin in mid. along w/ english, spanish, and french (native). the latin has been a tremendous help for thinking in roots.

    i can read italian (main), portuguese (and speak), then catalan, aragones, occitan, navarres, languedoc, lombard, normaound, they are juste the same language…

    but what is the code?…

    once i was working w/ some chinese friends on a project…they blurted out some directives to one another…and i understood!….didn’t know any chinese at all.. where is that from…i also picked up some tagalog, thai, and others…

    so i figured this :

    a child knows nothing but start speaking around age 1 1/2…

    2 to be more certain.

    well to master anything, that seems to be the magic number…2 yrs…

    to get your black belt…2 yrs; to get proficient in dancing…same..

    but what is mastery and proficiency?…

    how is it related to a child?

    when thinking of the meaning of a black belt…it is only the certification on having learned the basics…only!

    thats when and only then that the real journey begins..

    same at 2 yrs old…there comes the click for the child..

    begining of independance.

    i had been dancing salsa for 15 yrs..and i decided to take formal salsa (rueda) lessons.. first, thought i new nothing!!! looked like i could not fit my 2 feet together for a few weeks…8 mo later i was excellent…but the real epiphany happened 2 yrs later…

    exactly what i had been told at the beginning by the instructor.

    so how does that apply to cracking the language code?…

    well the 2 yr break out got me thinking… what had changed?…wasn’t the knowledge a month earlier and a month later had not made a difference…

    salsa had become me.. so i happened to hag out w/ some old filipinos friends of mine…and same…tagalog was part of me…. i can think in portuguese (recent for me)..as if i came from brazil.. i don’t translate..

    so i got to read some of the above languages..and same thing…some i had never even heard of… where is that coming from?…

    well as most of you know ( i see lots of pro linguists in here) language is just the expression of inner emotions. and so all living beings have these basic emotions… even plants…

    so how can a dog/cat understand your command…as well as your state of mind…

    how ca a horse know your intentions?

    or koko the gorilla could look at a pic of an animal and tell the feelings of the animal?

    how can we ‘get’ that from writings of an unknown language? the refined thoughts and emotions behind the pen?..

    physically, sounds and words accounts for 7-10 % of communication…but when written?

    breaking the pattern of thoughts…

    formed by cultural point of views…

    deformed by personal experiences..

    reformed by other beliefs..

    and tainted by local idiosyncrasies.

    so fun!

    in the end…what is being said is more important than how… or is it!

    salut…

    F.

  22. Thanks very much Tim. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this.

    I had a few of your other articles from some time back – How to Learn Any Language in 3 months, Why Language Classes Don’t Work….., and The Art of Wrapping Your Mouth …….

    I’ve found them all really good, informative and thought provoking.

    I’d love to see more.

    I’m going to Vietnam to teach spoken English in May and I hope you don’t mind if I use some of your insights and techniques. If you object, please let me know.

    Would you be interested in a JV, to see if your tehniques work in the other direction? Or won’t it matter that English has so many phonemes?

    Please keep up the great work.

    Regards,

    Rob

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    Hi Rob!

    More coming, for sure. I’d LOVE to see what you can do with English in Vietnam! Ah, the jealousy 🙂 I hope to be in Vietnam in late 2008 or early 2009.

    Good luck!

    Tim

  23. This post is very interesting, but I caution that your example sentences would not effectively expose the workings of a language such as Basque, with complex, alien verb structures. I would suggest diversifying your sentences to include differences between: 1) transitive and intransitive verbs:

    “I will not change” [intransitive]

    Ni ez naiz aldatuko

    “I will not change my name” [transitive]

    Nik ez dut nire izena aldatuko

    “The dog wants to eat” [transitive]

    Txakurrak jan nahi du

    “Dogs are good” [intransitive]

    Txakurrak onak dira

    2) Grammatical number of subject and direct object:

    “The dog wants to eat a cat”

    Txakurrak katu bat jan nahi du

    “The dogs want to eat a cat”

    Txakurrek katu bat jan nahi dute

    “The dog wants to eat cats”

    Txakurrak katuak jan nahi ditu

    “The dogs want to eat cats”

    Txakurrek katuak jan nahi dituzte

    Basque not only has the “much-dreaded noun cases”, but it has a hell of a lot more than German does. It distinguishes subjects of transitive sentences from subjects of intransitive sentences [Ergative case/Absolutive case], it has a behemothly complex auxiliary verb system, and that’s not even the most exciting part.

