Preface from Tim
Back in 2012, Gabriel Wyner wrote an article for Lifehacker detailing how he learned French in 5 months and Russian in 10, using mostly spare time on the subway. That article went viral.
But don’t run off! That was nothing but version 1.0. This post gives you version 2.0 and more.
He’s spent the last two years refining his methods and putting them on steroids. Kevin Kelly, founding editor of Wired, was the one who told me, “You have to check this guy out. His new book is amazing.” Keep in mind that I’d previously told Kevin that I thought most books on language learning were garbage. I took his endorsement seriously, and I wasn’t disappointed.
This post gives you Gabe’s new blueprint for rapid language learning:
- A revised and updated version of his original post
- New techniques from the last two years of experimentation
- How he learned 6 languages in just a handful of years
- Tips and tricks you won’t find anywhere else
The “and never forget it” in the headline was Gabe’s idea. Read the article and let me know what you think. Is it possible? I, for one, hope it is.
And speaking as someone who’s studied 10+ languages as an adult, I can tell you: you’re much better at learning languages than you think.
Enter Gabriel — An overview of what this is and why it works
Two Foreign Words
Let’s compare two experiences. Here’s the first one: you come into a language class, and your (Hungarian) teacher writes the following on the board:
Kitchen cabinet – konyhaszekrény
She tells you that this is going to be on your vocab quiz next week, along with forty other words you don’t care much about.
Experience two: You and your most adventurous friend are sitting in a bar, somewhere in Scandinavia. The bartender is a grey-bearded Viking, who places three empty shot glasses in front of you in a line. From behind the counter, he pulls out a bottle labeled Moktor and pours a viscous, green liquid into the three glasses. He then grabs a jar and unscrews the lid. It’s full of something that looks and smells disturbingly like slimy, decaying baby fish, which he spoons into each shot glass. He then pulls out a silver cigarette lighter and lights the three shots on fire.
“This – Moktor,” he says, picking up one of the glasses. The locals in the bar turn towards you and your friend. “Moktor! Moktor! Moktor!” they all begin to shout, laughing, as the bartender blows out the flame on his shot glass and downs the drink. Your friend – your jackass friend – picks up his glass, screams “Moktor!” and does the same. The crowd goes wild, and you, after giving your friend a nasty look, pick up your glass and follow suit.
As a result of this experience, you are going to remember the word “Moktor” forever, and if you still remember the Hungarian word for kitchen cabinet, you’re likely going to forget it within a few minutes.
Let’s talk about why this happens. Your brain stores memories in the form of connections. Moktor has a (bitter, fishy) taste, which connects with its (rotting) smell. That taste and smell are connected to a set of images: the green bottle, the jar of rotting fish, the grey-bearded barkeep. All of that, in turn, is connected to a set of emotions: excitement, disgust, fear. And those emotions and images and tastes and smells are connected to the writing on that green bottle and the sound of that chanting crowd: Moktor.
Konyhaszekrény, in comparison, just doesn’t stand a chance. In English, “kitchen cabinet” may evoke all sorts of multi-sensory memories – over the course of your life, you’ve probably seen hundreds of cabinets, eaten wonderful foods in their presence, and assembled your own cabinets from IKEA – but konyhaszekrény has none of these things. You’re not thinking about IKEA’s weird metal bolts or bags of Doritos when you see konyhaszekrény; you’re just associating the sound of the Hungarian word (which you’re not even sure how to pronounce) with the sound of the English words ‘kitchen cabinet.’ With so few connections, you don’t have much to hold on to, and your memory for the Hungarian word will fade rapidly. (For a more in-depth discussion about memory and language learning, check out this video excerpt)
In order to learn a language and retain it, you’ll need to build Moktor-like connections into your words. The good news is that if you know what you’re doing, you can do this methodically and rapidly, and you don’t even need to travel to Scandinavia.
