Preface by Tim Ferriss
I’ve written about how I learned to speak, read, and write Japanese, Mandarin, and Spanish. I’ve also covered my experiments with German, Indonesian, Arabic, Norwegian, Turkish, and perhaps a dozen others.
There are only few language learners who dazzle me, and Benny Lewis is one of them.
This definitive guest post by Benny will teach you:
- How to speak your target language today.
- How to reach fluency and exceed it within a few months.
- How to pass yourself off as a native speaker.
- And finally, how to tackle multiple languages to become a “polyglot”—all within a few years, perhaps as little as 1-2.
It contains TONS of amazing resources I never even knew existed, including the best free apps and websites for becoming fluent in record time. Want to find a native speaker to help you for $5 per hour? Free resources and memory tricks? It’s all here.
This is a post you all requested, so I hope you enjoy it!
You are either born with the language-learning gene, or you aren’t. Luck of the draw, right? At least, that’s what most people believe.
I think you can stack the deck in your favor. Years ago, I was a language learning dud. The worst in my German class in school, only able to speak English into my twenties, and even after six entire months living in Spain, I could barely muster up the courage to ask where the bathroom was in Spanish.
But this is about the point when I had an epiphany, changed my approach, and then succeeded not only in learning Spanish, but in getting a C2 (Mastery) diploma from the Instituto Cervantes, working as a professional translator in the language, and even being interviewed on the radio in Spanish to give travel tips. Since then, I moved on to other languages, and I can now speak more than a dozen languages to varying degrees between conversational and mastery.
It turns out, there is no language-learning gene, but there are tools and tricks for faster learning…
As a “polyglot”—someone who speaks multiple languages—my world has opened up. I have gained access to people and places that I never otherwise could have reached. I’ve made friends on a train in China through Mandarin, discussed politics with a desert dweller in Egyptian Arabic, discovered the wonders of deaf culture through ASL, invited the (female) president of Ireland to dance in Irish (Gaeilge) and talked about it on live Irish radio, interviewed Peruvian fabric makers about how they work in Quechua, interpreted between Hungarian and Portuguese at a social event… and well, had an extremely interesting decade traveling the world.
Such wonderful experiences are well within the reach of many of you.
Since you may be starting from a similar position to where I was (monolingual adult, checkered history with language learning, no idea where to start), I’m going to outline the tips that worked best for me as I went from zero to polyglot.
This very detailed post should give you everything you need to know.
So, let’s get started!
#1 – Learn the right words, the right way.
Starting a new language means learning new words. Lots of them.
Of course, many people cite a bad memory for learning new vocab, so they quit before even getting started.
But–here’s the key–you absolutely do not need to know all the words of a language to speak it (and in fact, you don’t know all the words of your mother tongue either).
As Tim pointed out in his own post on learning any language in 3 months, you can take advantage of the Pareto principle here, and realize that 20% of the effort you spend on acquiring new vocab could ultimately give you 80% comprehension in a language—for instance, in English just 300 words make up 65% of all written material. We use those words a lot, and that’s the case in every other language as well.
You can find pre-made flash card “decks” of these most frequent words (or words themed for a subject you are more likely to talk about) for studying on the Anki app (available for all computer platforms and smartphones) that you can download instantly. Good flashcard methods implement a spaced repetition system (SRS), which Anki automates. This means that rather than go through the same list of vocabulary in the same order every time, you see words at strategically spaced intervals, just before you would forget them.
Tim himself likes to use color-coded physical flashcards; some he purchases from Vis-Ed, others he makes himself. He showed me an example when I interviewed him about how he learns languages in the below video.
Though this entire video can give you great insight into Tim’s language learning approach, the part relevant to this point is at 27:40 (full transcript here).
#2 – Learn cognates: your friend in every single language.
Believe it or not, you already—right now—have a huge head start in your target language. With language learning you always know at least some words before you ever begin. Starting a language “from scratch” is essentially impossible because of the vast amount of words you know already through cognates.
Cognates are “true friends” of words you recognize from your native language that mean the same thing in another language.
For instance, Romance languages like French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and others have many words in common with English. English initially “borrowed them” from the Norman conquest of England, which lasted several hundreds of years. Action, nation, precipitation, solution, frustration, tradition, communication, extinction, and thousands of other -tion words are spelled exactly the same in French, and you can quickly get used to the different pronunciation. Change that -tion to a -ción and you have the same words in Spanish. Italian is -zione and Portuguese is -ção.
Many languages also have words that share a common (Greek/Latin or other) root, which can be spelled slightly differently, but that you’d have to try hard not to recognize, such as exemple, hélicoptère (Fr), porto, capitano (Italian) astronomía, and Saturno (Spanish). German goes a step further and has many words from English’s past that it shares.
To find common words with the language you are learning, simply search for “[language name] cognates” or “[language name] English loan words” to see words they borrowed from us, and finally “[language name] words in English” to see words we borrowed from them.
That’s all well and good for European languages, but what about more distant ones?…
Well, it turns out that even languages as different as Japanese can have heaps of very familiar vocabulary. To show you what I mean, have a listen to this song (to the tune of Animaniac’s “Nations of the World”), which is sung entirely in Japanese, and yet you should understand pretty much everything that I and the other Japanese learners are singing:
This is because many languages simply borrow English words and integrate them into the new language with altered pronunciation or stress.
So to make my life easy when I start learning a language, one of the first word lists I try to consume is a list of “cognates,” or “English loan words,” which can be found quickly for pretty much any language.
#3 – Interact in your language daily without traveling.
Another reason (or excuse, depending on how you look at it) people cite for not learning languages is that they can’t visit a country where it’s a native language. No time, no money, etc.
Take it from me—there is nothing “in the air” in another country that will magically make you able to speak their language. I’ve done a lot of experiments to prove this (e.g. learning Arabic while living in Brazil).
I’ve met countless expats who lived abroad for years without learning the local language. Living abroad and being immersed is not the same thing. If you need to hear and use a language consistently to be immersed, can’t virtual immersion be just as effective? Of course. Technology makes it possible for immersion to come to you, and you don’t even have to buy a plane ticket.
To hear the language consistently spoken, you can check out TuneIn.com for a vast selection of live-streamed radio from your country of choice. The app (free) also has a list of streamed radio stations ordered by language.
To watch the language consistently, see what’s trending on Youtube in that country right now. Go to that country’s equivalent URL for Amazon or Ebay (amazon.es, amazon.fr, amazon.co.jp, etc.) and buy your favorite TV series dubbed in that language, or get a local equivalent by seeing what’s on the top charts. You may be able to save shipping costs if you can find one locally that includes dubbing in the appropriate language. Various news stations also have plenty of video content online in specific languages, such as France24, Deutsche Welle, CNN Español, and many others.
To read the language consistently, in addition to the news sites listed above, you can find cool blogs and other popular sites on Alexa’s ranking of top sites per country.
And if full-on immersion isn’t your thing yet, there’s even a plugin for Chrome that eases you into the language by translating some parts of the sites you normally read in English, to sprinkle the odd word into your otherwise English reading.
#4 – Skype today for daily spoken practice.
So you’ve been listening to, watching, and even reading in your target language—and all in the comfort of your own home. Now it’s time for the big one: speaking it live with a native.
One of my more controversial pieces of advice, but one that I absolutely insist on when I advise beginners, is that you must speak the language right away if your goals in the target language involve speaking it.
Most traditional approaches or language systems don’t work this way, and I think that’s where they let their students down. I say, there are seven days in a week and “some day” is not one of them.
Here’s what I suggest instead:
Use the pointers I’ve given above to learn some basic vocabulary, and be aware of some words you already know. Do this for a few hours, and then set up an exchange with a native speaker—someone who has spoken that language their whole life. You only have to learn a little for your first conversation, but if you use it immediately, you’ll see what’s missing and can add on from there. You can’t study in isolation until you are vaguely “ready” for interaction.
In those first few hours, I’d recommend learning some pleasantries such as “Hello,” “Thank you,” “Could you repeat that?” or “I don’t understand,” many of which you will find listed out here for most languages.
But wait—where do you find a native speaker if you aren’t in the country that speaks that language?
No problem! Thousands of native speakers are ready and waiting for you to talk to them right now. You can get private lessons for peanuts by taking advantage of currency differences. My favorite site for finding natives is italki.com (connect with my profile here), where I’ve gotten both Chinese and Japanese one-on-one Skype-based lessons for just $5 an hour.
If you still think you wouldn’t be ready on day one, then consider this: starting on Skype allows you to ease yourself in gently by having another window (or application, like Word) open during your conversation, already loaded with key words that you can use for quick reference until you internalize them. You can even reference Google Translate or a dictionary for that language while you chat, so you can learn new words as you go, when you need them.
Is this “cheating”? No. The goal is to learn to be functional, not to imitate old traditional methods. I’ve used the above shortcuts myself, and after learning Polish for just one hour for a trip to Warsaw to speak at TEDx about language learning, I was able to hold up a conversation (incredibly basic as it was) in Polish for an entire half hour.
I consider that a win.
#5 – Save your money. The best resources are free.
Other than paying for the undivided attention of a native speaker, I don’t see why you’d need to spend hundreds of dollars on anything in language learning. I’ve tried Rosetta Stone myself and wasn’t impressed.
But there is great stuff out there. A wonderful and completely free course that keeps getting better is DuoLingo – which I highly recommend for its selection of European languages currently on offer, with more on the way. To really get you started on the many options available to help you learn your language without spending a penny, let me offer plenty of other (good) alternatives:
- The Foreign Service Institutes’ varied list of courses
- The Omniglot Intro to languages
- BBC languages’ intro to almost 40 different languages
- About’s language specific posts that explain particular aspects of languages well
You really do have plenty of options when it comes to free resources, so I suggest you try out several and see which ones work well for you. The aforementioned italki is great for language exchanges and lessons, but My Language Exchange and Interpals are two other options. You can take it offline and see about language related meet-ups in your city through The Polyglot Club, or the meet-ups pages on Couchsurfing, meetup.com, and Internations. These meet-ups are also great opportunities to meet an international crowd of fellow language learning enthusiasts, as well as native speakers of your target language, for practice.
But wait, there’s more. You can get further completely free language help on:
- The huge database on Forvo, to hear any word or small expression in many languages read aloud by a native of the language
- Rhinospike to make requests of specific phrases you’d like to hear pronounced by a native speaker. If you can’t find something on either of these sites, Google Translate has a text-to-speech option for many languages.
- Lang 8 to receive free written corrections.
The possibilities for free practice are endless.
#6 – Realize that adults are actually better language learners than kids.