    I think your system would work well for languages like French or Spanish, but I would be more cautious about touting its efficacy, as it seems a bit euro-centric [despite the fact that it “works” with a language like Mandarin…. which is admittedly much like English in syntax].

  24. Tim,

    What do you think about the impacts of trying to learn two languages at once — is it your opinion that this would result in a net increase or net decrease in the efficacy of learning each one?

    My own guess is that it depends on the languages….two very disparate languages would not be good, but two very similar languages…Spanish and Italian for example…would be good.

    Thoughts?

  25. Loved your article on learning languages. It may explain why on my recent visits to Shanghai, that learning my way around the tonal qualities was not as difficult as I had expected.

    On the other hand, a recent visit to Barcelona, rendered me completely tongue-tied, despite my light knowledge of French, and classes in Castilian Spanish. I was mixing up french and Spanish constantly.

    As I have discovered in the past, the method of mastering a skill can be acquired in numerous ways, so this discussion was of particular interest to me. I’d love to hear more.

  26. Hey Timothy,

    I have a proposition for you:

    you teach me to dance the Tango like a pro and I show you around in Amsterdam and teach you how to hand paint 17th century tulips. It’s all about having fun in life, learning and loving, right!

    How about it……. would you like to take this chance?

  27. I use GR. As well as the GR texts like Chinese Primer and Mandarin Primer, I use software tools (which I wrote myself) to convert pinyin to GR, so I can grab any learning materials off the web and display them with GR. For example, I downloaded CEDICT, converted it to GR, and imported it into Wenlin as supplementary C-E dictionary.

    GR is not suitable for most people, simply because of pinyin’s dominance; and also because some find GR too complicated or less natural, or because they are less visually-oriented learners who pick up the tones more by listening. But for people who are good at spelling, GR can be very useful, because the tones are embedded in the spelling.

    McGinnis’s study, which found that GR did not lead to better tonal production accuracy, did not take into account individual differences in people’s learning styles or their proficiency in spelling. I would suggest that people who have good visual memory, and can recall the shape (spelling) of words would benefit from GR. Those who struggle with spelling might find GR frustratingly complicated, but may learn the tones well by listening to spoken Chinese.

  28. Hi Tim

    I am just reading your book now and have found it so far to be one of the most inspirational I have ever read. And I have read many!!!

    Most of the suggestions are really step by step and self-explanatory which is awesome. With regard to the languages… aside from this blog post do you have a recommended system for actually learning the language after you’ve chosen which one to learn? Any tips on learning conversational French quickly (aside from the obvious one of going to France!)

    Thanks in advance

    Rachel Henke

  29. You are not the first linguist to say to cheekishly admit you’ve put off learning Russian.

    I didn’t.

    Russians think language is a method, not a goal. You treat language acquisition as the goal, so you pick and choose which trophy you will hang on your shelf.

    I agree with you, one thing that Russian has taught me is Russians are kind of mean spirited little buggers.

    But, I will point out that I learned Russian. You didn’t. So in internet parlance, I basically own you.

    [From Tim: You own me? LOL… try learning to read and write Japanese and Chinese, then we’ll talk 🙂 ]

    The key to learnign Russian is to follow none of your advice by the way. Learn to speak it first, then go back and learn the rules.

    Here is my advice, in a nutshell:

    Brute force memorize about 5000 words.

    Now, you have enough you can start picking up sentences.