The Components of a Memorable Word
If we strip a word down to its bare essentials, a memorable word is composed of the following:
- A spelling (M-o-k-t-o-r)
- A sound (MAWK-tore, or ˈmɑk.toʊɹ, if you want to get fancy)
- A meaning (A viscous green drink, served on fire with dead, baby fish in it.)
- A personal connection (Ick.)
If you can assemble these four ingredients, you can build a long-lasting memory for a word. So that’s exactly what we’re going to do. In addition, we’re going to use a Spaced Repetition System. This is a flashcard system that automatically quizzes you on each of your flashcards just before you forget what’s on them. They’re a ridiculously efficient way to push data into your long-term memory, and we’ll take advantage of that, too.
My language learning method relies on four stages: Begin by learning your language’s sound and spelling system, then learn 625 simple words using pictures. Next, use those words to learn the grammatical system of your language, and finally play, by watching TV, speaking with native speakers, reading books and writing.
Keep in mind that different languages will take different amounts of time. The Foreign Service Institute makes language difficulty estimates for English speakers, and I’ve found their estimates are spot on – in my experience, Russian and Hungarian seem to take twice as much time as French, and I expect that Japanese will take me twice as long as Hungarian. For the purposes of this article, I’ll assume that you’re learning a Level 1 language like French, and you have a spare 30-60 minutes a day to dedicate to your language studies. If you’re studying something trickier or have different amounts of spare time, adjust accordingly.
Here are the four stages of language learning that we’ll go through:
Stage 1: Spelling and Sound: Learn how to hear, produce and spell the sounds of your target language
One of the many reasons that Moktor is easier to memorize than konyhaszekrény is that Moktor looks and sounds relatively familiar. Sure, you haven’t seen that particular set of letters in a row, but you can immediately guess how to pronounce it (MAWK-tore). Konyhaszekrény, on the other hand, is completely foreign. What’s “sz” sound like? What’s the difference between “é” and “e”? The word is a disaster when it comes to spelling and sound, and it gets even worse if you were looking at Russian’s кухонный шкаф, or Mandarin’s 橱柜.
Before you can even begin assembling memories for words, you’re going to need to create a spelling and sound foundation upon which you can build those memories. So spend your first 1-3 weeks focusing exclusively on spelling and sound, so that the foreign spellings and sounds of your target language are no longer foreign to you.
To break down that process a bit, you’re learning three things:
- How to hear the new sounds in your target language,
- How to pronounce the sounds, and
- How to spell those sounds.
We’ll tackle those in order.
How to hear new sounds
Many people don’t think about hearing when they approach a new language, but it’s an absolutely essential first step. When I began Hungarian, I discovered that the letter combinations “ty” and “gy” sounded basically identical to my ears.
If I had rushed ahead and started learning words and grammar immediately, I’d have been at a severe disadvantage whenever I learned words with those letter combinations, because I’d be missing the sound connection when trying to build memories for those words. How could I remember a word like tyúk (hen) if I can’t even hear the sounds in it, let alone repeat them aloud?
There are a few different ways to learn to hear new sounds, but the best that I’ve seen comes from a line of research on Japanese adults, learning to hear the difference between Rock and Lock.
I’ve made a little video summarizing these studies, but here’s the short version: to rewire your ears to hear new sounds, you need to find pairs of similar sounds, listen to one of them at random (“tyuk!”), guess which one you thought you heard (“Was it ‘gyuk’?”), and get immediate feedback as to whether you were right (“Nope! It was tyuk!”). When you go through this cycle, your ears adapt, and the foreign sounds of a new language will rapidly become familiar and recognizable.
For Hungarian, I built myself a simple app that performs these tests. In the end, it took me ten days at 20 minutes a day to learn how to hear all of the new sounds of Hungarian (of which there are quite a few!). It is a ridiculously efficient way to learn pronunciation; after experiencing it myself, I made it my personal goal to develop pronunciation trainers for 12 of the most common languages, a goal that – thanks to Kickstarter – is coming to fruition. These trainers will walk you through ear training tests and teach you the spelling system of your target language in ~2 weeks. As I finish them, I’ll be putting them on my website, here. But if I’m not covering your language yet, or if you prefer to do things on your own, I have an article on my site explaining how to make them yourself for free.
