How to Learn Any Language in 3 Months

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

  1. the
  2. of
  3. and
  4. a
  5. to
  6. in
  7. is
  8. you
  9. that
  10. it
  11. he
  12. was
  13. for
  14. on
  15. are
  16. as
  17. with
  18. his
  19. they
  20. I
  21. at
  22. be
  23. this
  24. have
  25. from
  26. or
  27. one
  28. had
  29. by
  30. word
  31. but
  32. not
  33. what
  34. all
  35. were
  36. we
  37. when
  38. your
  39. can
  40. said
  41. there
  42. use
  43. an
  44. each
  45. which
  46. she
  47. do
  48. how
  49. their
  50. if
  51. will
  52. up
  53. other
  54. about
  55. out
  56. many
  57. then
  58. them
  59. these
  60. so
  61. some
  62. her
  63. would
  64. make
  65. like
  66. him
  67. into
  68. time
  69. has
  70. look
  71. two
  72. more
  73. write
  74. go
  75. see
  76. number
  77. no
  78. way
  79. could
  80. people
  81. my
  82. than
  83. first
  84. water
  85. been
  86. call
  87. who
  88. oil
  89. its
  90. now
  91. find
  92. long
  93. down
  94. day
  95. did
  96. get
  97. come
  98. made
  99. may
  100. part

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

  1. a, an
  2. after
  3. again
  4. all
  5. almost
  6. also
  7. always
  8. and
  9. because
  10. before
  11. big
  12. but
  13. (I) can
  14. (I) come
  15. either/or
  16. (I) find
  17. first
  18. for
  19. friend
  20. from
  21. (I) go
  22. good
  23. goodbye
  24. happy
  25. (I) have
  26. he
  27. hello
  28. here
  29. how
  30. I
  31. (I) am
  32. if
  33. in
  34. (I) know
  35. last
  36. (I) like
  37. little
  38. (I) love
  39. (I) make
  40. many
  41. one
  42. more
  43. most
  44. much
  45. my
  46. new
  47. no
  48. not
  49. now
  50. of
  51. often
  52. on
  53. one
  54. only
  55. or
  56. other
  57. our
  58. out
  59. over
  60. people
  61. place
  62. please
  63. same
  64. (I) see
  65. she
  66. so
  67. some
  68. sometimes
  69. still
  70. such
  71. (I) tell
  72. thank you
  73. that
  74. the
  75. their
  76. them
  77. then
  78. there is
  79. they
  80. thing
  81. (I) think
  82. this
  83. time
  84. to
  85. under
  86. up
  87. us
  88. (I) use
  89. very
  90. we
  91. what
  92. when
  93. where
  94. which
  95. who
  96. why
  97. with
  98. yes
  99. you
  100. your

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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550 Replies to “How to Learn Any Language in 3 Months”

  1. Great article Tim,

    There has been a few mentions in the comments about the language teacher Michel Thomas. I seem to remember from some of your previous articles that you also recommended him as a good resource for language learning. Is that still the case or do you solely prefer this new method now?

  2. Great post, although it sounds like some rote memorization which is not as fun as some other ways.

    Just throwing this out there, I’m planning a mini-retirement to South America (exact destination still undecided) for Jan ’10. Is anybody else in the same ballpark? Please email me if you are, it’s edwardkbartlett at gmail.

  3. Great advice… missing.

    To summarise.

    1) Use a good course

    2) Use material you’re interested in

    3) Use a good course

    Sadly no practical advice on choosing a good course.

    Plus of course number 2 is only a half-answer. It can sometimes be incredibly frustrating being interested in something but not quite understanding it.

  4. As someone who had to learn a foreign language (Spanish) to survive in my occupation overseas, I wished I would have had this post 10 years ago. I eventually became fluent but not without wasting hundreds of dollars on programs, tapes, worthless “instant” programs, etc. I eventually stumbled onto my own “system” very similar to Tim’s.

    Lessons learned from my personal experience:

    –learning like a child is much too slow. It’s easier to associate new foreign words with my existing English vocabulary. This also provides a future benefit: You will be able to translate between the two languages faster and more accurately. My wife is fluent in both languages and grew up speaking both of them in the home. She never had to sit down and learn that “galleta”=”cookie” or “cama”=”bed”, she just knew them independently. As a result, she is a slower translator than I (although she speaks each language with native fluency and Spanish better than I).

