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

695 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:

How to Lose 20 lbs. of Fat in 30 Days… Without Doing Any Exercise
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The Art of Letting Bad Things Happen (and Weapons of Mass Distraction)
How to Outsource the Inbox and Never Check Email Again


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Odds and Ends:

Please help me break the Technorati 1000 today!

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

    • Learning is fun!

      The more ways or options you have to learn languages, the higher the chance is that you find a way that you like and this helps you to increase your speed of learning. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on how to learn a language, it increased my language learning skills.

      Like

      • Great post Tim! Good point about being selective in choosing a language first.
        I have decided to learn Spanish in 3 months. After those 3 months, I will go to Spain and live for a week without speaking english. And videotape some pickup videos where I hit on spanish girls in spanish. Its gonna be FUN :D

        Like

  1. Yes, Tim, this is immensely helpful -but in my dealings with “most” people, they don’t have the attention span or even the brain-mapping to make these considerations. (Not meaning to generalize, either, but there seems to be generalities needed). You are talking about complex leaps in thought-processes which academic linguists make all the time; but not ‘normal people’, busy businesspeople, or even most travelers. (I was reading information on Euskara (Basque) this week for example, in preparation for a trip to Northern Spain in December.)

    It’s fascinating that you offer these suggestions in your blog, which most people enter from reading about your 4-hour work week. I myself have been reading your blog since a client told me about reading your book. Granted, people with a 4-hour work wee often have more time on their hands that other businesspeople may not have – but these 4-hr people may not have the finely-tuned multiprocessing mind that you so obviously have. In short, your brain runs very hot and at extra speed. Congrats – but you may be a rarity ;)

    Back to the languages – I have just returned from almost 5 weeks in Shanghai, where I picked up a modicum of Chinese, probably a combination of Mandarin and Shanghainese and odd-assorted dialect pronunciations thrown in. I never fully got a handle on the language because its permutations were so vast – who was speaking what language? Laughably more, my international companions were often getting mixed up listening to other languages and trying to piece-out [English/American/Australian] dialects also. So meanwhile while I was trying to work out Chinese words and comprehension, the Chinese (and the other internationals) were off puzzling over our permutations of “English”. I have even spent the last week back here in the states getting some things translated into Chinese – weeding through Mandarin and Shanghainese idioms to recreate the feelings of the phrases.

    Let’s just say that beyond sentence structure there is a lot of cultural comprehension, mind-multitasking, lingusitic scientific method as you describe – and LOTS of patience. Your brain works on overdrive, Tim, and at least there are a few of out there sometimes on the same page with you!

    PS: Euskara (Basque) was so complicated that I’ll stick to Spanish while I’m there ;)

    Like

    • Hi,

      I live in China, and have done for some years. I currently live in a small city of about 1 Million about 3 hours drive North East of Shanghai. The city is part of a bigger city. The bigger city, like this smaller city, has it’s own language. Both languages have similarities but they are not the same. Likewise in Shanghai; one area will have a similar language to that of another area but not the same. The phonemes will be different and the grammar too, but the meanings will be very similar. Those similar languages will be thousands of years old though affected by cultural changes, i.e. their basic structure will be as it was perhaps 1,000 or more years ago.

      A person native of Shanghai could master all of the Shanghai languages providing they heard them from early youth but if not they would not and would need an interpreter as is true of all local languages of the world. Putonghua is bridging language of which local variations exist for local bridging purposes such as in a big city as Shanghai or Beijing or the biggest of them all, Chongqing. In Shanghai the most common language will be Putonghua as the people speaking it will be non native residents of Shanghai as Chinese cities have a majority of non native residents. But, living in Shanghai one will find that the local Shanghai language is very common and many people trying to speak it creating even a greater number of local dialects. Such is true in any country.

      To really grasp Shanghainese you really need to go live there and find the common denominators of it, that is, the most common usages of it in a range of geographical locations. You won’t find that online, in a book or CD/DVD. I have found that to be true in the 4 large Chinese cities I have lived in; Qingdao, Zhengzhou, Shenhzhen, and Hong Kong, over 7 years.

      Like

      • Hi Rodney,

        I like China too because, Jacki Chan is live there. I love chinees movie. I like your country. Have any idea to learn english quickly and clearly within 3 month.