How to pronounce new sounds
With your ears out of the way, you can start mastering pronunciation. But wait! Is it even possible to develop a good accent from the start? I’ve long heard the claim that developing a good accent is only possible if you’ve been speaking a language before the age of 7, or 12, or some other age that has long since past.
This is simply not true. Singers and actors develop good accents all the time, and the only thing special about them is that they’re paid to sound good. So yes, you can do this, and it’s not that hard.
Once your ears begin to cooperate, mastering pronunciation becomes a lot easier. No one told you, for instance, how to pronounce a K in English, yet the back of your tongue automatically jumps up into the back of your mouth to produce a perfect K every time. Most of the time, your ears will do this for you in a foreign language, too, as long as you’ve taken the time to train them. That being said, there may be occasions when you can hear a foreign sound just fine, but it just won’t cooperate with your mouth. If that happens, you may benefit from a bit of information about where to put your tongue and how to move your lips. I’ve made a Youtube series that walks you through the basics of pronunciation in any language. Check it out here. It’ll teach your mouth and tongue how to produce tricky new sounds.
This gives you a few super powers: your well-trained ears will give your listening comprehension a huge boost from the start, and your mouth will be producing accurate sounds. By doing this in the beginning, you’re going to save yourself a great deal of time, since you won’t have to unlearn bad pronunciation habits later on. You’ll find that native speakers will actually speak with you in their language, rather than switching to English at the earliest opportunity.
How to spell new sounds
Spelling is the easiest part of this process. Nearly every grammar book comes with a list of example words for every spelling. Take that list and make flashcards to learn the spelling system of your language, using pictures and native speaker recordings to make those example words easier to remember.
Those flashcards look like this:
Spelling Flashcard 1
(Trains individual letters and letter combinations)
Spelling Flashcard 2
(Connects a recording of an example word to the spelling system of your language)
And I have a guide to building them on my website.
Author’s note: For Japanese and the Chinese dialects, you’re going to be learning the phonetic alphabets first – Kana (Japanese) or Pinyin (Chinese). Later, when you get to Stage 2, you’ll be learning characters. You can find an article on modifying this system for those languages over here.
Stage 2: Learn 625 Basic Words: Learn a set of extremely common, simple words using pictures, not translations
To begin any language, I suggest starting with the most common, concrete words, as they’re going to be the most optimal use of your time. This is the 80/20 Rule in action; why learn niece in the beginning when you’re going to need mother eighty times more often?
On my website, I have a list of 625 basic words. These are words that are common in every language and can be learned using pictures, rather than translations: words like dog, ball, to eat, red, to jump. Your goal is two-fold: first, when you learn these words, you’re reinforcing the sound and spelling foundation you built in the first stage, and second, you’re learning to think in your target language.
Often, when someone hears this advice, they think it’s a good idea and try it out. They pick up a word like devushka (girl) in Russian, and decide to learn it using a picture, instead of an English translation. They go to Google Images (or better, Google Images Basic Mode, which provides captions for each word and more manageably sized images), and search for “girl.” Here’s what they’ll see:
Google Images search for “girl” (Using Basic Mode)
It’s exactly what you’d expect. They look like girls, and you could pick out a couple of these images, slap them on a flashcard, and teach yourself devushka within a few seconds. Unfortunately, you’d be missing out on the most interesting – and most memorable – bits of the story. You already know what a girl is. What happens if you search for “девушка” (devushka) instead?
Google Images search for “девушка” (Using Translated Basic Mode)
Russian devushki tend to be 18-22 year old sex objects. Devushka is not a word you’d use to describe your Russian friend’s 3-year-old daughter (That word is ‘devuchka’). And while knowing the difference between girl and devushka may keep you out of trouble with your Russian friends, it’s also a thousand times more interesting than simply memorizing “devushka = girl.” By searching for images in your target language, and by looking for the differences between a new word and its translation, you’ll find that the new word suddenly becomes memorable.