    –Don’t spend a dime on tapes/CD’s unless there is absolutely no one around that speaks your target language. They are only good for getting the accent right, not for LEARNING the language. A dictionary (or word lists–to include a list of verbs), and a good phrasebook to start, is all you need. Determine common phrases that you can plug in other verbs and nouns into to communicate different ideas. I believe this is similar to what Tim explains in his Judo vocab example.

    –Don’t learn ABOUT the language, learn THE language. I think this is the biggest problem with current language programs out there. And the reason someone can take 2 years of high school Spanish, get A’s in it, and not be able to successfully conduct a simple business transaction in the target language. Is it REALLY important to know indicative, demonstrative, past participle, and other grammatical terms as they relate to the target language? If you think they are, ask yourself why a fluent, English native-speaker, who reads, speaks and writes intelligently will get so many questions wrong on a typical English grammar test. Learn THE language, not ABOUT the language.

    –Most important key to learning a language that overrides all of the tapes, books, classes, etc…….You have to be willing to TRY. Just speak. You WILL make mistakes. But the faster you make them, the faster you learn. Thinking you’ve learned it in your head but never trying to communicate won’t work. Leave those inhibitions at home.

    Tim, muchisimas gracias por todo! Estamos muy agradecidos!

  5. My obsession for the past 12 years has been becoming fluent in a multitude of languages, and it really is hard finding good insight on this topic. I find that most people are turned off to the idea of language learning based on past experiences during high school or college language classes.

    Your post hit this topic perfectly.

  6. It’s cliche to say where there’s a will there’s a way, but I’m a fan of the compelling why … and as you put it, the compelling ROI.

    I’m also a fan of expert techniques that get exponential results. I value time.

    When it comes to any sort of knowledge work, I’ve seen the right techniques produce ridiculous results many orders of magnitude greater over lesser techniques. That’s why I’m always on the prowl for patterns and practices for skilled living.

  7. Tim,

    Your take on language learning really hits home for me. In High School I struggled like mad to just squeeze out a passing grade in French. Although I’m not currently looking to rekindle my French, your take makes a lot of sense as to why I couldn’t grasp it.

  8. From an article linked to by my name, which verifies my experience of the effect of having pop music, in the language I am learning, constantly playing in the background:

    Dr Sulzberger [of Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand] has found that the best way to learn a language is through frequent exposure to its sound patterns—even if you haven’t a clue what it all means.

    “However crazy it might sound, just listening to the language, even though you don’t understand it, is critical. A lot of language teachers may not accept that,” he says.

    “Our ability to learn new words is directly related to how often we have been exposed to the particular combinations of the sounds which make up the words. If you want to learn Spanish, for example, frequently listening to a Spanish language radio station on the internet will dramatically boost your ability to pick up the language and learn new words.”

    Dr Sulzberger’s research challenges existing language learning theory. His main hypothesis is that simply listening to a new language sets up the structures in the brain required to learn the words.

    “Neural tissue required to learn and understand a new language will develop automatically from simple exposure to the language—which is how babies learn their first language,” Dr Sulzberger says.

    He was prompted to undertake the research after spending seven years teaching Russian to New Zealand students and observing drop-out patterns.

    “I was very conscious of the huge difficulties students have when they tackle another language, especially at the beginning. Many drop out because they feel they are not making progress.”

    Dr Sulzberger says he was interested in what makes it so difficult to learn foreign words when we are constantly learning new ones in our native language. He found the answer in the way the brain develops neural structures when hearing new combinations of sounds.

    Read the whole article.

  9. Tim, My husband and I were inspired by 4HWW – enough to finally start taking some action. As a matter of fact, we just recently launched our blog which will chronicle our journey as we redesign our lifestyle. We’ve been exploring some possible ways to earn a living “on our own terms” so we can quit our 40-hr-week jobs. One of the ideas we’ve tossed around is providing multi-language translation services. We have a relative who is doing this with good success. The information in your post is great stuff! I especially like the suggestion of reading material in an interesting subject matter to learn the language. Seems so obvious now! I once learned American Sign Language to communicate with a co-worker. But, once I quit working with him I quickly forgot most of what I had learned. What’s a good way to increase retention if you don’t use the language(s) on a regular basis? Thanks again.

  10. Hi Tim,

    I made the decision to take a sabbatical and used your recommendations as a source to explore my options. I will head towards Central America and will pick up volunteer work along the way. Let me know when the opportunity strikes to volunteer with you or contribute in some way to build a school overseas.