        Advice,

        Like

  2. Tim, I like the language articles. You lead a very interesting and inspiring life, and I always appreciate your thoughts on things. I am creating a beer rating social networking website for craft beer. The new website launches about mid December. Once it does, I am going to be traveling and experiencing a lot more!! Check it out, Brewpot.com

    Like

  3. Hey Tim,

    Awesome article and I would defiantly like to see more like this. Being that I can read Cyrillic (though I speak Serbian but not Russian) I can totally relate to how you suggested learning it. That would indeed be the best way.

    Just as a side note, when is your PR teleconference going to be held? I know a previous post mentioned some time in min Nov. but you haven’t posted any updates for it? I haven’t gotten anything in my email either? Some updates would be great!

    Drasko

    Like

  4. Interesting piece! I’m a teacher of Norwegian as a foreign language, and am always interested in new ways of passing on language skills quickly and efficiently to a wide variety of students (I teach anyone from refugees to migrant workers to husbands/wives coming from abroad to Norway)…

    As it is, I’m interested in learning Burmese myself, and will make use of your tips in “deconstructing” the language. Thanks!

    Like

  5. Tim,
    Wow, I think this is the best post you have ever put up… Brilliant! I started learning Japanese earlier this year when a certain book came out :) PLEASE do continue this language series, your insights on language are awesome. Also, thanks for the link to myhappyplanet.com, I have been looking for just such a resource.

    great work, thanks for the inspiration!

    Erik

    Like

  6. Great post :) I’ll check out your methods. I’m from Poland myself, so I suppose that I should get a little bit different results (for instance Russian is quite similar to Polish). Anyway, I hope that I’ll manage to master English and gain some kind of fluency in Spanish and German ;)

    Like

  7. Thanks for writing this, I found it very interesting. Having done a degree in applied linguistics in London, I felt the article rang true with some of what we were taught about language learning. It could be linked with personal learning styles and tactics for learning languages, I think, with even more success.

    NB, I have also linked to the article from my (Technorati Listed) blog (http://www.zachbeauvais.com). Best of luck!!!
    -Z

    Like

  8. Tim,

    Yea, the language learning is great, one of my passions as well! Perhaps you could do a post entirely about absorbing and learning Mandarin Chinese. And your take on what to learn 1st, speaking or character reading/writing or in conjunction with each other. Also, what do you feel are the best methods for being tutored and learning on a day to day basis. For example, do you prefer repetitious memorization of a few dozen loaded conversations or just a continuous flow of learning keeping in mind that you gradually absorb pieces of each sentence (such as the comics that you mentioned in an earlier post)?

    Nevertheless, despite the method, probably the most important aspect to foriegn languages is simple a no-holds-barred trial and error with native speakers. You can’t let embarrasment of butchering pronunciation stop you from conversing.

    Do you agree? Ni de zhongwen shuode hao bu hao?

    Like

    • Hi,

      It’s interesting how you refer to Han Yu as Mandarin Chinese. I live in China, am Australian and I speak some local dialects but mainly putonghua. In the 7 or so years I’ve been here I’ve not been able to find any Chinese speaking mandarin, they speak guo yu, han yu, zhong guo hua, and putonghua, and bendi hua, but not come across mandarin yet. The point I am making is that a name of a language is the name that the native users give it, that’s the name I suggest you should be using so that you can become familiar with it. To use names not derived from the target language would be contradictory to that language, would it not?
      Chinese here write Han zi, what we call simplified Chinese, but they call it Han zi, so until non Chinese start calling Han zi Han zi the Chinese, the majority Han, will not have a clue what you are talking about.

      Hope that helps in your adventure into the world of Zhong guo hua!

      Like

      • I must disagree. “Mandarin Chinese” is the English term for what he was describing, while the terms you offered (sans tones, BTW), are not English, and so aren’t appropriate for his purpose.
        English speakers know what Chinese characters are, but don’t know what hanzi are. Calling characters hanzi is confusing and unnecessary. Don’t mix languages.

        Like

  9. Tim,

    This question is unrelated to the post.

    When you try to contact “celebrities” in a field, do you leave a message with the gatekeeper if you’re unable to reach them or simply hang up and try again later?