Devushka is not some random exception; it’s the rule. Nearly every new word you encounter will be subtly (and sometimes, not-so-subtly) different from its English counterpart. So your first step when learning a new word is to search for it on Google Images, look through 20-40 pictures, and try to spot the differences between what you see and what you expect to see. This experience is the learning process for your word. It’s the (often exciting) moment when you discover what your word actually means. Once you’ve had that experience, grab 1-2 images and put them on a flashcard to remind you of what you saw.
Note: This is why you can’t just download some flashcards and successfully learn a foreign language. If you do this, you miss out on the actual learning experience. The flashcards aren’t particularly effective, because they’re not reminding you of anything you previously experienced.
Armed with an image or two from Google Images, you’ve now managed to connect a spelling (k-o-n-y-h-a-s-z-e-k-r-é-n-y) and a sound (“konyhaszekrény!”) to a meaning (really old-fashioned looking kitchen cabinets).
At this point, the only thing separating konyhaszekrény from Moktor is a personal connection, and fortunately, you have plenty of personal connections to choose from. When’s the last time you encountered a particularly old-fashioned kitchen cabinet? Search your memories, and you’ll find that for nearly every word you learn, there is at least some experience you’ve had with that concept. In my case, my grandmother’s old house definitely was full of konyhaszekrények. Find your own personal connection with each new word, come up with a short reminder of it – in my case, I’d choose my grandmother’s name, Judith – and stick that on the back of your flashcards as well. When you include personal connections, you’ll remember your words 50% better.
Once you’ve built these connections, start making your flashcards (guide here)
Tip 1 – Regarding Word Order
When learning words, never learn them in the standard order you see in grammar books, where similar words are grouped together: days of the week, members of the family, types of fruit, etc. When you do this, your words will interfere with each other (is ’jeudi’ the word for ‘Tuesday’ or ‘Thursday’?), and on average, you’ll need 40% more time to memorize them, and they’ll last 40% less time in your memory compared to a randomized group of words. You can find more information about the effects of word order over here.
Tip 2 – Mnemonics for Grammatical Gender
If any of you have studied a language with grammatical gender, you know how much of a pain it can be trying to remember whether chairs are supposed to be masculine, feminine or neuter. Some of the friendlier languages may give you clues – perhaps masculine nouns usually end in ‘o’ – but those clues aren’t always trustworthy. So what can you do?
There’s a simple way to make abstract information like grammatical gender stick. Use mnemonic imagery, and for this particular case, use vivid, visualizable verbs. Make your masculine nouns burst into flame, your feminine nouns melt into a puddle, and neuter nouns shatter into a thousand razor-sharp shards. You’ll find that mnemonic imagery like this makes gender extremely easy to memorize, right from the start.
Stage 3: Learn the grammar and abstract words of your language 2-3 months
Now it’s time to crack open your grammar book. And when you do, you’ll notice some interesting things:
First, you’ll find that you’ve built a rock-solid foundation in the spelling and pronunciation system of your language. You won’t even need to think about spelling anymore, which will allow you to focus exclusively on the grammar. Second, you’ll find that you already know most of the words in your textbook’s example sentences. You learned the most frequent words in Stage 2, after all. All you need to do now is discover how your language puts those words together.
So let’s talk about what grammar does, and how you should learn it. Grammar is a story telling device. It takes a few actors and actions – you, your dog, eating, your homework – and turns them into a story: Your dog ate your homework. This is a tremendously complex operation; not only can grammar tell you who’s doing what and when they’re doing it, but it can simultaneously tell you what the speaker thinks about the story. By switching from “My dog ate my homework” to “My homework was eaten by my dog,” for instance, we move from a story about a bad dog to a story about a sad, sad homework assignment.
In every single language, grammar is conveyed using some combination of three basic operations: grammar adds words (You like it -> Do you like it?), it changes existing words (I eat it -> I ate it), or it changes the order of those words (This is nice -> Is this nice?). That’s it. It’s all we can do. And that lets us break sentences down into grammatical chunks that are very easy to memorize.
