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


Deconstructing Arabic in 45 Minutes


Conversational Russian in 60 minutes?

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

Here’s the reasoning…

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

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

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

Consider a new language like a new sport.

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

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

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

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

Six Lines of Gold

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some of my favorites, with reasons, are below:

The apple is red.

It is John’s apple.

I give John the apple.

We give him the apple.

He gives it to John.

She gives it to him.

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

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

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

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

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

I must give it to him.

I want to give it to her.

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

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

Sounds and Scripts

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

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


The Russian Phonetic Menu, and…


Reading Real Cyrillic 20 Minutes Later

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

In all cases, treat language as sport.

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

[To be continued?]


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

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

  1. Hello Tim,

    On November 7th, 2007 you asked about SOV (subj, obj, vb – I had to look it up) for Esperanto. Esperanto is roughly like a big average of the European languages; pardon to Celtic and Slavonic Speakers if I am wrong, but Zamenhof, the creator of Esperanto, was from Poland, so it will be connected to them as well, which You would be able to see in the additions to the letters and in the question words starting on k- and also the word for and – “kaj”.

    Ok specifically SOV. The order tends to be SVO as in the source langs, but Esperanto has an accusative affix -n which is used as a direct object ending but also as directional ending as in German with the prepositions “an auf hinter in neben über unter vor zwischen”. Because of the ending the accusative object can be placed in any order, even if normally it isn’t (as most of the speakers originate in a language which doesn’t do that). This aspect, I imagine, is either a habit thing or something used for high literary style.

    From Cedric’s list:

    The apple is red. Pomo estas ru^ga (^g is a g with a circumflex over it and pronounced as the English j).

    It is John’s apple. ^Gi estas pomo de Jono.

    I give John the apple. Mi donas la pomon al Jono/ La pomon mi donas al Jono/ Jono mi donas pomon. (SV seems essential, well only to prevent confusion*)

    We give him the apple. Ni donas la pomon al li./ Ni donas al li la pomon.

    He gives it to John. Li donas ^gin al Jono.

    She gives it to him. Shi donas ^gin al li.

    I must give it to him. Mi devas doni ^gin al li.

    I want to give it to her. Mi volas doni ^gin al shi.

    * where there is no confusion possible any order is possible:

    Li donas librojn tuttempe – he donates books every time

    Librojn li donas tuttempe – Books is what he donates every time

    Tuttempe li donas librojn – He always donates books.

    Tuttempe librojn li donas – It is always books that he donates.

    (sorry perhaps not the best example to show it with)

    And I almost forgot SV/VS; No I will correct myself for above; I think it is always SV, even in questions and negatives. Esperanto uses ^cu for the question mark like English uses do or does or reverse order;

    ^Cu vi iras hemen? – Are we going home?

    ^Cu li tuttempe donas librojn? – Does he always donate books?

    Ne, li ne tuttempe donas librojn. – No, he doesn’t always donate books.

    The directional effect of the direct object (accusative) -n ;

    1. Esperanto: La kato saltas sur la tablo

    English: The cat is jumping on the table (is already on it)

    German: Die Katze springt auf dem Tisch.


    2. Esprnto: La kato saltas sur la tablon

    English: The cat is jumping up on the table (onto it)

    German: Die Katze springt auf den Tisch.

    I think for this effect any preposition that makes sense, or even none may be used, not restricted to the ones that they use in German.

    An example of no preposition: Mi iras hejmen. I am going home.

    Quickly endings; -o for nouns, -a for adjectives, -e for adverbs, -i for infinitive, -is -as -os for past present future -indicative, -us for sub/conjunctive, -nt- for active participle, -t- for passive participle. Always the same! And cut and paste with these endings as you like just about, and you can get an awful lot of meanings. (The only reason I do not know Esperanto better is that I will have no one to interact with – beleive me, it is the easiest language (for a European). I practically did no writing to learn it, I used two tape recorders, one for question items and one for answer items, or one for each direction…)

    So with -e being for adverbs, and “for” being “distant”.

    You should be able to add the -e to be specific about word class, and get fore = distant . . so “Mi iras foren” (with the directional -n) should be constructable with the meaning “I am going far away”. I.e. this directional is logically able to not only modify nouns that follow a preposition, but also adverbs that are normally positional in sense.

  2. Thanks Tim, Nice to be appreciated!

    But wait there is more, as they say in the ad. I just realized that what makes up the tenses is the vowel; -i- -a- -o- and the -s is the personal ending so you can put these vowels in front of the participle endings and then an adjective ending

    Three pictures in the teach yourself Esperanto book p118 brilliantly shows

    the active -nt- in three tenses:

    1. the picture is of a man walking to the edge of a cliff, and being about to put his next step into the air past the cliff,hat in hand both hands behind him, with the text: La sinjoro estas falONTa (The gentleman is ABOUT TO fall)

    2. he is shown falling to the bottom past the cliff, hat following, with the text: La sinjoro estas FalANTa (The gentleman is IN THE PROCESS OF fallING)

    3. he is shown lying on his stomach at the bottom, hat on his behind, with the text: La sinjoro estas falINTa (The gentleman HAS fallEN / IS IN THE STATE OF HAVING fallEN)

    (Mi, Vi, Li, Shi, ^Gi, Ni, Vi …)Estos falonta, estas falonta, estis falonta = … will be/ / was.were about to fall / about to be in a state of falling.

    (Mi, Vi, Li, Shi, ^Gi, Ni, Vi …)Estos falanta, estas falanta, estis falanta = … will be/ is.are/ was.were … in the state of falling / falling.

    (Mi, Vi, Li, Shi, ^Gi, Ni, Vi …)Estos falinta, estas falinta, estis falinta = … will be/ is.are/ was.were … in the state of having fallen / on the ground from falling.

    The -it- ending for passive participle can be used similarly, where it also is a bit like an adjective with just as many exciting meanings. I suspect that there is no need to use the literal perfect tense e.g. I have walked, because this tense seems to be nowhere to be found in the whole summary, or in my memory, both from the learning and from many searches. So I do not remember the words “mi havas …- ata”- Well that is probably because it could be -ita or -ota which enrichens the word so much that it might sound ridiculous to use it as a verb in a perfect tense. So I am sure it is used adjectivally as in the above, and that is it. (e.g. La domon estas konstruota / konstruata/ konstruita – The house is .. (about) to be built / .. being built / ..built) – the adjectival meanings possible is enormous – most verbs can be used thus.

    And when I refer to all the exciting meanings, this is because these two -t- and -nt- with their simple and combined tempi can construct 2 by 3 by 3 meanings with only one active verb, 18 meanings – and when that then gets multiplied with all the different uses of all the verbs from any one foreign (to Esperanto) language, verbs from your language that you already really know in Esperanto by just realizing that you do. Each new verb brings a new exciting personality to the endings.

    I think Zamenhof’s system is brilliant. The vocabulary choice leaves a lot to be desired, because it is Eurocentric, or Indo-euro centric and not brought down to the barest basic words built from logic, and from there simply expanded by the rules of the language. And then the users get into cultural habits too, so if you are a newcomer, have learned the language in isolation and build and mix and match as the language logically allows, then the “traditional” speakers/ writers /readers will say that your esperanto is most strange. Many constructions can be indecipherable to the inflexible, e.g. -eg is an amplification suffix and it can stand by itself as eg- which means that ege means great (adv), ega means enormous (adj), ego can mean giant. That last one is probably not used and could possibly be confused with something else, but it should be available, and in preference I would discard “eg-o” for perhaps “ego”, as that is then a word that conflicts with the logic of the language.

    But doing this for the whole language, i.e. for all the vocabulary, is a task for a person who is 100 or 1000 times the man that Zamenhof was.

    Last of all; I realize that I left -u- out, because the book did so, but that one is just as or even more vigorous in ideas as/than the others.

    Li estus falonta. He would end up falling. Li estas falunta (this may be nonexistent in the tradition, but not in the logic) – he is possibly falling or he is said to be falling. …. they have to be studied, and perhaps developed, but wow! the possibilities!

    I do think that you would find esperanto an enormously entertaining language to learn. You would “know” already all the vocabulary, except those that arise from purely the logic, and they are so simple and straight forward, and, even so their forms are connected with what you know.

    ESPERANTO – a hoping (present participle). He was HOPING that this would be the tool that would bring the world together and out of all the wars…

  3. I was a bit rusty there; the definite article “la” is used as “the” is in English. My failure to include it in some spots is partly my disuse of Esperanto and partly that it and a number of other languages from my experience, earlier Finnish and PNG Pidgin and more recently Icelandic, do not have an indefinite article. So I am getting quite used to living without an indefinite article, and so I forgot even the definite here; it is always used roughly where you would in English!

    I am soon getting a memory book from Iceland, probably a very large book, so I will be working hard on Icelandic soon. This prompts me to ask if anybody knows how to get the IPA system for your keyboard. I want to have it for so many things, but recently with the volcano, it seems that “nobody” can pronounce it – well I believe that I can if I see it spelt. This is one part that I want the IPA system of symbols for.

    Icelandic pronunciation e.g.: hjólhestur – bicycle from hjól – wheel and hestur – horse. hjól is made up of / German ich-laut + y in yes + US ow in low + l/.

    And if the volcano has the word Fjallajökull* in it then /fj as in the fj in fjord+ a as u in cut + unaspirated t + voiceless aspirated l + a as u in cut+ j as y in yes + ö as English ir in girl + k + u as shortened US oo in shoot + unaspirated t + voiceless aspirated l/ In Icelandic doubled l-s and n-s do that, they dry up into a soft t plus one of themselves unvoiced. There are many others, Copenhagen is called Kaupmannahöfn – Traders’ harbour – Buying-men’s harbour; the fn at the end becomes a /voiceless (p + n) totally breathed through the nose/ i.e / you close your lips and stop for the p and then let the air go though the nose for the n – no voicing throughout/. It is not hard once you hear it a bit, or have it well explained and hear it once or twice. The double l-s in Fjallajökull is in fact nearly the same as the tl in “cutlery” – (only difference is that you unvoice the L totally, try just the cutl- part with no voicing after the t, and you should have it)

    *Fjallajökull means Fell-geyser (fell being a pointy mountain, with snow on top it seems). Snow always belonged to my impression of that word in Swedish; fjäll. It probably is simply an icelandic word for volcano, which is exactly that, a Fell with a geyser in it.

  4. Tim,

    On Mar 14th 2008, I discussed and concluded that, “no, Portuguese will not interfere with your Spanish.” It doesn’t for me; it is like doing two different styles of music e.g. country and then jazz, which also don’t interfere with each other. But I was native of two languages, Swedish and Danish, which are very different in sound and reasonably different in grammar, so maybe there are different takes on the problem depending on whether you grew up with one language or more.

    So from my point of view as a two language native, on your check list:

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

    Grammar is really a small part of it all, vocabulary is it! The failure of language learners is mainly in a failure to learn vocabulary. Once they have vocabulary then the structures flow into them easily by the fact of how these new words must be used together, or sound silly. Grammar is minor.

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

    Vowels are admittedly the hardest to get hold of, but with all sounds it is a matter of listening and listening and listening to the real sound of the language, plus learn the vocabulary to such an extent that one will passively walk around and experiment with the sounds that one hears. Then they will come naturally, and quite quickly. I had never heard those icelandic double ll-s but here I am simply finding that the sound practically exists in English too, and that is many years after I learned the sound by listening to a linguaphone Icelandic course. New sounds are nothing if you hear them enough, and have a place to put them, i.e. the words, the vocabulary, the sentences.

    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?)

    No, each language has its own take on how anything should be done, they have their own personality, and will not be confused if you learn enough of it. An occasional word may be mixed, but this is soon corrected. I right now think of sempre It. and siempre Sp. which I mixed; all I did was look at the words once more and then curbed my slip. Please read that item that I wrote 14th Mar 2008. You don’t forget how to ride a bike because you learn to drive a car even if they both have steering. Languages have so many more details to be different with than a bike and a car have, so any two languages will be confused even less than the bike and car.

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

    Well the biggest problem is the vocabulary. That answers 95% or more of your question. If it is Chinese for me, or if it is Icelandic, or PNG Pidgin or Esperanto. The only difference that matters is vocabulary, oh and writing system, because I have the impression that pin yin has a hard time to make its way to success in China, so that means that you will not only have to learn a totally (practically) unrelated vocabulary, but for each word also a symbol for which there is serious doubt about its logical ease. So for Chinese nearly the double vocabulary of other languages, and nearly fully brand new to boot. Then I will much rather stick to Europe and Pidgin and Esperanto, where I can attach practically any word to other things or words already in my memory. – I am NOT one bit worried about confusion – it does not happen enough to make even a dent. Once I have gone through half the vocabulary in Icelandic, I will know the rest by its, for me, naturalness. The same will apply to Pidgin. Esperanto in its vocabulary is more like square pegs in round holes, very difficult to predict, and the vocabulary of that language is probably better reconstructed from a very few basic original words, plus the logic that it already has in its grammar. I love its grammar but I will probably never learn the language properly, as I feel I am wasting my time on something totally unnatural. If the vocabulary were just logic, then that would be its naturalness. And that is it the naturalness of a language starts to turn up once you know how they say their sounds and the vocabulary that should by then be constantly increasing. Once the learner owns the sound of the language then confusion with other languages goes away, because how can you think you are playing an organ when your are playing a piano, or a clarinet when you are playing a saxophone. Aren’t they just too different for that to happen. The lack of confusion comes from the tone the sounds the dance the song of the language which is like no other language.

    The rest of it; your sentences to show structure, are good, but two things: 1. They should be expanded every time some other structure crops up, because there is no doubt that they are incomplete. 2. They only show quickly the shape of the language, which is good for an overview, but say nothing about how hard or easy the language will be. – somewhere I mentioned the difficulty of prepositions because of their many uses and vague meanings, and all the Finnish cases which do exactly the same thing as prepositions, and I said something like “if life were only as simple as pidgin with its two prepositions “long” and “blong”, the first more abstract and the second more concrete”. Well that is probably not true, as they always seem to add other words to clarify the sense of each of these two words, so then it becomes complex because a culture of particular uses arises which you then have to learn in order to be easily understood, you can’t just do your own additions to the words. Other than vocabulary which is mainly English, PNG pidgin is probably no easier than any other language in its prepositions. It is just a case of learning its differences more thoroughly than that which is the same as what you already know.

    There is another problem -at least I think so-, which I believe more seriously hampers the learning of a language the more remote its vocabulary is from your own, and that is that learning materials, are rarely consistent, and the more remote the less like what you had for your other languages. And this is very hard to develop on your own. Even if you have learned to listen to broadcasts for your learning of the sounds of the language, you need some systematic approach from a person who constructs your grammar or learning book. Well for chinese it comes right down to vocabulary, because more than just a number of sounds is involved in the vocabulary, especially when you start, there are the tones which you need to get cracked right away and on top of that all the usual double meanings of words. And then the attitude of the Chinese, on one’s own behalf that “it is very hard” or “it takes a lifetime” is not very helpful, as it suggests that they have already dismissed your chances, and so you may forget the idea of getting much help from any Chinese person you come across. – the Chinese will not accept to your face, that it is JUST a language, and that its difficulty is JUST relative, not absolute. I have no intention to go any further against such rejection, when the work is so enormous as well. I have always loved everything Chinese, but I have finally been rejected by their superior air enough, to conclude “you get no help from them”. Unusual; Every other culture loves you once you have accepted them enough to say even the smallest of words in their language. Not the Chinese. You always meet their words “Too hard!” It’s probably a “politeness” gone wrong. But that is where I will leave it – not worth hassling with.

  5. Hello Tim,

    Please do with my comments as you please. I will not be upset, if they go. I realize that they are so long that they might stifle your page. I have collected my stuff so I won’t lose it even if wiped. If you don’t wipe or cut down any of the other three, then please wipe this one anyway.

    Thanks, Cecil

  6. “but I’ve never met a pinyin learner with tones even half as accurate as a decent GR user”

    Really?? You’ve met the one person that uses this system and his or her tones were better than the millions of people that are using pinyin. Better than Da Shan and Julien Gaudfroy? Really? Simply Amazing!

  7. I think I agree David. I have a course that shows five tones, including the neutral one- and how many can you reasonably have in a one syllable word; there could be, in my words: high, low, wave up-down, wave down-up, rising, falling, and neutral. So if all reasonable options are considered there could be seven. But the fact that there are only five would suggest that some of my seven here are so close in practise that they are too difficult to keep clearly separate. I think pinyin gives all the tones of chinese!

    But GR etc. – sorry I have only read about and been impressed with pin yin, – maybe I am talking out of my hat, maybe I am totally wrong, sorry no time to investigate the others. I am working on something else. . .

