The Okano Isao judo textbook I used to learn Japanese grammar.
Post reading time: 15 minutes.
Language learning need not be complicated.
Principles of cognitive neuroscience and time management can be applied to attain conversational fluency (here defined as 95%+ comprehension and 100% expressive abilities) in 1-3 months. Some background on my language obsession, from an earlier post on learning outside of classes:
From the academic environments of Princeton University (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Italian) and the Middlebury Language Schools (Japanese), to the disappointing results observed as a curriculum designer at Berlitz International (Japanese, English), I have sought for more than 10 years to answer a simple question: why do most language classes simply not work?
The ideal system — and progression — is based on three elements in this order…
1. Effectiveness (Priority)
2. Adherence (Interest)
3. Efficiency (Process)
Effectiveness, adherence, and efficiency refer to the “what”, “why”, and “how” of learning a target language, respectively. In simple terms, you first decide what to learn, based on usage frequency (priority); you then filter materials based on your likelihood of continued study and review, or adherence (interest); lastly, you determine how to learn the material most efficiently (process).
Let’s cover each in turn. This post will focus on vocabulary and subject matter. For learning grammar, I suggest you read this short article. For “reactivating” forgotten languages — like high school Spanish — this sequence will do the trick.
Effectiveness: If you select the wrong material, it does not matter how you study or if you study – practical fluency is impossible without the proper tools (material). Teachers are subordinate to materials, just as cooks are subordinate to recipes.
Adherence: Review, and multiple exposures to the same material, will always present an element of monotony, which must be countered by an interest in the material. Even if you select the most effective material and efficient method, if you don’t adhere with repeated study, effectiveness and efficiency mean nothing. In other words: can you persist with the material and method you’ve chosen? If not, less effective materials or methods will still be better. The best approach means nothing if you don’t use it.
By analogy, if sprinting uphill with bowling balls in each hand were the most effective way to lose body fat, how long would the average person adhere to such a program?
If you have no interest in politics, will you adhere to a language course that focuses on this material? Ask yourself: Can I study this material every day and adhere until I reach my fluency goals? If you have any doubt, change your selection. Oftentimes, it is best to select content that matches your interests in your native language. Do not read about something that you would not read about in English, if English is your native language (e.g. don’t read Asahi Shimbun if you don’t read newspapers in English). Use the target language as a vehicle for learning more about a subject, skill, or cultural area of interest.
Do not use material incongruent with your interests as a vehicle for learning a language – it will not work.
Efficiency: It matters little if you have the best material and adherence if time-to-fluency is 20 years. The ROI won’t compel you. Ask yourself: Will this method allow me to reach accurate recognition and recall with the fewest number of exposures, within the shortest period of time? If the answer is no, your method must be refined or replaced.
An Example of Effectiveness (80/20) in Practice
Pareto’s Principle of 80/20 dictates that 80% of the results in any endeavor come from 20% of the input, material, or effort.
We can adapt this principle and prioritize material based on its recorded likelihood and frequency of usage. To understand 95% of a language and become conversational fluent may require 3 months of applied learning; to reach the 98% threshold could require 10 years. There is a point of diminishing returns where, for most people, it makes more sense to acquire more languages (or other skills) vs. add a 1% improvement per 5 years.
To see exactly how I deconstruct the grammar of new languages, I suggest you read “How to Learn (But Not Master) Any Language in 1 Hour”. Now, on to the meat and potatoes of communication: words.
If you were a student of English (though the list can be adapted to most languages), the following words would deliver the greatest ROI per hour invested for the initial 1-3 weeks of study:
The 100 Most Common Written Words in English
The first 25 of the above words make up about 1/3 of all printed material in English. The first 100 comprise 1/2 of all written material, and the first 300 make up about 65% percent of all written material in English. Articles and tense conjugations that can often be omitted in some languages or learned for recognition (understanding) but not recall (production).
Most frequency lists are erroneously presented as the “most common words” in English, with no distinction made between written and spoken vocabulary. The 100 most common words as used in speech are considerably different, and this distinction applies to any target language.
The 100 Most Common Spoken Words in English
- a, an
- (I) can
- (I) come
- (I) find
- (I) go
- (I) have
- (I) am
- (I) know
- (I) like
- (I) love
- (I) make
- (I) see
- (I) tell
- thank you
- there is
- (I) think
- (I) use
Individual word frequency will vary between languages (especially pronouns, articles, and possessives), but differences are generally related to frequency rank, rather than complete omission or replacement with a different term. The above two lists are surprisingly applicable to most popular languages.
Content and vocabulary selection beyond the most common 300-500 words should be dictated by subject matter interest. The most pertinent questions will be “What will you spend your time doing with this language?”
If necessary, the most closely related rephrasing would be “What do I currently spend my time doing?” It bears repeating: do not read about something that you would not read about in your native language. Use the target language as a vehicle for learning more about a subject, skill, or cultural area of interest. Poor material never produces good language.
Feed your language ability foods you like, or you will quit your “diet” and cease study long before you achieve any measurable level of proficiency.
As a personal example, I used martial arts instructional manuals to compete effectively in judo while a student in Japan. My primary goal was to learn throws and apply them in tournaments. To avoid pain and embarrassment, I had tremendous motivation to learn the captions of the step-by-step diagrams in each instructional manual. Language development was a far secondary priority.
One might assume the crossover of material to other subjects would be minimal, but the grammar is, in fact, identical. The vocabulary may be highly specialized, but I eclipsed the grammatical ability of 4 and 5-year students of Japanese within 2 months of studying and applying sports-specific instruction manuals.
The specialization of my vocabulary didn’t present a single problem in communication, it is important to note, as I was spending 80% of my free time training with people who also used judo-speak and other vocabulary unique to sports training and athletic development.
Once the framework of grammar has been transferred to long-term memory, acquiring vocabulary is a simple process of proper spaced repetition, which will be the subject of a dedicated future post.
In the meantime, don’t let languages scare you off. It’s a checklist and a process of finding material you enjoy with a good frequency ROI.
Odds and Ends: Giveaway and USC Video
I’ll be giving away some very cool stuff this week on Twitter (electronics, my favorite bags, etc.). Just click here and follow me to see the goodies.
The Cisco-sponsored video about my house by the USC team is in the final 24 hours of competition and needs a few more views to win. Unfortunately, none of the embed views counted last time due to bad code. Please click here and wait a few seconds to help these kids get their big break!