Now that you’re armed with a ton of resources to get started, let’s tackle the biggest problem. Not grammar, not vocabulary, not a lack of resources, but handicapping misconceptions about your own learning potential.
The most common “I give up” misconception is: I’m too old to become fluent.
I’m glad to be the bearer of good news and tell you that research has confirmed that adults can be better language learners than kids. This study at the University of Haifa has found that under the right circumstances, adults show an intuition for unexplained grammar rules better than their younger counterparts. [Note from Tim: This is corroborated by the book In Other Words and work by Hakuta.]
Also, no study has ever shown any direct correlation between reduced language acquisition skill and increased age. There is only a general downward trend in language acquisition in adults, which is probably more dependent on environmental factors that can be changed (e.g. long job hours that crowd out study time). Something my friend Khatzumoto (alljapaneseallthetime.com) once said that I liked was, “Babies aren’t better language learners than you; they just have no escape routes.”
As adults, the good news is that we can emulate the immersion environment without having to travel, spend a lot of money, or revert back to childhood.
#7 – Expand your vocabulary with mnemonics.
Rote repetition isn’t enough.
And while it’s true that repeated exposure sometimes burns a word into your memory, it can be frustrating to forget a word that you’ve already heard a dozen times.
For this, I suggest coming up with mnemonics about your target word, which helps glue the word to your memory way more effectively. Basically, you tell yourself a funny, silly, or otherwise memorable story to associate with a particular word. You can come up with the mnemonic yourself, but a wonderful (and free) resource that I highly recommend is memrise.com.
For instance, let’s say you are learning Spanish and can’t seem to remember that “caber” means “to fit,” no matter how many times you see it. Why not come up with a clever association like the following one I found on Memrise:
This [caber -> cab, bear -> fitting a bear in a cab] association makes remembering the word a cinch.
It may sound like a lengthy process, but try it a few times, and you’ll quickly realize why it’s so effective. And you’ll only need to recall this hook a couple of times, and then you can ditch it when the word becomes a natural part of your ability to use the language quickly.
#8 – Embrace mistakes.
Over half of the planet speaks more than one language.
This means that monolingualism is a cultural, not a biological, consequence. So when adults (at least in the English speaking world) fail at language learning, it’s not because they don’t have the right genes or other such nonsense. It’s because the system they have used to learn languages is broken.
Traditional teaching methods treat language learning just like any other academic subject, based on an approach that has barely changed since the days when Charles Dickens was learning Latin. The differences between your native language (L1) and your target language (L2) are presented as vocabulary and grammar rules to memorize. The traditional idea: know them “all” and you know the language. It seems logical enough, right?
The problem is that you can’t ever truly “learn” a language, you get used to it. It’s not a thing that you know or don’t know; it’s a means of communication between human beings. Languages should not be acquired by rote alone—they need to be used.
The way you do this as a beginner is to use everything you do know with emphasis on communication rather than on perfection. This is the pivotal difference. Sure, you could wait until you are ready to say “Excuse me kind sir, could you direct me to the nearest bathroom?” but “Bathroom where?” actually conveys the same essential information, only removing superfluous pleasantries. You will be forgiven for this directness, because it’s always obvious that you are a learner.
Don’t worry about upsetting native speakers for being so “bold” as to speak to them in their own language.
One of the best things you can do in the initial stages is not to try to get everything perfect, but to embrace making mistakes. I go out of my way to make at least 200 mistakes a day! This way I know I am truly using and practicing the language.
[TIM: I actually view part of my role as that of comedian or court jester–to make native speakers chuckle at my Tarzan speak. If you make people smile, it will make you popular, which will make you enthusiastic to continue.]
#9 – Create SMART goals.
Another failing of most learning approaches is a poorly defined end-goal.
We tend to have New Year’s Resolutions along the lines of “Learn Spanish,” but how do you know when you’ve succeeded? If this is your goal, how can you know when you’ve reached it?
Vague end goals like this are endless pits (e.g. “I’m not ready yet, because I haven’t learned the entire language”).
S.M.A.R.T. goals on the other hand are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound.
To start developing your SMART goal in a language, I highly recommend you become somewhat familiar with the European Common Framework that defines language levels. This framework provides you with a way of setting specific language goals and measuring your own progress.
In brief, A means beginner, B means intermediate, and C means advanced, and each level is broken up into lower (1) and upper (2) categories. So an upper beginner speaker is A2, and a lower advanced speaker is C1. As well as being Specific, these levels are absolutely Measurable because officially recognized institutions can test you on them and provide diplomas (no course enrollment necessary) in German, French, Spanish, Irish, and each other official European language. While the same scale is not used, you can also get tested in a similar way in Chinese and Japanese.
So what do you aim for? And what do words like “fluency” and “mastery” mean on a practical level?
I’ve talked to many people to try to pinpoint the never-agreed-upon understanding of “fluency,” and I’ve found that it tends to average out around the B2 level (upper intermediate). This effectively means that you have “social equivalency” with your native language, which means that you can live in your target language in social situations in much the same way that you would in your native language, such as casual chats with friends in a bar, asking what people did over the weekend, sharing your aspirations and relating to people.
Since we are being specific, it’s also important to point out that this does not require that you can work professionally in a language (in my case, as an engineer or public speaker, for instance). That would be mastery level (generally C2).
Though I’ve reached the C2 stage myself in French, Spanish and am close to it in other languages, realistically I only really need to be socially equivalent in a language I want to communicate in. I don’t need to work in other languages. It’s essential that you keep your priorities clear to avoid frustration. Most of the time, just target B2.
To make your specific goal Attainable, you can break it down further. For example, I’ve found that the fluency (B2) level can be achieved in a matter of months, as long as you are focused on the spoken aspect.
In phonetic languages (like most European ones), you can actually learn to read along with speaking, so you get this effectively for free. But realistically, we tend to write emails and text messages—not essays—on a day-to-day basis (unless you are a writer by trade, and you may not have those goals with your L2). Focusing on speaking and listening (and maybe reading) makes fluency in a few months much more realistic.
Finally, to make your project Time-bound, I highly recommend a short end-point of a few months.
Keeping it a year or more away is far too distant, and your plans may as well be unbound at that point. Three months has worked great for me, but 6 weeks or 4 months could be your ideal point. Pick a definite point in the not too distant future (summer vacation, your birthday, when a family member will visit), aim to reach your target by this time, and work your ass off to make it happen.
To help you be smarter with your goals, make sure to track your progress and use an app like Lift to track completing daily essential tasks.
You can join the Lift plan for language learning that I wrote for their users here.
#10 – Jump from Conversational (B1) to Mastery (C2).
The way I reach spoken fluency quickly is to get a hell of a lot of spoken practice.
From day one to day 90 (and beyond), I speak at least an hour a day in my L2, and my study time is tailored around the spoken sessions to make sure that my conversation is what’s improving—not just my “general language skills” through some vague list of words I may never use.
So, for instance, I may start a session by asking what my native friend or teacher did over the weekend, and tell them what I did. Then I will share something that is on my mind lately and attempt to express my opinion on it, or allow the native speaker to introduce a new topic. It’s important to take an active role and make sure you are having varied conversations. Have a list of topics you would like to discuss and bring them up (your hobbies, hopes for the future, dislikes, what you will do on your vacation etc.) and make sure the conversation is constantly progressing.
Lots of practice and study to improve those spoken sessions tends to get me to lower intermediate (B1) level, which means I can understand the other person speaking to me fine as long as they are willing to speak clearly and adjust to my level and mistakes. It’s a LOT of work, mind you! On typical learning days I can be filled with frustration or feel like my brain is melting when–in fact–I’m truly making a lot of progress.
But the work is totally worth it when you have your first successful conversation with a native speaker. You’ll be thrilled beyond belief.
To see what this B1 level looks like, check out these videos of me chatting to a native in Arabic (in person with my italki teacher!), and in Mandarin with my friend Yangyang about how she got into working as a TV show host:
At this level, I still make plenty of mistakes of course, but they don’t hinder communication too much.
But to get over that plateau of just “good enough,” this is the point where I tend to return to academic material and grammar books, to tidy up what I have. I find I understand the grammar much better once I’m already speaking the language. This approach really works for me, but there is no one best language-learning approach. For instance, Tim has had great success by grammatically deconstructing a language right from the start. Your approach will depend entirely on your personality.
After lots of exercises to tidy up my mistakes at the B1 level, I find that I can break into B2.
At the B2 stage you can really have fun in the language! You can socialize and have any typical conversation that you’d like.
To get into the mastery C1/C2 levels though, the requirements are very different. You’ll have to start reading newspapers, technical blog posts, or other articles that won’t exactly be “light reading.”
To get this high-level practice, I’ve subscribed to newspapers on my Kindle that I try to read every day from various major news outlets around the world. Here are the top newspapers in Europe, South America and Asia. After reading up on various topics, I like to get an experienced professional (and ideally pedantic) teacher to grill me on the topic, to force me out of my comfort zone, and make sure I’m using precisely the right words, rather than simply making myself understood.
To show you what a higher level looks like, here is a chat I had with my Quebec Couchsurfer about the fascinating cultural and linguistic differences between Quebec and France (I would have been at a C1 level at this stage):
Reaching the C2 level can be extremely difficult.
For instance, I sat a C2 exam in German, and managed to hold my ground for the oral component, when I had to talk about deforestation for ten minutes, but I failed the exam on the listening component, showing me that I needed to be focused and pay attention to complicated radio interviews or podcasts at that level if I wanted to pass the exam in future.
#11 – Learn to sound more native.
At C2, you are as good as a native speaker in how you can work and interact in the language, but you may still have an accent and make the odd mistake.
I have been mistaken for a native speaker of my L2 several times (in Spanish, French and Portuguese – including when I was still at the B2/fluent level), and I can say that it’s a lot less related to your language level, and more related to two other factors.
First, your accent/intonation
Accent is obvious; if you can’t roll your R in Spanish you will be recognized as a foreigner instantly.
Your tongue muscles are not set in their ways forever, and you can learn the very few new sounds that your L2 requires that you learn. Time with a native, a good Youtube video explaining the sounds, and practice for a few hours may be all that you need!
What is much more important, but often overlooked, is intonation—the pitch, rise, fall, and stress of your words. When I was writing my book, I interviewed fellow polyglot Luca who is very effective in adapting a convincing accent in his target languages. For this, intonation is pivotal.
Luca trains himself from the very start to mimic the musicality and rhythm of a language’s natives by visualizing the sentences. For instance, if you really listen to it, the word “France” sounds different in “I want to go to France” (downward intonation) and “France is a beautiful country (intonation raising upwards). When you repeat sentences in your L2, you have to mimic the musicality of them.
My own French teacher pointed out a mistake I was making along these same lines.