    A new language with three or four parallel sets of phonemes/graphemes all taken from what we do. Possibly words will just be spelled with one from any one of the sets in one particular spot, but when it comes to endings, the parallel sets have to be known automatically. If a word ends on consonant and you need the ending for the plural, you will use whichever parallel plural phoneme easiest works, without having to add any intermediaries as we do when the sound becomes too complex; e.g. hors (=horse), horsEs (not horss).

    Anyway the idea with an example: If lion is leo, dog is dog, and masculine- male is -e/-ch (parallel options) and feminine-female is -a/-k (parallel options) – then:

    A lion is leo or leoch or leok and dog is dog or doge or doga, depending on whether the he/she value was important and, if so, on which it was.

    The ch would be easier to write, the vocabulary of the language would be much more centralized, if at all geographical, than Esperanto was. The Vocabulary may be logical, i.e. totally rule bound, if I can think of a way of doing it. The Esperanto style of grammar is excellent in general. However Zamenhof did some things I don’t like, as you might discern above; “a living thing is masculine or unstated, unless an -in- is added which makes it feminine. I disagree with the lopsidedness of that, although that is how many European languages have it. I say state the gender, either one, if it is needed, and not if it is not needed. Grammatical gender only has one use, to randomly enable the speaker or writer to pinpoint a semi remote word by a matching pronoun. The idea of that falls down when there are more than two words of that gender in the verbal vicinity. I don’t think grammatical gender does anything else useful, except the times when we are specifically talking about people when, due to our human condition, we must know of relevant maleness or femaleness. But we do that quite well in English by using he or she, and as in the above, it would only be added for clarity when needed.

    The vowel harmonic oriented languages, Turkish, Hungarian, and Finnish probably softly all already are using my idea of parallel phonemes/graphemes. E.g. Finnish attaches -ko or -kö to a word that it wants to put a question mark on, but which one is chosen carefully by means of the flow of the other vowels in the word, front vowels attach -kö (a front vowel) and back vowels attach -ko (a back vowel). There is a method for the middle vowels, which is probably just one of the to ways.

    Are we having dinner tonight? could then be:

    Are WE having dinner tonight? – wekö are having dinner tonight?

    Are we having dinner TONIGHT? – we are having dinner tonightko?

    (we is front vowel ; wii)

    (tonight is really back vowels the way you speak it; tonuyt)

  8. To David,

    I know you were being sarcastic and that you disagree with Tim, but I’ll comment anyway for those who might have not gotten it.

    The Gwoyeu Romatzyh (GR) system is an old romanization system that was used in China before Pinyin came into wide use. It used different spellings for each character, instead of diacritics like pinyin, to differentiate the tones. Is it better than pinyin? I don’t think so. The change in spelling would, I think, make people want to pronounce the words differently instead of just changing the tone as one would do with pinyin.

    But in response to the claim made by Tim: Do user of the pinyin system have tones half as accurate as those that use the GR system? In a word no. Are GR system users even slightly better? Again no. Hundreds of millions of school children in China use the pinyin system to learn how to accurately pronounce their language. I don’t think that the few hundred people, outside of China, that use the GR system are outperforming them.

    Has Tim ever met a person that uses the GR system? Maybe he did. But is he qualified to evaluate the accuracy of someone’s tones? Unless hes a native speaker or at the least an advanced speaker I would say no, but I could be wrong. But as to your question if he ever met someone with better tones than Da shan? Of course not. Da Shan’s tones are always correct. I doubt if one person ( in modern times) using the GR system ever became fluent, let alone reach Da Shan’s level.

    1. Just to jump in on one point:

      My Chinese is not perfect, but I was an East Asian Studies major at Princeton and took Chinese at the highest levels there, as I did Japanese. Chinese 101 at Princeton used GR the entire time I was there and has sinced moved on to pinyin because it’s a hell of a lot easier to teach, and it’s not profitable to publish GR books. I also lived in China and attended two universities in Beijing.

      David, I’m fine with pinyin. If it works well for you, fantastic. I’m just reporting my observation from the PiB (Princeton in Beijing) program, where many schools were represented. The Princeton students’ tones were, by orders of magnitude, the best in the bunch. I don’t think GR is 100% to thank, but it was a piece of the puzzle.

      I don’t care if people use pinyin. Rock on with it. Makes no difference to me.


  9. Well, no doubt that the deconstruction is useful, but choosing a foreign language just because it doesn’t look very difficult – I can’t agree – I don’t want to study any language I’m not interested in, even if it would be easy for me.

    The deconstruction helps to understand how a language works, but should not give an answer to the question: “Should I study this language?” or “Which language am I to study?”

    Even with choosing a new sport – who says that you should be proficient as long as you feel good and enjoy what you are doing? I know many people who are not tall, but play basketball(amateurs) and are happy.

    Anyway, I like the idea of deconstructing foreign languages – it really helps to understand the langauge you are about to study.

  10. Thank you Jesus for expressing the longer term for GR (Gwoyeu Romatzyh). It helped me look it up. On this link you will find the following bit of text (but !!!but with the tones all marked beautifully also in four colours of letters!!!) i.e. from wikipedia:

    (Unfairly though, the colours were not given on the pin yin version)

    Here is an extract from Y.R. Chao’s Sayable Chinese. The topic is scholarly (“What is Sinology?”), but the style colloquial. The tonal spelling markers or “clues” are again highlighted using the same colour-coding scheme as above. Versions in Chinese characters, Pinyin and English are given below the GR text.


    “Hannshyue” de mingcheng duey Jonggwo yeou idean butzuenjinq de yihwey. Woomen tingshuo yeou “Yinnduhshyue”, “Aijyishyue”, “Hannshyue”, erl meiyeou tingshuo yeou “Shilahshyue”, “Luomaashyue”, genq meiyeou tingshuo yeou “Inggwoshyue”, “Meeigwoshyue”. “Hannshyue” jeyg mingcheng wanchyuan beaushyh Ou-Meei shyuejee duey nahshie yiijing chernluen de guulao-gwojia de wenhuah de i-joong chingkann de tayduh.[54]

    GR tone key

    Tone 1 (basic form: unmarked) Tone 2 Tone 3 Tone 4

    Simplified Chinese characters: ????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????

    Traditional Chinese characters: ????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????

    Pinyin version: “Hànxué” de míngch?ng duì Zh?ngguó y?u yìdi?n bùz?njìng de yìwèi. W?men t?ngshu? y?u “Yìndùxué,” “?ijíxué,” “Hànxué,” ér méiy?u t?ngshu? y?u “X?làxué,” “Luóm?xué,” gèng méiy?u t?ngshu? y?u “Y?ngguóxué,” “M?iguóxué.” “Hànxué” zhèige míngch?ng wánquán bi?oshì ?u-M?i xuézh? duì nàxi? y?jing chénlún de g?l?o-guóji? de wénhuà de yìzh?ng q?ngkàn de tàidù.

    English translation: The term “Sinology” carries a slight overtone of disrespect towards China. One hears of “Indology,” “Egyptology” and “Sinology,” but never “Graecology” or “Romology”—let alone “Anglology” or “Americology.” The term “Sinology” epitomizes European and American scholars’ patronizing attitude towards the culture of those ruined ancient empires.


    My first reaction when I saw that spelling gives tones was, how hopeless how confusing . . . The best examples of such is all the hopeless phonetic attempts at writing the sounds of foreign languages for the English speaking learner; how often have we not seen ay for the french é. But eh is no closer, there is no equivalent, so the learner should simply listen and learn it that way. The sound can be found in English but not represented; I think if you say “there” and “these”, and then take only the vowel sound from those two words, say those two vowels one after the other, perhaps quicker and quicker until they average out to one vowel sound, or just simply find the average. This vowel is in probably 99% of languages and English can’t write it because they don’t speak it. It can only be a matter of listening, you cannot write it. And all spellings that are said to represent the sound are missleading, they result in the wrong sound!

    So does that problem apply to Gwoyeu Romatzyh? It could, I suppose, but some chinese created it, so for me it is hard to know.

    However, pitch and sound are totally different in character, and, from Wikipedia: “Tones in Chinese allow speakers to discriminate between otherwise identical syllables—in other words they are phonemic.”

    This means that they must be in the picture of the word if we are writing in some kind of phonetic way, but also that, being different in character they ought to not be mixed in with each other, and what better way to show pitch than with a simple accent which can be of many forms, all of them representing exactly a picture of the tone – what could be more natural. . . . Ok, so é in such a system would not be the same as the é in French, but a rising or high tone imposed on some phonetic variant of the e (probably imposed on that French é, indeed). – I support Pin yin, now not only because that was the one I got to know first, but also because of the total difference in character between sound and pitch in pronunciation, or maybe I should say form of sound and pitch of sound. (For describing this, it’s like a new dimension). So what you present verbally in such different ways are then also written just as differently!

    A further argument for using accents for the pitch is that the written characters are only so many, with most languages having more sounds than the characters, so why overload the character set further with extra demands (pitch spelling), which can only cause the spelling of the average word to become longer.


    A lovely thing that Pin yin does, and probably GR as well, is to dispense with the Eurocentric stupidity of x q and c, and give them their own sounds which are in need of representation. Sh (x in pinyin) is one sound! as is ch (q in pinyin). This is excellent, since all languages have a problem with the shortness of the alphabet – In English there are far too many uses of two letters for one sound eg. sh, ch, th (voiced), th (unvoiced), in so many languages all kinds of squiggles accents dots and dashes are used with a letter in order to give it as sound that the letter by itself does not represent. Between English and Danish and Swedish (my “native” languages), I have worked out that we need 32 consonants and 12 vowels. (We could add a vowel from Turkish (high unrounded back vowel: ? and we could get fussy and distinguish between English sh Swedish tj and Swedish sj and thus add two more consonants.) So we really need an alphabet of 44 or more characters! and we only have 26 basic ones; madness.

  11. Tim, I’m surprised that you approach language efficiency from a time-to-learn standpoint rather than a more general value standpoint.

    Before I learned a language, I would ask about the candy I get at the end. This could include:

    -a girl I want to talk to

    -literature I want to read

    -people I want to do business with

    Each requires a different approach, of course. But with the last one, I can make further efficiency gains by considering two things:

    1. How many people speak the language?

    2. How many speakers of that language speak other languages that I may know or be able to learn?

    For example, I’m planning a trip to Cambodia, Lao, Viet Nam, and other nearby countries. Rather than learn a little of each country’s native language, I am investing the same amount of time in Mandarin, which I assume is the lingua franca in the “East”.

    Even if it takes me four times as long to master Chinese, I’m still ahead because a billion people live in China and a similar number wish to do business with those who speak Chinese.

    By contrast with your method — if you find that Cambodian only takes you six months to learn, but there’s nothing you want in Cambodia that you need fluency to achieve, you’ve wasted six months!

  12. I like where you are going and I see the potential in your wisdom. I currently am learning Spanish and I already know Japanese. For me I found Japanese to be more interesting because there is less conjugation than Spanish, and well I just love Japanese women, and time told me it was time to learn.

    Anyhow, Id suggest to post a video on Youtube, and show a visualizer with more colors. This always helps me to get things faster.

    Thanks for the post!


  13. this page is very educative. it helps you how to learn a new language personally i have used these infromations in learning french thankyou for your suggestion

  14. Hi, this has been a great help to me; I’ve also been developing my own language learning methods.

    I have a background in Computer Science, and within that field I took a great interest to human cognition, logic, knowledge and learning.

    I am currently studying Brazilian Portuguese through songs and eventually film scripts and soap opera’s. I chose song as a basis for my learning as I found that after just 10 minutes of learning a song in old school Slovakian I can still remember a fair amount of the song. I can also remember Stiller Nacht quite well, maybe it’s because I’m very musical, but I quite like to think everyone would have the same response as me.

    I’ve been enjoying my learning and am slowly developing my technique to make it more optimal.

    My system focuses on directly translating from lexical concepts to the language rather than relying on translation. Doing so gives your subconscious the opportunity to make sense of it; word order will come naturally, however I will also study the structure as well.

    I’m finding my understanding growing greatly, and am finding Brazilian Portuguese a very interesting language indeed!!!

  15. Actually I agree 100% with you, before spending a ridiculous amount of money on language courses – deconstruct it. Perhaps we could get together and chat about how we could offer lessons in how to deconstruct a language. that could be a very popular website!

  16. Back to Esperanto; one detail that is odd and that I thought of:

    You notice, how I said La kato sidas sur la tablo (la tablO) – on the table, but La kato saltas sur la tablon (la tablON) – onto the table. Well, esperanto has only two cases, nominative and accusative (-o and -on), and the addition of -n to tablo-n here is not necessarily to be taken as accusative, even if that might be an easy way to explain it as it reminds of German (and Icelandic); prepositions in languages with cases normally govern this or that case depending on preposition and use – well, in esperanto, all prepositions are followed by Nominative, (they all govern Nominative); it is the directional action that causes the apparent accusative, the -on, independently of the preposition. It looks like the directional vs positional aspect of Accusative versus Dative in German, but it is not.

  17. Hi Tim. Do you have any tips on Indonesian? or know if this applys to the language. Maybe it will help me from being totally lost.

  18. Very interesting, so true, before i came across this i was already starting to comprise a list of most common words used in anime.

    Think it will let me focus a bit more. -Wants to learn Japanese for the sole purpose of reading manga and watching anime.

  19. try learn Polish this way please!

    I supose it will big suprice for you.


    Because Polish is very ilegular.

    Eg. You can say-

    without ‘ja’

    ty idziesz do szkoly

    you going to school


    idziesz do szkoly


    do szkoly idziesz

    everything means the same and it does not metter where you put subject,verb,object.point is almost every verb is illegular and u must know them all!

    ‘Autobus czerwony’

    ‘czerwony autobus’

    is red bus.


    ‘Jade do szkoly czerwonym busem’

    i going to school by red bus.

    Please read about polish. Very interesting language,and very hard

  20. Do you have requirements for syndicating your entries?I would be very interested in translation of a couple of your sites content into German for our sites readers, and finding out what your opinion on this would be. I will add full source references.

  21. Linguistic danger territory, at a Swedish site called Språket (the language),

    a discussion (mainly in Swedish, but a long part is in English) about the subjunctive the conditional and the conjunctive (three verb modes).

    the last bit is my conclusion on it the state of those three, which authorities in Germany and Sweden have made a mess of, because the forms didn’t go away when they wiped some of the verb modes. See


    Below, my conclusions on these three modes, based on Swedish English and German, and the words they still have for it all:


    1. “Subjunctive” / “Subjunktiv” belong with “subordinate clasues”/underordnade fraser; If he WERE king, I would be sick

    2. “Conditional”/ “Konditionalis”, belong with the result of “a condition”/ett villkor/ en om- sats; If he were king, I WOULD BE sick.

    3. “CONJUNCTIVE”/KONJUNKTIVE belong with “conjuction-phrases”/konjunktionsfraser/fraser som har eller kunde ha en konjunktion/ phrases which could have or have a conjunction (“could have” is important, because mostly you don’t see the conjunction); “Long LIVE the king and long MAY I not BE sick from it.


    Engelska: English:


    3 CONJUNCTIVE: Long LIVE the king and MAY I not BE sick from it.


    Tyska …. (med reglerna som jag räknar ut från språken):

    German … (with the rules as I work them out from the languages)

    1, 2. SUBJUNKTIV, KONDITIONALIS: Wenn er König WÄRE, WÜRDE ich krank darüber WERDEN.

    3. KONJUNKTIV: Lang LEBE der König und MÖGE ich darüber nicht krank WERDEN.


    Svenska …. (liksom tyskan som det nog skulle vara enligt naturen):

    Swedish … (like in the German, as it probably should be according to nature):

    1, 2. SUBJUNKTIV, KONDITIONALIS: Om han VORE konung, SKULLE jag BLI sjuk av det.

    3. KONJUNKTIV: Länge LEVE konungen och MÅTTE jag inte BLI sjuk av det.


    And a last thing about these that probably needs to be mentioned:

    2. CONDITIONAL is the form which in GERMAN uses the word WÜRDE, which in ENGLISH uses WOULD /SHOULD and which in Swedish uses SKULLE. The problem with the English and Swedish words for this modus, is that the words have their own separate meaning, so this meaning is often mixed in and often confuse the actual meaning which the speaker gave his words, whilst in German the word WÜRDE stand clear as a modus word in all cases which arise.

    1,3. THE SUBJUNCTIVE and THE CONJUNCTIVE use the same form, but the simple form if at all possible; e.g. Måge May Må Kunne Vare Bleve Finge Ginge Måtte Leve Vore Were Be Might Live Hail Banne(mej) Damn (me) Bless (you) Komme Wäre Sei Habe Hätte Könne Möge Dürfe Solle Wolle.