The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.
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549 Replies to “How to Learn Any Language in 3 Months”
Excellent post, I especially enjoyed the idea of breaking a language down by word frequency for maximum retention, something I’d like to practice with Japanese.
I really enjoy your blog; I check it on an almost daily basis and would consider you a sort of “tech” big brother. I appreciate your genuine insight and tips on a variety of topics and would like to offer you a, “hats off” from Arkansas.
Great article – but I especially like the reading time at the top. That way I knew I’d have time to start and to finish the post.
I was very excited to see a new language post pop up in my reader. Unfortunately I was a little disappointed after reading it. It looks like you simply repurposed material from your previous posts and from the 4HWW site.
Overall it is great material – especially for those who have not yet seen it but selfishly I was hoping for more.
Just my take, thanks.
Thanks for the comment. I made some edits to this piece and cleaned it up. Not to worry — there will be more coming 🙂
All the best,
where is the 300 words?
hi, how are things going on=
do you mind if we help each other in learning English
I really agree with your point of view,looking for more!
Okay, how did you determine the reading time for the post? What about dead language like Biblical Greek or Hebrew? 🙂
If you come to Israel you’ll find out that Hebrew is very much alive!
I speak four foreign languages fluently from best to worst: French, Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese. I’m always amazed by claims that it’s possible to learn a language in only three months. I do believe it’s possible to learn a language fast – say in one year or so, but there’s a big underlying condition: You first must know a related language very well. For example, I was able to reach a very conversational level in Brazilian Portuguese after about 7 months in the native-speaking environment. However, if I didn’t have prior knowledge of Spanish and French before trying to learn Portuguese it would have taken much longer – like several years – to learn. -david
If you are interested to learn even more languages I recommend the following book. Very fascinating about what a human person is capable, or in other words: Why learn a language in 3 months when you can do it in 1 week instead!
No joke, just read:
Born on a blue day by Daniel Tammet
I want to try that book now:) Thanks
Daniel Tammet is on the autism spectrum. You have to be born that way to learn languages as fast as him.
Hello there, he doesn’t say you will become a master in the foreign language. He means you can earn skills very fast and be able to decently communicate and read the press/watch TV/watch movies. From personal experience I can tell you that you need less that 500 words (probably even less than 300) in any language for a decent everyday conversations and stupid small talk. Of course if you are planning to read Goethe in German, you will need more than that, but then who reads Goethe nowadays? Less than 0.000000000000001% of the World’s population… and the majority of people are satisfied to talk about food, drinks, sex, sport, politicians – in this same order if importance. Cheers 🙂
Hi, So do you speak portuguese… in fact Brazilian’s portuguese… aonde você ficou no Brasil quando aprendeu português? Eu sou brasileiro e estou tentando melhorar também melhorar e falar mais línguas!
What a truly pathetic mocking attempt frothing atheist. Biblical Greek is very easily understood by any modern Greek speaking person very similar to Shakespeare English to modern English. Most people of any decent educational level understand it if they have a desire to actually read which is the problem today nobody likes to read instead of playing video games and watching movies like you.
Hebrew I don’t even have to respond to your claim is so beyond pathetic. There has never been a large population of Hebrew speaking people, but they have always kept their language and it is very easy to compare modern reading of Hebrew to ancient 2000+ year old scrolls of your so called “ancient” version to see if it really is as different as you claim it is.
I am not even going to get into for the last 2000 years how large groups of Christians have studied both languages and made the most exhaustive language concordance books ever published with extensive information known about each and every word. Purchase an unabridged strong’s concordance to see one of only many examples
Don’t be rude. There are many reason to learn a dead language.
It’s strange that people get angry and mean over every little thing.
Oh, no, you didn’t. I’m going to get you now, you pathetic frothing atheist.
One of my goals in 2009 is to learn Spanish. I can’t wait to put these “hacks” to good use!
This is a great goal and although it is from several years ago I would highly recommend busuu.com to practice using your language skills. The site puts you in touch with native speakers of the language you choose and allows you to practice with natives (which I think is one of the best ways to learn). When I moved away from an area with lots native Spanish speakers I found it difficult to practice and this site made it possible for me to connect with native speakers all over the world!
My fluency in Spanish has been one of the best things in my life so I wish you nothing but the best in your pursuit of fluency in another language!
Can I learn other languages through this site?
this busuu.com looks great, thanks :))
Tim, glad you linked to the digital crib video. Enjoyed it, rated it, commented on it.
By the way, “Post Reading Time” is something I have been stressing for others to do for so long. First I noticed it on your blog, but want to congratulate you for using it.
Brilliant. I was actually logging on to the site as I know you have written about language learning in the past, and here’s some fresh stuff. I always struggled with languages at school, but I think it was the teaching/learning methods and relevance. Planning to live in Spain & Argentina for a few months with Spanish lessons in 2009/10.
Sound advice. It’s striking that courses which promise “fluency” disappointingly turn out to offer conversational fluency only rather than reading ability. The latter being much more demanding in terms of vocabulary. As someone more interesting in having a reading knowledge of a language than making chit-chat I’m very interested in study techniques for memorizing large vocab lists. I’ve had some success using Linkword Languages off-the-peg mnemonics product in Russian, the only problem with it, however, is the limited vocabulary size. Moreover, coming up with your own mnemonics for 10,000+ words is a chore that would tax even the most creative person. I plan on experimenting with spaced learning (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spaced_learning) in the future, but I wondered if anyone else has useful memorization tips such as semantic grouping or the like?
Thanks for a great post! I took two years of Arabic during my time at the Air Force Academy and have been wanting to “reactivate” the language and gain more proficiency without wasting time on ineffective methods.
You stated once that you don’t care for Rosetta Stone and I was wondering why? I have never used the software, but it is available to me for free through my organization and I was planning on trying it – wanting to know your reasons before I pursue this route.
Appreciate your personal experiments in living, much more insightful than listening to some critic sitting on the sidelines spouting off theories.
I love this. Thank you. I am a Japanese speaker but to be honest, it’s not perfect and a little childish – in fact, it’s been referred to as “Mardi’s Japanese” in Japan. Oh dear… Will definitely take on your points. In fact, I have just printed it out! Thanks again Tim.