    It will be rare for a Russian to have the patience to help you, but if you find one, that person is gold, treat them as such. If not, just bully your way into conversation after conversation while they relentlessly ridicule you…so what, you can get them back later)))

    Then, after this awkward phase which lasts a year or two, you can begin normal conversations…once you are at a certain level, you can escape the ridicule that Russians heap on top of all learners.

    (You say, thats not my experience!…if its not, you aren’t actually a learner, as the author of this blog noted: if you are talking in English about your DESIRE to learn Russian…you are escaping ridicule because you are not actually a Russian learner…to see my point about Ridicule, never leave the Russian language…and see what happens:)))

    OK, finally when you get to a certain level, go back and learn those grammar rules and get the academic background, etc.

    After that its all gravy.

  30. Ola, gostei do que observei no site, solicito ajuda para que eu possa aprender uma nova lingua, necessidade trabalho. Tenho interese em aprender inlges, chines e japones. Fico no teu aguardo. Um grande abraco

    ###

    Ola Simonsen,

    I recommend you learn English first, since you can then use English books to learn Japanese and Chinese. I hope that helps!

    Um grande abraco tamben 🙂

    Tim

  31. Your 1 hour language article was great! However, since you’ve already done the work on a dozen or so languages, might you post your lists (for example, easiest to hardest of those languages for a native English speaker) and notes for those languages?

  32. Wow, its amazing that you can pick up that many languages so fast. You should definitely consider making your techniques into an information product of some sort. You would make millions.

  33. Thanks for the article Tim. I added it to a post on my genealogy blog of to 15 language sites.

    I’m one who has put off learning a second language for a while and your article may be just the thing to help motivate me to actually do it.

    Tim

  34. Interesting article. It would be great if you listed the easiest languages for english speakers to learn based on your knowledge

  35. well greate

    But please give some idea to learn SINHALA……as well

    itz very important to me

    I hope you will take steps

  36. Hi,

    I think your sugestion of learning Language is very good.

    But, I think it is just for basic grammar and expressions.

    After mastering basic grammar and expressions, how can I enlarge vocablary and many expressions?

    I’m Korean, and I learned English more than 10 years during my school time. But, I always have difficulty in English, especially in hearing and speaking. Can you sugest good Idea?

  37. I think this is just great. After reading this, I went and started learning Japanese. Next year, I think I’m going to take a class on it at my school. Right now I’m fluent in two languages: English and Spanish. I’m learning Maori, and I naturally picked apart the words, sentences, verbs. I figured out how it works at its roots, and I am now speaking it with a cute native New Zealand girl that recently moved here. Thanks for all the help! Gracias por todo amigo! Kia ora hoa, kia ora.

  38. Could you possibly provide a breakdown of how one might go about using this system to learn a language in an hour? Possibly providing an example for, say, french ? Or Spanish? Just so we can see the process you wrote about in action!!

    This is a great post and I think a semi-detailed example would really drive the point home… Or at least let us view full-size versions of the images in the post!

  39. Have you heard of Pimsleur? He was a linguist that created a new form of language study. The way schools all over the world teach any language is by a visual method (reading and writing). But the truth of the matter is that a language is a hearing and speaking thing.

    I bet there are a lot of Mexicans that can talk but can’t read spanish. However, give me a Mexican that can read spanish and not speak it and I’ll give you… I don’t know what I’ll give you…something nice.

    So check it out. Pimsleur created a new language learning experience based on repetition and anticipation. In other words, he makes you think. Instead of telling you to repeat after him all the time, he teaches you how to say something and 5 minutes later asks you to say it once more but without telling you how you’re supposed to say it.

    Anyway, more info here. Nice blog. I’m looking forward to buying and reading your book!