    Like

  10. This article was fascinating and I would love to see more like it. I have friends in and from brazil, yugoslavia, bosnia and several other countries. I would love to learn their languages so that I can converse with them in their fluent tongue and this article is going to be very helpful.

    Like

  11. Great article!

    Indeed if you deconstruct a language, you can quickly get an idea on how it will be hard for you to learn it, according to other languages you speak, and the point is : The more languages you speak, the easier it will become to learn a new one, as you will eventually be familiar with most of the rules you will encounter in a new language.

    E.g., if you know english, german and french, you will be able to pick-up easily any language from western europe : spanish, italian, dutch, finnish, swedish, danish, portuguese…

    For me, the progression goes like this with a new language:
    – you should be able to read after a few days
    – speak it after a few weeks,
    – write it after a few months
    – understanding… that’s a whole debate… I think that’s the hardest, but apparently languages teachers think it is easier to understand than to speak…

    I don’t agree… If you meet a native in a real situation, he will be able to understand you even if your sentences are broken… usually he will be even impressed that you can speak his language, so he will answer with his particular accent, his particular slang and languages specificities, and will probably be speaking way too fast for you to understand…

    If you ever have some “tricks” to improve the “understanding” part, please post them, because the usual answer is “watch some news or listen to the radio in the native language”… I don’t believe it helps, and I see that the biggest obstacle when it comes to learn a language is the fact that you usually have almost no opportunity to face your language skill with a native speaker… Until you go to the country, and it’s when, despite your X years of learning, you feel that you can just speak like a 6 years old child! (i.e. you can only have basic conversations: “Hi, my name is Alan, I live in New York and I am hungry.”)

    Like

  12. Tim,
    This is excellent info, definetly give us some more. I have highly enjoyed your diet and work out Colorado information. Thanks for taking your time. I have your book, I check your site every day. Great job.
    Thanks,
    Scott

    Like

  13. Tim,
    I have a question that has nothing to do with your language topic but I know you don’t check email so I’m exploiting the comments section a little, looking for an answer. : )

    I read your book, I found my muse, I am about a third of the way through my To Do list to start the business, but my idea requires pre-purchasing a lot of merchandise and I know I’m going to need a loan to start it.

    Your book doesn’t address the dreaded concept of banks, lending and writing a business plan in order to get a loan. I have read a few other “entrepreneurial” books looking for business plan templates, but the authors are the antithesis of the NR and I feel like I’m getting off track.

    Do you have any resources for extraordinary BP templates? I have already downloaded everything in the Reader Resources, and searching in the Reader Forums brought back nothing.

    P.S. You’ll be glad to hear I already quit my job at age 28 to take a 3 month mini-retirement in Europe last year and now I’m just starting to figure out what I want to do the rest of my life. Your book really helps.

    Gracias / Danke / Merci / Spasiba / Arigato / Thanks
    Lara

    Like

  14. There’s a great site for learning languages and checking out transparency which is very important in picking a target. Here’s an example with Italian:

    http://how-to-learn-any-language.com/e/languages/similarities/italian/index.html

    Italian shares 85% of its vocabulary with French and 80% with Spanish.

    If you want language profiles, check out how popular languages are and their difficulty:

    http://how-to-learn-any-language.com/e/languages/index.html

    If your first language is english (I’m guessing if you read this blog) then the closest ones to english to learn would be French, Italian, Spanish, Portugese, Norweigan, and Dutch in decending order.

    Like

  15. Keep it goin’, Timmy me boy!
    I’m knee deep in learning German thanks to your teachings. I initially wanted to learn French, but am having an easier time picking up German. I’m already fluent in Spanish, so an extra language or two in my arsenal won’t hurt a bit!
    Tri-lingual, baby! ;-)

    Like

  16. This is extremely useful Tim. As I prepare for a huge life change I will soon find myself travelling from country to country with little time to seperate each place. This, along with the foreign mangas and foreign movies I should be able to get by in each country with 5-7 days practice on each language. Not to mention being completely surrounded by each language will be a huge help.

    I was curious, where do you find your foreign manga for each language? Do you purchase the english version along with the foreign version?

    Like

  17. Magnifico! As a native Spanish speaker, I find portuguese and Italian closely relative to Spanish and thus I can pick up words and sentences in conversations with considerable ease than other languages. Please more on this topic. By the way, will you be in Europe, say Amsterdam, this Thanksgiving?