Really Nice Post !! My native language is spanish Im from Puerto Rico . If any one speak spanish or know speak it I recomended to read “Aprenda un Idioma en 7 Dias ” from spanish author Ramon Campayo. Campayo also have some other books as ” Desarrolle una mente Prodigiosa ” . One of my goals for last trimestre of 2009 is begin to use a knew language, maybe italian or french.Ahh i finally bought a Ferriss’s Book arrive this week. Yeahh !!
I’m a web developer, and recently released an online language-learning application which applies the principles you mention in this post. The app takes advantage of the spacing effect to make practice as efficient as possible.
It also has a ton of Mandarin Chinese content (more of which will be added soon), ordered by level of the HSK exam (a tiered, standard test of Mandarin fluency), and ordered within each level by frequency of occurrence within the written Chinese language. You can also add and share your own content all you want.
The app is completely free and even has an iPhone interface so you can practice on the train or wherever else. You can check it out [by clicking on his name. Sorry, Joey — comment rules are such.]
Perfect timing. I just started a French-German-Italian (30 min of each) conversation group in NYC and we have our second meeting tonight. I’m going to print this out and bring it!!!
An attractive teacher will definitely help with Item 2. Not politically correct, but too bad.
When I determine my average reading time I divide my post length by 250. I have seen under many sources that the average reading speed is anywhere between 200-250. Someone correct me if I am wrong.
As far as a dead language. I have been studying Greek and Latin because of my interest in Medicine. I find I apply the rule that Tim gave in finding literature of interest. This usually consists of medical textbooks but at the same time, I do enjoy greek mythology and have dabbled in similar texts in Greek. I really don’t speak either well but I find it improves my knowledge of medicine.
Great post Tim, I always enjoy a good post on learning a new skill.
Jeremiah (Digital Trainer)
Thanks for your reply and advice.
I was just about to ask you to share your strategy for learning languages, and here it is… unbelievable. It will take quite a time to review it and tell you a proper thanks for that…
To tell you the truth, my friends and your russian fans said that your book is like a Bible for Entrepreneurs for the people in their 20-30s. And more over, always moving forward and learning more – that’s what makes your lifestyle unique and fabulous. To get rich – and apparantly get fat, bored and lazy, or a different way of living with daily automated income and doing what you are REALLY want to do, without worrying about paying a rent for next month, – that’s what most people didn’t know about at all…
Do you consider to make a family in your life? How do you think it will change your life? I am 31 myself, live with my girlfriend, and I am always thinking which bachelor things I want to keep no matter what influences marriage and kids can bring on me, and very interesting if you thought of that and have any answers for yourself…
Thanks for what you are doing,
Great stuff Tim. It’s amazing how “unscientifically” most people approach language learning. When you think about how long you need to invest to become fluent in a language it makes complete sense to focus a lot on the *how* upfront.
We’ve been working a lot at eduFire one trying to make the language learning process a lot more convenient. I think the notion of traditional classroom learning is on its way out and quickly being replaced by a number of great alternatives. Online language exchange sites like Friends Abroad and iTalki, self-paced sites like Live Mocha and Mango Languages and online tutoring and group classes at places like eduFire and Myngle are definitely the wave of the future.
I’m looking forward to a world in which learning languages becomes much more accessible. It does wonders for pulling together societies and increasing economic opportunities. Let’s hope that all these new tools and methodologies make that a reality.
After dating my Australian born taiwanese girlfriend (now fiance) for four years, i’ve picked up only a few words of Chinese (Mandarin) even though I spent alot of time around the language with her and her parents.
I’ve consistently had problems breaking through the comprehension barrier and am afraid to “practice” as much as I would like because of personal fear. This post really speaks to me! I can see now that it’s not really my attitude toward the language (which is generally quite positive, barring the frustration!), but the materials. Thanks for the wake up call Tim.
Love your work, can’t wait for your next book. 😉
I have now established two of your posts into my everyday life. I loved what you had posted about Leo Babauta and decided to make 2009 my year for small but life-altering incremental changes. I’ve written down the 30-day challenges I’d like to accomplish during the year, and March will be when I start learning a different language. I will attempt Mandarin or Hindi.
Thank you for your posts and your continued inspiration. May 2009 be as awesome for you as I know it will be for me.
I like the ideas, especially the word list. This will come in handy. I have never thought of reading things that actually interest me instead of merely reading. I thought it didn’t matter what I read as long as I was reading, but interest plays a big part of it. Perhaps I should try to learn Japanese so that I can read manga. I know I wouldn’t mind that.
Thanks for the ideas.
I love the most common words approach. It definately works. It’s especially helpful for travelers who are going to a country for the short-term and need to understand the locals or get around. This paired with a decent phrasebook make the trip more enjoyable.
I stumbled upon this site 3 months ago when I saw a video from Tofugu mentioning it. I’m already having decent broken conversations in Japanese over Skype and hopefully I’ll be pretty able to talk pretty smoothly in 2 more months. Best of all, it’s free!
Tim, great stuff as always. You need your own language books/cd’s/videos etc. Let travel or tech be the subject matter for adherence and put out your own word lists, and materials.
What would you suggest to someone trying to learn (and use) multiple languages over a short period of time? I’m preparing for a trip through 11 different countries over 11 months with about a month in each place. There will be about 7 different languages (besides English) to wrestle with. I have 7 months to prepare before I leave.
Any tips? Or any resources you’d suggest for dealing with this kind of multiple language acquisition?
Your articles are the best resources I’ve found for learning languages. Thank you.
Can anyone recommend some effective Russian materials? I’ve just arrived in east ukraine for work on my startup and a “mini-retirement” but the russian course books available here are very awkward. if you can help – spasiba!
Great stuff Tim! One of my goals this year is learning Korean so I can meet my girlfriend’s family properly. I’m going to give your techniques a shot. I’ll let you know how it turns out!
Great words. Kim and I used your last language post (as well as your Pimsleur recommendation) to practice our language skills on our mini retirement (and last dreamline goal of 2009) in Rio for the New Years celebrations. It works- even in Portuguese 🙂 Look forward to implementing this one in France for our next mini-retirement.
Best and Happy New Year
Rob and Kim
I have a question specifically about Japanese study.
Should I bother with Kanji, if so, to what degree?