    Dario

    (spanish, english, italian, japanese, chinese and some german)

  40. Pingback: eduFire » Blogs
  41. Guten Tag von Berlin!

    Partly after being prompted from your book, I was able to go on a study abroad trip this summer in Berlin. I´m leaving in a few days, but I have to say I understand why this is one of your favorite cities. Anyway, the type of learning you described here helped me significantly during my study of the German language. Since I speak decent Spanish, I just put everything in context of what I knew of that, and then spent extra time focusing on things that were different i.e. Ich möchte ins Kino gehen vs. Yo quisiera ir al Cine. Good post. Also, I´ll be gone by the time I read it, but for next trip, what was your favorite thing in Berlin? I´d have to say mine was the Paul Löbe Haus, even though I didn´t get to go inside. Finally, do you know any Dutch? Neat language.

    Auf Wiedersehen,

    Doug

  42. Dear Tim, Thanks for your book, website and blog! Please continue on deconstructing languages. I certainly would appreciate it.I stated learning German seriously in Switzerland, in my late 40s, early 50s. More recently I began Russian.

    After excellent traditional grammar instruction without much progressI realized I needed to understand and get a grip on the written alphabet before I could move ahead with the grammar and vocab. For typewriting there is an excellent, very good though pricey program, Virtuoso, that really drills the correct fingering. Be sure to enable Russian typewriter, though, as at least one character will not function in the program without it.

  43. hi all

    just let you know this site italki.com

    Not sure if you guys have seen

    italki.com is a global online community for language learning. – With italki.com, you can learn a language naturally by talking with native speakers of that language. It’s a great way to practice what you’ve learned in class and to study how native people really speak. – You can also make friends from all over the world, and learn about foreign countries and cultures.

  44. Hi Tim,

    Thanks for the inspiration. As a language teacher, I couldn’t agree with you more – the way languages are taught traditionally is mind-numbing and ineffective.

    I also love the Michel Thomas series – has anyone tried the new Arabic and Chinese courses that they published?

    I was wondering if you would give me permission to publish your article “Why Language Classes Don’t Work” in my free e-zine “Language Learning Express.” I’m going on vacation and a guest article would be most welcome :)) Plus, it’s right on the mark and I think our readers would greatly benefit from it.

    Do you know about Vera Birkenbihl? She wrote “Sprachenlernen leichtgemacht,” which I think is brilliant. (“Language Learning Made Easy,” not available in English…)

    Thanks for your commitment to live life to the fullest – it’s the only way!

    Nathalie

  45. In my own travels and approaches to learning new language, I’ve always focused on the verbs followed by the pronoun.

    It has been my experience that if I at least focus on the ‘action’ in the words I’m trying to communicate, the listener can pick up the rest.

  46. > “Joe, I didn’t know that ASL uses SOV. That is too cool! Esperanto, anyone?”

    Esperanto encodes specific grammatical functions into each word. In theory it can be SOV, SVO, VOS, VSO, or whatever you like. In practice it tends to mirror the sentence structure of the speaker’s native language. Because most of the Esperanto that I read comes from native speakers of western european languages, it is mostly SVO.

    But the word order can (and does) change radically when needed for poetic effect.

    Try Esperanto sometime if you haven’t already. It’s sort of like a highly simplified Latin derivative with a healthy dose of eastern euro vocabulary, some germanic agglutination, and a major shot of English helper-verb influence. You’d probably find it easy and fun.

  47. This was awesome! I would love more language articles. And more step-by-step & how-tos would be very helpful! I found the 80-20 rule incouraging…now I’m less nervous studying and speaking new languages!

    Thanks!

  48. Antoher Great post !

    An Idea:

    To illustrate the point you make in the post, how about any “non-English” people out here translate the sentences above into their languages and we can all get a taste and understanding ?

  49. Tim, could you efficiently conquer the spiritual world too: God-Realization/Enlightenment/Samadhi, etc?

    What are the short-cuts to succeeding with ajapa (ceaseless mantra of Divine name) and/or meditation to experience and function from that all-knowing, ever-new, continuous Bliss, the Brahman?