  22. Tim,

    Ever messed around with Hungarian? I have started to implement your strategy and have found similarities and have found that Hungarian, like English is an SVO language but while trying to find a good reference for pronouncing the alphabet, I read that nouns can have close to 240 different forms. YIKES!!

    Your thoughts?



    1. Hello Todd,

      Slapdash I might answer not to worry about the 240 forms, because we do it all the time in English too; just take they and their, why not theyr, and why my or mine two sounds where their has one. Ok that is OTHER grammar, but it IS the same sound thing that they are doing. Here is one on the adjectives; big bigger – why two b-s because it is a short sound. Ok so why nto two b-s ; bigg bigger? and what about catch and caught; here, and this is a typical example of what creates all the forms in Finnish, and therefore most likely the related Hungarian. CaTCH has been softened to CaUGHT, as it changed tense and added a T/D (Catch/ed becomes Caugh/t).


      Now some Finnish which is much closer to the Hungarian, because I have learned a little Finnish. Poikka = boy Poia-t = boys Talo = house, Talo-t = houses. In boy there is a central consonant kk that is prone to be softened when the final syllable is closed (i.e. by a consonant). It should have been poikka/ poikka-t by simple suffix grammar, but because there is sound grammar too (throw out the kk-s); Poikka/Poia-t. Talo does not have one of these consonants, so it remains itself Talo/Talo-t. You can see in these two that the plural is the same, and it IS the same, what happens is a softening when the syllable after is closed, and I believe a hardening when a final closed syllable is opened. An example for this thought eludes me, but I think it is so.


      This means that for the nouns you need to learn:

      1. the basic endings which do not change at all and their meanings; the meanings are probably as difficult as learning the prepositions in any language. They vary enormously in meaning from language to language. but there are also many where the meaning is simple because it corresponds to what we know, e.g. plural (-t), genitive/possessive (-n) – and I am short here due to my limited Finnish. But those endings are practically all simple and equivalent to prepositions.

      2. the sound system; which consonants change to which or disappear by the addition of a syllable closure, e.g kk becomes k or g or h or nothing, and in many or few steps, tt becomes t or d or s or nothing etc – now don’t quote me exactly on the details, but that is how the system works.


      When I first encountered it, I was horrified, but as I looked at my own languages, mainly Germanic, I saw the same softening happening all over the place, and with no rules about it. Surely it is a lot easier to learn a few rules about how a word changes, (while absolutely making yourself careful about exact sounds which are so important for the logic in Finnish Hungarian and Turkish,) than to learn a vast mainly illogical sound changes that we have in the Germanic languages. It makes no sense at all why we have the vowel and consonant changes that we have when the form is different.

      Sing sang sung but go went gone, goose geese (gander?) but fox foxes vixen. Here is a softening that we do, which you are likely to find a rule for in Hungarian; Calf calves, half halves, off of(ov) , and another one Path (paths=)padhs. They are all over the place and something to embrace with gusto in a language like Hungarian. Two sets of rules, simple sound and simple ending, combined with the fact that each different ending on a noun is the same as our prepositions. When you realize that, then preposition + noun in English takes probably at least as many forms, because English has so many prepositions, that surely English beats them all.


      so learn your endings (=”case”) and the simple plural, and learn your sound system, then you have all the forms for the nouns you know, AND you also know all the prepositions that can be used with that noun. That Is a lot of ground. In an other way your “240 noun forms” includes the prepositions! And they are HARD to learn even between different Germanic languages. – The fact that the “cases” are called strange things “inessive” “addessive” is just because the latinate type grammar was applied and endings to them were “case”, whilst to me they are postfixes which in meaning are equivalent to prepositions. (Also if you think of the Latin meanings of the names of those cases, then that can be a shortcut to the meanings of the cases (Engl prepositons); “addessive” has to do with addition; so possibly it means: with, together with, on, upon, at; I have definitely seen this connection in Finnish)


      Don’t sweat it. Get stuck into it! Hungarian sounds absolutely fantastic, and for an English speaker, it is as easy as any other with a brand new vocabulary.


      Swahili is mine at the moment and it is brand new. Noun endings are prefixes, and past present future are infixes. The simple plosives and nasals and all the vowels, make so many words hard to remember, because as they practically drum out the sounds in an African way, you lose track of which plosive or even nasal that it was supposed to be. Swahili is easy for sound but Very hard for not mixing words. Finnish and Hungarian have longer words by connections and sounds and endings, so the words are more glued to each other, and therefore in a larger chunks of meaning and therefore easier to remember.


      Finnish or Hungarian is no harder with its cases than any other. I know German reasonably, and I think IT is the harder because there is not ONE overarching principle, as in Finnish (Hungarian). Wish you well.

  23. Catch caught is interesting because it actually doubles up on what Finnish and Hungarian do; CaTCH … CaTCH-ED … caUGH-T

    So you start with a hard ending; caTCH

    Then you might add a soft ending; catCHE-ED so that you have HARD the SOFT

    This is altered by the language, because this word suggests that last consonants have to be HARD; you get CaTCH-T hard hard.

    But the language cannot tolerate two hard consonants at the end so it softens the first one CaUGH-T

    Please be patient and read it again, it IS good logic, even if it could probably be written better!

    Similarly you have: teach taught,

    But draW draUGHT seems to show a slightly different logic, although still you have the hard sound at the end, and a possible softening in front of it.

    BrING/BrOUGHT again seems to follow DraW/draUGHT. The logic is not necessarily a literal softening here, but a change, which may have originally been a softening as we see in teaCH/taUGHT and caTCH/caUGHT, and in Finnish and in my image of Hungarian.

  24. “fox foxes vixen” gives me this: vixen should have been foxess, but that is too many hard sounds all on top of each other, So the ending definitely goes softer and we have foxEN (n and s are close to each other in the mouth and can change to each other; we also have it in ox oxen (not oxes)).

    But Foxen is still too hard and possibly: X cannot be softened so FO is softened and we get VIxen (- i is a soft vowel and o is hard).

    This seems to be a softening both in front of and behind a very strong consonant, strong in that it cannot be altered. Oh yes, it happens in English but totally without rules.

      1. Thanks Todd! I can give you one more, which now makes Finnish (Hungarian) simpler than many languages, and that is that Finnish (Hungarian) has no genders, – an ending is an ending no gender types. Like German has; Dem der dem for dative, Also, combining the plural ending with a “case”- ((our “preposition”-)) ending seems in my memory to be simple, most likely a placing of one particular one of them before the other;

        They have spoken question marks, too. -ka is attached to which ever word is wondered about in Japanese. This is -ko/-kö in Finnish, and probably something similar in Hungarian; and -o/-ö depends on the other vowels (front middle or back) in the word.

        So throwing them into English:

        “The manko rented a house” = Was it the Man that rented a house?

        “The man rentedkö a house” = Did the man rent the house, not buy it?

        “The man rented a houseko” = Was it a house that the man rented?

        NOTICE ALSO that I managed to match -ko/kö with the approximate back/front vowel sounds in the words. These question marks are so clarifying. I love them.

  25. Have you deconstructed the Turkish language. I want to speak it, but find it difficult because of the endings attached to the words.

    1. Hello Amira,

      About the Turkish… I have looked at it, and have a teach yourself turkish by G.L Lewis. He says that there is no stem-change which would make easier than Finnish, where the sound changes seem quite drastic for a beginner; Fi: mies / miehen = En: man /men…. what is going on? well add a closed syllable and the previous final consonant softens. what changes to what is quite natural once you see how consonants are related and some are softer versions than the others kh is softer than k, g is softer than k, s is softer than t and so is th and dh etc. – we do it in catch /caught or ca-tch /ca-tch-ed /ca-tch-t/ ca-ugh-t So tch has been softened to ugh. So we soften without rules where the Finns use rules which are very logical. Now GLLewis says that Turkish has consistent stems, which may sound like all these changes do not happen, but then he mentions vowel harmony and consonant softening, which means that Turkish does it too, but by means of rules, which are probably now less involved than the Finnish, but more logical than the English which applies no logic to it.


      Soon I will copy a part from the introduction on Turkish being an agglutinating language, meaning what is different words in other languages become joined into the same word. That is the main difference, which creates an awful lot of meaning in most of the words spoken. So if you consider every prefix, infix and suffix as its meaning, as its own word, and then just connect it as the rules say, then the only difficulty would be that the words are probably not very parallel at all in appearance to your language (English? Germanic? Romance? Celtic Slavonic? Greek? Hindi? even if it was Arabic). It has more similarites with Finnish, Hungarian, Chinese and Quechua (Inca language), all of which I know have a spoken question mark.


      So briefly, think of the attachments as their own words, and wait for a part of the introduction to explain more of how that applies.


      But take it carefully, at the start especially. Do not jump a thing. If you only half get it, then make sure that in one or two chapters’ time you go through it thoroughly again. I would prefer a language book that points ou the rules; GL Lewis for teach yourself turkish. If you get a newer teach yourself Turkish then you are likely to be missing a of explanations.


      Don’t hesitate and decide to try my approach, that the bit are words. It is a beautiful language. Good luck and energy, Cecil

  26. Very nice write-up… I’ll definitely share it with those I’m trying to convince learning any language isn’t as difficult as one may think.

  27. I disagree with most of your analysis. I also notice the link to the business school. To learn a specific language you need to:

    1. have/want to

    2. be able to hear sounds and make them

    3. reinforce your efforts/learning by (social) reward

    Grammar follows phonetics, not the other way around. If so, your argument is flawed, since deciding what to think of the grammar, states nothing concerning need or specific ability. Or put differently, I don’t choose the music I like following analysis or “deconstruction.”


  28. To Norman,


    Broadly I support your description:

    But about point 1 I find that I learn languages more because I want to than because I have to!

    Point 2. Seems superfluous, because if you try to hear and try to copy, then you can! – it is a matter of an open mind. But it is still at times very hard work to pick it up. The ? (undotted i) in Turkish is for North and West Europeans an example where you have to have an open mind. When you realize by the logic of the vowel system combined with the “grunts” you will hear for that sound, you finally can place the vowel, but for such people it will definitely be a challenge to how open their mind is to new sounds.

    Point 3 is ok; reinforce by social reward, but minor still. – I don’t understand what you mean by “Grammar follows phonetics, not the other way around.” But I think the analysis method is flawed as you say, but especially for the reason in my point 4.

    Point 4 (my own): Everything in a language is carried by the vocabulary. The vocabulary decides the habits the modes of expression the pronunciation, the grammar. Grammar and pronunciation is just the formalities for getting the connections of the words. The words is the big job. Can you imagine learning Swahili, where hardly one word is related to anything European. Think of the size of the vocabulary that you know in your own language, and how instantly, and then think of these very very few but totally different words in swahili for some of them: Tembo, twiga, nyati, fisi – the words for elephant, giraffe, buffalo, hyena, and -moja, -wili, -tatu, -nne, -tano are the numbers one to five. By chapter ten you still haven’t learned any higher numbers, no doubt because there are grammatical complications. But Imagine your whole vocabulary has to be renewed for a language like that. You can forget about grammatical analysis, as the rules for that are merely supportive of such an enormous new amount of learning as that vocabulary. It does take a while to get used to changing the front of the word instead of the end but when all the words do it that way, then it only becomes a habit, while you still for a long time are struggling to learn all these new and totally different words. New mental connections that you never thought of in vocabulary, not grammar; e.g. mlima = mountain, mwalimu = teacher, ulimwengu = the world; each of these have -lim- in common, and I don’t know why, but I feel a reason as I learn the words and that would be that they are all BIG in some way! – how is a teacher BIG? you might ask, and when you understand that the classes for a teacher (mwalimu) consist of 200 children, then you realize how a teacher is BIG. I was a teacher but I would not have the disrespect of calling myself a mwalimu (a montain of a person).


    There is only one thing plus the froth of the sounds and the grammar; there is only the vocabulary! That is the mountain that you will climb. It is a fun mountain to climb once you have decided to go through with it. The motivation of a purpose is only necessary until you have done the beginning third or quarter of a proper beginners book (like teach yourself – the older type), because once you have got that far, you can see that you can manage it, and the momentum and excitement keeps you at it. – Just think what you can do with such unusual knowledge! So if my Swahili speaking girlfriend gives up on me, I will have still created in my head a real treasure, which will put me in proper contact with this land of opportunities for those who can connect with it, Afrika.


    This you will all know if you seriously learn a language or more that is totally different from your own group. African (not africaans or pidgins or creoles) or Chinese if you are European, Arabic or African if you are Chinese, etc.

  29. I have said and still say on occasion that I am fluent in English Swedish and Danish, absolutely! Like a native speaker!


    That may be right. But the claim shrinks quite a bit if it is taken into account that Swedish and Danish nearly have the same vocabulary, and that the main differences are possibly in equal amounts, the pronunciation, the grammar and the vocabulary that varies, including expressions. So between such close languages Tim’s analysis may apply, but then why even do it? Because …


    … Once you go from Swedish or Danish to English, the size of the vocabulary already takes over as being much more important than grammar and sounds. Even coming from another Germanic language than English, and living in an English speaking country, it takes far too easily ten years before you are well fluent in the language. – and it is a matter of words. The pronunciation is ignored to a large extent by so many migrants that it is not funny. The vast majority of them could easily decrease the gap between their pronunciation and the standard variety. The main thing in English is to specifically learn all the words that are used most commonly and their differences from the rest. After that English is quite phonetic. Check it in a newspaper, check how many percent of the pronunciations of word for word follows more than one or two simple rules; I am sure it is less than five percent. So English is not as bad for pronunciation as it is often made out to be. The grammar is easier than most. There are many levels of exceptions but you learn those details more as expressions and as vocabulary, so that does not matter. The vocabulary IS the mountain to climb even between English and another Germanic language. It is probably only half as big a mountain as the Swahili vocabulary, or smaller, but even if “house” is learned at the second glance, then the whole vocabulary on the average needs to be gone through, remembered for pronunciation and spelling at least as regards whether it is or is not different from what you would expect. Every word in your speaking vocabulary has to be matched by a check and a second glance at least of the English vocabulary. That is a mountain to go through. The grammar does not compare, the pronunciation and the spelling does not compare, because once the rules for those are learned, then it is only the exceptions that you must pay attention to, and they are given with their words and expressions, and therefore simply as they occur in the vocabulary. The vocabulary is the only thing, the rest is froth and bubble. Did you ever hear of or experience the learning of a language where a rule or a sound was the last thing that the person learned in the language – No the last thing was and is and will always remain “another word”; even the native speakers learn “another word” every now and then. Recently the native speakers of English learned the term “global warming”, and even later “climate change”, and LOL. Always another word, never another rule or another sound. The words are the language, nothing else.

  30. Hi Tim,

    Fantastic article. My wife is dutch and I’ve been accumulating the language over the years but still have a problem having a conversation with the in-laws. Mother in law speaks almost no english( or just wont). I’m going to use your deconstructing theory and put it to the test. Thanks loads.

    1. Hallo Brad, dat bedoelt niets. Het is alleenmaar de worden en het gebruik van de worden. Leer de worden en leer ze te gebruiken, dat is de werk, niets anders. Naa je onderzoeking van het nederlands, dan weet je bijnaa niets meer, dan bent je bijnaa geen millimeter verder tegen Nederlands te kunnen praten en begrijpen. Leer steeds nieuwe worden (tien of vijvtig iedere daag, of meer), lees de grammatiek zo als en romaan op the toilette, en zeg tegen je vrouw om nederlands met je te praten, de helen tijd of mogelijk, en praat met haar wat je kan, engels of wat je op nederlands kan. Ze kan altijd op engels zeggen, wat is nodig, maar ze kan al het andere op nederlans zeggen. Dann zult je het leeren. Mijn vrouw war ook en beetje nederlands, en zoo heb ik het geleerd. Ik praat Deens tegen haar en zij praat nederlands tegen mij. Wij zijn twintig jaren gescheden, en wij gebruiken bijnaa niet de talen van de anderen, maar wij kunnen steeds dat taal gebruiken. Niet perfekt maar het gaat. Zoo is het.

  31. Interesting. I love this concept. I’m struggling right now with italian. I would appreciate more ariticles on this subject. More details on the methods you used please. I’m a 20 year old college kid who is thinking

    of majoring in linguistics, but am very discouraged. I dropped my Spanish halfway through the first semester. This is my second semester of Italian, and I’m struggling. Italian is my passion though, that’s the only thing that’s kept me going. I’ve bought both of your books, and can’t wait to dig into them. Thank you! Any advice from you would be greatly appreciated.