I’ve passed the JPLT Level 3 test, and I can read perhaps 400 Kanji, since it was an equal part of my Japanese curriculum at uni.
The next natural step is to work toward the nikyuu, but I’m a little unsure about it as it involves studying a lot of kanji on my own, which I might not have the patience for.
It would be nice to be able to read and write, but a bigger priority is to be able to converse fluently, especially in business situations.
Given your 80/20 principal, wouldn’t it be wiser to drop kanji study altogether? On the one hand I realise kanji would help me understand even the spoken the language, on the other, learning kanji I find far more tedious and it would take a longer time to master – but is it essential do you think?
I recommend kanji. It’s very difficult to accumulate a large vocab in Japanese with a visual kanji image to associate for “jukugo” and other combinations due to the few phonemes of the language and massive number of homophones.
So, in short: yes, I would recommend learning to read kanji.
Have you checked out the methods at AllJapaneseAllTheTime.com (AJATT)?
A book that is highly recommended on that site, and one that many have had success with, including myself, is ‘Remebering The Kanji’ by James Heisig. Combine the techniques from that book with an SRS, and you can easily learn them a lot faster than traditional methods. Many people learn the 2042 in the book in less than a year — it all depends on how consistent you are with your studies.
I only knew about 100 or 200 from college, but with this book, I now know 1040.
Why are the “The 100 Most Common Spoken Words in English” in alphabetical order? What’s #1? What’s #20?
The simple answer is: that’s the only way I could find them!
Thanks for this post! I especially like the word list idea and will use it in developing my ESL lessons.
“one” is at number 41 and 53 in the list of most common spoken words.
The Vis-ed approach is great for certain languages– the Hebrew ones are terrific since each card gives gives adjective, noun, adverb, and verb variants for a particular root. The Korean ones, however, are full of archaic, obscure, and otherwise infrequently-used vocabulary–and the phonetic transliterations into Latin letters does not match the actual pronunciation of the word.
I did French in junior high and high school, majored in Russian in college, did an intensive Hebrew language program in Israel for seven months, and have lived in Korea for almost five years. At some point or another, I have had conversational fluency in each (having gotten rather rusty in each since then).
Korean is BY FAR the hardest of them all: it has all the nuance of Chinese pronunciation combined with the sentence structure of Japanese. That’s why I’m studying it– if I can get over that hump, I can do anything. If anyone wants tips on studying Korean, drop me a line.
I am trying to learn Korean because that is where my boyfriend is from and if I don’t speak it then I can’t meet his parents. I just got out of collage and can’t afford to take classes are there any materials/books/guides that are really useful?
Thanks in advance!
This is a pretty good (free) basic Korean course. http://www.liveinasiablog.com/learn-korean/
Make sure you use the videos to pronounce the Korean alphabet. …It’s so hard with just the Romanized spellings.
That’s a good free Korean course–except that there is no audio. This Korean alphabet is a better place to start because it includes full audio from a native Korean speaker.
Best of luck to you!
Thanks Andrew! I been considering buying the Vis-Ed cards for hebrew. Any more recommendations for learning hebrew?
Good article. See also the site I mentioned for more research on this suject.
The incredible level of quality of this blog continues to amaze me!!
I live in Taiwan and when I got here my first priority was learning how to read and say food and drink items. I spoke to another guy who learned how to give directions to taxi drivers as his first priority.
Second to that, as I teach yoga I learned more chinese from yoga books written in chinese (that had been translated from english and I translated back to english to figure out the terminology that I needed).
I also study tai ji and that was another source of language learning matierial.
One other thing that helped me is that I am interested in chinese calligraphy and so learning to write the characters also helped me to recognize them easier.
Im Trying to be a spanish speaking rep this june. now i have the complete set both Michel Thomas and Pimsleur (w/c u ‘voted’ on the comment in the other article).
1. Now which should I start first? MT –> Pims or the other way around?
2. Any ‘supplemental’ things / materials / doings? eg. movies to watch things to tweak, forums to join, in a 80/20 fashion?
Hoping for your response thanks
Hey Tim, Great blog. Good to hear that you enjoyed Nikko. I live in Utsunomiya, about 45 minutes from Nikko. There are many cool places to see and things to do around here.
If you’re still in Japan, let’s hook up and I’ll show you the local sites.
I think you forgot the word “FUCK”.
I didn’t, but the frequency folks seem to have forgotten 🙂
Thank you! I love this! And I really need it for my traveling!
ps. Any updates on your show? More episodes hopefully?!?!
Where can we find information about the 100 most common written and spoken words in languages other than English, say Spanish or German?
Thanks so much!
Great! I’ve been waiting for more on this subject for quite a while. I used your previous posts in years past to help me tackle some of the european languages while living in Berlin. I can’t wait for more.
This is definitely useful for people who are considering taking up a 2nd language. Learning a new language can be grueling and somehow you just make it look so easy. Kudos to you.
Personal Development Blogger
What are your feelings on interactive language learning programs? The Rosetta Stone set for example. I had a friend recommend it for spanish, but I’m not sure if I should spend the money on it based on what you cover. Let me know if you can! Thanks
Very interesting stuff. I learned Spanish in about 3 months but it has taken me more than 5 months to get anywhere with mandarin. The only significant difference that I can see in the experience was the fact that when I learned Spanish I was deeply interested in the content and immersed myself in it. As I’ve been learning mandarin I’ve dealt with topics that hold no interest. Time to change my tactics.
On a side note, my boss recently tasked me with a program to teach several hundred native mandarin speakers English so that we can do business in China in English. Any recommendations? I’ve got a plan but am always open for ways to improve it.
I’m living in Shanghai/China since 2 years, of which I spent one year at university studying Chinese. I met one dude who “mastered” Chinese in 6 months. Basically he lived in a neighborhood with no english speakers and studied ALL day (which means 6+ hours textbook and then go out and talk talk talk talk talk) .
Other than that usually after 2 years of daily study you can have simple conversations in Chinese language. Not talking about serious stuff, but simple chit chat.
On the other hand usually a Chinese person can learn to speak basic English in 3 months, I mean normal, useful conversation. If you want to do business in China, however, you better connect with people who know this country and its people a bit, or you’ll be unpleasantly surprised, a common joke goes like this:
“How do you become a millionaire in China? You arrive as a billionaire”.
Wow, your method is awesome.