    *Also how do you feel about the GMO/cloned foods that are filling supermarkets and fast-food? Or the fluoridation of drinking water? I remember reading somewhere that Japan rejected some of these GMO foods because they found it could cause a resistance to certain antibiotics. Japan, Greece, and some other countries also don’t put fluoride in the water because of bad effects, as Nazis had used it to keep others more docile. Do you use really good water filter? BTW it does not seem that Japan or Greece have worse problems with cavities.

  50. Very interesting article and theory! As an ESL instructor, I’d be curious to try and pose this technique to new students, maybe as a way to help them get comfortable with learning English more easily. Your approach at least demystifies some of the things that could later intimidate a language learner.

    One thing I’m curious about in your “test sentences”–why no passive voice (“The apple was given to John (by me)”)? I remember learning that in German and it just completely threw me. For a lot of language learners, that’s a tough thing to grasp and acquire.

  51. This is an excellent, original take on an oft-referred to topic. With globalization expanding at an unchecked rate, more and more of even the proverbial “one language speakers” – Americans, are learning foreign languages. In my blog post, “How to Learn a Foreign Language in One Hour”, I discuss how author Tim Ferris’ view are somewhat similar to mine, but with some differences. My blog post gives examples using the English and Chinese languages to illustrate some of our mutual views. Whether a language is potentially difficult to learn or not, with incentives and motivation it can be done – and done well using a variety of techniques including Tim’s method of “de-constructing” the foreign language.

    Thank you for this insightful article.

    Sincerely,

    Prof. Larry M. Lynch

    Santiago de Cali University

    Cali, Colombia

  52. Very helpful post, Tim.

    First, where is your article “Why Language Classes Don’t Work”? I would like to read that article. Nathalie mentioned it, in her comment of July 29th, 2008.

    To get back to your article “How to Learn (But Not Master) Any Language in 1 Hour”, I have been looking for detailed explanations concerning why, for a particular student, some foreign languages might be easier or more difficult to learn. Since I am not fluent in anything but American English, your post gave me specific reasons as to why effective foreign language teaching needs to be tailored to account for the structure and idiosyncrasies of the student’s native language, as well as the target language. That would seem obvious, right? Well, it is not, for many people.

    But more important, and harder to find, are suggestions on how, exactly, to develop effective lesson plans and drills that will ease the transition from the student’s native language to the target language. Your article took that extra step.

    It is also very interesting that some criticized your original post as not useful, because you made “complex leaps in thought-processes” that “normal people” cannot be expected to understand, although “academic linguists draw the inferences all the time”.

    This ignorance, or deliberate disregard of differences between languages, has led to the adoption of some stubbornly simpleminded and unproductive methods of language teaching. These methods unfortunately became long running fads, such as the direct method (used by Berlitz), audio-lingual method (Harcourt’s ALM), and most recently, Rosetta Stone, with their dynamic immersion method. Why people continue to deceive themselves with these ineffective methods is a mystery to me.

    The very strange case of Rosetta Stone throws an additional cloud of doubt over the truthfulness of anonymous online reviews, as well making me doubt the accuracy of reviews published in reputable newspapers and magazines. Whether online or in reputable print media, those who review Rosetta Stone are praising and recommending it, rather than criticizing it, by a margin of a hundred to one.

    Please share more of your thoughts on the subject of how to effectively teach languages to students of different backgrounds.

  53. @Casey,

    Thank you for the excellent comment and intelligent observations. Thanks also for the reminder. I’ll try and track down that article and put it up soon.

    More to come 🙂

    All the best,

    Tim

  54. Casey,

    I agree on the limited usefulness of Rosetta Stone. However, as someone who speaks 10 languages, Asian, Romance, Germanic, Slavic, I feel that the differences between languages do not matter that much, in terms of how to go about learning them. The key issue is your motivation to learn the language. After that, the next most important thing is to avoid being obsessed with grammar or perfection. Just focus on exposing yourself to a lot of content, listening and reading, some writing and talking, and try to accumulate words.

    It is easier to learn a language with a lot of vocabulary common to languages you already know. It is the common vocabulary, rather than any “deconstructing” that will determine how easy the job is. But it is motivation that will determine success, based on my experience as a learner and from watching others.

