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

690 Comments

arabic-script.jpg
Deconstructing Arabic in 45 Minutes

deconstructing-russian.jpg
Conversational Russian in 60 minutes?

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

Here’s the reasoning…

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

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

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

Consider a new language like a new sport.

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

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

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

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

Six Lines of Gold

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some of my favorites, with reasons, are below:

The apple is red.
It is John’s apple.
I give John the apple.
We give him the apple.
He gives it to John.
She gives it to him.

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

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

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

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

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

I must give it to him.
I want to give it to her.

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

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

Sounds and Scripts

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

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

russian-alphabet.jpg
The Russian Phonetic Menu, and…

reading-real-russian.jpg
Reading Real Cyrillic 20 Minutes Later

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

In all cases, treat language as sport.

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

[To be continued?]

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

Other Popular Posts on this Blog:

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Odds and Ends:

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I’m around 1070 on Technorati’s rankings, and it’s killing me. Can those of you with blogs PULEEEEASE register your blogs with Technorati and find something interesting to link to on this 4HWW blog? It would really be a milestone for me and I’m so close! Just breaking 1000 would be enough. If you can find something to link to in the most popular posts or elsewhere, please do whatever you can in the next 24-36 hours! Thanks so much :)

Posted on: November 7, 2007.

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

  1. Hi Tim,

    Could you please post your actual deconstructions of the language and the step by step process you personally used to learn them. I am interested primarily in Mandarin,

    Thank you very much in advance,

    Karina

    Like

  2. I currently speak 4 languages, but only 3 well. Some your insights resonate with my experiences. I think I could have save myself a lot of trouble had I read this post before tackling the language I am currently studying. I think this might very well help me shore up it up as well as help me decide which to tackle next. Thank you for this excellent post.

    Like

  3. Hey there,

    Thank you very much for posting this, this kinda systematic unravellening approach is what I’ve been looking for. Japanese is significantly less daunting now, plus, must finally understand the rules of grammar…!
    Thanks

    Like

  4. This was very helpful in figuring out how to break down a language. Maybe not so much in the detailed perspective, but the basic need in order to get through a conversation with a native speaker or to be able to work with the language. I am hoping to see more of these articles soon.

    Like

  5. great article! one of my main life goals is to be a polyglot, and I want to learn asian languages first! do write more of these, that would be awesome.

    thank you so much for mentionning GR, I never know this existed before and just by looking at it for 2 minutes I could tell how it would make my life so much easier since I sruggle so much with tones.

    Like

  6. Hello Tim,

    I was wondering if you have, in the case of the German language, a list of the most common words you would suggest to a beginner to start learning.

    I’m talking about vocabulary and not only verbs.

    Thank you in advance for your answer and greetings from…Romania!

    Andrei

    Like

  7. Hi
    I speak arabic :) and want to learn English And spanish so I would love to know more about how to learn languages.

    Q: Can I learn Karate without a trainer if yes pleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeease help me to learn it.

    Thanks

    Like

  8. How to cure type 2 diabetes with exercise and dieting 40 pounds
    in 4 months. Don’t overeat and you can enjoy the food you eat is essential in cutting down your calories when dining out. 4 Learning to become more relaxed about your trip in your ideal body permanently you will want to stop doing the same thing it becomes easier but I often continue to try to lose weight. What’s for dinner on the internet?
    If you do, it will make them more liked.

    Like

  9. Hi.
    I started high school not long ago, and I am learning how to take notes (on my own). I am quite intelligent… So don’t think I can’t do this, and all the heads of LOTE think I have a spark for languages. I just need some help. I decided that I will take notes in another language… BUT WHAT LANGUAGE?
    Which was the fastest for you?
    I love this article.
    Thanks
    B

    Like

  10. I feel like languages deserve more time and attention than we give them now-a-days. There is so much to uncover about other cultures, history, and people by truly learning a new language. It’s also a fascinating challenge for our brains. I understand that there exists a necessity for basic communication when traveling for pleasure or business, when spending a limited amount of time in a foreign place. I don’t think that we should frame all language learning in this mindset, though. Instead, we should be encouraging kids (the younger the better) to invest in second and third language acquisition.

    While I do find value in the blogger encouraging language learning and providing a more accessible method to language acquisition, I think we’d be better off being more thorough with the process. I think my point is supported by the mistake made in Arabic in the first photo, “akalty,” which actually refers to “she ate the apple,” not I eat the apple which would be “ana a’koul.”

    Like

  11. What sentence examples do you use for place and location?
    I’m learning mandarin and find the time and place of things is quite confusing sometimes (particularly the location aspect).

    I’ve made a few structures of my own to experiment with but am curious what examples you regularly use.

    Thanks for your tips.

    Like

  12. Very interesting. Don’t know if I agree that after 1 hour you will be ‘conversationally fluent’… but then again that’s a subjective term. Also as people learn at different rates, but I think understanding the grammar and sounds of any language is a necessity to speak it. Don’t know anyone that has really picked up a language in any less than 3- 6 months.

    Like

  13. In German, the verb always comes second.
    I go
    Ich gehe
    However, some words do send a verb to the end, like with modal verbs
    I want to go
    Ich will gehen
    Or words like ,weil and ,dass which also have a comma before them.
    Then of course there’s wenn which introduces verb-comma-verb. Overall, German grammar isn’t so bad= there are fewer cases than in some languages, and it isn’t so abstract as English.

    Like

  14. This requires a lot of determination. Given the fact that most people, including me, have a very low attention span, this is not targeted towards the audience. I thought to myself, well, learning a new language would be nice, but when I saw how much things you need to know to actually deconstruct a language, I refrained from continuing.