I’m starting learning italian with your guide.
In a while will give you a feedback how it worked to me.
Relevancy of the material is vital to adherence. As English speakers in Germany my kids don’t learn the same words and phrases that are important to me. They want to understand the rules of the neighbourhood games and one of their first words was “spiel” which is play in English.
I wish i could find a list of the most common SPOKEN words in japanese…
I’ve found some older written lists, and sites like iknow seem to use the same lists… but they seem to be based on writing… and to be a bit out of date.
They often feature words like “typewriter”, and also seem to be based mostly on newspaper articles, as political and finance terms seem to come up way too often…
I wonder if there is some software to analyse a website and make a list of words by frequency??
Thanks for the great comments and contributions. A few things:
1) There is a great resource about word frequency lists here: http://www.lextutor.ca/research/ Thanks, Rene!
2) I do not recommend Rosetta Stone or similar “we’ll teach you to think in a language instead of just speak it” and “we’ll teach you to learn like a child does” systems.
Most cognitive neuroscientists who do semantic/phonetic mapping will agree the former is impossible, and learning languages like a child is slower than learning like an adult. If you read the research of Hakuta or look at anecdotal evidence like mine, adults can learn much, much faster than children by using their native language for associations.
Using “learn like a child” is a great excuse for a company to produce materials with the same images for every language and minimal tweaking of translation, which = lower cost of production. It’s designed to be simple to produce en masse, not for best results.
Here’s the thing, though: any system you stick with is better than a fantastic system you don’t stick with. If you absolutely love Rosetta Stone and enjoy the CDs, you will eventually learn the language. For me, and many I suspect, “eventually” isn’t good enough. I’m happy to do some hard work to get really good really quickly.
Just my two cents!
My brother needs to learn basic English in one month and not sure what method is more effective for him right now given that are many websites offers. I saw the “Pimsleur Approach” but it has other languages but English. Any recommendations?
Thank you very much.
@H Roark and anyone else learning Japanese.
If you’re serious about learning Japanese for business purposes or mastery, unfortunately you’d also better be serious about learning Kanji. I bit the bullet and learned all 1945 of the Joyo Kanji and then some when I was studying for 1kyu, and it was absolutely worth it.
Kanji really start to pay dividends when you move on to more advanced vocabulary. The more words you learn, the more you start to get amassed in a sea of homonyms. And before you know it, the language just dissolves into a blurb of same-soundiness in your head. Since Kanji retain actual meaning, it becomes much easier to distinguish which word it is.
Another great benefit of learning Kanji is that you can often accurately guess what words you’ve never heard before mean, or spot read new words in print.
That said, there is an 80/20 way to go about learning Kanji. The standard rote method of memorizing each character individually stroke for stroke is not it. I highly recommend the “Remembering the Kanji” series by James Heisig for a systematic approach to learning to read and write kanji that takes advantage of common radicals.
Ah, finally the commentary on Rosetta Stone I was looking for. That makes sense. Thanks!
Are there any systems or products that you do recommend for Spanish?
Funny, in my own language learning I was always frustrated that I was force fed English transliteration as a method of learning grammar and new words. I often found it easier to just think in terms of the native grammar. In my own mind I conceive of language as a serious of modular blocks that connect to each other to create meaning.
Once you figure out something like Japanese uses SOV word order, it seems like a gigantic step backwards and a whole lot of extra work to start with an English sentence as reference and transliterate it into Japanese. That said, for learning new or advanced grammatical structures, using English as a reference can be helpful, but I feel should be discarded as quickly as possible once you’ve properly learned to use the new grammar. It’s also useful sometimes when you just can’t quite figure out how to say what you want to say.
In my purely anecdotal experience, what I’ve consistently observed over and over again in native Japanese and Korean speakers learning English (and those speakers learning each other’s languages for that matter), is that the biggest barrier to sounding natural is failure to properly learn and internalize grammar. Starting from very basic word order, not even advanced grammar. What these speakers wind up saying is clearly just a word-for-word transliteration of the sentence in their native language that doesn’t quite survive translation.
I love language learning so much I could go on about it ALL DAY.. maybe even all week.. but I’ll stop here.
Thanks for all your posts on language learning, they are proving very encouraging for my situation: I’m Icelandic and my Japanese fiancée will move here in the summer and start studying Icelandic.
She is a bit worried (and so am I) because the sentence structure is vastly different from Japanese, there are 4 (dreaded) noun cases, and nouns can be masculine/feminine/neuter which affects the adjectives. I’m hoping we will be able to use the techniques you have described to help her reach fluency quickly, but secretly I worry considerably about the blasted grammar. Do you have any suggestions for our particular case?
Speaking of spaced repetition, are you aware of SRS programs like Supermemo, Mnemosyne, Anki?
One of the things I do when I learn a language, is doing research about the country in which it’s spoken, or the people who speak it if they happen not to have a country. It’s amazing how small details can help me connect bits of linguistic rules.
Also, I always try to do languages exchange with people speaking the language I learn, and learning the language I speak. However, that’s not always easy.
Nice video, Tim. Off-topic though, are you losing hair??
Sorry, couldn’t help it! 🙂
Thanks for your post. Can you recommend any specifc programs or materials for Japanese, from which we can find one we love?
I’m using Pimsleur and for the first time ever, learning fairly effortlessly and easily.
However… I’m always open to even better ways if you have them.
Thanks so much,
Hi there Tim,
my nname is Kei
I am enjoying your articles here in Tokyo
and I often see that you are visiting Japan…
If you have sometime next time,
why dont you stop over to my restaurant in Tokyo
would be honored to serve you,
offcourse if you like Turkish food!
Please do contact me if you are to come to the restaurant.
Thanks for the vibe always
Great Post Tim,
You keep on impressing me; I love your style of accomplishing anything with a more time efficient system; you seem to be able to accomplish anything; I am so impressed and have been using your principles in my lifes mission of giving anyone and everyone a simple proven system to not only get the best body of their adult life; but lifestyle and life;
So that they can be fully engaged and reach their true potential in all the major areas of their life with the most time efficient, results orientated program on the planet.
I love to do the same as you; please keep the vision of the better school systems; I would love to see a post on that topic to start to round up your team that may be able to help you.