I was trying to raise my intonation before pauses, which is a feature of French that occurs much more frequently than in English, but I was overdoing it and applying it to the ends of sentences as well. This made my sentences sound incomplete, and when my teacher trained me to stop doing this, I was told that I sounded way more French.
You can make these changes by focusing on the sounds of a language rather than just on the words.
Truly listen to and and mimic audio from natives, have them correct your biggest mistakes and drill the mistakes out of you. I had an accent trainer show me how this worked, and I found out some fascinating differences between my own Irish accent and American accents in the process! To see for yourself how the process works, check out the second half of this post with Soundcloud samples.
Second, walk like an Egyptian
The second factor that influences whether or not you could be confused for a native speaker, involves working on your social and cultural integration. This is often overlooked, but has made a world of difference to me, even in my early stages of speaking several languages.
For instance, when I first arrived in Egypt with lower intermediate Egyptian Arabic, I was disheartened that most people would speak English to me (in Cairo) before I even had a chance for my Arabic to shine. It’s easy to say that I’m too white to ever be confused for an Egyptian, but there’s more to it than that.
They took one look at me, saw how foreign I obviously was, and this overshadowed what language I was actually speaking to them.
To get around this problem, I sat down at a busy pedestrian intersection with a pen and paper and made a note of everything that made Egyptian men about my age different from me. How they walked, how they used their hands, the clothing they wore, their facial expressions, the volume they’d speak at, how they’d groom themselves, and much more. I found that I needed to let some stubble grow out, ditch my bright light clothes for darker and heavy ones (despite the temperature), exchange my trainers for dull black shoes, ditch my hat (I never saw anyone with hats), walk much more confidently, and change my facial expressions.
The transformation was incredible! Every single person for the rest of my time in Egypt would start speaking to me in Arabic, including in touristy parts of town where they spoke excellent English and would be well used to spotting tourists. This transformation allowed me to walk from the Nile to the Pyramids without any hassle from touts and make the experience all about the fascinating people I met.
Try it yourself, and you’ll see what I mean—once you start paying attention, the physical social differences will become easy to spot.
You can observe people directly, or watch videos of natives you’d like to emulate from a target country. Really try to analyze everything that someone of your age and gender is doing, and see if you can mimic it next time you are speaking.
Imitation is, after all, the most sincere form of flattery!
#12 – Become a polyglot.
This post has been an extremely detailed look at starting off and trying to reach mastery in a foreign language (and even passing yourself off as a native of that country).
If your ultimate goal is to speak multiple languages, you can repeat this process over multiple times, but I highly recommend you focus on one language at a time until you reach at least the intermediate level. Take each language one by one, until you reach a stage where you know you can confidently use it. And then you may just be ready for the next ones!
While you can do a lot in a few months, if you want to speak a language for the rest of your life it requires constant practice, improvement, and living your life through it as often as you can. But the good news is — once you reach fluency in a language, it tends to stick with you pretty well.
Also, keep in mind that while the tips in this article are an excellent place to start, there is a huge community of “polyglots” online willing to offer you their own encouragement as well. A bunch of us came together in this remix, “Skype me Maybe.”
I share several more stories about these polyglots and dive into much greater detail about how to learn languages in my newly released book Fluent in 3 Months. Grab a copy, or check out my site for inspiration to start your adventure in becoming fluent in a new language—or several.
Question of the Day: What tools or approaches have you used for learning languages? Please share in the comments!
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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413 Replies to “12 Rules for Learning Foreign Languages in Record Time — The Only Post You'll Ever Need”
Benny is always the most outgoing guy at every conference I’ve seen him at … I think that (talking to EVERYONE, especially in a foreign country) helps a lot too!
Congrats on this guest post, Benny.
Thanks Matt! 🙂 I was actually quite shy when I was younger – language learning has made me more outgoing. I’d highly recommend it to people who want to get out of their shell!
Hope to run into you again asap!
This is one of the best posts on this blog yet!
I agree. I just started using Talking Glass, a video language exchange website. It’s really cool for learning!
[Moderator: link removed]
Benny is one of the many language learners that consistently wow me as well. He’s always so eager to get down the basics so that he can start to converse with others, and once he does, he seems to really soar upward and beyond. I’ve read many of his posts and taken much of his advice. A solid guy indeed when it comes to how to learn a foreign language.
Aw shucks, thanks Aaron! Yeah, people need to learn to have more fun with the beginner stage. It’s what opens up the entire language learning spectrum to us!
Thanks for the reply Benny, and I definitely agree! I need to constantly remind myself of this as well when I dive into new languages. Keep up the great work!
thank you, very useful info, saw girl know English pretty well without studying, just was watching movies in English since early childhood and she seems know English decently [Moderator: YouTube link removed.]
Can’t believe my eyes. Today I watched your Skype interview with Benny and thought: “how cool would it be to see some of his stuff on the blog”.
Great stuff! What I like the most about Benny is that he is so genuine in his approach. I bet that this post is gonna get 700+ comments 🙂
Thanks for posting guys!
700+ comments? Looks like I have my work cut out for me if I’m to keep up and try to reply to as many as I can 😉
Glad you got to see me and Tim join forces again! I loved finding out during our Skype call how much we share in common in language learning philosophies.
So true, I’d love to see a fresh video with both of you! Personally, I believe that the main factor stopping people from embracing a new language is FEAR. I really like your approach of speaking from day 1. This is the key. Actually, I wanted to show you a yt video (in Spanish) where I recommend the 4HWW and explain how I learnt Spanish in only 2 months. Hope it will not come across as spammy;) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rB-bgMixT_s
All the best and keep building great content.
This is an amazing pillar article Benny, as a big fan of yours I was course already aware of many of the resources in the post, but writing them up like this not only links many of the aspects of language learning together, it also motivates me like crazy to keep working hard. Currently I’m on Russian (4th language) but aiming high like yourself!
Congratulations on your book launch as well!
You know you are doing something right, when other experienced learners agree they would share the same links. The trick is using big platforms like Tim’s great blog to bring those tools to a wider audience. Yes, keep working hard!!
And thanks for the book well wishes! Hopefully this blog post inspires a few more people to check it out!
This is a great post, Benny is very impressive and an inspiration.
I’m trying to implement some of the points mentioned in a project that just started:
The idea is to combine learning a language with a passion or hobby. Learn Spanish through Salsa, French by cooking and such. It’s explained more thoroughly on the site.
That way you learn the vocabulary you need, get to practice in a natural environment and get to play around. Having fun should be a more popular goal while learning.
Another thing is that face-to-face will beat online lessons and resources every time in my opinion. You simply can’t replace the experience of having a human being to interact with right in front of you.
If you do decide to check out the site, I would really appreciate some feedback and suggestions. Don’t know if this can be my muse someday, but I definitely want to spread some love through the platform.
That is so awesome. At last my two people who inspired my language learning meet in one blog ^^
Benny always has great insight on learning languages.
This was awesome- alot of these tricks helped me when I was relearning my native language (Bengali) and also with Japanese. I remember joking with my friends when they found out I was a polyglot that- “It’s not that big of a deal, all it means is that I’m now socially awkward in 4 languages”
Very handsome profile pic! Skype me maybe? Lol
This is a little off-topic but the email notices I get when there’s a new post from you always have “WordPress.com” as the sender name. Just thought I’d let you know in case that wasn’t your intention.
Huh… that’s weird. Thanks for the heads up!
Yes..I get all your emails like that…I thought you were supporting them or sponsering WordPress now.
In one of the first sentences from benny, it says “In think” instead of “I think.” For someone talking about languages you might wanna fix it haha 😉
Yep, we fixed that typo! As I say in this blog posts; I like to make at least 200 mistakes a day, and that’s not just in foreign languages 😀
Great post Benny! I’m definitely looking to applying these steps and reading your book!
Enjoy the book! There’ll be free updates for life online.
Best of luck with your language learning project!
damn, I’ve been living in Argentina for 11 months and just moved to Chile for start-up Chile and I wish I knew this earlier!
I was in Spain for 6 whole months speaking English all the time before I changed my approach, and look at me now! It’s never too late 😉
The last line of my book is a Chinese proverb, relevant to your situation: “The best time to plant a tree is 10 years ago. The second best time is now”
In med school we rely on Anki a lot to retain lots of information that has to be regurgitated in 2-3 month period and then on the boards in a few years, so spaced repetition is a key to success. http://www.supermemo.com is is great resource on that.
In learning the languages, I find it more difficult to understand the native speakers. When I came from Russia to the US 10 years ago, I could speak English perfectly but when people would talk back to me, I had no idea what they were saying. I find similar difficulties with Spanish. I speak ok, but again, I don’t always understand native people and to improve that, I need a lot more time to practice listening.
Spaced repetition is also popular learning system in med school where I live. I have also used it with languages with good results. For me, spaced repetition has often been a tool that I use to learn and remember stuff for an exam, but not more long term than that. Anki is great, but recently I have been using http://www.memomash.com/ I think it has the best usability and I can easily use the same cards with my phone and my laptop.
This post is fantastic. Thank you for all of this information and the links. Learning a new language has been a dangling carrot for me for several years now, and I appreciate you mentioning the SMART method to help me pull focus and be more results-oriented while still remembering to have FUN! Learning a language doesn’t have to be – and shouldn’t be – a chore, right? 😉
Tim, this is amazing — thank you! I have a friend learning Cantonese right now. Gonna forward him this as I am sure it will be a valuable resource.
This post on why Cantonese isn’t as hard as you think may also help your friend: http://www.fluentin3months.com/cantonese/
You sir are amazing, i am visiting my friends in Monaco and Spain next year, my goal is to learn Portuguese before my flight, is it true that if you learn Portuguese, its easy to learn Spanish and French?
Amazing resource for learn languages, there are a LOT of goog resources and also they are FREE! I worked as a salesperson for an english online course and people sometimes doesn’t learn english in an effective way.
The coming together of two worlds! Benny and Tim! Thank you for the great guest post Benny!
Huge tip – “You will be forgiven for this directness, because it’s always obvious that you are a learner”. I’ve found sounding like a moron isn’t a big deal if the right intention is there. It seems people are more than happy to help you out when you’re trying. Thank you for the time you both put into this post!
This post was awesome and just what I’ve been looking for, thank you both!
Happy to help!
I am one of those people who struggle with language, and just assume I suck at it, but I love this article because it has so many ways to learn and is a total confidence booster. I’ve been trying to learn Spanish, because my husband is Colombian, and after almost 2 years living there my Spanish still sucks.
I recently discovered Duolingo and love it. It’s like a video game so I get really involved with not ‘dying’ (losing all my hearts). But I’ve never heard of some of the other resources like Anki. I just downloaded it to my phone with some flashcards and love it.