  32. I love this page. I’m working on arabic right now and am going to try to apply your rules (hints, pointers…)


  33. Hello, I realize this article is fairly old, yet I still feel compelled to share my own language learning experience. I, like you, seem to have recently discovered my “knack” to understanding/learning languages with limited exposure. I am currently fluent in both English and Spanish. Though Spanish is my native language most who don’t know me well would argue the latter.

    As I learned English I found myself using the methods you describe to better comprehend the language, be it subconsciously. I’m not really “grammar” literate, in any language, yet I just seem to find a flow to the way words should go together. All in all I learned to spell and write english in about 3 months and even managed to win a spelling bee at my school without being able to speak english at all. In total I became a fluent speaker in a period of 6 months (maybe less). That said, I did keep in mind that I was rather young when I learned English and that the brain works differently at that age.

    Later on I had brushes with other languages, such as French, Italian and Portuguese (work related). I found that using simply my understanding of English and Spanish I could understand French, Italian and Portuguese fairly well without having any prior exposure to it, though I could not speak it. Infact I understood enough that I could do my job without requiring a translation. Ofcouse after reflecting on this fact for a bit, I tested myself by watching movies dubbed in French and Italian (thank the DVD) then later watching them in english. I was amazed by my level of understanding.

    Still, after my experiment I felt rather disatisfied and felt I really needed to learn a language and see how well I could grasp it.

    That is what brings me here today. I have been, for about a week now, taking online Japanese courses along with a full course of Rossetta Stone (Jap). I have managed to retain alot of information from the 10 hours I’ve spent learning japanese. I have noticed, though what I have learned is limited so far, I have managed to “decypher” a substancial amount of “language mechanics” and even some character sounds. So far I have covered about 13 characters in my studies, yet I have managed by watching some anime with japanese subtitles to actually learn 26 and have found that I can actually read certain words. I must note that all of these characters are from the Hiragana and I am still eluded by the Kanji and Katakana characters. I have also found that learning sentence structure by reading japanese that I have also managed to learn some additional words using context clues. I find this method similar to the way I originally learned english (where I learned spelling and writing the language first before being able to speak it). However I don’t realize I am doing this until after I stop and reflect on what I have understood. Folled by actually testing to see if I was right. So it seems that given that Japanese is a completely different language from english, there is a faint structure similarity to spanish. Yet having I don’t believe that a week ago I could have made out anything in Japanese with no prior exposure. It is as if what I have studied so far serves as a type of clue, sort of like in the way a bloodhound works, my brain sniffs up and follows the trail using my prior experiences, with language, and context clues to interpret what is infront of me.

    I find this rather facisnating that my brain can work that way. Just now I laid here pondering this ability of mine and I wondered how fast someone could learn a language and I came across this page. Your explanation rather “simplified” into words what I had been doing all this time. I truly agree though that I don’t think anyone can do this. Even though I don’t work long hours as someone here commented on as a link to how the mind works. Infact im rather an oaf of sorts :P. Yet i am always thinking about things most people may find “weird”. I guess what I got to say is, if you happen to still read this, I belive you have a gift. I for one plan to pusue japanese and become fluent and maybe later something harder like mandarin. 😛

    1. I’d like to add, that I also suffer from ADD. I don’t see how this would make a difference as far as learning languages go but I just felt I needed to point that out as I notice alot of typos on my first post. In addition to some rambling here and there. As you can see my attention span withers the longer I write and ofcouse I didn’t proof read :P.

    2. Hello Finchmiester, It is so good to hear something about the experience of learning Japanese. Thank you for that. The deciphering that you have done of characters and ¿rules too?. To me it is the rules that I have found amongst meanings in the languages I know, that in totally different ways now come to be visible in Swahili. Vocabulary and its rules are much more exciting than grammar and pronunciation and their rules. Where do you find written that “the Finns only discovered the idea of a SHELF through their contact with the Swedes. Their word for shelf supports that. Sw/Fi/En hyllla/hylli/shelf(hold), bord/pöytä/table(board), hus/talo/house, måne/yö/moon, hund/koira/dog(hound). Between English and Swedish a connection can be found somehow in every word, but the only word that connects with Finnish is Hylla/hylli/shelf(hold). So they did not have shelves before they met the Swedes; history in words.


      I wish you continued excitement with it all Finchmiester. The only thing that constrains me is time, but now I am inventing new ways to steal time for the learning. So if I have no time I will still have time to learn it.

  34. I found this very interesting and would add to your ‘must, want’ etc list, the ‘to go’ + infinitive to master the future. A real time-saver for survival communication.

  35. This lesson is already wrong from the beginning, “I eat the apple” is ??? ?????? as in “Akul al-tofah”…Im not even going to review the rest

  36. I’m going to China (Beijing and Shanghai) this fall for the first time. I work with a number of Mandarin speakers who keep telling me to not waste my time learning any Mandarin because its too hard and it takes years, yada yada yada. I hate hearing no and they’ve motivated me even more to at least be able to have a basic conversation by the end of September.

    Has anyone been successful with a crash course in Mandarin? if so, any suggestions will be appreciated.

  37. Hey there, Tim.

    Having lived in China and trying to learn Mandarin with the pinyin romanization and GR without much success and then moving to Taiwan and learning the phonetic system “Zhuyin fuhao”, I have to say that the latter was much more effective. In a very short time I was able to converse quite well and I eventually got to the point where native speakers could not tell I was not Chinese over the phone. Here is a link to an explanation of the system:

    I found it extremely helpful to learn from this system, especially because of sounds like ?, which is the “r” sound in rè (hot) or words like w? (five), represented by the symbol ? which sounds like oo as in “food”. Also, picking up on things like Mandarin words never ending with a closed mouth (the physicality of the language) were key.

    Have fun with it, bro!

    1. Agreed 100%. I learned “bopomofo” while in Taiwan as well. Great suggestion and addition!


  38. Very instructive article! I’m currently learning Mandarin Chinese (with Pinyin though :-p), and plan to get to Arabic in the next 3 years. My love for bania (Russian sauna) made me vaguely thinking about giving Russian a try, but you’re opinion on this language just discouraged me! Having “learned” unsuccessfully and painfully German for many years before giving up, I don’t think I want to get back into crazy-complex grammar for now… ^^

    For those who chose Chinese or Japanese as their target language, I strongly recommend giving iKnow a try (search it on Google). This company based in Japan develops an incredibly useful web application (along with an iPhone/Android compagnon) that helps you master Chinese or Japanese vocabulary very efficiently through goal-oriented short and regular working sessions.

  39. Hi Tim,

    Thanks for the post. You mentioned that you’ve learned Brazilian Portuguese – can you share your notes on how you deconstructed it or offer any tips? I’d like to become fluent in the Brazilian language because of my interest in Capoeira.

    I’ve noticed that the Foreign Service Institute offers a free training course with audio clips – is this an effective method or would I be better off with Pimsleur?



  40. I hope al the world will learn Arabic to see and understand how nice the Arabic calligraphy it is at the heart of the Arabic world and truly a different world to Arabic typesetting.

  41. Tim, when I read that you were a language addict, I got an instant man-crush on you.

    I’ve studied languages a variety of different ways, with a variety of results. I love learning languages–I always have. Americans who speak anything other than English are an anomaly around the world. Yes, you can go lots of places and do lots of things relying on others’ ability and willingness to speak English, but it is wrong to expect them to do so and most important, one misses so much when one can’t communicate in the local language or understand what is being said. The effort to speak invariably goes a long way in making–and keeping–friends.

    The languages I’ve studied are Latin, French, German, Italian, Polish, Spanish, and Hebrew. The ones I know best, German, Italian, Polish and Spanish have ALWAYS come from being in the country where the language is spoken and from practicing with native speakers. I pick things up by listening and by imitating what I hear.

    I’ve never spent time in France, so unfortunately my conversational French is gone, though I can read and understand it. I know that I would pick it up quickly if I were there. I did a Pimsleur course in Hebrew before a trip to Israel. While it helped on my trip, I’ve since forgotten just about all of it.

    Tim, you inspired me to read Thoreau’s Walden. The book made a profound impression on me. Thoreau says to read the classics, so I now want to learn Ancient Greek in order to be able to read some of the classics in the original language.

    I’m going to try Tim’s method to get started. I’ve got some students who have studied Greek, so I’m going to get one of them to help me. I’m excited and I’ll let you know how it goes.


  42. Thanks…..:-).Your article is simply superb….because of this i came to know that how to learn a language easily by following sequential steps…..I have got some idea regarding languages…..this credit goes to u only..THanks a lot…

  43. Alexis, did you come from Greek? THAT is a very grammatically complex language, isn’t it. I would suggest that if you consider the grammars of e.g. German and Russian (and Greek) as simply another number of items of vocabulary, then the grammar is nothing. The spelling/pronunciation of English can also be considered as just more vocabulary. If you think of grammar and spelling / pronunciation that way then, and get stuck into learning the language, then you will again realize that the by far most gigantic task of the language (any language) is the vocabulary. If they are neighbouring languages to what you already know you can cheat and just use adjustments to what you know and then learn the vocabulary by often just seeing an example once. I can speak “Norwegian” by means of my Danish and Swedish, I can practically speak Dutch by means of my German, and I nearly understand Portuguese by means of my Spanish and Italian. But I have to slog at nearly every word in Swahili, even if the pronunciation is totally systematic; One sound one spelling and vice versa. The seven items of vocabulary at a time that I learned for language teaching, does absolutely NOT work for me with Swahili. I have to double check that I know the new word, sometimes even without having looked at a next word yet or the word does NOT stick. If the vocabulary is unrelated, you have the biggest job of all to learn that mountain. Again in such a language with brand new ideas for grammar, the grammar and the spelling/ pronunciation is absolutely minor in comparison. How can ANYBODY say that pronunciation can be a MAJOR obstacle to your learning. That person must simply NOT WANT to try.

  44. fantastic article however i would love to know how you deconstructed arabic. A video demonstration on how you did would be lovely, because i would take that method and apply it to french. I’ve already done the 100 most common words and made sentences with them as well as your six sentences. Any help on this matter would be great help.

    – cheers


  45. Hi,

    I have thought about doing this with Spanish for a while, as I have been learning Spanish for about 4 years through high school. High school classes are pretty much a joke for me, and I always want to find ways of looking at the big picture of a langauge, so your article here is JUST the thing I have wanted for a VERY long time.

    I plan on learning Tieng Viet, (take a guess:) and I’ve already started somewhat and am going to take classes at a Buddhist temple, which first of all just sounds BA, especially since I’m in the middle of Minnesota, in the US.

    Anyways, LOVE this perspective. It will genuinely help me when I’m learning Vietnamese, and also Portuguese in college.

    Thank you!

  46. Tim, I think you have a dead or dying site. This seems to me to be because I am right and I have finished stating my case, and analysis is a minimal tool for anything, when it comes to learning or choosing to learn a particular language. I do wonder how many languages you know and can converse in reasonably. I am fully functional in English, Danish and Swedish (even Norwegian!). Can converse with Verkehrsstockungen in German and Dutch. For Italian, French and Spanish, and Icelandic, I will take the post of mainly listener, as I have to pick up my fluency seriously in them. for the rest I can tell you a lot about languages – I once made it a sport to determine what language came out of the shortwave radio. I am now learning Swahili! and it is hard practically ONLY because the words do not connect etymologically or in form with my past knowledge, except an occasional one like meza (mesa/table) and sukari (sukker/sugar). Nearly all of them do not connect. Tembo -elephant, Tundu -fruit, Njia – road, Mto -river, Moto – fire, Moshi – smoke. The grammar is opposite to ours; prefixes instead of suffixes; you get into fluency only when you have enough of all kinds of words to be able to even apply the grammar. So to get the grammar off the ground into fluency of any kind I need first to have a LARGE variety of verbs adjectives nouns adverbs but also all the connective words and pronouns and prepositions. I know all the words of 13 chapters, and I am only just touching on being able to create from the top of my head a full sentence! You CANNOT apply the grammar unless you know the words, and finally I have got some verbs, which came only now for reasons of concordance of prefixes which is quite lengthy. Concordance, i.e noun with adjective with preposition with verb is so big that you learn the verbs very late. Third person singular is he/she but not it. It is taken care of by the concordance with nouns- KItabu KIna maneno – the book (sgl KI) haS (sgl KI) words. MAneno Ya kitabu – the words of the book (Y agrees with Ma), So the word OF has many forms, corresponding to, and mostly looking like: ki/vi, m/wa, m/mi, n/n, u/n, -/ma, pa, ku, mu; which are the noun classes (sgl/pl).


    Yours in Languages, Cecil Ponsaing.

    1. So in the same order as those noun prefixes;

      ki/vi, m/wa, m/mi, n/n, u/n, -/ma, pa, ku, mu


      the word/s for OF take these forms (the stem being -a):

      cha/vya, wa/wa, mwa/ya, ya/za, mwa/za, la/ya, pwa, kwa, mwa.


      Just added for completeness.

  47. Ok Tim please delete my last two comments. and this one, and please read my next comment where I explain.

  48. There is merit in your page and in the dissection or analysis or deconstruction of the grammar including the writing and the sounds. However, I still maintain that the words are the main effort, and if you really get stuck into learning a language properly, it is rather uninteresting which order you do what, except that you cannot do the course from the back of the book (for a European). There is nothing as big as the words. Even the application of the words is a small matter once you have learned the meaning of the words involved. Their order may look a bit odd, but understand the words and the meaning comes out at you. And from that it is not far to also reverse the process and use the words in that odd order. Thank you Tim. Cecil.

  49. How to learn words. I will give revision here which for languages that are easier can be used on the first approach to the vocabulary. I am using it for revision of Swahili right now. Later I will hopefully also give details of how to do words when most of them are TOTALLY new, as in Tembo for Elephant.


    At the moment I am only revising previous words and details in Swahili, so I really know most of them, as long as I get a small reminder plus make an occasional double check on some of the rules. So:


    First I collect my words neatly in a parallel form, two exercise books with each part, page and item neatly numbered or spreadsheet similarly numbered. Number Every item so that there is no doubt what is parallel to what. Keep each line of each book in exactly the same form, one in the other language and one in English, and when it comes to grammar items, one with the question and one with the answer, (I treat the other language as the answer, but that is less important)


    Secondly as I use Exercise books, I write up the answers from my interpretation of the other language in the right column on the spreadsheet, and double check and correct and revise by deleting and returning later to any item with error, (your numbering of items help here – number them also on the spreadsheet.) When I am satisfied that I know how to put that information from the other language into English, I leave that as my correct English version.


    Thirdly I now take my english list on the spreadsheet and translate that into the other language in a list to the left of the English. Then I check and correct and mini revise by returning as before. Again when satisfied that I know the words from English to the other language, I set that as my spreadsheet list for the other language on that section. (20 to 40 items, which can cover up to a page in the course book, but I break my items at natural pauses made in the course book)


    Fourthly Each item is numbered from 1 to probably less than 40, but I make three more columns for mixing the words. In these columns I write down in a downward fashion the letters from any sentences or words that I can think up, letter by letter, box by box – what the sentences are doesn’t matter. I practice translating what is next to the columns I am filling in and get those letters. – These letters then are a way of doing a list sort which creates a different order in your vocabulary, an order which prevents you from relying on neighbouring words to help you know any one word in particular. This is important, or often you will only half know a word because you might not remember it without having the neighbouring word to remind you. So to sort the vertical parallel lists for the purpose of changing the order, first copy them to the right of your original lists together with the item numbers and the three columns for sorting. Now you sort that copy by those three columns. (include the item numbers or you cannot return the list by a sort to its original – I don’t know if you will need it but I did as I was developing the method) You need all three columns for the sort because if you have two letters of the same kind after each other due to the way of quickly creating a random list of letters then the next columns will mix it further. Now you have a “random” parallel list


    then you copy this random list, again to the right at the same level. And you delete the english in the new copy of th list and go through writing it in. the spreadsheet properties can here be used to say if the item in this english column is equal to the item in the english column to the left then give a positive response. Or @if(i45= d45 (both columns for English), 1,0 (,then print 1 otherwise print 0)). So now if you are exactly right then you will have a 1 telling you so, and if any difference it will be a 0. The accuracy doesn’t matter with your 1s and 0s because you will have so many ones most of the time with vocabulary that you can very quickly go to the zeros to see if the error was real or just typos or irrelevant detail, like full stops or any other non important difference. Again once you are satisfied with your English you then copy over your original english so that you are working back from a more original list.


    Now you do the same for the random list into the other language. Once you have that you go on to the next section.