Having two young daughters of my home; and mentoring hundreds of kids in the Chicagoland area; and seeing what is going on throuogh out the country with people going $100,000 in debt for a degree then trying to go out and get a “JOB”, is heart breaking;
Lets do it; I can’t wait to see your next post / publication on fitness / fatloss.
Keep up the great work; You have won me over as a fan, Tim.
Darin L. Steen (the Chicago Kid)
Quick question to anyone reading:
Do you know of any Dictionary series like English – German, with a 2000 word limit?
From what I gather from this, 2000 words is the most effective number of vocabulary to learn http://www.lextutor.ca/research/ for a given language, assuming that a dictionary limits itself to the most frequently used words.
I am quite good at what other people would consider boring repetitions, so my most effective method would be learning 2000 words and grammar to ‘master’ a language.
You ROCK!!! your flashcards are awesome, I was using cumbersome paper flashcards before.
I’ll be studying them from now on as user nate_ch
Thanks again Tim for sparking up more inspiration!
Wow. This is really useful information. Thanks
For those studying Mandarin Chinese:
Chinese word frequency list (ie most frequently used Chinese characters):
Excellent points about why learners should choose the subject matter.
I’ve found that instant translation tools, like Loqu8 iCE (Chinese-English) work very well. By picking a subject matter, I browse websites and documents that are improtant to me. Unliked “canned” language programs, this immersion method lets me focus on learning what’s important to me. Personal motivation goes a long way towards adherence and efficiency.
Great content. It is important to remember that learning a language when you are a adult should not take years of theorical studies.
I’m currently learning German in Berlin after leaving Paris. I’ve taken a 3 months course and my objective is simple : being fluent in everyday life.
To reach this goal i have to learn numbers, common verbs and words and some rules.
Quite simple in fact but challenging anyway 🙂
It makes me smile because all the people who studied German for 8 or 10 years at school say that they can’t say anything in German.
It’s like comparing orange and apple. Time in school isn’t time you choose to spend.
Pura Vida !
I speak 9 languages fluently and since Tim’s first post on language learning have learned another, Russian, well enough to understand political discussions on the radio, and to read and listen to literature.
I totally agree with many of the points in this post of Tim’s.
Efficiency: The greater the efficiency, the greater the intensity of the learning experience. Massive listening, reading and word review is the most efficient way to learn. Classes, grammar explanations, Rosetta Stone, and even having conversations before you have much of the language, is not efficient.
The classroom is a low intensity language learning environment.
Effectiveness: Which I understood to mean focusing on important things first. To me this applies mostly to making sure that the content you are learning from is interesting and meaningful. I would not worry too much about prioritizing words and structures to learn. The brain will figure that out, and shelve the odd low priority word that pops up. The point is that if you want fluency you need a lot of words, a lot, and you need a lot of input.
Adherency: Absolutely important. It is best to stay with interesting content and you will learn, because you will be motivated to continue listening and reading. You cannot learn from boring content. I agree wholeheartedly with Tim. Content that is artificially built around “easy words” is only useful at the very beginning, and soon loses interest for the learner.
This article of Tim’s is very useful. If his previous one about mastering a language in one hour served more to attract the attention of people to the opportunities of learning languages, this article offers more concrete advice for the long haul.
I would caution people about the 3 months. I am a good language learner. I have been studying Russian for over 2 years, and I have a ways to go yet. But it does not matter, I enjoy the process. That is the most important thing.
I’m attempting to learn Russian while going to college at University of North Florida. The Michel Thomas and Pimsleur approach appear to be the most interesting. What advice can you offer, as a linguist who has spent 2 years with this language, to learning to read and understanding Russian. Thank you for any advice you can offer and hopefully you can assist me with any curve balls you wish you had known when you started.
Thanks Tim. I always enjoy reading your stuff. A quick note for other readers.
Take Tim’s top 100 lists and copy and paste them into google’s translator,
( http://translate.google.com/translate_t# ) to quickly get the foreign language word equivalents. Gives you a nice study list to practice.
Here is a great suggestion from fellow blog reader, Tatoosh:
“A quick note for other readers.
Take Tim’s top 100 lists and copy and paste them into google’s translator,
( http://translate.google.com/translate_t# ) to quickly get the foreign language word equivalents. Gives you a nice study list to practice.”
Thanks, Tatoosh! Great idea.
Actually, it would not be very helpful to translate the English word list for use in other languages. Because language is so culturally bound, each language will have a different word frequency list. For example, in some languages, there is no translation for the word “the” because articles are not used. In other languages, the word “the” has several different words based on case, number, gender, etc. So… if you are learning English as a second or foreign language, then by all means make use of the list of most common words in English. It will not be so helpful for learning other languages.
As an experiment, I compared a list of the 100 words most frequently appearing in the Yiddish language Forverts newspaper (compiled over a three year period) with a list translated into Yiddish from Tim’s list of the 100 most frequently written English words, using the Google translate engine. Here are the results:
Shared words: 57
Of the shared words, 46 were unique.
Of the shared words, seven appeared twice.
Of the shared words, two appeared three times.
Most remarkable, of the shared words, three appeared in the exact same position of frequency: positions 1, 27 and 36
Unshared words: 44
Both lists were based on written frequency. However, without knowing the source of Tim’s list, I don’t know if a newspaper as the only source of the Forvert’s list is as balanced as the English list provided by Tim. At the same time, words like “oil” in Tim’s list makes me wonder about the source of his list.
Another important consideration is that both Modern English and Yiddish have a common ancestor in Middle German. This shared origin may help to explain some of the high proportion of shared words. However, when faced with less commonly used languages, such as Yiddish, finding a list of frequently used words, even when compiled from a mechanically translated English frequency list, may not be the worst idea for self-learners.
So much for my math. Here are the corrected totals:
Total shared words: 57
Total unshared words: 43
Continuing my analysis of the lists recommended by Tim, I compared his 100 Most Common Spoken Words in English list with his 100 Most Common Written Words in English list, and this is what I found:
Shared words: 55
Unshared words: 44
(This totals 99, I know. The written list shows the word “one” twice. It is a shared word of the two lists and so I removed the duplicate from the total. Otherwise, the shared words would total 56.)
Interesting that it is so close to the earlier ratio of Yiddish to English shared frequency words.