  11. This concept will work well in my music class. Musicians must be able to sight read well on the band stand. They rarely get the chance to see the music before the gig. Therefore if I concentrate on teaching my students the most common used rhythms in music, I’ve produced some fantastic sight readers who can cover 90% of the gigs available.

    Similarly to language, there is a point at which one can study obscure rhythms that will rarely be seen on a page of music.

  12. I’m a little confused on your method here. Let’s say I’m learning Chinese. I’ve got my Chinese newspapers out. How do I pick up grammatical structures from these direct sources? It seems like you need some kind of textbook intermediary to learn the grammar before you could read anything.

  13. Hi Tim,

    Thanks for another very interesting post!

    I’m wondering, though, specifically about becoming conversationally fluent in Japanese. I’ve been studying the language for three years, both in small classroom settings and with a private tutor, but I’m still not even close to the 95% comprehension rate you cite as possible in three months.

    I’ve read all your language posts, and I understand the 80/20 rule, but there are just so many types of grammatical structures and vocabularies in Japanese. For example, even after I’ve mastered the plain form, Japanese people often instead communicate in keigo, which is completely different, so how could I hope for a 95% comprehension rate of all conversation in only three months?

    Am I missing something? Because even if I learn the 100 most common words, 95% comprehension still seems like a daunting goal. I don’t doubt you, because you seem to know a lot about this stuff, but do you have any specific tips or advice for understanding spoken Japanese?

  14. Hi!

    This all very cool, but a ran into a guy who has a method for learning languages in 1 day – and I mean really to learn.

    The stuff his got going is amazing and I’ll learn about it when get on his course.. If it’s a success I’ll be talking russian in by valentines =)

  15. Dear Tim,

    I am indebted to you for giving me the tools to dramatically increase productivity, reduce stress and increase free time. A German mother and years on Wall Street led me to view productivity in the number of hours worked – 80+ hours a week used to make me feel good. Overstimulating myself with information was another big lesson for me (major OCD).

    I have spent the last 15 years learning how to invest from several proven macro investors. No surprise, but the guys on Wall Street are no more enlightened, and in fact very often underperform the average Main Street investor.

    Interestingly enough, the principles you have developed have very relevant applications in successful investing:

    Focus on Macro Asset Classes: this is absolutely critical. 2-3 years ago, it was strikingly obvious that the credit markets were out of control. Yet, how come very few took the time to stand back and assess the massive bubble that was being creating. The next much larger bubble is the shortage in liquid transport fuels (oil, which provides 95% of our transport fuel is in major decline – read any industry report). Yet, even some of the smartest investors have no clue about this – perception vs. reality – investors like to delude themselves.

    Low Information Diet: 95% of the news on the financial news channels is nonsense and most often the promoter is conflicted. Read only the truly independent sources from those who have made money over decades (and not someone was up 150% last year due to probability). Dr. Marc Faber, Jim Rogers, Warren Buffet (though I think this cycle he has become the system – very hard to outperform when you manage that much money) are some of the best.

    Work 4 Hours: this is key. On Wall Street, you are kept on major emotional roller coasters and fast money is exciting. Unfortunately, this is not the way to make money – the vast majority of traders don’t last very long. Again, you have to select the right major macro trend and then sit for 3 to 5 years. The volatility will be intense, but the upside is much greater than the whole “diversification” theory that Wall Street markets. Look how 99% of investors faired in this downturn (granted, this is an extreme example).

    These and a few more principles really do work. It has taken years of testing various strategies from some of the best investment renegades to truly learn how to invest money. If you are ever in Singapore, you have a place to stay – happy to share whatever I can about financial enlightment.



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  17. Automating the translation of the “100 Most Common Words”


    Great article yet again!

    Inspired I made a small script to automate the translation of the 2 lists in Tim’s post into Pinyin (Chinese romanized script), which I blogged about yesterday.

    Thinking today about the generic case for any language I checked out the Babelfish site and figured out an automated translation was doable. With a copy-n-paste of the list of words Tim stated into a file called, for example, “100-most-common-words-spoken”, and then running the following oneliner a Linux system, it automatically grabs the words for whatever language you want. Just change “lang=fr” to “lang=xx” where xx is the two country letter code of choice. Here I chose xx=fr (France) and a snippet of the output of this oneliner as it scrolled by is shown here:

    [kiat@kiat-t61-uk pinyin]$ for word in $(cat 100-most-common-words-spoken | awk ‘{print $2}’); do export lang=fr ; echo -n “${word} = ” ; elinks -dump -force-html -dump-width 1600 -no-numbering -no-references “BABELFISH/translate_txt?ei=UTF-8&doit=done&fr=bf-res&intl=1&tt=urltext&lp=en_${lang}&btnTrTxt=Translate&trtext=${word}” | sed -n ‘1,/Search the web with this text/p’ | tail -n 2 | head -1 ; done

    a = a

    after = ensuite

    again = encore

    all = tous

    almost = presque

    also = aussi

    always = toujours

    and = et

    because = parce que

    before = avant

    big = grand

    but = mais

    Because of the comment rules here I had to change the Babelfish website name in the oneliner to BABELFISH, which is not hard to find and replace with the real one.



  18. Oops! a simpler method is given above in Tim’s response by just pasting the list into the Google translate site or maybe even Babelfish. From there it’s easy to put that into a doc. No need for all this command line stuff. Can I get my post back? 😉

  19. Hi Tim,

    I like the idea of deconstructing know-how to it’s smallest bits & parts and to leave away all the non-essential stuff in order to get a maximum in a minimum of time. As you mentioned in your article “Pavel: 80/20 Powerlifting and How to Add 110+ Pounds to Your Lifts” this principle can be applied not only to languages but to any skills you want to acquire. I ask myself, if there are, so to say, global deconstruction rules to melt down certain skills to it essentials. Would be a nice topic for an article; something like “The 10 Rules of Deconstructing any Skills”

    Regards from Munich (Germany),


  20. Great post Tim!

    After studying French in HS and college, never became fluent until lived in France for a semester in school, ah Paris. I remember reading Le Canard Enchaine as great help in learning topical French as well as some slang, since was satirical. Going to see if online.

    I also remembered that learning a few current slang terms helped tremendously in conversation and reduced the foreign accent and “tourist” stigma. Never learned slang in school, wasn’t until in country that picked up some.

    A great ice breaker I learned was, “Je parle francais comme un vache espagnol.” This self depricating response to questions of whether I spoke French always resulted in a laugh, and opened the door for locals to work w/me on my French.

    Seems like internet would be place to find topical articles/material in other languages.

    Wonder if you have an suggested sites in various languages.


  21. Hi Tim,

    Thanks for the wonderful post on Language learning, however with the 80/20 principle you mentioned I’ve been trying to find out how to learn the violin. I’ve searched high and low to understand what is it that I need to focus to learn the violin, do you have any insights/tips on this.

    Warm Regards


    PS. I do go to Violin classes.

  22. ????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????


  23. Hey Tim,

    Do you know about Supercool School? Essentially they provide Virtual Classrooms, making school Web 2.0. Everyone with a microphone and webcam can be a teacher, and everyone with an internet connection can join in and learn. On any topic they like, free.

    This might the revolution of education that we need. A woman from Germany already taught a woman from South Africa. And an L.A.-born entrepreneur living in Shanghai taught on how to enter the Chinese market.

    Check it out!

  24. Damn… Now that’s one useful post! I’ve never heard it broken down with such simplicity before. I had 4 years of Spanish in high school and still have a decent vocabulary. My girlfriend is Colombian so I’m getting the practice in now.

    Does anyone know if Rosetta Stone for learning languages is the real deal or just a bunch of hype? I wonder if it expands on the principles laid-out here…

  25. Tim, your post rekindled my long forgotten desire to learn the German language. Thanks to you!

  26. Fewer commenters than I expected brought up the suggestion of learning the language through the lyrics of songs. I think it’s a tactic worth stressing.

    It seems like without even realizing it, I have memorized enough song lyrics to fill several phone books worth of pages, and I’m sure most of the readers have too. For example, if I say “I been to Phoenix, all the way to Tacoma, Philadelphia, Atlanta, L.A.”, I’m sure 99% of you can recite the next several lines.

    There’s an Israeli/Spanish singer named David Broza, who has some fantastic stuff (very listenable), and with a good clear voice. Once I ran some lyrics through the Google translator, they “locked” into place since they finally had meaning attached to them. Really, within a few minutes I was memorizing the song (“Hoy No”).

    What does this “rote” memorization do? Well, it gets you familiar with pronunciation, syllable stresses, sentence structure, and most of all, it certainly keeps you motivated.