    Exercises and vocabulary and grammar points can all be done like this. The problem with longer items and especially grammar points is that your auto check with 0s and 1s becomes more useless as you will never type an explanation the same again as before, and that is also not necessary as long as you are clear on what the point or question entails. But that is also a minimal problem because in a list of words and sentences and grammatical points if you mix them as I do, there are only a few grammatical points in a whole list of 40 items. The sentences are easier to get right but they are not as easy as the words, but even with them it is a useful approach. When you get to whole passages of information in both comprehension and in expression, this approach will have lost its usefulness. That is then where occasional words need to be collected from the texts and from there treated as above.


    I hope to get as clear a method to describe on the words when they are harder, and I think I will, because this one is only so clear because it is what I am doing right at the moment with Swahili. BUT I am sorry, if there is anything confusing; I don’t have time to spend more time to edit for clarity.


    Using this method you are SLOGGING at maximum rate, and your brain needs sleep to make new connections – you could check that up as regards the brain and learning -, so get ready to go to bed and sleep for five minutes after one or two lists of words, and treat that as part of the learning process. If you have had enough sleep the night before, you often will be alert again after only five minutes, but to make full use of the process, you need to quickly save press the sleep button on the computer, and then go and lie down before other things have woken you up again. Have the bed near your study and ready to use so that lying down is quick and easy.

  50. I am currently beginning to learn Russian! I noticed in your article that you have deconstructed the language. Would you be willing to share what you have learned with me (perhaps scans of the papers you made)?

  51. I didn’t read through all the replies, so I don’t know if this was asked already. Have you had a chance to assess the Finnish language, at all? Reason I ask is because I’ve been lackadaisically trying to learn Finnish for the last 2 years. with marginal success. I am far from even beginning to be conversational in it and it’s the only other language I’ve ever tried to learn.

    Would you consider it doable? In a reasonable amount of time with immersion?

    1. Hello LJ, if your origin is not from Estonia, Hungary or even Turkey or maybe even a chinese or japanese type of language, then you have a major task. Lackadaisical will NEVER get you there. Immersion AND hard deliberate effort to learn every detail, and, as you go, with more and more organisation with your work. Just hearing it is NOT enough. You already are too busy with your mind to live your present life. A child learning his her first language does not have that crowding of thoughts in his her mind. I am Originally Danish Swedish and now Australian, and I am working hard on learning Swahili, which is very much as remote from what I know as I imagine Finnish is to you. Either I do Swahili when I come home from work and practically nothing else, or I get no Swahili done. When my household suffers, I get through ONE chapter per week considering that I have to also work. I do it much the old fashioned way, read the rules, copy the examples in parallel text form , copy the vocabulary also parallel, practise all of that, do the exercise also in parallel form and both ways. – spelling and pronunciation is no problem with swahili for me. I would love to have recorded swahili to listen to every day, but I don’t feel I can do that at work, so I don’t get to hear enough of these new structures enough to have them present in my mind all day. If you came from English, then you have to be very deliberate about getting spelling and pronunciation right in Finnish, because English as first language leaves a person very handicapped when it comes to a natural one to one correspondence between sound and symbol. Finnish is probably 100 % phonetic, so Once it is learned then it does not fail, as is Swahili. But If you come especially from English then it is most important to listen a lot and to also write from what you hear. If you are not very much into languages, then you will also need to absorb the Finnish sound, as it WILL be different from your language anyway. Listening all day would be good partly for the pronunciation which is not hard, and partly for new language. And checking yourself too.

      . . . It is hard work for most people who do not come from a related language. I know Estonian can help a lot. Hungarian can help a bit, Turkish will be able to help a little bit,

    1. No Malik, that is not it. There is a universe more involved. Read all my comments, and even if some of them maybe outside your question, every one of them could tell you that there is so much more.

  52. Can anyone provide me with the translation of the sentences in Brazilian Portuguese? Here is my translation to Spanish, as a native speaker:

    The apple is red. La manzana es roja.

    It is John’s apple. (Esta) es la manzana de Juan.

    I give John the apple. Le doy la manzana a Juan.

    We give him the apple. Le dimos la manzana a él.

    He gives it to John. (Él) se la da a Juan.

    She gives it to him. (Ella) se la da a él.

    I must give it to him. (Yo) tengo que dársela a él.

    I want to give it to her. (Yo) quiero dársela a ella.

    You can omit the subjects between brackets.

  53. Tim, really nice article !

    Your questions are among the most relevant ones.

    2 minuses : the title – good to get more readers, but speaking fluently 5-6 languages, and well enough to speak/read several hours in 5-6 more, what you describe is checking in a hour, whether you have any chance to learn a language or not and having a glance at that language.

    (Even though I remember the -masu, -masen, -mashita, -te, -u, -nai, masho forms, the demonstrative ko-, so-, a-, even if I get structures such as x o kudasai or “verb”-te kudasai, I still don’t speak Japanese. Could I, if I wanted / needed to ? I suppose. Would it be easy ? No. And it wouldn’t be enough.

    The second minus is about the languages mentioned : have you tried “Scottish or Irish Gaelic” in an hour ? For the oral part, why not ? You can get some basics, but for the spelling… (French or English spelling, albeit quite tricky, would almost seem easy compared to it).

    Concerning Russian, if you get back to it, keep in mind Dative structures such as “Mir ist kalt. Es gefällt mir…” (you speak German, right ?) and the distinction Wo ? / Wohin ? And for verbs, whether the emphasis is on what you were doing or if it’s done. Russian is demanding, in particular its pronunciation, but it’s a good “first Slavic language”.

    Any more language articles are warmly welcome. Good job Tim !


    1. Wow Alexandre, How can you sound so professional AND have so many languages; I thought all real multi-linguists were strange and would not be able to put together any comment or summary so well rounded and covering the whole item as well as that. You might have seen some of my comments and you would agree that mine are nothing like that, even if informative. – But even with what you say, I cannot agree with Tim that it is that simple. I think multilingualism, contrary to what it is expected to create, creates a whole lot of isolated individuals that do not fit in anywhere, and that you might be an exception. I certainly do not fit in anywhere, and that more or less goes for my siblings too, although to them it does not seem an issue.

  54. I really enjoy the content of your blog, keep up the great work!



    Good In Today

    Think Positively, Be Inspired, & Live Happily!

  55. hey tim,

    I am willing to learn Spanish(self-taught), however I have no one that I can speak it with daily. If i follow your method daily, orally and academically will i still be mediocre?



  56. Alexandre, you say Russian is demanding. EVERY language is demanding, and how demanding depends entirely on your experience. If you grow up in Europe then the European languages, including Russian, are a lot easier than the African languages, and vice versa. Esperanto is nearly just a read-through for a person from europe with a number of languages, but absolutely NOT SO for such a person from Africa or the Chinese part of Asia.

  57. A multilinguist lives most naturally in his first language and if that first language was two then he lives most naturally in those. Today at work I was taking a measurement and I said alound “so the size is sytten sextisyv” – then numbers were pronounced in Danish as that was the language I learned to count in first, but “sextisyv” contains a Swedish element, because by the time I got to that size numbers, I was at school, and it may very well have been that the messy Danish system leaves their children floored anywhere further than the number 20 and that they ONLY learn anything further at school. So I learned whatever was beyond twenty in Swedish, and the Danish numbersystem, even if I know it and can produce it, even at speech rate, is hopelessly too demanding. So I NEVER use it for myself. Instead I will do the above, and still the whole string of Danish and Swedish is pronounced as if it were all Danish, which was my toddler language.


    However easy anybody says it is to move beyond, they are wrong, or they are bragging empty drums, which make much more noise than full ones.

  58. Also keep in mind when/where you’ll be using it. Perhaps you find Russian as an easy next language choice. Do you like cold weather and want to spend time there? Is there a Russian community near where you currently live so you can practice and get pointers?

    A couple years back I branched out from English and Spanish to Korean, which has tons of different tenses and levels of formality, and they form their sentences in an entirely different way. But, I wanted to spend lots of time in Seoul, and I had Korean friends back home, so it still made sense to invest the necessary time. Sure, perhaps it took longer, but most importantly, I had a REASON to learn it. I think that is just as important in your selection. I believe Tim touches on this in another language post of his as well.

    Just make sure you’re picking a language that fits your situation and that will be useful. You will have your stumbling points, and it’s easier to remind yourself why you started learning it if you have something beyond “it was the easiest jump for me.”

  59. Thanks Tim for your insightful post. It definitely gave me something to think about as I’m trying to help others on their learning journey.

    I agree with Lauren Muney in that it is rather dense for most “ordinary” people. The reality of it is: many people are just too busy to work these things out and are already more motivated and excited if they can speak a few words here and there.

    Having said that, I do like to see more of your insight on this though.

  60. WOW – That was an great blog! As someone who is fascinated by the English language it gave me a whole new perspective. Thanks for going to all that trouble.


  61. Choosing what language to learn based on which will be easier…What a load of narrow minded bull shit!

    How quick one can learn is not the point but even if it was the best is to choose to learn a language because you love and are passionate about a combination of some of the bellow

    the sound of it,

    the people who speak it,

    the places it is spoken,

    the related cultures such as food, music and history

    and practical reasons like a job or you live where it is spoken or your partners family speak it.

  62. Choosing what language to learn based on which will be easier…What a load of narrow minded BS!

    How quick one can learn is not the point but even if it was the best is to choose to learn a language because you love and are passionate about a combination of some of the bellow

    the sound of it,

    the people who speak it,

    the places it is spoken,

    the related cultures such as food, music and history

    and practical reasons like a job or you live where it is spoken or your partners family speak it.

  63. How do I use this to speak conversational German? I feel like I’m missing something…I have the German alphabet and the phonetics for how to pronounce them but I’m confused of how I apply this. Like if I wanted to translate German, how would I know what words mean what? Many thanks if someone can answer this!

    1. Answer to John Feb 9th: You take a course. Because of what you seem to know about learning a language, you cannot learn it like I do, which is to take a course book and start working on it, (in my present case with Swahili without even any pronunciation to listen to.) You must get yourself something to listen to so that you have something to copy in speech, and so that you can see how the sounds and spelling combine. You must have explanations of this, so you need a course (with people) as a preference, or as a very poor second for you you can get yourself a language course with accompanying recordings. “Teach yourself German” can only help you if you get it “with CDs” or with other sound recorded for the lessons to the course. The best ones otherwise are Linguaphone, which always comes with recordings, as that is their main strength, or Berlitz, or probably many others, but I know Linguaphone and I know it is good. Linguaphone is expensive, more than $300 for a French course recently.


      Why you can’t do what you seem to suggest follows here: You seem to think that you can learn the sounds, learn the spelling, and then take one language and replace it word by word into the other. MOST languages say ANY idea in a different way from any other language, which is why you need a course. E.g. if I were to put your first sentence into German word by word it would look like this, the way I think you thought:

      “How do I use this to speak conversational German?”

      “Wie (missing word) ich benutze dies zu sprechen zusammengesprächliches Deutsch.”

      Take firstly the missing word “do”. Someone, or your dictionary might say that “do” is “tun” or “machen”. It is not, because the English use in that sentence is “do as auxiliary”, which is that “do” has no meaning of its own here, except to make the other verb work in a certain way, and in German that use does not exist. So for this you must learn the rule that in order to ask a yes/no question in German you reverse the order of subject and finite verb. You need a course book or a teacher to tell you this. Then if “tun” or “machen” were the right word, there would be another problem with the translation of “do”, as per dictionary, into “tun” or “machen”, and that is that they are in their basic form in the dictionary; tu-n, mach-en, the infinitive, and you need to learn the forms of the verb for the different persons. Ich tue, du tust, er/si/es tut, wir tun, ihr tut, sie/Sie tun, OR ich mache, du machst, er/sie/es macht, wir machen, ihr macht, sie/Sie machen. You need this for any verb, and a sentence has a verb, so to be able to say a sentence this is information you need; the verb here is “use” = “benutzen” in its present tense form: ich benutze, du benutzest, er/sie/es benutzt, wir benutzen, ihr benutzt, sie/Sie benutzen. So with these two pieces of information in addition to the “word by word” treatment, you can now correctly say “Wie benutze ich dies” for “How do I use this”. Now we have problems again. In English “in order to” is often equivalent to and replaced by “to” – as in use with a purpose. To put it into German you must first paraphrase the English into “how do I use this IN ORDER TO learn conversational German”. Again “in order to” cannot be translated word by word, as “in Ordnung zu” means nothing to a German; You MAY be able to find in the dictionary the expression “in order to” as “um zu”, but I doubt it, and then if it were there, would you be clever enough to figure this out and look for the expression, also I doubt it. This is again where you need a course or a teacher. Your sentence is now “Wie benutze ich dies um zu”, but zu goes with the infinitive which goes to the end (also not covered by word by word treatment), and you get “Wie benutze ich dies um … zu sprechen”. Now we might as well put in the Noun Deutsch; “Wie benutze ich dies um … Deutsch zu sprechen”. so what about the adjective “gesprächliches” – “conversational”? Well “gesprächliches” IS an adjective, and it IS a correct word, but it is NOT a USED word. You can make up words in German that everybody would understand but nobody would use, but if you said “gesprächliches Deutsch” the meaning “conversational” might get lost and become “somthing that is able to be spoken”, because of such an unusual adjective. You would just say Gut (again you must know that it ends on -es and the grammatical reason) / gutes. So then your sentence now is “Wie benutze ich dies um gutes Deutsch zu sprechen”. That is a sentence, but it is NOT EXACTLY what you wanted to say. Normally that is what you would say, because it is shorter than giving the full meaning of your sentence, which would use a paraphrase of the adjective whose details I will leave; “Wie benutze ich dies um Deutsch zu sprechen, daß ist gut genug für Zusammengespräch zu gebrauchen”. This is your intended meaning, but no one ever would say it, and honestly, HOW MUCH emphasis did you have on “conversational”. This word is used in English here mainly because it is easy to use. Then you start on the next sentence. And I am sure you see by now that you need a teacher or at least a course with the sound of the language. So good luck. Oh, do not forget, you MUST get ready for a lot of work. For your purpose, don’t believe Tim. He is selling books. He has a method which works in a very small way, and especially for a person who KNOWS a lot about languages. I could use it if I were inclined, but I don’t learn a language by examining how easy they are, I learn it by choosing it as I need (Swahili) it or like it (Icelandic, Spanish). You are obviously interested in German. The reason for that should NOT be swayed by ANY possible difficulties, because your choice is for a purpose. When you want to learn a language, get ready for a storehouse of rules, which takes time to learn, and get ready for replacing a lot of vocabulary, at least in some aspect for most of the words. The rules of a neighbouring language to yours, like German to English, can easily take a year if you work on it. The vocabulary can easily take 10 to 20 years if you tend to take it easy and work in spurts like I did with Spanish. I distract far too much from my Swahili, and I should be working on my vocabulary right now. So Swahili will take too long for me to learn. It is ALSO very difficult when it is not all around you, in every situation, which I think you really only get as a migrant in a country, or perhaps as a visiting student of the local language. Good luck with your German, John, or Hals und Beinbruch! Cecil.

      1. Sorry, John et al., I don’t use German all the time so I made a mistake; this is the correct version of my translation: “Wie benutze ich dies um Deutsch zu sprechen, daß gut genug ist, für Zusammengespräch zu gebrauchen”. More Grammar and explanations needed! – and then I am not happy with the sentence, the “für” seems to both be right and uncomfortable; I would avoid the problem by saying “Wie benutze ich dies um gutes Deutsch zu sprechen.”

  64. Just wanted to say for the doubters in the crowd that this sort of approach does work quite well, and I’ve been doing this sort of thing myself since I was in high school back in the mid-1960’s. Lots of others are doing the same.

    Those of us who can quickly learn to get along in another language are not fundamentally different from everyone else. It’s just that most of us find languages inherently interesting, so the deconstruction process that Tim is talking about comes off as a game and not as work. This, in turn keeps us practicing long enough to see real results with the most important features of the language. And by long enough I mean a hundred to two hundred hours, which is one or two hours a day for three months, just as Tim claims.

    The only other thing that really matters is that you MUST open your mouth and try to speak. You may feel like an idiot, and you may even sound idiotic on occasion, but until you actually try to talk anything else will be a complete waste of time – unless your only goal is to read, which is fine, if that is truly your only goal.

    Go watch a toddler for a while, and see how they simply keep using anything that works to communicate their needs. Day by day, word by word, they get better at the language, and eventually they become fluent. Adults can do the same, plus they already have huge advantages in their knowledge of the world. Thus you can do in three months what takes a child about five years, more or less. Unlike a young child, you are not learning about a whole world that you have never seen before, but just learning another set of words to discuss things you already know quite well. That is a lot less work.

    In particular, notice that no one normally treats a toddler like an idiot, and consider that native speakers of your new language will not act any differently around you either. In general you are far more likely to be rewarded socially for your efforts, not punished, no matter how clumsy you may be at first.