  55. Tim,

    I look forward to the article on “Why Language Classes Don’t Work”? I firmly believe that the emphasis on classroom instruction for language and literacy teaching represents a tremendous waste of money ( I am talking billions of dollars of public money alone) and ends up discouraging many people from learning another language.

    Unfortunately the established language teaching establishment, including Adult English instruction for immigrants and general literacy teaching is based primarily on the expensive and ineffective classroom model.

    The Internet offers many ways to enable people to learn languages more effectively and with a much smaller expenditure of money. I wonder if the people involved in public education will ever get the picture.

  56. Hello Tim,

    Your articles and the book are very inspiring and we love the way you think about language learning/teaching.

    We are a start up business and put language courses onto mobile phones. We want to make learning available for everyone, everywhere, ideally for free (at least the basics). This will be big- and you would be the ridiculously most suitable (English) language course creator for our adventures.

    We know you are absolutely too famous for us, but if you are interested we would be delighted hearing from you.

    Julia

  57. Hi, Tim.

    Is your Princeton thesis research available? How much did your research focus on that neglected deconstruction step, for language learning?

    And you were involved in redesigning curricula for Berlitz?

    When I encountered Berlitz and ALM, many years ago, it was mostly listen and repeat, and wait for a miracle to happen. No analysis, please! It was against the rules of the methods, at least according to the instructors that I encountered. Perhaps some students experienced the long awaited flash of comprehension, but I never saw either method work, with anyone. Lately, the old fads are back, recombined as Rosetta Stone.

    Interesting, that you drew the analogy that ones brain needs to be “formatted” for a new language.

    I am not a teacher. However, I have always felt that language learning requires four steps.

    — First, learn model sentences. Understand the individual words and how the words work together, to produce any idiomatic meanings. (Of course, we assume capable instructors have chosen the model sentences.)

    — Second, learn how the language’s grammar puts words together into sentences.

    — Third, learn as many idioms as possible.

    — If one wants to converse in person, a fourth step is required, learning pronunciation.

    I don’t know exactly how and when pronunciation should be blended in. Your article pointed out that the optimum study strategy will vary, depending on each student’s prior knowledge base.

    For the first step, learning the model sentences, your “Six Lines of Gold” analysis could be one technique for picking the model sentences.

    For the second step, grammar, it seems like learning grammar might be the brain formatting task that you mentioned. Get the formatting right, and we ease the task of pouring in the content. However, not every expression that is grammatically correct has meaning. And often, if it has meaning, the meaning might be completely contrary to what you might expect.

    Hence, the third step, idioms, which is rarely mentioned. As hard as grammar can be, learning idioms is probably the most difficult and time consuming task, in my humble opinion. There is no rhyme or reason to idioms, and there are so many of them, some with slippery nuances of meaning.

    What is your experience with learning idioms? Any insights? Or is it the grim march that I envision?

    And idioms continue to provide material for comedy writers. To choose a rather coarse example, don’t ever do a word for word translation of the innocent sounding English phrase “I am hot”, without prior verification of the possible meanings.

    Casey

  58. Casey,

    From my experience in learning lots of languages, I have to disagree with you.

    Stage 1:

    Listen to and read a limited amount of simple content for which translation is available. Do this repetitively, to get over the strangeness of the language. Consult a simple short reference grammar if necessary. Speak and write ery little

    Stage 2:

    Move to interesting authentic content, again listening and reading and learning vocabulary. Speak and write a little more.

    Stage 3:

    Continue listening and reading, and focus on refining the grammar using material written in the target language.

    The pronunciation and ability to speak will come. Avoid focusing on idioms, they are hard to use and a distraction. Do not try to understand or remember the rules of grammar, you won’t be able to until you have had a lot exposure to the language.

  59. Tim, why learn to read or write whats the point, your gonna lose it later unless you keep up, and are you going be really effective? Learn conversation thats it, learn enough reading to get by…

    Drop all congegations…they are unnessessary. Just learn a broken language…as long as you can communicate …thats the point.