How do you learn all the complicated bits of “My homework was eaten by my dog”? Simple: Use the explanations and translations in your grammar book to understand what a sentence means, and then use flashcards to memorize that sentence’s component parts, like this:
New Words (Front Side) – [Guide to construction]
New Word Forms (Front Side) – [Guide to construction]
Word Order (Front and Back Sides) – [Guide to construction]
You can memorize any grammatical form using this approach, and this has a few advantages over the standard sort of grammatical drills you’ll find in your textbook. For one, you’re learning each grammatical form in the context of a story, which allows you to connect images to abstract words. This makes them a lot easier to remember. What’s a “by” look like? For this story, it looks like a guilty dog.
Second, you’re learning grammar with the help of a Spaced Repetition System, which will provide you with the exact amount of repetition you need to definitively memorize any grammatical form. This lets you skip over the hundreds of grammar drills in your textbook. Instead, you can take just one or two examples of every new grammatical form and move on to the next section of your book. This lets you move very, very fast, and devour a textbook worth of information within a couple of months. It’s also a lot of fun; without getting bogged down with boring grammatical drills, you’re constantly learning new ways to express yourself.
Other Sources of Example Sentences
Occasionally, your textbook won’t give you the example sentences you need. Instead, it’ll throw a bunch of verb conjugations at you – I am, you are, he is – and tell you to simply memorize the forms. When this happens, you can turn to two wonderful, free resources to produce example sentences: Google Images and Lang-8.
On its surface, Google Images is a humble image search engine. But hiding beneath that surface is a language-learning goldmine: billions of illustrated example sentences, which are both searchable and machine translatable. If you mess with it just right (Instructions here), you get this (I’m searching for French’s ’peuvent’ ([they] can)):
And if you mouse over the text, you get this:
Google Images Basic Mode, jammed into Google Translate
(Mouse over to reveal original text)
Yup, that’s an effectively unlimited source of illustrated, translated example sentences for any word or word form in your target language. It’s the largest illustrated book ever written, and it’s both searchable and free. Gold.
Alternatively, you can write your own example sentences. Naturally, you’ll make mistakes, but with Lang-8.com, you can get those mistakes corrected for free by native speakers, in exchange for correcting someone else’s English. You can then take those corrected sentences, break them down into flash cards, and use them to memorize even the most complex of grammatical forms. I really like writing my own flashcard content. It makes my flashcards a lot more personal, it gives me practice using the words I already know to express myself, and the corrections show me exactly where I need additional flashcards to help push my grammar in the right direction.
Using these tools, you can easily memorize any word or grammatical concept you’d like to learn. I’d recommend using these tools to accomplish two things:
- Memorize the first half of your grammar book, since it’s the half that typically contains all the meaty, useful bits. (The second half often contains specialized stuff like reported speech, which you might not need.)
- Learn the top 1,000 words of your language. By this point, you’ve already learned many of these words from the original 625, and with your newfound ability to learn abstract words, you can learn the rest of them.
This part of the process is a lot of fun. You can feel your language growing in your head, and since you’re never using translations on your flashcards, you’ll frequently find yourself thinking in your target language. It’s a particularly weird and wonderful experience.
And by the end of this stage, you’re ready to start playing.
Stage 4: The Language Game 3 Months (or as long as you want to keep playing)
This stage is extremely flexible, and in many ways, obnoxiously simple. Want more vocabulary? Learn more words. Want to be more comfortable reading? Read some books. But there are some efficiency tweaks you can do here that will help you transition more easily from an intermediate level to full fledged fluency.
Learning the top 1000 words in your target language is a slam-dunk in terms of efficiency, but what about the next thousand words? And the thousand after that? When do frequency lists stop paying dividends? Generally, I’d suggest stopping somewhere between word #1000 and word #2000. At that point, you’ll get better gains by customizing. What do you want your language to do? If you want to order food at a restaurant, learn food vocabulary. If you plan to go to a foreign university, learn academic vocabulary. Get a Thematic Vocabulary Book, a book that lists vocabulary by theme (food, travel, music, business, automotive, etc.), and check off the words that seem relevant to your interests. Then learn those words using the methods from Stage 3.