    Like

  18. Fun article. I couldn’t help but find it funny that there is an error in the Arabic graphic that opens the post, though. Akalty would be you (fem.) ate, not I eat. Maybe that will get covered in hour two. :)

    ###

    LOL… some of the Arabic doesn’t correspond to the English next to it. Most of that is by design, but there could certainly be some mistakes in there. On to hour 2… :)

    Tim

    Like

  19. Great post, Tim! I’ve been reading your blog regularly after reading your book. As a fellow language enthusiast, I am fascinated by how linguistic comprehension seems to come out of exposure plus prior mental frameworks. Looks like your heading down the same path. I would love to read more about your approach.

    Like

  20. I was just wondering myself this week how difficult it would be to pull a “Loom of Language” rule-based approach for taking the idea that these languages are related, and converting them into an actual pedagogy.

    This is a big step in that direction. Now if the experts can start building up fast courses from it… rather than the ass-backwards way languages are usually taught. My experiences with Hungarian, a language surely designed to fail your test for most English speakers, has definitely taught me that learning the rules is the best way forward.

    Like

  21. I wonder if you have heard of Michel Thomas who spoke several languages after having deconstructed them in a similar way to your own. He is no longer alive but his company still produces CDs. Though a little on the expensive side, they can really give one a great head start. For example, after listening to his 8-hour CD, I understood and could use just about all of the verb tenses.

    I should add the usual disclaimer that I have nothing to do with Michel Thomas Language Centers, I just endorse the deconstruction process that you both use.

    Like

  22. This is the type of post I love. I am a big fan of your approach to testing assumptions, pushing boundaries, and unconventional thinking and problem solving. Keep it coming!

    Like

  23. For Tim:

    Saudações do Brasil.
    Vou começar a estudar francês ano que vem e vou testar seu método para começar. Na verdade, eu prefiro dominar uns três idiomas (incluindo a língua materna) a saber como dizer “oi”, “tchau”, “táxi”, “me dá um hambúrguer” em vinte.
    A não ser “na sua casa ou na minha” que eu sei dizer em várias línguas. Mas isso é uma questão de prioridades. :p

    ——————————————————-
    For all:

    Some thoughts about languages:
    Monolingual people tend to think that there is an one-to-one correspondence between the words of two different languages.
    You know “suck” means to hold something in your mouth and pull on it with your tongue and lips. The word for that in Portuguese is “chupar”.
    But if you want to say that your job sucks, this verb (chupar) won’t help. So first thing is to dismiss this myth. Words have several meanings. These meanings are mapped differently by different languages. The Enuit have several ways of saying snow because they perceive different kinds of snow, they need these distinctions. We don’t have snow in Brazil (well, it is very rare), how many words do you think we need? One or two.
    These things are kind of obvious but a lot of people don’t realize them.

    Like

  24. Good post Tim. I use a similar (but nowhere near as organised) method of language acquisition. In a nutshell, I learn the grammar first, as once I know the structure, words are easy.

    And the other way I think about it, I don’t know all the words in English yet…

    Enjoy,

    Like

  25. hey tim, read your book. i am impressed. i am confused on drop shipping. where can i find drop shippers and how about ones that are legit.

    any help would be greatly appreciated.

    Like

  26. Wow! Thanks. Unique and impressive approach: logical; manageable and even taxonomical for the mono-linguists among us (like me, {sigh!}). I crave to learn new language but am somewhat afraid to start. It gives me more confidence in approach to learning a new language. So sincerely, thanks.
    And to answer your question:

    Is this helpful or just too dense? Would you like me to write more about this or other topics?

    … no, this is not too dense.But a suggestion, if I may: What would be awesome is to see you use this specific method and explain several languages in a very verbose fashion(i.e. one post each). After you have done your method, then have some respected, arm’s length educator(s) review, augment, amend, critique or whatever to provide even greater insight on learning that language.Hey, the Intertubes are about sharing ideas, and those of us wishing to learn a new language would appreciate it.

    Like

  27. i absolutely vote for more posts of this nature. i love learning languages, am always looking for new ways, and find this helpful. i spent 6 weeks intensively studying arabic at university of chicago, and we delved into esoteric grammatical rules, and at the end of the time, i had virtually no practical knowledge. i consider this method to be the exact opposite of that.

    on a sidenote, have you read the language instinct, by steven pinker? a lot of your tips remind me of stuff i read in that book (which id reccommend if you havent).