    In fact, I once accidentally said something extremely raunchy in Chinese, and people were literally sliding off their chairs in hysterics. However, once they calmed down they actually became very helpful, because they evidently concluded that someone who would put up with that much embarrassment must have really wanted to learn their language, so they wound up very sympathetic to my efforts.

    In short, make a game of the deconstruction, and then just keep trying to talk until you start getting it right.

    And if you need to say “nineteen” in Cantonese be sure that you get the tones right. Otherwise you may bring down the house.

  65. Dave and Tim, I start with these words from Dave, “Those of us who can quickly learn to get along in another language are not fundamentally different…”


    I would have agreed that it can be a quick process to learn to get along in another language, and perhaps in ANY language.


    But I have spent one year and three months on Swahili, and I am getting the gist of how the language works, but can I say anything useful in it? – no way! I challenge anybody non African to learn Swahili quickly, and to know it to speaking level before I finally know it. The challenge of beating me from zero would not be impossible, but I think that “quickly” is impossible.


    I also wonder how Tim would deal with Swahili. And I would really like to know how. Spelling and pronunciation is the easiest of the lot. Still it seems as hard as chinese, as all the words are new and all the grammatical ideas are upside down. Prefixes not suffixes, whole sentences made up of multi prefix infix suffix words, definiteness made by using word class prefix, tenses made by a simple infix, but tenses existing in many many new forms. Negative not by a word but by a tense. …. Tim maybe you can stretch yourself to this both very interesting and difficult challenge. I would appreciate it. Cecil. I have lost an awful lot of my language confidence into this language. And I end up often thinking about too many comments by language enthusiasts as empty grand standing. To me it is a fifty fifty statement to say “if chinese doesn’t humble you , then Swahili will” REALLY, it is difficult.

    1. Actually, Cecil, you have quite a fair point, and I apologise if I seemed to be “grandstanding”. My only goal was to reassure other readers that certain approaches to language study do work quite effectively, so it is worth keeping at it until you get it right.

      Some languages are definitely harder than others, for precisely the reasons you say, namely, the less they have in common with one’s native language, the harder they will seem. And having taken a crack at Swahili myself, I am not surprised that a Dane (or equally an English speaker) will find it very strange. So, relatively speaking it will take longer to gain some fluency. No doubt.

      On the other hand, in high school, after practising French as aggressively as possible during a one-week summer trip to Montreal, I jumped straight into third-year high school French, and finished the first semester with a B+. For family reasons having nothing to do with French, it happened I did not take the second semester.

      Fourteen years later, having hardly used French after that one semester, I wound up using French as the working language on a software project in Brussels, and in three days I recovered enough fluency to get the job done, and by the end of the project, fifteen months later, I was quite fluent, if not exactly polished.

      Similarly, at age 50 or thereabouts, I worked my way through a Spanish reading textbook in a few dozen hours, and, as it happened, a few years later I wound up working with a lot of recent immigrants from Latin America who spoke almost no English. Again, within weeks we were chattering along quite effectively in Spanish.

      Now, English and the Romance languages have so much in common, and especially with respect to vocabulary, but also grammatically, that they hardly seem foreign at all, compared to Swahili. So, learning those languages quickly is not an entirely fair test of language study methods.

      However, given the number of English-speaking students of Romance languages who have real difficulty becoming conversant, it seems quite fair to say that some study methods apparently work much better than others, and Tim’s comments in this post are pretty much on the mark, in my view, at least as far as they go.

      Also, after a week in Hong Kong, I was making real progress in Cantonese, and after a year of Mandarin in college I could certainly carry on at least elementary conversations, and even tell a few jokes on occasion.

      I would also stress that I speak no foreign language anywhere near as fluently as my native English, and I am not talking about achieving native fluency in a few months. In another post on his blog Tim refers to the 80/20 rule (the Pareto Principle) in this connection, and that is the correct view of things. In three months you can learn enough of a language to get along fairly adequately, but you will not have native fluency. Not even close.

      Again, my point in commenting was only to reassure other readers that a certain amount of practical fluency really is possible in a relatively short amount of time, if you go about it the right way.

      Also, personally, I work my butt off when I study a language, which is to say that I use a new language as much as possible during the first few weeks of study, and my preference is total immersion, when that is possible. The first three days of my project in Brussels I was speaking almost nothing but French for ten hours a day, and I was exhausted by the effort. But it worked. In my experience, admittedly anecdotal, most people give up way too soon, and they are way too shy about actually talking to native speakers.

      Finally, I can see from the number and length of your own comments that you seem to have both a taste for languages and a lot of detailed knowledge of formal linguistics. So, perhaps you should take a crack at writing your own book on language study methods. It would seem a better use of your time than trying to cram so much material into this sort of context.

      In particular, your technical knowledge is probably way ahead of most of the readers here, and you might get better results with a more controlled and gradual presentation in a context that actually gave you enough scope to do justice to the subject.

      Personally, I find your comments technically interesting, but then I have a deep interest in languages and a half century of experience with the subject. I suspect most other people seeing your comments here are just getting lost in the detail. You are probably moving way too fast for the truly novice language students.

      Again, my apologies if I seemed to be grandstanding.

  66. Thank you Dave for your reply. In retrospect, I should not have applied “grandstanding” as closely to you as I did. But it was also meant to refer to many other comments that go before yours.


    Thank you for your knowledge and compliment. I know I should write a book and that this forum is too limiting both in possibility to express the ideas, and in how it is received.


    Now with Swhahili, though, and that experience, I could either feel that it is all mush and useless, or collect a whole new encyclopedia of knowledge from it. A further problem arises from it though, and that is that in Africa books are rare. I can hardly find literature in Swahili, let alone books on the language. I have two “teach yourself” books on it, one by Perrot (the original), and one newer, and one dictionary (paperback by Perrot), and two religious books about the missions in Africa, and one paperback about something real; it starts with the aftermath of a war in the area. This extreme lack introduces a kind of de-facto illiteracy into the picture, and how can an educated person suspend with literacy for learning a language. It is the strangest feeling. (The only books that my African wife has are those that I have given her.) So the next step in my mind becomes to write books in Swahili for the AFRICANS themselves, because they need them so badly, and then books about anything; unautorised or authorised translations, just as it comes. For old books with excellent knowledge it can become impossible to find the source. Still if I will be wanting to translate a particular book, I will just do it and ignore the Authority. Copyright can go to hell in Africa. Vitabu ni lazima sana! – Books are very necessary!


    I also appreciate your comment on my “detailed knowledge of linguistics”. That comment is a first for me. I know a lot about linguistics and comparative philology due to my language experiences (Danish – my parents and our home/ my formal original language is Swedish). Languages has been a sport for me, and I have spent my whole adult life collecting books for learning them. Plus I worked very seriously to get proper control of English, and was recently on the way to doing that with Spanish. Spanish is on the back-burner now, but still it has all given me so much knowledge, and it seems possibly formal “linguistics”, but I have never officially studied the field.


    Webale muno Dave, Asante sana Dave, Shkrn Dave, Grazie tanto Dave. Tack så väldigt mycket Dave. Gracias. Saludos.

    1. Cecil, I don’t want to clog up Tim’s blog comments with a lengthy private conversation, but the course I found for Swahili is Colloquial Swahili by McGrath and Marten from Routledge. Their website is, and the course comes with several hours of audio material on both cassette and CD in the one package. In the U.S. it cost me about $50.

      I did not work at it very much or very long, but I got interested because I worked with a fellow from Kenya for a while, and we also spent some time socialising, so I did have a chance to try my pronunciation on native speakers, and they said it was okay.

      In terms of speaking ability I did not get much past basic courtesies, but I did listen to some of the more advanced lessons, and I found that passive listening started to get easier fairly fast. You mentioned in one comment that you had no audio materials, so that may be part of what is frustrating you. It does strike me as very difficult to learn to speak a language effectively without ever hearing native speakers.

      Anyway, good luck with the Swahili.

      1. Dave I think the point on Tim’s site is language and the above is entirely about language, so I don’t think he minds a bit. You may or may not have read how I once made a judgement of his theory as more or less nonsense, and very long stuff too. Still he has posted the lot. He is a very easy going person. And if it is a bit of personal or, as here, house-holding stuff around the languages, it would only add interest to the subject. So I would not worry about that. Just, I wouldn’t write about a non-language weekend in the lakes district.


        Thank you for the book and CD suggestion, I will follow that up. But otherwise, I really just have to make my own both simple language work with all the possible examples and record it all. I trust myself to that extent. There are no chinks in my pronunciation, any small problems with stress will be ironed out immediately I hear the item for real the first time, becaue that will be a question in my mind. The stress is simple – second last syllable, and for longer constructions made of a lot of infixes, you just take each infix and determine from your own language which part in the sentence would carry the stress: e.g. in:

        1. “AliKUkileta kitabu NIlichokitaka.”

        1. “He gave YOU the book that I wanted” (You not me)

        2. “AlikuKIleta KITABU nilichoKItaka.”

        2. “He gave you the BOOK that I wanted.” (the book not the magazine)

        The stress in European languages carries the difference in meaning, and it would be natural for me if it did in Swahili as I have described above, but I am not even sure that it does.


        These are the sentences, which are full of pronouns and other reference words, and you must know them with all their eight noun classes in both plural and singular and with the variations that happens for subject prefix, object prefix, general adjective forms, special adjective variations, before vowel variations and probably many more. You must know them automatically and because they are so complex, I am not convinced, though prepared to have a go, that you can learn them by just listening. It takes a lot of application of totally different rules to have it automatically. MM maybe listening will give it, but it is not enough to do the “how are you? I am well” routine.


        Anyway I lost my thread a bit. So if I find it I may get back. CU

  67. Cecil, even if Tim is tolerant I am still feeling like a bit of a “road-hog”. However I note one thing in your last post that perhaps warrants one more comment that I hope you will find useful. Perhaps other readers will find it useful as well.

    You have mentioned “rules” several times, and I wonder if you may be over-thinking the process of learning Swahili – or any other language, for that matter.

    That is to say, in my own language study, I only use a grammar book as a sort of catalogue of the patterns in the language, in order to make sure that I am not missing something important. This is why Tim’s suggestions about “deconstructing” a language make sense to me. The process of deconstruction does not teach you the language, it is just a survey of what all needs to be done. That is a useful thing to do, but it should not be confused with the process of actually learning the language.

    To actually learn a word, phrase, or sentence, I simply repeat it until it becomes completely automatic. I don’t normally think about grammar rules at all when I am actually practising.

    I took a lot of music lessons as a child, and learning a sentence in a foreign language seems very similar to learning a musical passage by heart. You just keep playing it until it becomes automatic, and then you don’t have to think about what you are doing.

    For example, you mention “kitaba”, the Swahili word for book. To learn this word I just formed a picture in my mind of a book, and while focusing on that image I said the word a few dozen times, with a small pause between repetitions to let it “sink in” a bit. That’s it. My entire process.

    The same principle applies at the level of phrases and sentences. You just have to form a more complex image to go along with a more complex expression. Plus, as I say each word in the sentence, I focus on the relevant part of the mental image.

    When I took first-year German in high school our text had no discussion of grammar at all. None in the entire book. Each chapter started with twenty sentences of dialogue, followed by a dozen pattern practices based on those sentences, and then some short reading passages. Yet, by the end of the year, I could converse tolerably well, and with a minimum of grammatical errors. I had never thought about grammar, but heavy repetition of the pattern practices had caused my brain to internalise those patterns anyway, and to do so completely automatically.

    I should also note that only the first twenty sentences of each chapter were translated into English, and after that everything was totally in German. That is to say, those first twenty sentences contained a number of mental images, and, once we got clear on those, everything else in the chapter was just variations on those initial images. In musical terms, variations on a theme, as it were.

    This is also why my experience in Brussels was so effective. My co-workers did not care that my French diction was really, really bad, just so long as we could understand each other well enough to get the work done. However, by focusing so hard on the meaning of every word, for days on end, those words quickly became totally automatic for me, and my sentence structure also became much more correct over a few weeks, for much the same reason.

    In a word, my approach is very “child-like”. I am not a child, and in general I do not think at all like a child, but for this purpose I go back to a process that clearly works very well for all normal children. Indeed, in my experience it is the only process that actually does work.

    In fact, I think that most adults have so much trouble with new languages precisely because they cannot remember clearly how they learned their first language.

    In addition, many adults become very used to the idea that they can solve problems by analyzing them intellectually, and this works fine if you are diagnosing a medical problem, writing a contract, or designing a highway bridge, but it appears to be useless for learning languages.

    In particular, performing an intellectual analysis of the abstract grammatical patterns of a language simply has nothing at all to do with gaining fluent command of that language. It’s just no use at all. So, I don’t do that.

    I do find it intellectually interesting to see how different languages work, and how they compare with one another, but that is an entirely separate question from the practical problem of learning to speak a language, and I never confuse the two. The abstract analysis is just a form of intellectual entertainment, while simple repetition and usage are the heart of practical language study.

    Finally, I want to point out that this method works best with languages that are closely related to English, such as French, Spanish, or German, but it also works well with completely foreign languages like Chinese or Swahili, and I say that from direct experience. It is not conjecture.

    And it takes longer with more “exotic” languages only because there are no shortcuts like overlapping vocabulary or grammatical patterns. Otherwise this method works about equally well for all languages that one might study. In the end our brains have no prejudices about grammar. They just absorb whatever they are exposed to, and that is all there is to it.

    And now I really have said about all I really know concerning the practical study of languages, so I will refrain from more comment in this context.

    Again, good luck with the Swahili. And thanks for an interesting exchange.

  68. You could be right, and if not you are at least half right. I have been very worried about all the extra time it would need if I forget about the patterns, and just learn it by rote, like a child does. – Is there no saving in being literate?


    A lot of rote is needed, even if you include the patterns in you conscious learning. – That is the aspect where you are right, but I will not go back to toddlerhood in my language learning. It sure is a lot of wasted time. – maybe you are also not doing that; by using the “book as a roadmap for the rules that you look up when it becomes necessary.


    Well In a way I was onto doing that, still am – put the book aside and work hard on vocabulary as it exists in real sentences and then read the grammar like I did with dutch, as a bit of side reading, except when ONE rule really is blocking something major in comprehension. Anyway thanks for your thoughts. – I think you are kind of onto what I am onto, but our words usually hangs behind our thinking. Our words usually stick more to what we used to think, and less to the new ideas that we have. As I said I am half in agreement and I will probably soon chase up all the short words so that I will have somthing real to spakfilla with the grammar. Thanks. You might just have revived my thought a bit. – great. Cu.

    1. Cecil, I’m sorry. I’ve still not been quite clear.

      When I talk about repeating a sentence long enough to memorise it cold, I do not mean memorising something I do not understand. So, I do not mean “rote” memorisation.

      Rather, I mean precisely to take a sentence (or phrase, or individual word) whose meaning I already understand very well, and to practice that -as I would a dance step, or a musical passage – until saying it is automatic. So, if using a dictionary and a grammar book helps you to understand the item in question, that is fine. I do the same thing. However, that is not sufficient. Once you understand the item perfectly clearly, then you still need to practice it until you can utter the item without hesitation.

      You must also clearly focus on the mental image that the sentence conveys. If you are saying, “the book is on the table”, then you must imagine just such a scene while you say the sentence each time. Just repeating it mechanically will certainly be a waste of time.

      Altogether this takes maybe five minutes per sentence, so in one hour you can master at least ten complete sentences. Thus, in three months you can master over a thousand sentences, which is more than enough to be chatting fairly comfortably about lots of day-to-day stuff.

      A thousand sentences is also enough to cover most of the basic grammatical patterns in a language, so from then on it is mostly a matter of learning new words that you can fit into patterns you already know pretty well.

      In the case of Swahili I only did this for a few dozen sentences, just as a little experiment, so I am not remotely fluent, but I was satisfied that my method would work well enough if I ever chose to learn more of the language. Also, my Kenyan friends did tell me that they thought I was on the right track, as far as I went with it. I could not say much, but what I did say came out quite smoothly and comprehensibly.

      That is to say, I was convinced that my rapid progress with European languages was not simply because they were relatively similar to English. That helps, but it is not essential. This method works with any language.

      Also, I did read the whole Swahili grammar book, so my intellectual understanding of the grammar was actually pretty good (six years ago), but, clearly, having that abstract knowledge was not sufficient to permit me to say anything fluently, except the sentences I had actually practised thoroughly.

      Children need lots of time, because first they have to discover what the words mean, and how they fit together in a sentence, which is a very hard task if you have no dictionary or grammar to help you. So, as an adult you will learn much faster than a child would, but you must still go through the same kind of sustained practice that a child does to make the material stick. Normally it will take a child three to four years to learn what I can learn in about three months. By the standards of a child that is exceptionally fast, and far easier, as well.