  27. hey tim,

    have you ever tried learning a language in the combination with music? there used to be cassettes in germany called “superlearning” in the 80’s. I tried to learn some italian with them back then and was surprised that I was still able to converse with my girlfriend (now my wife) about 15 years later although I never actually spoke or further deepend my italian knowledge during those years.

    the idea is that the music relaxes and opens up some parts of the brain usually not used in our daily routines and you learn by imprinting the language into the subconcuious. sounds very esoteric and the music they used was, too. (lot’t of slow classical chamber music)

    there’s also a german label (Orkaan Music) that has a series of german-italian audiobooks out where you learn the language in combi with the music.

    they also apply the 20/80 principle by only teaching the essentials you need to get through the holiday (ordering food, buying tickets, going to the market etc…) no grammar, no books needed…

    maybe this is interesting to try?!

    greetz and rock on!

  28. Tim –

    Regarding education: Start with Sets a good foundation for where we have come from and you can read interviews of some of the true leaders and innovators in education, child development and literacy. A whole bunch of great videos as well.

    Dr. David Rose of Harvard suggests that the future is in the margin – that what we do to teach kids with learning differences (we refuse to call them disabilities, since many dyslexics prove to be geniuses once they are extracted from the oppression of the system) today is, in many ways, how we will teach all children in the future.

    I am fascinated with the broad notion of how we can equip everyone to reach their full potential. Its not just education. Your parents were a huge part of why you learned what you learned and how you applied it.

    I’ll be interested to see where this next passion takes you and hope that I can be a part of it.


  29. Tim & All

    Anyone familiar with a mac program that has proven worth while with regard to language learning? I took note of the “Super Memory” but wonder if other goods like this are out there. Thanks in advance for sharing- tons of good leads, shares and suggestions here. 🙂


  30. Yo did it again Tim! Great insightful post.

    I happen to have a site which may be useful to your audience.

    I run a website called Leximo, and its a Multilingual User Collaborated Dictionary.

    You can find information on Leximo’s vision by reading the Leximo Dictionary Manifesto.

  31. Hi Tim

    thanx very much for this approach to language learning.

    For years now I always had the same feeling, that the way of teaching ( thinking in a foreign language or learn it like a child) does not work for my “engineer” approach to new things.

    Is there any material available (books, audio books) where language (esp. Spanish) is presented in this way ?



  32. Anyone who wants to learn languages…or anything.. I suggest checking out iKnow! – It’s a website that’s popular in Japan but has 180 different possible language combinations. iKnow! has an algorithm that remembers how fast you learn and forget so it can teach you whatever you want to learn as fast as possible. Very personalized and fun.

  33. You narrowed it down to the essential! Great post! After learning a couple of languages and having always a hard time doing so, I’m currently learning Spanish in Costa Rica. I learnt the 100 most common words in the plane and when I arrived I could already ask for the most necessary things. Now, after two weeks of intensive Spanish class I can have a more or less fluent conversation and expanded the list to the 1000 most common words.

    The frequency list was a great help. For the grammar it is more or less the same. For the start it’s enough to just learn the grammar that you will need most frequently.

    Pura Vida!

  34. Good info, Tim. As a 25+ year speaker/writer of Japanese, I wholly agree: Forget the textbooks that present “lessons” on random (and dull) topics, and instead delve into topics that interest you. Create your own learning materials and system, from whatever texts/audio/people/etc. address your interest. After all, as you point out, the goal should not be “the language” itself, but should always be *doing something using the language*. So, learners, jump in and start doing stuff!

    Another tip: Music is perhaps the best memory aid of all. The memory lays down lyrics like no other text. Even now, I can think, “I know the word I’m looking for was in that one college textbook we studied…”, but is there any chance of my recalling the generic lesson paragraph that contained the word, even though we read it a hundred times for test prep? Of course not. But when I think, “I know the word I’m looking for comes up in that one song… let me find it…”, can I hum to myself and dredge up the word? Yep, works like a charm! The mind has a magical ability to store lyrics.

    Best of luck to everyone here learning Japanese or any other language. (For the interested, on my site I write about the *few* things that are hard about learning Japanese, and the *many* things that are easy. Take heart and master it!)

  35. Like Nick, I also plan on learning the most frequently used words in Japanese. I think I’ll buy a dictionary or something. Your language posts are very thought-provoking.

    By the by, do you know any stores or sites that carry that textbook?

  36. Thanks Tim. Great Post.

    I pasted these words into my word processor and hit translate to get started on the basics of translation to any language

    Here are the lists in comma form so everyone else can do the same (easier on the eyes than long lists). Or you can use the program suggested by Kiat Huang.