I totally put this article to post on my social media and bookmarked it. (I am aware how much that phrase sounds like a spam comment) but it’s true. It’s awesome to learn that someone else who thought they sucked at language and thought they just didn’t have the talent for them is more multilingual. Thanks for the confidence boost and great resources!
Doesn’t sound like spam at all! I definitely appreciate the share – let’s get more language learning encouragement out there!
Along the lines of virtual immersion Benny talked about, one fun way for me to explore foreign languages has been singing along to songs in the target language. This can be done with or without the lyrics in front of you, or more advanced: Find the Karaoke version of the same song.
The nice thing is, you really don’t need any background in the language at all, so you could start doing this immediately. It’s very enjoyable since with very little practice it’ll sound to you like you’re pronouncing words like a native, even if you don’t understand the lyrics.
This concept is not limited to songs. Pick your favorite movie (one you’d watch over and over again without getting tired of it), and watch it in your target language. Perhaps you’ll enjoy it so much, you’ll become motivated to memorize certain lines or quotes.
Empathizing with Gulnara .. Took French for a while in grade school/college. Can speak it decently, but listening .. sometimes, can’t understand a word that’s being said to me (usually in person), other times, catching it perfectly (usually watching on TV).
Tim, I challenge thee to speak Yoruba .. always impressed to see examples such as: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hk1aPBazfjo | https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d40MFeN6HYM
… very heavy on intonation, a very sing-song-type language. One’s mindset has to switch to speak it right.
In learning languages (for example, when listening to my parents speak Yoruba) I try to focus not just on vocab, but also …
(1) memorizing popular/useful go-to phrases
(2) transitions between concepts — always struggled with bridging my sentence parts smoothly (I guess it’s mostly prepositions)
(3) later on … verb-noun conjugation, to make it sound better
Loved reading this article. The video tutorials here are very informative as well. Its true that adults are actually better language learners than kids. But, when you are a kid you can be a quick learner as well 😉
Absolutely! Both adults and kids have their own advantages. Adults need to be more pro-active, but can process things like grammar rules way better, and kids can absorb naturally quicker, since they don’t have any other language to fall back on. Although whether that is inherent to being a kid, or a consequence of having “no escape route” could be up for debate.
But I’ve seen kids learn remarkably quickly, even at the age of 6 starting a second language. I like it when ANYONE regardless of age learns a language 😉
I think its worth mentioning that people who already speak the language you are learning- especially native speakers- are OVERJOYED to help you out, anytime, anywhere. I am learning mandarin (inspired by 4 hour chef, although I’m still a beginner:A1), and I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve sat down on the train next to a Chinese speaker, opened up my vocabulary sheets to practice, and they have (unsolicited) asked ‘oh, are you learning Chinese?’, and started helping me. Just being at a school or job or something similar with a few native speakers can instantly give you several casual tutors.
One way that many people here in Romania learned the English language was from TV. When you watch subtitled movies it is easy to become very good in a different language even if you don’t pay the effort.
I personally like to listen to people speaking in Spanish in youtube videos right now, which I know it will help me become more familiar with the pronunciation in this language. This should be done when you’re already a good speaker in the targeted language.
Watching videos and movies subtitled in a targeted language is definitely an under utilized language learning method!
so cool, definitively the best post in a while for me. BIG THANK YOU TIM AND BENNY 😀
This is great. Now I have to decide which to learn first, Spanish or Portuguese.
Told myself I want to visit Brazil and possibly travel a bit more this year so learning a new language is key.
Awesome post Benny.
Since we spend months in Thailand every year, I’ve really been wanting to learn the language but has been putting it off as too difficult (other than a few casual phrases that mostly have to do with ordering beer ;)).
Hope to see you again sometime (doesn’t have to be an Indian place in Berlin though ;))
I’ll be back in Berlin in June. Maybe see you then!
OK, this was an interesting post with some really good advice, but number #6 – Realize that adults are actually better language learners than kids – is just delusional. One of the most researched areas in second language acquisition is the critical/sensitive period for learning language. After a certain age, supposed to be around the beginning of puberty, children begin to lose the innate faculty to acquire syntax and phonology like a native. It is not something that we retain throughout our entire lives. It is practically impossible to learn a language to a native-like level after the critical period and it is almost never attested to. Even if you put in the hours and live in the country of the target language, you might be an excellent speaker but as I said, you won’t achieve native-like ability. And saying that adults are actually BETTER than children at learning language is like saying that adults are better than children at going through puberty, or children are better at going through menopause. It’s a biological endowment that we lose. For example, a child at age 5 will, more or less, have acquired all of the syntactic and phonetic structures in their L1. You average adult L2 learner after receiving the same number of hours of exposure won’t be even close.
So I like the positive attitude that you have, but let’s not let it drive us to believe outright silliness. Referencing one article is not going to outweigh decades of peer-reviewed research that say the exact opposite of what you’re proposing
OK, the article that Benny referenced uses an experiment with children older than 8! And also, it was a low exposure environment and all they had to do was learn one new grammar rule. Yes, in this case then older children will learn faster than young children and adults will learn faster than both. A lot of research has also been done in acquisition in low exposure environments, say 2 hours or less per week, and older children and adults do outperform younger children. But increase the number of hours of exposure up to an immersion setting, and it’s not even a contest. Younger children will achieve close to mastery and adults will not.
If Benny had written something like “adults are better language learners than children in situation where input is kept very low and constant” then that would be OK, but the line that children are better language learners than adults in general, is flat out wrong and misleading
What decades of peer reviewed research are you referring to? You didn’t post any.
Sounds like you’re attached to an idea to excuse your own lack of success in acquiring another language
I have a Masters in linguistics and second language acquisition and have read a lot about the effects of age on language acquisition, either L1 or L2 or L3…etc. The fact that the brain has a special faculty for learning language that decays over time has been long established. You can’t get away from it in the literature and it is constantly referenced. Chomsky actually said that saying that children learn language is incorrect. A better word is that language “grows”, meaning that children learn languages whether they want to or not. All the need is some input. They don’t require correction or any instruction. But after adolescence we don’t learn languages so easily. Just being exposed to input is not enough for you to acquire the language.
If you are a student and have access to academic databases, you can just go to ProQuest or Science Direct or any other platform and do a search for “L2 critical period” or “age effects on L2 acquisition” or something similar and get literally thousands of articles.
A good place to start could be Krashen et al. (1979). Age, Rate and Eventual Attainment in Second Language Acquisition. TESOL Quarterly.
Tahta, S., Wood, M. & Loewnthal, K. (1981b). Age changes in the ability to replicate foreign pronunciation and intonation. Language and Speech , 24
If you can get to a university library, you could check out:
Birdsong (1999). Second Language Acquisition and the Critical Period Hypothesis.
García Mayo, M.P. & García Lecumberri, M. L. (eds.). (2003). Age and the Acquisition of English as a Foreign Language. (this book references tons of research on the critical period, especially in phonology and syntax)
Lenneberg, E. (1967 ). Biological Foundations of Language , New York: Wiley and Sons. (this is quite old but Lenneberg was one of the first to suggest that language learning ability decreases with age. He actually conducted experiments with birds kept in confinement for 3 months after they had hatched. Even after this period, they couldn’t properly mimic the calls of their parents and siblings)
You should also look at research done with feral and abused children who were kept in confinement. Their parents never spoke to them growing up and even after they were rescued and put into care, they never learned to speak properly. They had passes the age at which they could learn their L1 properly. Google or Youtube the case of “Genie”
Also, look into “fossilisation”. It basically means that after a certain age, our errors become more difficult to correct and that even with repeated, explicit correct, the mistake will persist. This is most noticeable is phonology, for example the Henry Kissinger and Joseph Conrad effects. For fossilisation in grammar, check:
Lardiere, D. 1998a: Case and Tesne in The Fossilised Steady State. Second Language Research 14
In sum, I’m not saying that learning a language into adulthood is a fools errand. I’m a language learner. I love it and I hope to always be one. And it’s not that I’m claiming that what Benny does isn’t impressive. It very obviously is. The links he gives are very helpful and his motivation to learn and encourage others to learn is inspiring. But there’s no point telling people things that aren’t true and encouraging wishful thinking and unrealistic expectations for the sake of making them feel good or to help him sell his books.
Well said Nathan.
“Also, no study has ever shown any direct correlation between reduced language acquisition skill and increased age”.
Seriously Benny, you don’t want to walk back this statement even slightly? It’s pure nonsense and is the exact opposite to what the research literature tells us. The correlation is there, and it’s very strong.
Have a read of The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker. It’s a great book and he outlines the research quite nicely
Thank you for speaking up about this. I am all for people of any age, older or younger, getting encouragement in a language but falsifying facts really irks me, especially when it’s done just to sell something. Great backing up of facts as well. I am interested in getting a Master’s in linguistics myself, I’m about to graduate with a bachelor’s in Asian studies.
I like that the author acknowledged what you said, but he also didn’t edit the post to include the proven research. Maybe that might be appropriate Mr. Lewis? You wouldn’t want to present falsities in a blog that is supposed to affect people’s lives in the real world. Especially if you’re going to be selling it in book form. Just put in the facts and keep the encouragement bit 🙂
I’m glad you said something Scott otherwise I would felt obliged to point it out, haha.
It’s not as simple as “falsifying facts”. There is considerable disagreement about language acquisition in both children and adults, and so long as Benny presents it as his POV, I don’t see any dishonesty here. Remember that not so long ago the consensus among linguists was that we were hard-wired with a complex set of rules known as transformational grammar; now nobody believes there is such a thing (not even Chomsky). Krashen, who is cited by Scott, did considerable damage to the teaching of second languages with the dogma “learning never becomes acquisition.” (Once in a while I come across a sad, wandering soul repeating this like a mantra.) To the extent that there’s a consensus on childhood vs. adult language acquisition, it’s “Children learn some things more easily than adults; adults learn some things more easily than children.”
Thanks for the references Scott. I think the distinction worth noting here (without putting words in Benny’s mouth) is that people generally recognize the fact that there is a sensitive period of language development and then use that as an excuse to not learn a new language. I’ve even picked that up belief myself — it seems quite pervasive.
It wouldn’t surprise me, though, if the research showed that adults are better at learning languages the way that adults ordinarily go about acquiring a second language. That is by way of books, audio materials etc… Methods of acquisition would differ with age I would guess. Not aware of research that makes this concrete however.
All of those sources are too old to even be used in research. If I wrote a paper in any of my fields (microbio, cognitive psych (yup, the people who study learning), and nursing) with sources that old, my bibliography would be covered in red marks, and my score would be a big fat red F.