      I hope that clarifies what I was trying to explain in my last post. And I hope you will not be discouraged. I have used this approach, to one degree or another, with six or eight languages, and it has always worked very well, regardless of how “exotic” the language. And my degree of fluency is always a fairly direct function of the number of different sentences I have practised in this manner. Nothing else.

      This method is also very efficient in the sense that you never do anything that is not absolutely necessary to mastering the material. Practice a sentence properly in the first place, review it very briefly a few times over the next few months, and you will know it the rest of your life.

      As a result of this conversation, I did spend an afternoon the other day rereading a Swahili grammar book, which was an interesting refresher on the subject. So, I thank you for a very interesting exchange, and for provoking me to do some interesting reading.

      Again, good luck with your project, and I hope some of my comments will be useful in some way.

      It is possible that I am still failing to mention something that I do unconsciously, or perhaps I even have some knack for language that others do not, but I don’t think so. Over the years I have run into lots of people who do very similar things with very similar results. So I am honestly convinced that it is the method, and not something special about me.

      I also want to point out again that I learned this method from the German book that I used in high school. I just did what the authors of the textbook told me to do, and it worked very well, so I have kept using that method ever since. This is also the method used in the courses from the U.S. Foreign Service Institute, which teaches languages to American diplomats, and apparently with considerable success.

      These courses, by the way, are in the public domain, and available for free on the Web. This morning I found their Swahili course at this address:

      I haven’t checked it out, but I have used other FSI courses, and they are usually very good. This course also has hours of audio material, all free for the taking in mp3 format. Altogether there are about 130 mp3 files, each with several minutes of dialogue.

      Sorry, I didn’t think to mention this course sooner. I forgot I had noticed it on this web site a couple of years ago.

      Again, good luck.

      1. Cecil, again sorry. I forgot to mention one point – pattern practices.

        Once you have learned a basic sentence pattern, then you need to practice similar sentences using the same pattern. For example:

        The book is on the table.

        The book is on the chair.

        The book is in the closet.

        The cat is on the table.

        The cat is on the chair.

        The cat is in the closet.

        and so forth.

        By taking a single abstract structural pattern and varying the specific elements that you insert into the pattern, you will provoke your brain to internalise the pattern in such a way that it becomes very easy to substitute any variety of other elements, as circumstances may warrant in a real conversation.

        And again, each of these variations must be practised enough times to make it completely automatic, and you must be careful to imagine the scene that each sentence describes.

        Still, the time involved in practising a pattern with ten variations is only ten or twelve minutes, so it is not hard to do four to six patterns an hour, and often more. My high school German book had ten such patterns per chapter, and it rarely took longer than an hour to work my way through all of them. Two hours was the absolute maximum.

        In the case of Swahili, this technique seems very effective for mastering the “agreement” between nouns and adjectives, and also the “concord” between nouns and the subject/object prefixes of the verbs. These two points seem very confusing to English-speakers, but once you master these two features of the language, the rest of Swahili grammar is pretty straightforward.

        I know. The tense markers for the verbs, and negating a verb are a bit messy also, but again, that can be practised in this same incremental manner until it becomes automatic.

        And after that, things really are pretty straightforward. The trick is to isolate each difficult feature, one at a time, instead of trying to master it all at once.

        First, I would practice noun/adjective agreement without worrying about whole sentences.

        Second, I would practice subject/verb concord intensively, while keeping the rest of the sentence the same, or nearly so.

        Third, I would practice verb/object concord intensively.

        Fourth, I would practice changing the tense of the verbs.

        All of the foregoing with affirmative sentences.

        Finally, I would practice it all over again with negative sentences.

        From then on, whenever I learned a new noun, I would practice if first with a few dozen different adjectives, and then I would use it in a few dozen practice sentences as both subject and object.

        Similarly, whenever I learned a new verb, I would use it with subjects and objects in all noun classes, and in all tenses, both affirmative and negative. Again, this means a few dozen practice sentences.

        This sounds like a lot of time, but it is really only about ten minutes of practice for each new noun or verb, which means that in an hour a day you can easily learn a thousand or two thousand words a year, and at some point your fluency will be great enough that you will no longer need to practice each new word in this manner. Just using the word in a few example sentences will be enough to get it hooked into your vocabulary pretty well.

        You say that you have spent fifteen months on Swahili, yet you have no real fluency. Try this for three months, and see what happens. It can’t really hurt.

        Again, good luck and hakuna matata!

  69. Did you say “disheartened”? – I cannot be disheartened. I MUST learn Swahili. It is an absolute. If not, I would not be at it after 15 months of poor development of fluency. I know you are right with the exercises, the systematic application of a pattern to other parts in a more and more involved fashion, but I have not known how to set it up. It would have been an awful lot of experimentation, and restarting in corrected and developed ideas, and so a lot of waste of time. – what you gave me there is a list of what to do in which order, which is now my skeleton of work, the pattern I will base it all repetition on. . . . but there is another way, and that is the very old fashioned way. I tried it myself one time for Old Norse, every part of every sentence was gone through, both in meaning and structure, and all one would have to do then would be to list the vocabulary and learn it separately, and then use that text as the way of finding how to use things. I am leaning both ways. But I am also hanging on to the system that I have got going, which is simply translating both ways sentence after sentence phrase after phrase word after word, as I have copied them down from the book both explanations and exercises. I randomise them using a spreadsheet and have a check by having the m double listed and a little one or zero on the side telling me whether I got it wrong or right. Wrong or right is not absolute, as many times I know it’s right but can’t find the words I used in the original, so then I accept it as right and move on. if it is wrong, I move the item forwards maybe ten steps for a near retest, and after every retest of each item its forward movement gets multiplied to move more and more forward at a time at the moment I multiply by three every time 3, 10, 33, 100, 333, 1000, etc roughly. Which means that after six repeats it is well known, and possibly does not need any more repeats.

    – I will take your list of what to do First second third fourth etc, because that is a system, where you will not have to think of TOO many things at once. It is very good. – but about the verbs, and your reference to the problems that English speakers have…. I have always wondered why you would say a dog barks, and then dogs bark, where for the singular vs plural it looks as if you are moving the s from one to the other; i.e. why it is not dogs barks and a dog bark, which would make more sense because then the s would belong to the plural in both noun and verb, and no s for the singular. So to show a world where the parallel is obvious:

    “Kibanda kina milango miwili” – the hut has two doors, or in “corrected” english

    kihut kihave midoor mitwo.

    “Vibanda viatu vina mlango mmoja” – Three huts have one door, or “corrected”

    vithree vihut vihave mdoor mone

    – so what they are saying is “the hut have ..” and “three huts has..”

    So my dream of making the s in dog barks / dogs bark, make sense, has come true via swahili.

    But really, You are thinking it much like I am thinking it. You do seem to be much better organised than me though, and that list is telling of that. I apprecate your knowledge of how to organise it and will make use of the list and also the link to another course. – but on that, I was annoyed at the later teach yourself course, which does not explain anything about why the greeting “jambo”, may be “hujambo” in the negative, and why the reply is a negative reply. It did not even explain THAT it was negative! This made me put that book aside and just use the old one which has a very systematic approach, even teaching subjunctive and conditional and passive before the verb equivalent of “to be”, for a very strong reason, namely that (maybe more but) Passive is not to be using any form of to be, so an English speaker could falsely come to construct his own passive using “to be”, which nobody would understand. So first the passive then “to be”. But also for probably just as important reasons the conditional and subjunctive before that. THIS is what I like about that book, and other old language books. Perrot puts the forms in the order that are needed for not mixing them up, but also for best supporting each other. Thank you Dave.

  70. Cecil, thanks for the compliment. One more point.

    You say that you translate back and forth between Swahili and English (Swedish?), but translation is precisely what I avoid, for several reasons. First, it does nothing to make me a fluent speaker, which is my normal goal, and, second, it distorts my view of the target language.

    First, as I have said, fluency comes from using the language, not thinking about it in the abstract, but translation is very much an abstract intellectual exercise that has almost nothing to do with the ability to speak fluently. So, I never spend time on translation, and usually none at all.

    Instead, I spend nearly all my time speaking practice sentences out loud, and the precondition to that is to know already exactly what the sentence means. Usually I know the meaning of a sentence because the text I am using gives me both the foreign sentence and the equivalent English side-by-side. No translation by me is necessary. Indeed, I won’t use a book that makes me guess about such meanings, which is often the case with books that focus on translation exercises.

    Second, each word in a language has relationships to other words in that language, and, in part, fluency is a function of mastering that network of related meanings. Plus, each language has a different network, so there is no one-to-one correspondence between the words of different languages.

    In contrast, translation is a question of finding the closest match for a given word or phrase with the words and phrases of another language. It is a completely different problem, and getting good at translation will not make you a fluent speaker. It will make you a skilled translator, which is a very different thing.

    For example, this is precisely why the negative forms in “Hujambo?” and the response “Sijambo”, did not make sense when translated in simple fashion by your text as “How are you?” “I’m fine.” As you now know, the verb root “-jambo” means, roughly, “to have a problem”, so to say “I’m fine” you really have to say “I DON’T have a problem”, which is obviously a negative expression.

    Once you found a book that explained what was really going on, strictly within the context of Swahili itself, then the Swahili way of thinking about this point finally started to make sense. Swahili speakers greet each other by asking each other if they have any problems, and the normal response is “No, I don’t have any problems.” In context this makes perfectly good sense, and it is as good a way as any for people to greet one another, but trying to understand it by looking only at a loose English translation will be very confusing.

    In particular, when I practised these greetings myself, I focused on the literal meanings of the words in Swahili, not on the very approximate meaning one gets from a loose English translation. This not only got me seeing things the way that a Swahili speaker does, but it also got me started right away practising grammatical details like verb negation that I would have totally missed if I were simply mimicking these words without real understanding.

    In short, I suspect strongly that your lack of progress is precisely because you are practising translation instead of practising speaking directly in the target language.

    In high school I took a very traditional Latin course in which the goal was very much to learn how to translate Latin into English, but even there I made much better progress that many of my classmates, because I focused first on reading the material fluently in Latin. Only when I could do that did I bother with the actual translation exercise that the teacher wanted us to complete.

    So, as the course progressed, the work became easier and easier for me, because I was actually understanding the Latin directly, while most of my classmates were getting increasingly bogged down in mounds of “translation rules”, and still could not really just read a Latin sentence in the same fluent, automatic way that they would read a sentence in English.

    A year after I started Latin, I started the German course I’ve told you about, and it was so much easier and faster with no translation at all. However, again, even though the teacher was assigning no translation exercises, most of my classmates were doing a lot of it anyway, and it really slowed them down. At the end of the first year the teacher promoted me straight to the third year course, and it was simply because I did what the authors of the book intended, instead of bastardising their system with pointless translation efforts, the way my classmates had.

    Thus, my opinion on this point is so strong precisely because I have been involved in direct, side-by-side comparisons of the two approaches, and translation simply will not teach you to speak a language, or even to read a language, fluently.

    Finally, it has been 44 years since I last sat in a high school German class, and even longer since I was in Latin, yet, even today I can speak a certain amount of German with real fluency. Similarly, I can still read a certain amount of Latin. In neither case am I fully fluent, but my point is that most of my classmates probably can’t remember more than a few words.

    Moreover, my German is still good enough for anything I might need to do as a tourist such as customs, hotels, restaurants, shopping, and even a bit of socialising. Plus, if I spend a few hours practising, or better a few days, then I recover most of my lost fluency and vocabulary.

    Again, I don’t mean to grandstand. It’s the method I was taught to use, not some genius on my part. This approach produces real fluency in fairly short order, and then you retain it for decades.

    Once again, I hope this is all useful for you, and in any case good luck.

    1. Dave,

      1. I agree that translation has a problem of not moving you right into the language, but how else to be sure of what you are saying, or reading. To not translate gives me a drifting feeling, so that I have no idea of how much work I have done. At least the only non translation that I can think of. You haven’t given a substantial method of doing it without translation, which is what I want.


      But I have just started learning individual words from the vocabulary, and then I hope to read using them. Of course you might say what nonsense is that, but mind that you don’t put down without having something to put up in its stead, because that is the hardest thing.

      2. When I encountered the nonsense of hujambo etc just being an item you were supposed to learn by rote with no explanation of its meaning, I already knew its meaning. What I tried to explain to you was that the poor explanation, rather the failure to explain, in the newer book of an item like that. I knew jambo and Hu- from the older course which at least tells you fully what is what.


      Anyway, enough of the misunderstandings.

  71. Ok, you can learn any language in 1 hour. I agree. But only if you really need it.

    My experience is that I only learn and REMEMBER languages when going abroad on vacation. Or when I have language exchange friends.

    It’s hard to find foreign people to talk to on vacation, though 🙂 And language exchange sites, there are very few normal people. Most of people there forget about you after 1-2 chats. Maybe conversationexchange, LanguageLook even has ratings of Language Partners. But I’m not sure if it’s helps.

    So my point is you need to have something motivating you to learn a language in this 1 hour.

    1. No you cannot learn a language in one hour, or a year. You will not even learn it if you spend your whole lifetime on it. You will get good after a lifetime if you work hard on it, and better formally than the vast majority of native speakers, but never better in the emotions that the words carry.


      After my exchange above with Dave, I have gone harder on vocabulary and less on language, and I get back strongly to my much earlier summary, which is that the vocabulary is your mountain, probably 50000 items for an adult, 100000 if you want to be properly literate. The grammar is automatic, once you start picking up language via your words, and the pronunciation is automatic very quickly in the start, as long as you are rigorous about getting it right. – Both grammar and pronunciation needs to be checked and repaired here and there for a long time, but they are nothing like the mountain, the vocabulary. Then you have the soul of the language, the deep down emotion of certain things that people say, that you will never get to if you are not the native speaker, or perhaps unless you have very special training like only royals have a chance to get. And even then there is doubt.


      One hour? you must be kidding. How long did you spend learning your native language? And now that you have spent your past life being wrongly programmed for any other language in so many ways, you think you can learn a new one in one hour. HOW ON EARTH are you going to do that?

  72. Well.. I was really looking forward to see how exactly you dealt with the Russian language. Unfortunately you proveided very little material.

    I am fluent in several languages including Russian (I think I am better in Russian than English)

  73. Nice Tim! I’ve been in Japan teaching English for more than 10 years and over 30,000 students with similar targets and methodologies. Soon this will be 100,000 students. I can have people speaking in 50 minutes in a one-on-one setting. I focus on the core, useful English first and after that just add piece by piece. My philosophy is this “language is like a jigsaw puzzle. The more times you do the puzzle the faster you get”. Always helps to be doing a puzzle on a subject you enjoy. So, the first 90 seconds of my lesson is finding out what the person is passionate about and then using that as a catalyst to drive deep into a topic. Before the student knows it, the 50 minute lesson is over and they have completely immersed themselves in English Communication.

    My rules to learn language.

    1. No books

    2. No grammar

    3. Just listening. NO!

    4. Interaction. YES. On a massive level!

  74. Tim,

    in theory this is a nice principle, but in practice? Grammar should really be the smallest obstacle. I teach languages and the only problem which I find most students suffer from is a rigid desire to match up similarities between their native and the foreign language, instead of merely accepting that it’s a different system altogether and starting to think within that. I’m in no way exceptionally intelligent, nor particularly industrious, but over the years I’ve learned English, Spanish, Italian, Latin, French, Japanese and Hungarian (my native tongue being Austrian German – and Viennese, which does have its own grammar). – That’s four entirely different language families, and I’ve found none of them hard to pick up – it’s all a matter of getting behind the intrinsic logic and then using THAT instead of trying to translate it back literally into one’s mother tongue. Imagine a German speaker using your abovementioned model to “sort out” languages – with all the differences in word order, inflections and cases, they might as well not learn anything at all!

    However, I partially agree that picking an easily-pronounceable language speeds up the learning process. Spanish is a bit easier to read and stress correctly than Italian, for example. Chinese and Russian surely seem tricky (I’ve tried the former but have always been daunted by the latter), but then again, that’s what I thought about Hungarian, too, before I started learning it. Again, once you see the logical principle behind it, it’s easy; it shouldn’t keep anyone from learning what might be a wonderful language. A non-native English speaker, after all, is confronted with all sorts of words that look the same and are pronounced differently – just think of tough, cough, though, thought, to name but a few! Not to mention the different vowels, the r and the famous th…

    Luckily, English has just as many different accents as German, so if I notice a student struggling with a certain sound, I gently nudge them in the direction of the dialect which suits their previous phonetic experience: people from Saxony use similar vowels like people from Southern England; people from Northern Germany, who often struggle with the “th” and the “r” at the end of words, might find a New York accent helpful; Bavarians with their rolled r’s do very well with a Scottish twang; and Austrians, whose German is very soft and melodic compared to Standard High German, blend in very well with everyday West Coast American. I’d assume that, if one can even find such phonetic similarities between two very different-sounding languages like English and German, it should be possible with any other, at least non-tonal, language as well.