Because I don’t have a corresponding authoritative source for the top 100 spoken Yiddish words, I compared the results of the above comparison of Tim’s list with the shared results of my earlier comparison of written Yiddish and English. Here are those results:
From a total of 57 words (the total shared between Tim’s top 100 Written Words in English and the top 100 Written Words in the Yiddish newspaper Forverts):
Shared words: 36
Unshared words: 21
I am making these comparisons out of curiosity and I think Kiki is right to be cautionary about generating these frequency lists from mechanically translated English alone. As a teacher of Yiddish as a second language, I have never warmed to mechanical translation. The idiomatic and collocated phrases of language give richness and meaning more easily finessed by people than software programs at present. Also, idioms and collocations have never been sufficiently documented for the number of languages people are interested in learning. Thus, immersion within the native country of a language remains the fall back recommendation for rapid successful acquisition for committed learners such as Tim. This doesn’t solve the larger problem, though, of second language acquisition for students before adulthood, which is a far more complex logistical and cultural problem in the States. But based on this initial comparison of lists, mechanical translation of English frequency may have some value for language learning if approached knowledgably regarding its limitations.
I challenge any reader to summarize Tim’s 3-4 language posts. Now that you were able to pick Tim’s brain on language hacking, what practical advice would you give to your friends?
Could it be something simple as “study a language not in class but as you apply it”?
Tim, your writing style seems great for getting applause, but it clutters your message. Listen to yourself – quote:
“Principles of cognitive neuroscience and time management can be applied to attain […]”.
Fair enough, F. The first version of this was written about two years ago, long before I adopted a more comfortable tone. The next will be more conversational.
In all fairness, does that even sound remotely understandable?
Great post. I’m going to try your suggestions to see if they’ll actually work! 🙂
I totally agree that learning the Japanese language without learning kanji alongside your vocab will hamstring you later in your studies. It is also a cultural thing. Many Japanese will give the explanation for homonyms as they have different kanji, which makes perfect sense to a Japanese, but is frustrating to NJ who can’t write.
Here again, Tim is right on. Learning the basics of kanji, the radicals, and the reasons for them will go a long way than rote memorization methods of the 70s.
BTW, Leeds University has produced large frequency lists, running to many thousands of words, of several major languages based on a variety of corpora. See http://corpus.leeds.ac.uk/list.html .
Another very good lead for frequency lists from Ewan:
“BTW, Leeds University has produced large frequency lists, running to many thousands of words, of several major languages based on a variety of corpora. See http://corpus.leeds.ac.uk/list.html ”
This is great! Thanks everybody!!
Still would like to know Tim what you recommend then as the best materials for learning Spanish (I had been told Rosetta Stone as well). Or would you just say get the word list and learn some basic grammar and practice? Wanna get that materials thing right and then go for it. I want to get to proficiency at the ability to teach in Spanish.
Yet another knowledge-boosting post. Thanks Tim!
Sorry to ask what a totally unrelated question, but something has been bothering me for a long time and I was wondering if you might be able to help.
I recently quit my job at a fairly secure financial firm (yes, I did just put the words secure and financial together) because I realized that it was not meant for me. I now have my own website that presents eco-innovations and tips on how to recycle stuff creatively. It is my dream to be able to live off of my writing and I love talking to people about it…with strangers. My problem is that I’ve been finding it very hard to communicate these ideas with the friends I have grown up with and love very much. Maybe it is an inevitable part of growing up, but my interests just aren’t the same as the other 26 year old girls and guys in my group. I feel at times that when I’m trying to discuss what makes me happy (green practices, social media or what I think will be a revolution in advertising and the way that we relate to one another), people take it as preachy or uninteresting. Some people have told me to find new friends, but I feel the issue is within myself, and that I can somehow make the change I want to see happen. Any thoughts?
Fantastic article. I’d like to add two things:
First, this advice applies to every skill, not just language. You cannot overestimate the importance of “Priority, Interest, and Process.” I’ll be bookmarking this article as inspiration for any new skill I want to acquire.
Second, as someone who speaks four languages (with varying degrees of fluency) I’ll say that the best, and in my opinion the only, way to learn a new language is move to a country where you will be forced to learn. It took me four years of high school to learn Spanish because I was in the US. It took me two months to become just as fluent in Italian when I was living it Italy. And I didn’t even take a language class when I was there. (And I would have never learned Hungarian if I hadn’t lived in Budapest!)
When living in a foreign country you will have the Priority (otherwise you won’t be able to buy lunch). And finding the Interest will be easier because you can easily seek out your Italian-speaking judo schools or whatever.
@Ewan Sinclair: mnemosyne is an option for spaced recall. I personally have used vistor’s cards (essentially blank business cards) in a more manual system. Something I picked up from Goethe Institut tips was colour-coding gender on the cards (blue = masc, red = fem, green = neut; black for verbs, etc). This worked well for knocking gender into my subconscience – I found I started to visualise the nouns as different colours when writing. When I was playing around with ancient greek I extended this to using colour with tense for memorising the basic forms of verbs.
A second tip that seemed to push me over a bit of a plateau in my learning German (which is mainly for reading novels – travel doesn’t really interest me that much) was switching all the music I listened to to music in German – there are some great bands like Rosenstolz, Klee, Juli and Wir sind Helden – and so creating something a bit closer to an immersion environment. In three years of studying mainly on my own I have gone from basically scratch to having just read my second German novel (Treffen sic zwei by Iris Hanika).
Many thanks for the word lists (and the commenters who pointed out where to get them).
all language learners i recommand you check out http://ichi2.net/anki/ its free
Glad to see you considered my comment! Even though I think you got it, allow me to clarify. See this as constructive criticism from a reader who is really interested in what you write and eager to apply it – but who finds that an overabundance of 1. buzzwords and 2. abstract statements isn’t helpful and often even hinders proper understanding just when you got to an extremely interesting part. Think of a soccer game broadcast on TV; just as someone is about to score, electricity falls out. That’s exactly the issue I repeatedly have had when reading your blogs or listening to one of your interviews. Still, they’re worth it! 🙂
Keep up the good work!
Hey Frederik, (aka “F”)
Tim’s opening statement in this blog makes sense, maybe it’s complicated to you and I get that. We all have various learning styles, it happens.
Let me make it simple for you,
A + B = C
Principles of cognitive neuroscience (applies to understanding memory and language use) + time management (application of Tim’s techniques) = conversational fluency within 1-3 months.