Hey Scott, you’re on to a loser here. Research? Masters in Linguistics and SLA? These things are not wanted here. All that people want to read here is “you can learn to do anything in under 6 weeks and be perfect at it, yeah, woooo”.
And – a separate issue – let’s say you become super-native-fluent in 25 languages…how are you going to find the time to use them all, other than to boast about it on a blog?
Thanks, you spared me some time.
As a native Polish speaker I must say that you are awesome. Thanks for the inspiration.
Great article, one of the most in depth ‘how to’ guides to get started I have seen.
One thing Benny left out, is the website http://www.lingq.com which is designed to quickly build up your vocabulary and reading/listening skills.
For proof of how quickly an adult can learn a language and sound ‘native’ check out the actress Noomi Rapace and how she learnt English in her twenties.
I love Noomi (or Naomi?) Rapace! Incredible actress!
Great article, one of the most in depth ‘how to’ guides to get started I have seen.
One thing Benny left out, is the website ‘LingQ’ which is designed to quickly build up your vocabulary and reading/listening skills.
For proof of how quickly an adult can learn a language and sound ‘native’ check out the actress Noomi Rapace and how she learnt English in her twenties.
The main page of lingq espouses: “Learn like a child”.
Evidence highly contradicts this concept. Same goes for Rosetta Stone.
I wouldn’t waste your time.
you can read a very very in depth review on his website 🙂
This can just at the right time as I am going to learn Hungarian in the very near future My wife is Hungarian and soon our new born girl will be speaking it too and I don’t want to get left out!
I spent 9 months in classes and with private teachers learning in the tradition ‘school’ way and barely a few words stayed in my head. I thought being dyslexic meant I might not be able to learn it but I learnt English so I must be able to.
So I’ve been watching my baby girl study how people use their mouths when they talk and I’ve started doing the same when people speak Hungarian. And now this post has given me a fabulous boost. Thank you.
Domou arigatou gozaimasu!!!
Tip number 1 is so important. Applying the Pareto principal to vocabulary learning really speeds up language acquisition. Finding out the most commonly used words and nailing those puts you way ahead of the game
I’ve been studying Chinese for some time and used this to jump start my communication – compare this to a word I’ve been asked to learn today for a class I’m taking: “acute enteritis”! I’m not even 100% sure what that is in English!
In this vein I’m actually running a muse in Shanghai to help foreigners focus on the important characters used in Chinese. All credit to Tim and my 4 copies of the 4-hour workweek here! Just annoyed it took so long to take the plunge.
We produce huge (A0) wallcharts with the 1500 most commonly used Chinese characters. Apart from helping you hone in on the most Pareto efficient characters to learn these wallcharts look pretty damn cool. Want to impress a girl/guy? Nothing better than a A0 Wallchart covered in complex looking Chinese characters!
Anyway, if you want to check it out (as a muse or for the learning Chinese characters) I’ve got a website up at http://www.hanziwallchart.com
Happy language learning adventures all!
These tips may work great on “bigger” languages, but not on all. For example, Google is almost useless in some languages (I’m learning Lithuanian and am Finnish native). For example, it thinks that birthday cakes have suppositories on them (candles), and computers can be laxative (stationary).
Also there might not be that much information available, or the information is harder to find. How much of the internet information about learning languages is in English? A lot. And e.g. Lithuanian is much easier to learn via Finnish.
So while great tips (and I should spend more time doing those things), it doesn’t always work that easily.
(Just wondering how easily I’d learn to be good in Lithuanian if just by sitting in class for two months, 6 hours per week, got me able to converse with people about likes, dislikes, what we’ve done, where we’ve been and lived, what foods we like etc…)
Having a Polish background, the video of Benny speaking Polish is just freaking impressive. Polish is considered one of the harder modern languages to learn.
This is great! However that I have to add that rules 2 and 5 don’t work with Finnish, the language I’m currently learning. Especially number 2. The only words identical or similar in Finnish and English are ‘idea’ and ‘sauna’. Perhaps I should have chosen Spanish. . .
I don’t know any Finnish, but it’s considered in the same language family as Hungarian and I found a bunch of common words there, even though it’s not related to Indo-European languages. You may find some of these words fit in Finnish too.
Don’t forget that despite lack of direct linguistic relationships, Finnish is still definitely influenced by other European languages, through religious vocabulary that would have come via Latin over the ages for instance, as well as modern words related to technology that may be borrowed from English. I used a dictionary real quick and confirmed that “Internet” is the same in Finnish for instance.
Here’s a list I compiled of familiar words in Hungarian:
I saw your comment yesterday and it took me a day of thinking but I have a hint for you! Look into verbs that end with -oida. These are load verbs from English, and other languages. Examples include… kommunikoida, priorisoida, politikoida.
Slang has also been inspired by English, and new words have come into the language: televisio (telkkari), media, radio, turbulenssi, banaani, tomaatti, etc. There are a whole lot of them!
P.S.One big advantage in Finnish over other languages is how easily you can make new words. There are so many straightforward compound words like perfume – hajuvesi (smell water) that you can often guess a new word by just making it up. It requires a little creativity at times but the best part is, if you get it wrong, you have something to laugh with people about 🙂
Oh and another is strategia!
Hey I am also learning Finnish and I have to disagree. There are actually soo many words like hotelli, sampoo, banani, tomatti and names of a lot of countries. And not to mention a lot of Finnish kids nowadays use slang words that come from English.
As a Brazilian involved with the English language for 25 years now and having started teaching English after 2 years of studies, lots of reading and some internet interaction years later without ever visiting an English speaking country to date I can say that all those tips are invaluable. BUT my experience as a teacher showed and proved clearly to me that there are basically two conditions to learn or master a second language. They are Real Interest (my case) and Real Need. Without this two prerequisites osmosis is your only method to acquire a macaronic level in any language you decide to flert with.
Benny, I took ample notes and am gonna overhaul what I’m doing right now. No joke, this was absolutely the best blog – hell, best ANYTHING – I’ve read on language learning. I’m really looking forward to putting this all to the test for learning Italian. I’m going to Italy in June and will gladly be a guinea pig for all the above methods and will let you know how I’ve fared.
Thanks again, and if you ever find yourself in Israel, look me up and I’ll gladly show you around as much of the country as I can.
Will do! Israel has been on my travel list for a while. Hopefully after this year-long book tour I can finally check it out!
Great breakdown Benny. Love that you emphasize speaking immediately over rote learning. Has served me well.
So nice of you to mention the latin languages and forget the most latin of them all. Let’s see…French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, I wonder what’s missing. Oh, yeah, Romanian.
Other than that, great article!
In school, it took me 5 year to learn German…. or, more accurately, it took me 5 year not learning German. Today I can usually order the food I want at a restaurant in Berlin, and I understand most of what the bartender says, but I otherwise feel quite helpless in expressing myself.
Your techniques sound like the best approach for “rebooting” my skills, so I can get my schnitzel and not the verdammtes geschnitzeltes…
Verdammtes Schnitzel 🙂 German is tough, maybe one of the toughest languages I tried. I was using duolingua and other forums to connect to people, it helped a bit. I also found youtube quite helpful! Those German lessons in English are awesome. Here is a quite different one (I learned the colors in German in less than 3 minutes): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VGj55RWh0eE Hope that helps.
An excellent post. I am going to Oktoberfest in Munch this year so that should give me a good goal to aim for in being able to hold a conversation in German using this guide!
Thank you Tim and Benny
You have loads of time – make it a priority and you’ll progress really quickly. With a language like German I’d recommend focusing on speaking and only polishing your grammar when you are already at a conversational stage. So just for when you get started, don’t worry about noun genders and perfect word order – this will let you focus on learning words and phrases and you’ll have something to fill your conversation with. When you ARE having conversations, then you can tweak them later.
Viel Erfolg! (Wishing you lots of success!)
Hi Dom and Benny,
please check out my website for learning German with the news and would be cool to know what you think about it. Does it help you to learn new words and having a talk about the topics later?
Great article. Another great site I use is http://www.linguee.com.
It allows you to search for the translation of words and phrases and provides results within context from millions of previously translated or bilingual texts.
This is a excellent post. I’m a big fan of Benny. I love learning languages and use a lot of his tips. Benny and Tim are two great inspirations for polyglots.
Thank you both.
This. . .spoken from a guy who has insulted America (and thus American) on multiple occasions, and never had the decency to apologize for thoughtless, ignorant comments.
I am rather shocked you would publish anything from him. I lost a lot of respect for you Tim.
I had the exact same problem at school being taught German. Been learning Spanish on Duolingo for a few months now and it feels so good to be making progress with it.
I have a couple of additional suggestions.
 Learn jokes in the foreign language. Nothing gives you satisfaction like ‘getting’ a joke in the language you are learning. You feel like you belong.
 Go live in the foreign country whose language you are trying to learn. Nothing beats being immersed in the culture. I went from zero to teaching high school physics in Spanish in two months, while living in Bolivia and Peru.
 If you are living in a country where bargaining is the norm, the ability to haggle proficiently and not be taken advantage of, is a powerful incentive to become fluent.
Thanks for the additions! This may surprise people, but after 11 years of travelling the world, I actually don’t recommend moving to the country as a language-learning-tool any more. I used to do it (exclusively), but now I’ve found that it’s way more practical to learn it in advance, get some practice online and “hit the ground running” when you arrive to make your time in the country even more enjoyable.
For some people being in the country is simply a fire under your ass that forces you to improve. This can be emulated through filling your calendar with 1-on-1 lessons, and having specific goals like reading a certain amount or watching so many hours of content in the language per week.
I agree that “nothing beats being immersed in the culture”, but you can emulate that experience online, even if it’s not AS good as the real thing.
The biggest problem is that there are so many expats who rely on the “something in the air in the country will help me learn the language” idea, that when they arrive and feel overwhelmed from not having done anything, they find other English speakers to hang out with “just while they settle in”, and nothing ever happens. I know this because it’s what happened to me when I first moved to Spain.
There are others who are highly motivated who successfully embrace 100% immersion on arrival, but my money is always on learning in advance and using time in the country to improve on already acquired speaking skills.
Bargaining and chats with taxi drivers are great practice for beginners though. Definitely agree there! It’s why I role-play such chats with my teachers via Skype 😉
Movies/T.V. in your target language with target language subtitles on.
So, for instance, Spanish language movies with Spanish subtitles. Maybe you have to watch it once with English subtitles to get the point, but there is something about seeing the situation, the words spoken, and the words written that locks it all together. I wish I had time to do this more often.