    In a world of instant gratification and addiction to it, you need to start slow with easy sentences and enable a first experience of success. This is what your blog post is lacking. This applies to all of your other blog posts regarding language as well.

    You need to pave the path first and then lead.

    Like

  15. Hi Tim, great article I have to say. Let me know please is there a minimal time per day which to invest in new language learning ? I read on internet that 20-30 minutes daily, is much effective than 2 time 2 hours a week.
    Thank you for all.

    Like

  16. I was wondering if there are any reliable English-to-Spanish translators that you recommend? Thanks for sharing these awesome Superlearning principles.

    Like

  17. Learnt basic French in about six weeks then passed a job interview in French! (Most help for knowing how to de-construct, and practising with Duolingo)

    I’m interested in knowing more about Arabic though. I’m a native Arabic speaker, I’ve been studying Arabic on an advanced level for over a decade. I teach basic Arabic for native-English speakers and I still find it very difficult to get students to build their first sentence within the first FOUR WEEKS!!

    help? :(

    Like

    • Majed, The language is not the grammar or the pronunciation! They are only window dressing. The mountain to pick up and move into your brain is the vocabulary. I realized this only after a few months of working hard on Swahili, being aproximately a European multilinguist, with fluent Danish Swedish and English, and Near fluent German, and half fluent Dutch French Spanish and Italian, and basic comprehension of Portuguese and Icelandic, and a smattering of stuff from many other languages. – All but the last point involve European languages, so even more to limit my language ability is in the western end of the Indoeuropean languages.
      -
      So the mountain is the vocabulary! I know this by how hard it is to make sentences in Swahili. Hardly any of the words connect with what I know. I imagine that my work for learning Arabic would be nearly as great, because it is the other great branch of the languages of the white cultures, i.e. not the branch that I grew up with. THAT is the reason, nothing in the vocabulary of the new language to connect with the old one, the vocabulary is the mountain.
      -
      Let no one tell you that the vocabulary happens by itself by “mere” exposure. As an adult, your original language/s keep filling your brain and usually your activities, so that there is little time to immerse in the new language. So if the language is as different to a westerner as Arabic or Swahili or Chinese, they have a MAJOR task. That is the problem your students face! How can you expect such students to express full spontaneous sentences after only four weeks, when 10 words a day is an effort and 100 words a day is probably impossible. Four weeks then is either 280 words or 2800 words, and none of them have been much used because the effort was spent simply learning their meanings. Don’t expect too much. But of course I believe that the only successful language teacher is the one who can pretend that they are learning the language at depth while they are only learning to regurgitate some phrases, together with a small amount of vocabulary.

      Like

  18. As was just said, language is mostly about words and understanding. It takes time to learn words, lots of time. It also takes time to get enough of a feel of the culture to understand what is being said. No shortcuts, just a lot of exposure, determination, and attentiveness.Once we can understand we can speak. When we have no words, do not understand, we cannot speak. No deconstructing, no hacks, just a lot of time and enthusiasm.

    Simple really, yet people forever look for the easy way.

    Like

  19. Hi Tim

    Love your work work – if you have deconstructed polish can you email me please:)

    I have made a start here:

    The apple is red – Jab?ko jest czerwone
    It is John’s apple – To jest jab?ko Jana
    I give John the apple – Ja daje jab?ko dla Jana
    We give him the apple – My dajemy mu jab?ko
    He gives it to John – On daje to dla Jana
    She gives it to him – Ona daje mu
    I must give it to him – Ja musz? da? mu
    I want to give it to her – Ja chc? da? jej

    Like

    • Updated Polish

      The apple is red - Jab?ko jest czerwone
      It is John’s apple - To jest jab?ko Jana
      I give John the apple - Ja daje jab?ko dla Jana
      We give him the apple - My dajemy mu jab?ko
      He gives it to John - On daje to dla Jana
      She gives it to him - Ona daje mu to.
      I must give it to him - Ja musz? da? mu to.
      I want to give it to her - Ja chc? da? jej to.

      Like

  20. This was really helpful! Thanks so much! After years of studying Spanish off and on I recently went to Panama to meet my husbands family and was dismayed to discover I understood almost nothing. Now I’m trying to figure out the best way to learn Spanish the way it is actually spoken. Thanks for the help!

    Like

  21. I can also give some tips from mine experience how to learn faster than ussual and in more easy way. Here you can see my suggestions- Tekstu vertimas , I think that combination with these ones mentioned in article can make you a successful learner.

    Like

  22. that was great but i found it really hard to understand it. think of a child and how much you would break it down for them, i would love that :) thanks

    Like

  23. Hi Tim,
    I speak a few languages well and have always gone with the inductive approach: I try to read, listen to radio, watch TV as fast as possible and as much as possible. My feeling is that this extensive approach to learning is great if you either have a lot of time on your hands or learn a language similar to one you already know quite well. You pick up the rules, e.g. the answers to the questions you write about here from the context. I might not even be able to consciously answer these questions in some languages I know really well, but I sure stick to the rules when speaking.

    I think, though, that your approach works better for adults with little time and when learning a language that is very different from any language you know.

    Great post!
    Thomas

    Like

  24. I don’t get to choose. I’m of Albanian origin but was never taught it. Native English speaker. Learning standard albanian (my family speaks NW Gheg but if I know standard Gheg is actually easier) and what with 5 noun cases, 6 verb moods (more tenses than english), no infinitive in the standard dialect (thankfully gheg has an infinive), etc.

    Still I prefer the deconstruction method. I am currently on a 6 week trip in Albanian, the first three weeks I am taking an intensive couse in standard albanian. Currently on week two and already know so much more but only enough for very basic convos if the speaker speaks slower than normal.

    It’s all fun though.

    Like