    QuinnDarrin

    Italy, China, Korea, Japan

    I train people on how to speak english….(kind of)

  60. HI Guys,

    I am possibly going to spend 6 months in CHina and am looking for the best way to prepare myself to learn the language. I’d like to spend several hours before I go and once I arrive I’ll use a combo of classes and practice as per Tim’s suggestions…

    Can anyone direct me to a good beginners Chinese course that I can use asap?

    I currently speak French and SPanish and am English

  61. Ladies and Gentlemen,

    If you would like to speak fluently any language at a conversational level, give a serious thought to the Pimsleur Method.

    It is a bit expensive, (about $150 when I bought Russian and German courses) but I can personally attest of its efficiency.

    It will require initially about 30 minutes of your time daily; just follow the instructions and repeat the words and phrases at the required intervals.

    Before you know it the whole world opens up and you start picking up the rest. Of course you must be among natives to get the most out of it (as with any other method)

    The principle of this method is that anybody, even babies pick up any language or dialect phonetically, before understanding alphabet symbols and rules such as declensions, which tend to clutter our initial learning.

    Regards

    Joe

  62. Fantastic! I love your approach. I believe that this kind of active approach instead of just sucking in regurgitated lessons, is of r-e-a-l help. A sort of think-for-yourself-schmuck-approach.

    Would only add that if you use a system that can help you memorize words more quickly, you would be up an running speaking a foreign language in a very short time. You can check out my site, for I typically spend 40 to 60 minutes a day memorizing foreign words, being able to learn 100 words in that hour. With about 100% recall rate.

    Of course, living in the country itself would be a bonus, but the way I see it it’s 1) Grammar, 2) Vocabulary and 3) Pronunciation. Well, and 4) Practice.

  63. Ok this is great! I discovered most of this on my own, but loved the sentence translation for language decrypting. Only problem is that I don’t know anyone personally that speaks both English and Romanian. How do I get the sentences translated and transliterated for me?

    By the way this question is not only intended for Tim, but to everyone out there that can help.

    Thanks Everyone

    Jeremy

  64. Uhm. Okay You Lost Me At The Big Words xD Lol. But Im Pretty Sure People Over 12 Years Old Will Understand What Your Trying To Say… And It Sounded Pretty Smart To Me. [[yes, I Continued To Read It Even Though I Had No Idea What The heck You Were Saying…]] Aha Soo Uhm. Yeah 😀 Haha.

  65. I like the language acquisition topic.

    I am a teacher of Japanese (11 years) as a second language and recently started studying Spanish. What helps me is that the phonetic pronunciation of Spanish is very similar to Jpn and it has the same vowel sounds plus my knowledge of French and English helps me in guessing the meaning of many Spanish words. I think in any language it helps to understand sentence order but first mastering the sounds is also crucial to being understood. Some languages seem daunting-yes Jpn has 3 writing systems but so much of the grammar and verb conjugation is so easy that once you learn the writing overall it is quite basic. What I do is use a lot of mnemonic devices to help my students learn words plus repetition so that in time they are speaking/understanding without much hesitating. Last but not least it does help having the ability to mimic sounds and of course use the language with real live humans.

  66. Very interesting. Though I must say that I never start learning the language before I have motivation for it, and already know some of it (that is, being exposed to it before). For example, I live in Denmark, and I was taking classes for 4 years! (those who did not, can hardly speak). I have a Portuguese boyfriend, and, after 4 years, I’m starting to speak a little and understand many things without too much extra effort (only speaking for fun, music, and some textbooks). I’ve been exposed to Spanish in various ways, and only after many years I’m finally taking classes, and planning to live in SA. Same with other languages… first comes the reason, only them some (pleasant and easy) effort to learn more.

  67. Well, this is what the first class of any language course should be about: just making students realize how much effort they are bound to put into learning this new language… Smart list of questions for determining the difficulty level of each language.