Agreed! Another option is watching a show you already know with no subtitles at all. I eased myself into Spanish by watching “Los Simpson”, and since I knew the episode from memory, I could focus on hearing what they were saying. Then again enabling subtitles did help because European Spanish can be quite fast for beginner learners and it helped me see the words I was hearing.
Activating subtitles in your mother tongue (English for instance) is a really bad idea on the other hand, since you can get distracted and only read that. Although you make a good point that you can use this in a separate watching session to help you understand better. I’d recommend watch 1 to be in the target language, watch 2 to be in your mother tongue and watch 3 to be in the target language again. This is similar to the technique used by language learning podcasts, where session 2 is explained and translated to you, and then the last time it’s all so much clearer. Very motivating!
Also, you can make the time. If right now you watch any TV at all in your mother tongue, you can sacrifice this for your language project. I’ve also made time while standing in lines or waiting for people or on public transport, to squeeze in more language studying.
the information on learning to speak and listen is terrific, but what does one do about learning to read in languages which don’t use Roman fonts (Arabic, Japanese, etc)? Any comments about how to make it easier to learn to read these.
Each language with a non-Roman alphabet can be processed differently, but quickly. For phonetic languages with different scripts (Arabic, Russian, Greek, Thai, Korean) this post I wrote may help:
Using these techniques I could read Thai in a matter of hours. I did something similar for Arabic.
Japanese is a mixed boat because it has three phonetic scripts (one of which is Romanized), so you learn “Kana” first to give you a huge boost in the language. Learning this alphabet and knowing it well helped me so much while in Japan.
But with Japanese Kanji and Chinese Hanzi, you have a whole new major task to take on. A friend of mine wrote a post that makes it more manageable (about Kanji, but can be applied to Hanzi):
Benny, and how about Chinese? I find reading Chinese even harder than Japanese, as they do not have hiragana to identify where words end. Is there any trick you or Tim know to boost Chinese reading skills?
When I travelled China for several months, I “cheated” and used the OCR in the app “Pleco”, which very efficiently renders Hanzi as pinyin, to help you read the menu. Even though I used it to reduce my workload, it actually has a flashcard system built into it, so I would see the same characters coming up that I genuinely needed and added them to be studied.
That’s the thing with Chinese, yes there are lots of characters to learn, but learning some particular ones will give you way more mileage than others. The trick is to get enough exposure to the language to see which ones those are.
Oh and great to know that Arabic and Thai scripts are fairly easy. They look so complicated. Both languages I want to learn too.
Just wanted to add that for example the first-rank American sinologist Victor Mair at Penn is against learning/teaching Hanji at the beginning:
“It’s a tragedy that so many young Americans spend years stuffing their heads with hundreds of Chinese characters, gaining no usable proficiency, and then forgetting them all by the time they’re 25.” Mair thinks that “if the Chinese would wake up and permit pinyin to function as part of a genuine digraphia, then I would say it might make sense for maybe 2 percent of the population to learn up to third-year level of Mandarin—strictly romanized, mind you. But there are exceedingly few teachers who are enlightened enough to teach it that way.”
Wow! This is a highly in-depth article. I’m really into language learning and there were a lot of resources pointed out that I didn’t know about. I have to say that Benny is really good at what he does; this is a highly motivational and informational post, I really like it!
Thanks – glad you liked it!
As someone who’s been teaching a language for 25 years and learning languages for longer, I can say this articel is based on sound principles, though of course YMYV. recently I changed holiday plans from Paris to Rome, put learning French on one side (specifically, changed its Evernote tag from “Active Projects” to “Inactive Projects”!) and decided to see how much Italian I could learn in three weeks with very little free time to study. I used four methods, all recommended here and/or in 4HC.
1. Tim’s sentence table for deconstructing the language (This is an apple. It is John’s apple. the apple is red etc. etc.).
2. Duolingo, which is great fun and seems to work despite breaking every principle of language pedagogy, particularly the one of making target language meaningful. Some of the computer-generated sentences are so absurd you cannot possibly forget them, and who knows, one day I may need to say “I have a snake in my shoe” in Italian.
3. Anki, as mentioned above. I’d also used it before effectively to get some basic holiday Greek and learn the Greek alphabet.
4. The BBC’s La Mappa Misteriosa. This is like the opposite of Duolingo, in that it’s based on a video drama with very authentic-sounding Italian, meaning you aren’t expected to understand most of it, just the crucial bits, which of course is what you need to do in real life. It’s also shot POV and characters talk face-to-face with you, so you feel like you’re part of the action. there again, given my usual experience of POV graphics, I kept wanting to click on things to blow them up.
Oops, trust an English teacher to have typos in his post.
I blame my current learning project, which is touch-typing!
Longtime reader and fan, first time commenter.
I saw that Uber recently launched in Panama City and I’m an ideal fit for the community manager role. I created Amo Panama (Love Panama) and leveraged my skills to grow small businesses, organize photowalks,, and strengthen a breast cancer awarness campaign in Panama!
I know you’re an Uber investor and would appreciate you checking out my work!
Also, Benny, Tim – what do you think about InnovativeLanguages tools, like Chinese101, ThaiPod101 and others? I am learning Mandarin with their tools now, and I do enjoy the lessons (even though have to adjust some things, as Chinese in Taiwan is a bit different). Interested to hear what you have to say on them.
Hi Agne, noticed your comment here and thought I’d share a blog article that provides a run down of some of these similar types of tools. I haven’t used ChineseClass101 too much, but it seems good from the little bit I’ve used it.
Thanks Aaron. Your website looks like exactly the recourse I need 🙂
Thanks for the great tips, material, and site links. I want to learn Italian for a trip to Italy in 2015. After trying to learn French for a previous trip I was feeling a little defeated before even tackling Italian. Your post has inspired me and given me confidence. Now I’m excited to get started!
Great article, so much information to absorb. I was wondering if it is possible and would you recommend learning two languages at the same time?
I wouldn’t recommend this. I’m a very experienced language learner, and I think I wouldn’t be able to learn two NEW languages at once. When you spread your effort thin, you can get the two languages mixed up.
While you may think that (mathematically) learning 2 languages over a year is about the same as learning each one for six months each, the truth is that FOCUS will get you so much more. You can reach a high level in one language, and then work only on maintaining that language, while you focus on learning a new one. The work involved in maintaining a language and learning a new one is very different.
Trust me, as a polyglot, focus on one, then focus on the other, waiting until you are at a confident conversational or fluent stage before moving on 😉
I am receiving individual emails each containing one comment on the 12 rules for learning language. I tried to unsubscribe but was unsuccessful. I want Tim’s blog posts but not all the comments. Help!
Loved the skype me maybe video. very uplifting.
Glad you enjoyed it! It was a LOT of editing work, but I was so glad to collaborate with all those amazing people!
I WANT TO #YOLO ON DIFFERENT CONTINENTS IN DIFFERENT LANGUAGES!
Great stuff as always.
I’m not saying I knew all this, but I wasted a very long time trying to learn English the wrong way, and actually learnt it pretty well in a much shorter time the right way. So I get the idea.
Where I fail is execution. I know what I should be doing, but I don’t.
I’ve been traveling South America since last October and my Spanish is not better than someone’s who’s made an intensive effort for two weeks.
I know I just need to make this my No. 1. priority, but working full time, trying to explore some of the places I travel through, trying to keep fit and so on it hasn’t been easy. These are just excuses if you look at it that way, but they feel very real.
The little Spanish I do know I picked up listening to locals and trying to interact with them, which I thoroughly enjoy.
Do you have any tips for me?
Hi every body,
Tim and Benny thanks for this too complete post about being a polyglot, I took note about all, it took me about 2 hours but ti worths them :).
So one tool I use to learn a language, is the book “Aprenda un idioma en 7 dias” by Ramon C. I think that is a good book to start the language trip.
Loved this post and will certainly come back to it several times. I too like to first learn the flow of the language before learning any grammatical rules.
DuoLingo is great as it gives you a sense of the language, so that after a time you find yourself hitting the right answer without much consideration. The “practice your weak skills” feature is particularly useful to me. I started with Italian and wonder if I will be able to read and understand a real book when I’ve finished the lessons.
Forvo is great too. I should start adding pronunciations again.
As the director of an International School i have given this material to my ESL teachers. They will start using this information as soon as possible.
Inspiring post. Thx again!
Is it possible to learn a language from scratch just by reading and listening, with no previous knowledge of the grammar and structure of the target language?
Hi Tim & Brian!
My first post ever!
To Tim first,
Thank you so much for all the great materials that you put on your blog! I first ran into your 4HWW concept while I was working offshore bored to death browsing on internet the content of a conference in a french engineering school. I managed to sneak the pdf on the net for free – et j’ai dévoré le livre en 2jours. However I did not expect it to have so much impact on the “rest of my life”, I ended up buying your books simply because they are worth every cent! So thanks again for the amazing materials online & in your books. Keep it as amazing as it and enjoy your life.
You are quite impressive with your learning! Thank you so much for sharing that with us, this is exactly what learning & speaking foreign languages is about! Now I will continue in French for you:
J’ai suivi pendant 3ans des cours de Japonais au lycée et je dois dire que le professeur de Japonais que nous avions était un peu “déjanté” car il nous disait qu’il fallait apprendre plusieurs langues en même temps, que le Japonais était très simple, que le polynésien l’était encore plus et que au lieu d’apprendre le Russe tout seul autant l’apprendre avec un livre dans une autre langue (example livre Espagnol pour apprendre le Russe). Bref ce prof nous a toujours impressionné mais surtout par le fait qu’il ai réussi à nous faire apprendre 100 fois plus que les autres professeurs de langue (Allemand, Espagnol ou Anglais) en 2,5 fois moins de temps! J’ai pu tester un peu mon Japonais lors d’un voyage au Japon un an après et le résultat n’était pas si mal… même si j’aurais pu faire mieux! Aujourd’hui, 9ans après ma dernière leçon de Jap, les Kanji sont quasiment tous oubliés (j’étais censé en connaître quasiment 350), par contre quand je les vois je sais que je les ai appris autrefois. Il ne s’agit donc que de réactiver ma mémoire pour que la moitié revienne sans trop de diffuclté! Idem pour les phrases/vocabulaire je me souviens surtout des phrases types!
Quant à l’Espagnol & le Portuguais si tu es / ou parles Français tu as fait déjà 20% du chemin!
So what’s your next language on your to learn list?!!
I hope you keep on discovering new languages and having fun!
Thanks for sharing all that again!
This such a brilliant post with a buttload of great recommendations! His recommendation of italki has really got me on the right track. Benny ayudame mucho! Cuidate
Thank you, this is great. I became fluent at understanding German at about 6months of immersed daily conversations living in Germany. At about the 1 year mark I was pretty fluent. I’ve been wanting to start working on a new language and this sounds like it’s the best way to go, especially with how spread thin I am. Thanks again! 🙂
As a Polish speaker that is rather impressive. I learned as a child and still struggle to this day.