    The, of, and, to, in, is, you, that, it, he, was, for, on, are, as, with, his, they, I, at, be, this, have, from, or, one, had, by, word, but, not, what, all, were, we, when, your, can, said, there, use, an, each, which, she, do, how, their, if, will, up, other, about, out, many, then, them, these, so, some, her, would, make, like, him, into, time, has, look, two, more, write, go, see, number, no, way, could, people, my, than, first, water, been, call, who, oil, its, now, find, long, down, day, did, get, come, made, may, part


    a, an, after, again all, almost, also, always, and, because, before, big, but, I can, I come, either/or, I find, first, for, friend, from, I go, good, goodbye, happy, I have, he, hello, here, how, I, I am, if, in, I know, last, I like, little, I love, I make, many, one, more, most, much, my, new, no, not, now, of, often, on, one, only, or, other, our, out, over, people, place, please, same, I see, she, so, some, sometimes, still, such, I tell, thank you, that, the, their, them, then, there is, they, thing, I think, this, time, to, under, up, us, I use, very, we, what, when, where, which, who, why, with, yes, you, your

  37. Great tips everyone!

    To improve my French reading I have been following some blogs on topics I’m interested in. I also read entries on the French version of wikipedia– since I have to read French for history it’s a great way to brush up on very specific topics — but in small doses!

    If you are a studying a less commonly taught language, I recommend you look for language exchange partners— just google “free language exchange” or similar, there are several great sites. You will find people eager to speak with you and they can provide you with websites, online radio stations, you name it for practicing your target language. I have found this to be effective with my Mongolian studies.

    Good luck with your studies everyone!

  38. I had trubbs with French especially the female male verbs + conjugates – very confusing. I can’t even begin to imagine Japanese Chinese + Korean which seem to use symbols?? 69SWW = 69 Second Work Week!!

    It’s all Greek to me Tim but the word Ouchykins sprang to mind with yer Judo Text book! ;))

  39. Tim,

    I think you made a mistake in the “100 most common words” list. Surely “Dude” and “Like” must be high on the list! 😉

  40. I stumbled across your site at around midnight and it’s now 8 in the morning! Thanks to your book will arrive on my doorstep later today.

    Your posts on language have given me the inspiration to finally take up a 2nd foreign language. I found your advice on finding material that interests you spot-on. My Japanese reading skills and most of my vocab initially came from reading manga and martial arts magazines. A friend of mine learned to read playing Final Fantasy in Japanese. The best thing is that it doesn’t feel like study at all.

  41. Quick comment: the intersection of top 100 written and spoken words is smaller than it seems at first. There are 44 words in the second list that are not in the first — and so if you add the first list with my list below, you’ll have the union of the two sets, without the repetitions:



































    thank you

    there is









  42. First off, I love the book. I found a language learning software that adheres to your method if you are learning Spanish to travel to a Spanish speaking country. They even have different dialects.. Click on the link to watch the demo of their product.


  43. I think the 100 common spoken written words is a great idea. I have been trying to do this for modern Greek, as I have had endless attempts at grasping this language. I was wondering if anyone else was making these crib sheets or whatever you wish to call them for other languages, maybe someone can make a database?? Anyways great blog!!! keep them coming.

  44. I have been trying to learn Spanish for 3 years. I have used Rosetta Stone and taken private classes and done a variety of other things, including spending about 3 months in Spanish speaking countries.

    I just came across your concept of language learning. How does one determine a list of the most commonly used word, spoken and written, in a language. After that has been mastered, what are the next steps.

    I like you basic idea but do you explain it in more detail somewhere? Not sure how to proceed further to improve my Spanish.

  45. Hi Tim,

    You didn't elaborate much on your technique to learn the Joyo kanji on your TED presentation where you talked about swimming.

    How did you manage to master 1945 kanji in just 6 months? Can you share a bit of wisdom I could use?


  46. That's why when I read for pleasure it's only in the language I'm learning (Spanish). I love it… especially when I get into a story so much that I don't even realize I'm reading in a different language. Love that!

  47. Hi Pedrorica,

    I highly suggest learning the 192 or so “radicals” that comprise kanji first. Then, get kanji cards and also read manga comic books, most of which will have “furigana” subscript on the characters to indicate pronunciation, which then allows you to look up vocab and characters on an electronic dictionary.

    Good luck!


  48. Interesting article. Now I’d know what to prioritize if I try to review and relearn my supposed first language but didn’t get to learn it well.