Books boost your vocabulary whether or not you stop every 10 seconds to look up a word. So instead of torturously plodding through some famous piece of literature with a dictionary, do this:
- Find a book in a genre that you actually like (The Harry Potter translations are reliably great!)
- Find and read a chapter-by-chapter summary of it in your target language (you’ll often find them on Wikipedia). This is where you can look up and make flashcards for some key words, if you’d like.
- Find an audiobook for your book.
- Listen to that audiobook while reading along, and don’t stop, even when you don’t understand everything. The audiobook will help push you through, you’ll have read an entire book, and you’ll find that it was downright pleasurable by the end.
Podcasts and radio broadcasts are usually too hard for an intermediate learner. Movies, too, can be frustrating, because you may not understand what’s going on until the very end (if ever!).
Long-form TV series are the way to go. They provide 18+ hours of audio content with a consistent plot line, vocabulary and voice actors, which means that by the time you start feeling comfortable (2-4 hours in), you still have 14+ hours of content. To make those first few hours a bit easier, read episode summaries ahead of time in your target language. You can usually find them on Wikipedia, and they’ll help you follow along while your ears are getting used to spoken content.
Fluency in speech is not the ability to know every word and grammatical formation in a language; it’s the ability to use whatever words and grammar you know to say whatever’s on your mind. When you go to a pharmacy and ask for “That thing you swallow to make your head not have so much pain,” or “The medicine that makes my nose stop dripping water” – THAT is fluency. As soon as you can deftly dance around the words you don’t know, you are effectively fluent in your target language.
This turns out to be a learned skill, and you practice it in only one situation: When you try to say something, you don’t know the words to say it, and you force yourself to say it in your target language anyways. If you want to build fluency as efficiently as possible, put yourself in situations that are challenging, situations in which you don’t know the words you need. And every time that happens, stay in your target language no matter what. If you adhere to that rule whenever you practice speaking, you’ll reach fluency at a steady, brisk pace.
Naturally, you’re going to need practice partners. Depending upon your city, you may find friends, colleagues, private tutors (Craigslist.org) or large language practice groups (Meetup.com) for speech practice.
No matter where you are, you can find practice partners on the Internet. iTalki.com is a website designed to put you in touch with a conversation partner or tutor for free (if you’re willing to chat in English for half of the time), or for $4-12/hr (if you don’t want to bother with English). It’s a tremendous and affordable resource.
The more often you speak, the more rapidly you’ll learn. Speech practice pulls together all of the data you’ve crammed into your head and forms it into a cohesive, polished language.
Learning a foreign language is a fluid process; you’re building a lot of different skills that meld into each other. The more vocabulary you learn, the easier it will be to speak about a wide variety of topics. The more you practice speaking, the easier it will be to watch foreign TV and movies. So rather than be strict and methodical about this (“My reading comprehension skills are lacking; I must read 15 books to maximize efficiency!”), just do what you find most enjoyable. If you like writing about your day on Lang-8 and making flashcards out of the corrections, then keep doing that. If you like to chat with your tutor on iTalki, do that.
There’s a very simple way to figure out if you’re spending your time well: if you’re enjoying yourself in your target language, then you’re doing it right. In the end, language learning should be fun. It needs to be fun; you retain information better when you’re enjoying yourself, and the journey to fluency takes too much time to force yourself through using willpower alone. So enjoy yourself, and play around with new ways to think about the world. See you on the other side.
- My book, Fluent Forever: How to learn any language fast and never forget it, is an in-depth journey into the language learning process, full of tips, guidelines and research into the most efficient methods for learning and retaining foreign languages.
- My CreativeLive Workshop is 18 hours of language learning insanity in video form. I go through everything I know about the language learning process, with detailed, step-by-step walkthroughs of every computerized and analog tool I recommend.
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