I also believe in Duolingo. It is the best app that you could possibly have on your phone.
This might seem like a wet blanket statement, but it didn’t work for me. I tried learning Japanese, Spanish and Thai using this type of method and failed to learn all three languages.
I tell the whole story here: http://bradonomics.com/stupid-learn-second-language/
The short version is, I reached out to people like Benny for advice and everyone kept saying that I needed to do more. More flash cards, more drills, more practice. Since I didn’t think more of the same would work, I went to the library to see what the academics had to say. I found the work of Dr Krashen and then Dr Brown. They said to stop trying to produce language and just listen. And when I did, I started to learn.
Please understand, I’m not saying Tim and Benny’s method doesn’t work. It most certainly does. I’ve got friends who have been successful using this. I’m just saying it didn’t work for me. And if you’ve been trying something like this and failing, it might be time to switch methods.
Just watched your full Skype chat video. You guys are amazing. I got an inspiration to tackle Filipino as I am going to the Philippines for 3 weeks or so. Hope to make some videos of my progress hacking it in your principles and see how it goes.
As for my experiences with language, gosh so many. Most I think are in Chinese, as Taiwan is such a great country to live in. But other really cool previous experience is with Polish language. I was exchange student in Warsaw and had some Polish classes. It was a bit easier to learn Polish as I knew other Slavic language before – Russian. I got to more or less fluency level within 3 months. I did a lot of hichhiking there and one trip was going all the way to Germany to meet my friend who came there from USA. I was picked up by a truck, the driver spoke only Polish. I was in an interesting situation – my American friend’s phone was not working well in Europe, so we did not really have a set place to meet. He was driving towards towards us, and we would meet at some gas station. But truck drivers have limits on how long they can drive and they have to stop for rest. So it was a big mission there – me looking at a map, talking Polish to the driver, he was talking over radio to other truck drivers if they did spot my friends car or not. Time was running out, the truck had to stop. And in last moments, everything got figured out and my friend and the truck stopped at the same gas station. Was really fun adventure that I would have never been able to have if I did not speak Polish.
Great post! I’ve been living in Norway for four years and married to a Norwegian for 12 and STILL don’t speak Norwegian…..
I don’t hear very well and use that as an excuse but I just don’t seem to be able to find the confidence to overcome the mistakes and terrible accent. I sound like the french policeman in ‘allo ‘allo.
How does a ‘perfectionist’ learn a language? I have started to take this seriously though and got the kids to put post it notes on everything in the home in Norwegian to start off with!
Like Benny said, just learn a few words for a situation, where you are going or just a conversation, in a restaurant, taxi, words to the kids and the wife and go for it. Even if not perfect, people may know what you are saying and I am sure appreciate it. I live in China, firstly Beijing and now Wenzhou (they also speak a different language than Mandarin), as a I say a few words here and there at the stores or in the street, the locals now speak to me in Chinese only, Ok I don’t understand it all, or very little but catch a few words so get the idea (sometimes). If anything it raises a smile if right or wrong. Just go for it, it makes life more fun!
On the other side of the language exchange, your readers with digital nomad leanings might also be interested in the option of making money by teaching a language from anywhere with Skype (or whatever online method you and your students agree on).
For example, on italki, if you’re a native speaker, or proficient in a language, you can also apply to be a teacher. Austin K Wood wrote this helpful post on his blog about how to get started on the italki system, increase his prices, and make more money faster: http://austinkwood.com/make-money-on-skype
Even better, italki supports this! They reblogged it on their teacher resources page! http://teachers.italki.com/teaching-tips-from-austin-wood/
I am a Dubliner by birth, shy as ever and I never learned a word of Gaelige properly in school in Ireland. I moved to France with my family a few years ago and I now do business in the French language on a daily basic. (I never spoke a word of French 3 years ago) The key for me to learn French was the motivation. It was born out of the need to create work in France. I learned what I know almost 100 percent from listening to others and asking questions. Most of my clients are currently French.
Thanks for all your great ideas and inspiration.
All the best to you and thank you Tim for posting this resource.
Glad to see your story has a happy ending! I also failed Gaeilge miserably, but in my mid-20s went to the Gaeltacht for the first time to learn it properly and it wasn’t bad at all. It just wasn’t taught to us properly. Sad to think so many of us spend an entire decade learning it and unable to say the most basic things. Fortunately that’s changing with the new generation and how they learn.
But it’s not too late for us! Your French experience shows you that it’s never too late!
What a “linguistic sponge” that Benny guy! 😉
An impressive post with quite a few chunks of advice and information and the aim to make you lose the “fear” of a foreign language.
One advice I could give is: surround yourself with learners, not with teachers. Learners do have a pretty pragmatic approach when it comes to learning a language and walk pretty much in the same shoes like you. Another thing that helped me when actually being in a country to learn a language: P&P. Wherever I went I had paper and pen with me, asking people to write the words down for me I didn’t knew.
Thanks again for the brilliant compilation and thanks for sharing!
Tim and Benny,
Thanks for teaming up and bringing us all these great language tips!
Good timing, too! I’m a community manager at italki, and we recently held a Language Challenge for our students (20 hours of language sessions in 6 weeks). We just posted before / after video submissions from some triumphant Challengers. You can see their (inspiring) progress:
I was very interested in reading this article at first, however, after the first sentence I was completely put off…….
You cannot WRITE and READ Mandarin…..Mandarin is the spoken version, you WRITE and READ Chinese…..a very common mistake.
That’s kind of splitting hairs, especially considering it’s in the middle of a long list of languages. I studied Chinese for a year at university, and they discouraged us from using the term “Mandarin” at all. The written language was “hanzi”, the spoken language was “hanyü” or “putonghua” and the Chinese language as an object of study was “zhongwen”. “Mandarin” is an English word that can mean pretty much anything you want it to mean, but the OED defines it as “The form of the Chinese language formerly used by officials and educated people generally; any of the varieties of this used as a standard language in China, spec. the Northern variety, which forms the basis of putonghua.” Nothing there about written vs. spoken language.
Depends on where you’re learning the language. In Hong Kong you’ll never hear students say “I am studying Hanyu” – always “I am studying Zhongwen”. OP has a valid point. If anything, you write in the traditional or simplified script. But that’s beyond the point of the subject of this post. Benny has posted some very useful links and advice. I don’t quite agree with some points, but nevertheless, for those who want a quick guide on how to learn the basis of a local language quick when travelling, this is not a bad start.
That’s what I was saying: as far as I can remember, you _speak_ Hanyü; you _study_ Zhongwen.
Incidentally, my experience with Chinese bears out Tim’s dictum that _what_ you learn is more important than how you learn it. We learnt using textbooks written during the Cultural Revolution, with the result that the only sentences that stuck in my head were things like “We all do physical training very early,” “We all study Mao Zedong thought,” and “We all work hard and love the commune.” Pretty much every sentence started “Women duo …” 😉
I am from HK and can speak both Cantonese and Madarin. Since I have been using it all my life I have all the rights to correct him if any information he wrote was not accurate. You CANNOT WRITE Cantonese or Mandarin, period. None of whatever you guys are blahing about has anything to do with the fact that one cannot write Cantonese or Mandarin, because they are meant to be “spoken”. Plain and simple.
I am simply pointing out a comment mistake. Isn’t it better if people have the correct information when they want to start learning a new language?
Also in Hong Kong, you will NEVER hear people say “I am studying Zhongwen” because Zhongwen is Mandarin for Chinese. In Hong Kong people will say “I am learning Chungman” in CANTONESE. Get your facts straight before you “correct” someone.
I never intend to comment on whether his methods of learning a language is valid, because I did not continue to read the article. Just trying to make a common mistake not so common anymore. Correct information is always valuable in my opinion.
I’ve been wanting to learn Russian and to improve my Spanish for some time now. Seeing Benny’s TedX talk and reading this blog post has lit a fire in me. I purchased the new book, and I’m definitely going to investigate the diplomas mentioned above!
You’re an inspiration, Benny!
Thanks so much for buying my book! Really appreciated 🙂
Best of luck with Russian and Spanish!
Hey, great article! Had a quick look through, but it definitely warrants a careful second read.
One thing I find helpful in developing my intermediate Nihongo here in Japan is daily approach of attractive women wherever I find myself. Sometimes I get “the hand” (as in “talk to the hand”), but usually women are willing to politely engage in whatever banter I open with. And occasionally I’ll find an eager conversation partner. Fluency practice!
If she’s interesing and interested, I’ll go for a LINE exchange. Then we might text back and forth… developing my kanji reading and basic writing skills. If all goes well, we meet for coffee or a walk… and later, perhaps a dinner date, cooking at my place. It all helps to build speaking and listening skills, even reading and writing a little.
Now, if only I could be so disciplined about hitting the books and doing some formal study…
I really enjoyed your article. Your 12 points are right on. I was a refugee that struggled learning English and now I am fluent. No one realizes that English is my second language until I share it with them. I have a love to help others needing to learn a language whether it is because they are displaced, in school or just needing the skills for work. I speak 3 languages now and I am learning my 4th. Last year I started a project that provides free conversational languages lessons to folks who speak any of the 53 languages we teach in. You are right that age does not matter and that free resources are the best. http://lingohut.com/ is my personal project, if your native language is not English click on the “I speak English” button to find your native language. Tim, thank you for a fun and interesting article. I was glad to read how you debunked the myths of learning a new language such as your tongue muscles are not set in their ways forever, and you can learn the very few new sounds that your L2 requires that you learn and I’m too old to become fluent. Thanks dude.
Great article! I’ll have to try this to learn Spanish fluently. Some of my tips are repeats, but also endorsements of what you’ve written above.
Tip #1: Identifying patterns is a big one. I’ve spoken English and French all my life (lucky me, my father was from France and my mother was from Newfoundland). The patterns are much harder to identify in English, but very easy in French and other Latin based languages. Knowing French and some Spanish also helped me get through The Cantebury Tales in high school English. My teacher thought I was nuts when I told him that I saw patterns from French and Spanish. But I understood what I was reading via those language patterns much easier than anything I had learned in English.
Tip #2: As my father used to say, “use it or lose it”. My younger sister lost much of her French, just because she doesn’t use it. I’ve retained all my French, but I used it daily, and I force myself to use it too. I thought it was pretty funny when I went to New York City and spoke more French there in a day, than I did for my job, for which I must speak French, in Québec. It turns out that there are lots of immigrants from French Africa, Haiti, and France in NYC. Who knew? And they were happy to speak to me in French.