The rest of Tim’s post explains how this can be achieved by the application of certain techniques.
Also, to answer your question, I would tell my friends to apply effectiveness, adherence, and efficiency to create a realistic learning model for a new language. I would also advise them to incorporate the 80/20 principle (apply 20 percent of activities which lead to 80 percent results). The trick is to find success with a set of proven fundamental models to get the most out of our creativity. And that is exactly what Tim has demonstrated. Great job Tim!
I have always struggled with foreign languages but this post give me a renewed motivation to finally give it another stab.
As ever your posts are excellent and a cut above the rest.
Something that might interest you:
A couple of college kids talk themselves into a conference and ask Branson to fly them to DC, they went to DC with Branson on his private jet a few hours later.
(it’s in Dutch though)
Great posts and insights as always Tim.
Great article with great comments.
Some additional resources: I found the 2000 most frequent words (in the correct order :)) from the Brown Corpus googling for brown corpus wfk2. Some other word lists (movie and TV scripts, the British National Corpus, Project Gutenberg, etc) for English and other languages can be found in or reached from Wictionary’s “Frequency lists” article (linked to my name.)
These lists are also good for testing purposes. I remember how surprised I was when I could only find one or two unknown words in the first 5000 most frequent English words 🙂
So glad you did another post about learning languages.
The fact that you spoke Japanese on your pilot (and made absolutely NO reference to your own linguistic abilities) was deeply cool.
More on language learning! Write another book or something . . . .
first of all thanks for great posts.
One idea came to me while reading this post and its comments: what if we collect 600-700 hundred most frequent words and combine learning them by rosetta stone method? I used to learn 20-30 words a day using Rosetta, and those 600 will be devoured easily…
Second, last year I’ve spoken with Lingua Center Professor in Moscow, and he said that 70% of word usage is 658 words (I guess russian words, I didn’t ask). With those properly learned words and basic grammar one can do everything in different country but teach…
Third, I’ve compared my lists of 600 hundred words in English and Spanish – they were very close, but different. Using method how to define most frequent words, it will be useful to have it for every language…
Thanks All and Tim,
“WordCount data currently comes from the British National Corpus®, a 100 million word collection of samples of written and spoken language from a wide range of sources, designed to represent an accurate cross-section of current English usage.”
http://www.alljapaneseallthetime.com/blog/ – great site on learning japanese and languages in general
I’m having a problem with the effectiveness step— deciding what I want to learn. I’ve been studying Mandarin for a while now, and I’m still working on my conversational fluency. I have also recently started learning Japanese. I’ve learned the Hiragana, and a little vocab.
I’m at the point where I want to become fully conversationally fluent in Chinese, so I want to learn the Chinese characters I know a couple hundred, but I’m nowhere near literacy. I know that Heisig’s books are very effective and I have the choice now to learn traditional hanzi or simplified.
I currently use simplified characters when chatting with friends, because I hang out with mostly Chinese Mainlanders, but I know that Kanji and traditional hanzi are written just about the same. I eventually want to master conversational fluency in Japanese as well, so I’m wondering whether I should purchase the book “Remembering the Simplified Hanzi” or “Remembering the Traditional Hanzi”. I plan to move to Mainland China (probably for a year) at the end of this year, so simplified hanzi seem to be most immediately practical for me, but I’ve heard arguments for both.
What’s your take on the issue? Thanks a lot!
Outstanding! I use similar methods in teaching at North Carolina Central University. One of my courses is Statistics and I use many non-traditional techniques to inspire and capture my students attention (this led me to author a non-traditional Stat book to aid in student learning and comprehension). I have found however, that collaboration is the greatest teaching method. Similar to your judo experiences, I dare to say that the collaboration between you and your Japanese colleagues greatly aided in your level of interest, intensity to learn, motivation, will to compete, and coherence of the material. If you add this factor (one of interpersonal interaction and collaboration to your 3 initial components) I believe that you will find that your instructional methodology is even more effective.
Great Article! (I love the one on “getting back up” post as well and plan to share it with all of my grad and undergrad students)
Please continue doing what you do. Take care and be blessed!
With Greatest Respect and Warmest Regards.
Thanks Kerry, I’ll definitely try those out. Also Routledge publish frequency order dictionaries in a couple of languages, and I think they’re expanding their list this year.
“Word List Expert” is a excellent software for make lists! Works in all alphabetical language. Count frequency of word in any given text. the list can be widelly configurated and export result list for Excel, clipboard or text file.
Very cool recommendation. To repeat — software for creating word frequency lists:
“Word List Expert” is a excellent software for make lists! Works in all alphabetical language. Count frequency of word in any given text. the list can be widelly configurated and export result list for Excel, clipboard or text file.”
What I wrote in kanji that your site didn’t like very much:
chotto senmontekina nihongo wo shaberaretemo, nihongo ga wakaru wake deha nai dato omoimasu. sono jyoukyou kara sukoshidemo hanaretara, chittomo yakuni tachimasen. hontouni nihongo wo naraitakattara, ganbattekudasai.
I listened to one of your videos. You discussed Public School System and requested contacts. I am highly interested in what you would plan. I work in schools as a speech-language pathologist. I love reform and change… So I am interested learning more about your ideas. blessings.
I’ve had similar problems in the past so i hope you don’t mind my 2 cents. If you will be spending all of your time in mainland i’d stick with simplified. Master simplified and learning traditional and kanji will be so much easier. The more characters you learn the easier it is to learn additional characters. The tricky problem with learning Chinese and Japanese is making sure you correctly pronounce the character using the right language. You might find yourself reading a Japanese text and every time you see a character you pronounce the Mandarin instead of Japanese. This can make reading very interesting!
Thanks for another language post. I am learning German my vocabulary needs to be expanded.
Will start with the 1000 most common German words from
A friend of mine gave me a book called “DERMO! The Real Russian Tolstoy Never Used” (ISBNs 0452277450 & 978-0452277458) I would give you the link but I think Tim frowns on that. You’ll find it on Amazon with the LOOK INSIDE! feature..and maybe some places in Ukraine.
The book will not make you fluent in Russian, it contains LOTS of nasty words, but also contains lots of handy phrases that real people use in Russia, not just text book stuff, it certainly is not “Russian for entrepreneurs”!
It has Cyrillic and Latin spellings of words. It may help you out with some simple stuff quickly.