    1. The best cook with the worst recipe is the worst cook. And the job of the (language) teacher is to supply resources. And so the metaphor is flawed, because it assumes the teacher is one, true benefactor of the entire language.

    2. Yes! A good cook (a) recognizes the difference between good and bad recipes and (b) is likely to adjust a bad recipe to make it work better!

    3. Yeah – I agree. What’s wrong with these people – they assume that a real cook doesn’t bend a spoon or two? They fly around on walls … jump over tall buildings … and know what works and do that…! Right, Patty?? Sheech! Knuckle heads.

  49. Great post! Identifying the core words in a language is really key, and is the basis for the Pimsleur method as well. I think you have a talent for measuring your own progress…a lot of students find it hard to gauge their own effectiveness, and thus rely on a teacher or tutor to push them along. Motivation is essential too!

  50. I think the most efficient way to learn a foreign language is by the method of “shock therapy”. It’s based on my personal experience. My family immigrated from Soviet Union to Israel when I was 15. I had a year and a half to learn two languages – English and Hebrew – to the level high enough to pass high school exams. Otherwise, I would’ve been pretty much left behind in this life.

    I had no choice but studying like 15 hours a day. That was a powerful motivator and worked like a charm.

  51. Evgeni, I agree with “shock therapy” too. When I went to Japan, I went to a language school, but the teachers couldn’t (wouldn’t?) speak English; I didn’t get a bilingual crutch there. Also, I bought an English/Japanese dictionary to help out, the sort of tool any language student should get – and wisely, I got one intended for Japanese speakers, not English speakers. So that forced me to learn reading quickly too.

    I’d advise any learner to do the same, if possible: Throw yourself into some “sink or swim” situation, and don’t make things too easy for yourself. DO have fun learning, though – seek out all kinds of social situations and media sources to keep the variety flowing.

  52. I’t been a LONG time since I posted on your forums Tim. I’ve been very busy following the advice of one of your former teachers (Andrew Krauss) striving for inventing and licensing success. I found invent right from this site.

    I first found your site via a search about langage teaching and learning, because I’m an ESL teacher in Japan.

    Now I come back for my own learning purposes, to get more serious about learning Japanese. To that end I found this forum again looking for the top 500 spoken Japanese words to make my primary vocabulary study list.

    Now that I see Tim’s comments about using Google translator I have a another question. Tim, do the top 500 most common spoken words in a language hold across languages as the top100 do?

    Does anyone here have the top 500 spoken Japanese words in Romanji (Japanese words written with the English alphabet) and Japanese. I’d really appreciate finding such a list.



  53. Ok, first of all I really enjoy your blog especially this particular article. I just have one question, how can you tailor learning a language using your method to a situation where the language your learning is dead or in a severe linguistic recession (!) and there is an absence of modern commentary on issues outside of language rights i.e. Irish!

    P.s. pictures of you with the hurley… very good!

  54. Hi Tim,

    I just went to Alexanderplatz in Berlin to try and memorize the irregular German verbs by placing them in various locations, and it failed spectacularly. I decided that I needed something linear, so I returned to Friedrichshain and walked down Warschauer Str, only to find that after committing fifteen verbs and their various forms to memory, I couldn’t recall them.

    Do you have any suggestions for memorizing verb vocabulary?


    Will McNeice.

    PS I saw the comment by the bread woman on Twitter. While I question with her enthusiastic use of language, I have to admit that I’m on her side. Bread is one of the most delicious foods in the world (especially here in Germany). Why would you want to cut it out just to lose a little weight? In fact, I just ate two Schrippen with peanut butter, and it made my morning!

  55. Tim,

    This is the best and only good article I have ever read about language acquisition. I have spent the last 18 years studying about 14 languages. Much in the same way you did. I break them down and see how they tick. Not great in most of them, but can get by.

    Please contact me. We are kindred spirits in language learning. I won’t bore you. Take a look at my website. I am just launching a foreign language software that is 100% unique in every way. It’s called PeanutButter.

    You can download a free trial version for mac. I look forward to hearing from you.

    By the way. My first foreign language and best is Russian. I know why you keep avoiding it.


  56. Tim and/or anyone else who may be able to help,

    Is their currently an “Argentina Spanish” version available of the 4HWW?