Tip #3: hang out in the cultural centres in your city and make friends with native speakers. I’ve learned a little Vietnamese, Arabic, Cantonese and Urdu by doing that. I also learned a lot about other cultures and made lots of friends.
My daughter is fluent in both French and English too. I always told her that the more languages she knew, the more friends she would make… never mind that it would also give her a leg up finding a job. Which it did 🙂
Thanks for this, Benny. As always, a great read. Thanks for post this, Tim.
I agree with Scott’s comment. It is an interesting post with really good advice, but I disagree with #6. Adults can be good language learners, but not better than children. Children are better at language learning. As a matter of fact, they do not learn, but acquire the language subconsciously. They learn the language at the same time as they develop their emotional regulation systems. In other words, they learn the language through perceptual channels that become integrated with the limbic system.
While a child learns any language instinctively, adults need to turn to their intelligence to learn the rules. This makes adults more intelligent, but not better language learners. The fact that adults make use of their intelligence to learn a new language is good, but it is not an advantage in relation to children, who accomplish the same task effortlessly. Adults have the cognitive strategies to start a language journey for which children do not need any strategy at all. If you’re learning Spanish, you’ll have to study the distinction between “ser” and “estar”, “por” and “para”, the subjunctive mood or reflexive verbs. Those are concepts that Spanish children understand instinctively without any need for formal instruction. Adults have to make a conscious effort to learn something that children acquire naturally.
If you carry out grammar tests with adolescents or adults, they will perform better than children, since they are making use of their intelligence. However, they will probably make mistakes that children wouldn’t make. What these experiments prove is that adults are more intelligent, not better language learners. In fact, having no grammar is an advantage for children, since they build their grammars at the same time as they learn the language. They do not need to compare the new grammar vs the old grammar. In other words, they do not have a language whose grammar and vocabulary interferes with the new one. The fact is that babies do not find it difficult to learn a language while adults do. If adults were better language learners than children there would be many more polyglots around and less people pondering on the subject. Why would people write so many books and blogs about how “easy it is to learn a language” if we could learn any language “better than children”?
I agree that adults can be strong at language learning, but not stronger than children. This 1 minute video sums it all up: http://bit.ly/1c45FYr
Yes Manuel, agreed.
Consider an L1 Spanish speaker learning English prepositions. They have to learn “in” “on” and “at” for their preposition “en”. This is an extremely arduous task. Add to that the preposition “over”. A learner has to distinguish the 13 or so different meanings of over, for example “the picture is over the wall”, “the cat jumped over the gate”, “the class is over”, “you have to be over 18 to buy alcohol”, “you were driving over the speed limit”, “the fence fell over”. An L1 English child will have acquired all of these meanings by the age of 5, will be able to comprehend and produce them without thinking about it, whereas an English L2 learner will have problems, even after 5 or 10 years of learning the language. The ability of the child’s brain to learn language is just breathtaking.
If your interested in the prepositions, check out The Semantics of English Prepositions by Andrea Tyler. It’s a really good look into how we learn, and how to teach preposition, using cognitive linguistics
Nice to see someone else into cognitive linguistics here! I’ll definitely check out the book.
I just found the PDF. Here you go
Also, have you read Metaphors We Live By? It has made teaching and understanding why we say the things we say so much easier 🙂
I think that within 5 years real-time computer translation will be available on your smartphone. Just something to keep in mind for all the people who don’t have time to learn a new language, soon you won’t need to.
Sorry Mike, but that wouldn’t be nearly as effective or rewarding as actually learning the target language. 🙂
Learning a language isn’t just about need. It’s about relating to your fellow man, making friends and understanding different cultures better.
A smartphone translation won’t make a foreigners face light up like the moment when you speak to them in their mother tongue. It never gets old.
I disagree strongly, and this is from a combination of the decade of language learning AND a degree in electronic engineering, so I know pretty well how technology is progressing.
What we WILL have within 5 years, is an effective digital replacement for touristy and extremely limited Q&A under ideal conditions (with very little background noise etc.). There are some apps that attempt this now, but in using them in the real world (outside of fancy marketing videos the app came up with) they fail miserably.
However, a normal conversation will only be replaced when artificial intelligence is at the stage where it is absolutely indistinguishable from a human in all ways. You need this level of intelligence in whatever translation system is being used to process natural language – to the stage where you can replace a professional simultaneous interpreter.
This is ignoring all the non-verbal queues that are an essential part of communication, so this theoretical bablefish device would need to read the context, and visually analyse the person it’s translating to get the whole picture.
The complexities of this are mind-boggling, and since I’ve worked as a professional translator myself (text only) and am in awe of simultaneous interpreters, you really do need a computer that is as good as a human before automatic translators are good for more than getting by.
Having said that, I do use Google Translate myself when in a live Skype conversation to give me some help, but I presume it’s going to be incorrect most of the time, and am always very glad when I am at the stage when I can discard it, and use a GOOD dictionary for individual words I don’t know.
So I’ve afraid you’re quite wrong. Learning languages will be relevant for the lifetime of every person reading this post. See the promises of current translators debunked here: http://www.fluentin3months.com/translator-app/
I agree that a smartphone app will have a very very hard time replacing the human connection, if you can’t hear someone’s tone of voice and only hear a computer synthesized voice it will be hard to make an emotional connection. I also forgot about the fact that it would pretty awkward to have to talk into your phone in English and then have it output another language in synthesized voice, unless the person you are talking to also has the app and then you can speak in English and it will instantly translate it, but the tone of voice issues would still be there.
But, I disagree that you need human-level intelligence for translating. People would have said the same thing about playing chess, but clearly that is not the case. Already, Google and Bing translate are good enough at translating text that you can use them for most things. So now the only issue is voice recognition, and given that voice recognition has now hit the critical point, there is going to be lots more investment from Google and other companies in perfecting it over the next few years.
“Google and Bing translate are good enough at translating text that you can use them for most things”
Hi. My name is John. I like your blog. I want to start a blog for people who are Spiritual But Not Religious. Can I ask you a question? Would such a blog be monetizable Is the idea of making money off a spiritual blog distasteful? I’d love to hear your thought
YES! Devoured all of Tim’s books and LOVED your book Benny. I was the guy who ran the Tokyo marathon and stopped by to say “hi” at your meetup in Tokyo in February. I’m recommending your book to everyone here in Tokyo who feels stuck. Btw, you mentioned you were training for a 1/2 marathon, you got in the bag buddy. I saw Matt Frazier comment on this post and I know you are a vegetation, I’m a vegan. Matt will help you out a lot. Running this way will help you out tremendously, I promise. Rich Roll was on Tim’s blog awhile back and his advice on a plant based diet has only helped me further my athletic pursuits and I couldn’t run more than a mile not too long ago and now I’m training for an ironman. The best of luck to you Benny and THANK YOU Tim for all the gold you keep delivering in your blog posts.
Thanks a million Matt! Hopefully next time we meet it will be for more than a brief moment, but if it was after MY Marathon, I’d be needing to chill out at home too! Thanks for the encouragement. I’ll instagram my success this summer. Pushing myself up 1K at a time until then 😉
Well, I think it is a very nice and helpful post for all those looking to learn foreign language. The post shares nice information for those people helping them learn quickly and effectively.
This was an insightful post. I’ve used Mango Languages, an language learning program available as an online resource from many libraries.
Thank you so much for explaining and helping out so many of your readers! I have a question, though! I’ve always done better typing than speaking, even in my native language, can I go on Skype, Interpals, and other places, while still studying and type more than speak and still be successful?
You don’t have to go on Skype! There are loads of online communities were you can practise your language skills by writing. The site I mentioned Lang-8, actually gives you feedback from its userbase.
I just read the introduction to this post, and I can’t wait to read the rest later tonight. It inspired and motivated me to (try to) learn Spanish before we’re heading off to South America later this year. Thank you!
Well well well Tim Ferris. You have done it again. Just opened my latest quarterly TIM05 and it yet again delivers! I love everything in it but was more than pleased to get the Chineasy book because I was so tempted back when I saw it on kick starter and bummed that I didn’t. The earplugs are great. I always carry a pair I had made to my ears years back but extras are always good to have and the carry case is cool. Everything is very cool.
Now to the problem. I will never be able to cancel this quarterly subscription ever! Oh well, such a great problem to have.
Excellent post. Amazing resources. (I have 19 tabs open!)
Benny, awesome post! Your next piece should be about hacking the official CEFR exams.
Which strategy would you follow? Aiming for a solid C1 in two or three languages or going for more languages while aiming a bit lower at B2?
Already written about that!
Your goals should depend on what you want out of languages. Aiming higher for a smaller number is always better. It was simply more practical for me with my extensive 11 years full-time travel to cast my net wider.
Excellent post! I’m a Spanish teacher, and have learned several other languages as well. I love the challenge and excitement of communicating to others outside of my own culture. I will pass this on to my students and parents! Thank you for verifying what I’ve shared with them already this year! Hopefully they will have the same desire to learn like I do!
Love the post Benny. I found the fi3m blog, and got the book, and am excited about starting my journey into learning French. My 13 year old daughter can speak it, so of love to be able to surprise her! As a Kiwi, I learnt Maori at school and was at a b2 level, but that was a long time ago. Your blog and book had reignited the fire… Thanks!
Thanks so much for getting the book!
Benny–thanks for this comprehensive post, I’ve passed it around to several friends!
Tim–would you consider doing a blog post elaborating on your system for tandem practice, including your complete list of useful questions and phrases? My language exchanges have already vastly improved thanks to what I learned in the video and I’d love to hear more.
Thank you very much! The tips you gave are great and I can’t wait to get started – right now! Best wishes, Belinda (Australia)
J’ai regardé votre vidéo sur la différence entre le français de France et le français du Canada.
Si vous n’êtes allé qu’à Paris, c’est normal que les gens étaient froids, ils sont connus comme ça! Et pas seulement avec les étrangers mais avec les français de la province aussi 😉
Allez donc autre part en France, vous verrez qu’on est ravis de voir des étrangers parler français, même s’ils ont du mal 😉
Merci pour l’article en tout cas, il est très bien!
Thanks for the kick in the butt… been married to an Iranian beauty for more than 10 years and even bought your book years ago, but never got around to doing anything with it…
This is the little push in inspiration to finally continue learning Persian.
Wish me luck!
Do you have any tips for learning foreign languages for hearing impaired people, as listening to audio tapes, or TV shows would not be helpful?
You may find this guest post written on my blog to be of some inspiration:
What an epic post! I’m reading Benny’s book so this post should help (looks like more than just a summary of Benny’s approach). Tim and Benny — what an awesome combo you guys make 🙂