    In conclusion: grammar shouldn’t put you off from acquiring a new tongue, and neither should pronunciation.

    1. Thank you Rose for that. Yours is the best comment I have seen. Grammar IS minimal, and so is pronunciation, in relation to the rest. You would sure know that, with your languages from four different groups, including the very different Hungarian.


      How you say it is that grammar is easy enough once you get into the system and start to think in it. How I say it is that the grammar is minimal, whereas the mountain in a language is the vocabulary. But I think you did not mention that, simply because you would probably treat that as a fact of life, whereas to me it is an insight. I also have woken up very clearly to the fact that the grammar and the pronunciation is minimal and just a habit.


      While learning Swahili, I have gone to the vocabulary and started to learn the words from there, the mountain of the language, and lo and behold, I have discovered grammar in the ways the meanings connect to each other by means of the forms of the words. E.g. 1. serf (slave) = mtumwa, servant = mtumishi, 2. kutoa = to take away, kutoka = to go away. … the grammar does not describe these similarities / systematic differences, but they are clearly there. Suddenly it is easier to learn the vocabulary too!


      I liked your comment very much!

      1. @Cecil

        Thanks for your amicable comment, I appreciate it 🙂

        Yes, I agree, vocabulary is the biggest building block of most languages; grammar is merely the sinews which pull it all together. Kudos to you for learning Swahili AND figuring out the grammar all by yourself – I find it interesting to see that even in Swahili there seems to be a word stem to which endings are added which might or might not change the meaning, or create a new type of word; that seems to be a common denominator of all languages. English, German and Romance languages mostly rely on prefixes, prepositions and characteristic “wordtype endings” (I’m afraid I don’t have the concise expression – like when you see “-tion” and you mostly know it’s a noun, or “-ize” and you know it’s a verb), while Japanese and Hungarian mostly use post-fixes and post-positions. But in all those languages, words seem to have a stem, which, as you already discovered, simplifies memorizing vocabulary A LOT. I teach my students early on to alter prefixes and endings with familiar words, and to intermediate students with already a bit of feeling for the language, this usually gives them the greatest boost in their vocabulary and fluency, not to mention their overall expression skills.

        One last word on grammar. While I do admire your way of forging your path through the thicket of grammar with sharp deliberation, I’d hazard the guess that there are still a few languages in which this would be nearly impossible to do. I don’t know how inflective Swahili is, but with languages that have a lot of cases and/or different verb endings, especially when two or more of them can be combined, I imagine such a quest to be quite frustrating.

        Example number one, Latin. A literal translation often times doesn’t make any sense whatsoever; there are so many ways in which cases can be combined, and a hell lot of them have a completely different own meaning if set in a certain succession. (The Ablative alone, just one of the six cases, has 15 different uses all by itself!) Most of my Latin students are good kids with a good vocabulary and know all conjugations as well as all declinations by heart (which in itself is a feat), yet they often can’t make sense of what’s written in front of them. At that point you have no choice but to go over each and every combination of grammatical cases, lest you literally get lost in translation.

        Example number two, Hungarian. I am currently working with a textbook which offers minimal insight into grammar, and I constantly find myself reading up on it online instead. Why? Hungarian not only is highly flexible regarding word order, it also has 30 (!) cases and two entirely different, quasi-parallel but in no way interchangeable conjugation systems. And I’m not talking infinitive and conjunctive/subjunctive here; it’s got that, TOO. Personally, I love it – a real challenge! But to pick all of those things up from mere text analysis, not to mention from listening to a native speaker alone – merely impossible, I’d reckon. – Just translate any Hungarian website with Google Translate and you’ll know what I mean; often times, one cannot even make the roughest sense out of the result, even if (some) of the words are correct.

        Apologies for rambling. What I wanted to say was: my compliments on your undaunted, autonomous approach to mastering Swahili; yes, in most languages vocabulary IS the biggest mountain; in others, I feel, grammar is almost as, if not just as, vital as vocabulary. But maybe I just love systems. 🙂

      2. Thank you Rose, for your praise, Hmm, slightly misplaced; no I don’t intend to ignore the grammar, but I intend to learn the grammar more leisurely than lesson by lesson or chapter by chapter, without learning a whole lot of additional vocabulary, and text, because of “that mountain”. At the moment I have casually read through the chapter on the passive, and the chapters on “to be”, and I have conquered it without working hard on the chapter, the problem with it being that there are a few forms that change a little depending on stem vowel, and also that “to be” is a verb that is implied some times, rather than stated, and uses an old form other times, which looks totally different.


        Also, Swahili has a very simple case approach (direct object only), and hardly any prepositions, which cancels out “all those cases” and “all the prepositions” that the germanic languages use just as confusedly as the cases are used in Hungarian and Finnish. In Swahili persons or noun-classes are all mentioned attached to the verb, and tenses are too. the order is subject-tense-dir.obj, and somewhere before the direct object can go the relative subj or obj…. (I am not totally sure how to describe it). Shamba alilolilima = (the field which he cultivated); Shamba (field) alilolilima (a-li-lo-li-lima/ he-did-which-it-cultivate = which he -it- cultivated) So if you give the translation of “Shamba alilolilima” as “Field which he it cultivated”, then it should be clear that the “it” is a definite- maker of “field”, and you can then say instead “THE field which he cultivated.” If the meaning is “a field” then that “-li-“, meaning it, the field, is left out, and you get: “Shamba alilolima”. “Not” is the most complex word of all, by prefixes, si-, hu-, ha-, hatu-, ham-, hawa- for I not, you not, he/she not, we not, you pl not, they not. Tenses are simple in form, but there are many of them and they take on functions that seem to belong elsewhere to a European, and all by infixes: -li- (past) -me- (perfect) -na- (continuous pres) -ta- (future) -ka- (and tense) -ki- (if/when tense) -nge- (would tense) -ngali- (would have tense) -hu- (repeated action tense) ha- -ja- (not yet tense (negative prefix plus -ja-)) … and I have not got to the end of them. The negative tense forms above; si-, hu-, ha-, hatu-, ham-, hawa- are for the watu class (the people class). For the other noun classes they are haki-/ havi-, hau-/hayi-, hayi-/hazi-, hali-/haya-, hau-/hazi-, hapa-, haku-, hamu- (the first pairs are separated by a “/” because they are sgl/pl of each class, and the latter ones are from the mahali class the place class which are different because they seem to me to have more like an adverb function than noun function, in so many ways)


        without prepositions or cases something else has to happen to associate words with each other, and I am not very clear on it, but I am sure that it will fall into place like it does for children. One example of how it could work is how “na” means both “and” “with” and “have”; if you take “with” of those meanings then it probably works. I have a book = nina kitabu (I with book; na connected as a verb). Would you like to have lunch with me? = Wewe ungependa kula chakula cha mchana na mimi? (You you-would-like to-eat food of daytime with me?). A child and a book/ a child with a book/ a child has a book = Mtoto na kitabu/ Mtoto na kitabu/ Mototo ana kitabu. I think that is the style of associations between nouns because of the lack of both prepositions and cases. – Modern swahili is gradually inventing more and more prepositions by paralleling words from their language with the more European useage, as in English French and Portuguese especially, as those languages are still there as linguas- franca in the different post-colonies.

        I have also worked on Finnish, and found it a lot of work, and like hungarian, “it has a lot of cases”, and they are very difficult to partly get the exact meaning of, plus to be sure of the form of, because they alter depending on previous vowels and consonants. . . . vowel harmony is ONE factor in all the changes but closed and open syllables also soften and harden the consonants. -kk can become and k can become h and h can become nothing, tt > t > d >? And I think similarly with the labial consonants. Case endings can make the words change so much that it is hard to recognise them; mies = man, miehen = the/a man’s (s becomes h when the open syllable is closed by the genitive -en) . . . . BUT then I looked carefully at all this difficulty, and thought that cases are prepositions in disguise! AND what do we do with prepositions. ONLY in the concrete sense are they in any way reasonably stationary and sensible, while abstract uses hardly ever make any real sense, so which one? Well we need one for the structure of the sentence, so we pick one and our neighbouring language picks another and therefore the conclusion is that Prepositions and Cases being the same thing, only in different forms, are difficult in ALL languages. If we take the expression “to think about”, why could it not be instead: “to think on”, “to think over” “to think in”, “to think at”, “to think under”, “to think for/against”, “to think behind/in front of”, “to think into”, – – – some of them give a slightly different meaning, but most of them should have been just as sensible as “to think about”. In German nachdenken/ to think after, These are then the meanings that are covered by different words in the other languages.


        I accept what you are saying towards the end, and I would say it like this: you NEED to learn both the grammar AND the pronunciation properly and carefully, BUT it must be intersperced with MUCH MORE VOCABULARY than any course book ever gives. And this is a failing in textboos, not even to be excused, because the writer of the textbook is the best person to find suitable work using much more vocabulary than is normally given without that work needing to go too far grammatically for the level that the student is at for each chapter. I would say that the books should have ten times as much vocabulary and work using it than they do, because how can you become flexible in a particular grammar point if you only get 1 or 2 options for application when there are 20 to 40 ways to apply it. Quite disappointing that you have to make up your own course in such a different language.


        I REALLY think that my point about the mountain being the vocabulary, applies to all languages. I don’t know clearly if your example of a big grammar is Hungarian, but I suspect it is by what you wrote about it. I will make my point using Finnish as that is the near one to Hungarian in my experience, At first I was totally knocked flat by the amazing number of meanings of the cases. But as I started more contemplatively to look at the meanings, I saw more and more that they are JUST a kind of attached preposition, maybe a Postfix being the equivalent of our prepositions. So from there the challenge is simpler, and it is clearly in two parts; 1.The meaning is not harder than prepositions in ANY language. 2. The sound changes for both consonants and vowels have to be learned not just for the nouns with their prepositions but with their plurals too, and the verbs go through similar changes. So in summary on that you have two separate points. 1. meanigns of prepostiions/ postfixes, and 2. the changes in the sound-system when something is attached – now, EVEN THAT BECOMES EASY WHEN YOU START LOOKING FOR IT IN OUR OWN LANGUAGES. . In English you say “Teach” It is a hard consonant ch at the end, now you add a consonant – t, and you don’t say “teacht”, but “taught”; first of all the ch has softened to gh or to nothing by the other consonant being added. The vowel has also been rounded, probably a softer sound. “telephone”/ “telephony” — here the changes are more in the pronunciation; so tElefown/ telEfoni. We added a vowel i so “-own” becomes “-oni” ; what has happened is that you can only have so much total vowel length, and so if you add one you have to make the previous one shorter. Also because the last one becomes half stressed the o in oni cannot be stressed, as that disrupts the rhythm of the word with too many stresses too close to each other. So the stress on -own, moves away and lands on lE, and now because that E is stressed then the initial stress cannot exist. —- Most of this is very sketchy, but it IS the kind of stuff that happens in both Hungarian and Finnish, and at least in those languages they describe it, maybe a little overzealously, but is it not lovely to have such things clear to see, and to learn. IT is all over the Germanic languages too, but just not in any outlined form, and therefore we just have to learn it as part of the vocabulary. We do and we learn it well, but we always make mistakes because we cannot absolutely find what the rules are, as they are simply just acquired by impression rather than by words, and not being put down as in a grammar, they are irregular and hard to grasp fully. But there is One thing about these sound changes in the germanic languages, and that is that because they are not limited to a grammar description, then they make natural sense like a plant or an animal; unlike the “konjunktiv” in the “grammars” of both German and Swedish, which has been tampered with by the “language specialists” in those countries, so that the official grammar of Subjunctive Conjunctive and Conditional, in those languages makes no sense, whereas in English, with its descriptive grammar and untampered grammar, it still is a whole and full animal with no parts missing, both in the language and in the description. The English grammar also describes those moods better for both German and Swedish than their own grammars do. – I suspect that Swahili has the German /Swedish problem too on these moods (the -nge, -ngali and -ki tenses), but I need to know the language better to be absolute about it. It’s a matter of use. – Just saw your quasi parallel but not interchangeable tense system, is that another “mood” which is what the conditional etc are? Not knowing what it is, I still suggest that you look for snippets of such ideas in the other languages you know, maybe especially the Germanic ones, and you might get a better handle on it. Like I found sound rules in the Germanic languages, very parallel but much more broken up than in FInnish, and I found prepositions as parallel to postfixes or the “cases”.


        Anyway this field is so rich that you do feel a bit like the other person will think you are rambling, especially with so much stuff in it, how do you ever get order into what you are saying? No I did not think you were rambling, even if I can’t help thinking that I seem like rambling to you.


        As you see I also love grammar, but I MUST learn Swahili quickly, so I can’t just play with it, like I have for all these years. I have to get it right to save time. And it is partly an experiment, but one which is constantly corrected for what might be better for speeding up the learning. Anyway that is enough for now. Thank you kindred spirit!

  75. Oh, one more comment! :))) Try to avoid the habit of one-for-one word translations in dictionary; otherwise you will just speak your language with foreign words. This goes back to language chunking. I learnt a word in its context…like when you speak English, “care for” and “care about” are rather like two different words. So don’t just learn “care”, try learning “carefor” and “careabout”. I sort of kept my own thesaurus for how things are expressed in a language, not one-for-one translations of individual words.

  76. As someone with a desperate need to learn a second language (my wife of 8 years is Czech) but with somewhat of a lazy learning style, I have been intrigued by this topic for some time.

    As each language has its own ‘top 500 words’ list it can be somewhat counterproductive to base your vocabulary learning on a translation of the top 1-500 English words.

    In my search for answers, I came across this resource that might be very helpful to those budding language learners amongst you.

    Hope it helps


  77. I have been listening to the 4-hour workweek as an audiobook at the suggestion of a friend. I didn’t think it would relate to me and my life, but have found that it is making me really think outside the box about what I want to do and how best to do it. I’ve been blown away by the book and am just starting to explore the blog. I have a smattering of two additional languages but have never really mastered either. I found this article fascinating and am fired up to go back and deconstruct the languages. I know I am a few years after the fact on this article, but I felt compelled to comment anyway. Is it a little dense? Yes. But it is also inspiring and very helpful. It makes sense and I can’t wait to get started. Keep the awesome articles coming.

  78. I found some very interesting research on how learning pictorial languages such as Chinese characters (Han Zi) could improve learning agility especially for children.

    I have compiled all the research I have collected so far here:

    If you have come across similar research I would be very happy to hear about it.

    Tim have you noticed a similar effect when learned your 1995 characters- has it impacted your phenomenal learning agility ?

  79. Hi! Your blogg is GREAT! I have been into many sites about techniques in learning a new language. Thank you very much for sharing your wonderful talent! I will follow your blogg all the time from now on!



  80. Thank You for this amazing tool! I tested it on my mother tongue (Polish) in comparison to English (I live in Australia now) and I found my brain working well for me around it. It also made me appreciate even more my mother tongue with is considered to be one of the the 5 most complicated languages to learn. A transition from a language that complicated to a quite simple one (English) is challenging, too. It feels like – is it all there is? And this makes me never be certain that I speak well.

    Anyway, if you wanna read more about Polish – just out of curiosity, see below:

    Have an awesome day,


  81. Believing that certain differences between languages will make them more difficult for you to learn them is something called a “strong theory” of contrastive analysis in linguistics. It was very popular from WWII to the late sixties, but that theory no longer holds much ground. Unfortunately, sometimes similarities are problematic language elements for a foreign learner. Deconstructing and making analogies is great, but believing that differences will make it more difficult for you is a harmful belief you need to let go.

  82. Maybe throw together an example 80/20 for languages? Make it Spanish for its relatively low percentage of new phonetic challenges. Could probably turn it into a one pager. I’m working on one for my house, wanna see whose is best in a week?

  83. This is helpful. It would be really great if you could write a learn a language book for Italian or Spanish in future!

  84. Hi Tim,

    Have you got any hacks on how to elongate muscles? (for those of us that are incredibly inflexible despite stretching). I need to double the length of my semitendinosis and semimembranosus muscles just to be able to achieve reasonable flexibility. A MED would be great!

    many thanks


  85. My question is about putting it altogether. I understand the deconstruction and definitely agree that with the right materials and study, fluency will not take years and years. I just wanted to know if there was anything else.

    I ask this is regards to Spanish. You learned in 8 weeks. What else did you do in addition to what you’ve written about? I know for German you spent time at the Hartnackschule. Did you do something like that for Spanish? Did you have native speakers to speak with daily?