    It’s my understanding that Argentina Spanish can vary much from other dialects of Spanish so I want to make sure I’m getting the “right” Spanish version of the 4HWW if possible to be a main part of my Spanish learning material for my mini-retirement to Buenos Aires next month…

    Thanks in advance,

    Adam Sherwood

    Cincinnati, OH

    1. Hi Adam,

      There should be a Latin Spanish version through Editorial Planeta. Probably not Argentine, but you never know 🙂


  57. This site has great choices and has helped me and my wife to learn any language either fluently or just enough for when we travel.

  58. Hi,Tim.

    I should say that your blog and bestseller are useful for English learning. It is interesting to read, therefore it is easy to learn language. My compliments.

    My English isn’t good enough. However, I am seriously thinking about second language. So, a couple of questions, I am intersted in your opinion.

    1. How do you think, what language is the most prosective, I mean the number of native speakers and its usage around the world?

    2. Is it really hard to learn two (or even more) language at the same time? Especially, if you are not efficient in the first?

    1. Hi Ilya,

      Thanks very much for the kind words! To answer your question, I believe 1) English is the most useful language for speaking worldwide, and 2) it is almost impossible to learn two languages at the same time simultaneously. If you are reviewing one language while learning another, that is absolutely possible.

      Good luck!


  59. Hey Tim i have a question, i’m planning to learn a new language, i’m from MExico so my native language is Spanish.

    I have read about you and the rules that you propose to learn, also have learned some techniques to improve my memory

    do you think that a software like “tell me more” (not following the course) just using the vocabulary and the spoken word tool, can be handy to avoid the search over and over again and just click the word, learn it with the techniques i already know and then get more into rules and sfuff after i already get the vocabulary and basics of the language?

    i want to learn french and since spanish and french share the same grammar structure, and stuff ithink i would be a lot easier for me

    Well have a nice day! hope you can answer and keep on the quality work you are doing here

  60. Looks like I’m late to the party.

    Hire a viritual assistant who speaks the language you want to learn. Have him/her only communicate in that language. Just with emails at first, then spoken.

  61. I want to strongly agree with the suggestion to read intellectually relevant and stimulating material in the language you’re trying to learn. I have had good success reading newspapers (leftist) in Mexico City and then later in Rome and Barcelona, and because I was interested in what’s happening locally and in the world, I could begin to follow the news narratives quite well. When I didn’t know vocabulary I circled it and then later did or didn’t come back to it. I have one additional comment. I do think it’s going to be possible for me to learn TWO languages at the same time this fall because one’s going to be ASL – American Sign Language. So there! 🙂

  62. Hi,

    I’m looking at learning Norwegian, German, Icelandic and Hindi (not all at the same time!)

    If anyone has any experience learning these languages with Tim’s methods, or has deconstructed them, please get in touch as it would be useful to hear your insights and ideas.

    Many thanks,


    1. Hi Ash –

      I’m an American living and working in Norway since 2007.

      Did you ever get any support/feedback on your pursuits to learn Norwegian? I have something to share which you may find useful. 🙂


  63. I am not sure if this has been asked or not but how would I go about improve my English vocabulary in an efficient way? English is my first language. I’m currently reading The Snowball and I am just looking up every word I do not understand but it seems to tiresome and 3/4 of the time I look up the same word 3 times and still can’t remember the meaning.

  64. Thanks Tim, i really liked ur blog.

    I agree that travelling to other countries will bcom easier wid ur blog

    n help lots of people to learn other languages

    Great tips for everyone 🙂

    “Thanks for sharing!”

  65. Thanks Tim, great Thoughts!!

    I agree that this blog will help to learn other languages faster n make travelling easier.

    I am very much intrested in gaining knowledge of a language and so it will help me to recognize them easier.

    It will also help alot of people 🙂

    “Thanks for sharing!

  66. hello, everyone

    Tim it seems that you have been studying chinese, according to that what would you recommend as a good (best?) material to learn chinese (mandarin) ?

    I’m starting from nearly nothing (just speaking a little japanese), will take classes at the univeristy here in shanghai and as soon as I get a basic level I will add a private teacher to the mix.

    thanks for the post,

  67. Tim, I love the principles that you outline. After 10 or so years of academic language learning, and about 1.5 years of REAL language learning I can truly say you are spot on with those principles. Make language learning a RATIONAL process! I saw all the language learning websites that were thrown up here, and I don’t want to seem like I’m advertising just another site…but checkout I’ve spent along time learning what to do and what not to do, and this site is a real help as far as giving free resources. I suggest finding the podcasts, these have very organic and natural conversations in the languages that you want to learn. Once again, thanks Tim for demystifying the obvious and giving us all a little road that leads back to common sense and logic.