    Like

  28. Hi Tim,

    Fascinating post! It will definitely help me choose which language to tackle next, or at least to help me know what I’m getting into. I would love more posts of this nature–not too dense at all.

    One side note, though. I studied Sanskrit in college (not recommended according to 4hww principles). Learning a language that grammatically and semantically complex expanded the way I perceive the world, even though I never became close to “fluent”. There are more puns and multiple connotations possible in very dense languages, and pleasure results from learning just enough to experience that. So fluency might not be the only goal in learning how new languages work.

    One question: how do you know when learning a similar language will be easy and when it will interfere? I learned Spanish and French at the same time in high school with no interference at all. Now that I’m older, I’m starting to mix up the two. I’d like to try Italian next–will this be easier or harder than learning a non-romance language?

    Thanks again for the post!

    Jenny Cornbleet

    Like

  29. Hola Tim,
    Saludos de una Venezolana que ahora vive en Tejas.
    Si, esta informacion no es solamente practica, sino interesante. Me gustaria saber mas sobre tus ideas linguisticas y como pueden ser aplicadas en negociaciones internacionles (talvez este sistema no es practico para negocios?)

    This is wonderful stuff! Thank you!
    Cheers,
    Carolena

    Like

  30. ###

    Hi All!

    So many cool observations and questions. Let me try and answer/comment upon a few:

    -Joe, I didn’t know that ASL uses SOV. That is too cool! Esperanto, anyone?

    -Michel Thomas CDs are one of the few collections I recommend. Very, very good. The usual Pimsleur tend to be WAY too slow and repetitive for most brains. His CDs are Pimsleur on steroids.

    -Celebs and gatekeepers. Make friends with gatekeepers. For many celebs and other high-profile folks, they make a lot of the decisions. Leave voicemail the first time, then wait a while before doing so again.

    -Business plans for bank financing due to having to prepurchase lots of inventory. My rec’s: #1 – reconsider buying lots of inventory upfront and look at other business models that don’t require it. #2 – check out “guerrilla financing” http://www.amazon.com/Guerrilla-Financing-Marketing-Bruce-Blechman/dp/0395522641/ref=sr_1_1/002-0498323-6621606?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1194491939&sr=8-1,
    #3 – get “The Entrepreneurial Venture” http://www.amazon.com/Guerrilla-Financing-Marketing-Bruce-Blechman/dp/0395522641/ref=sr_1_1/002-0498323-6621606?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1194491939&sr=8-1

    -Where to find foreign language manga? Amazon, Amazon in your target country, or find a friend in that city via Craigslist or whatever and beg :)

    Hope that helps!

    Tim

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    • Tim,

      I loved 4HWW and I absolutely love 4HB, although I have much more of it to read..I’ve just spent my first night actually reading your blog, and I don’t know why it took me so long to get here..;-)
      .Anyhow, for an excellent source of native language materials in another language, use eBay. I’ve picked up tons of foreign language material that way. Everything from children’s books (best for starting out in a more traditional style of learning, with easier grammar and vocab, although I would rethink that now!) to full length novels. If you enter the language you are looking for and “language” (eg. French language, German language, etc.), you are probably going to find something. Be warned, this will give you a lot of results, but if you cull through them, you’ll be sure to find some good resources for what you want. When you find a good seller, stick with them. I’ve had sellers throw in bonus books for being a good customer! (They seem to really like the fact that you are trying to learn their language, although this will obviously vary with sellers.) Also, if you have a favorite author, you can try looking for that author’s name plus ____ language (eg., Dan Brown French language). It may or may not work, but it’s worth a try. This is most helpful with international bestsellers such as the aforementioned author’s “The DaVinci Code,” as it was so widely printed.

      Like

    • Over a decade ago I made a documentary for the BBC following Michel Thomas in the classroom. You can watch it here.

      I was lucky enough to be taught by Michel as well. He was a remarkable man.

      Like

      • Awesome, thanks for posting that link Nigel. I’ve been trying to find that documentary for a while now….

        Like

    • I was following up on the recommended reading in your response post to have it handy in case I hit these road bumps and realized the second link is a duplicate of the first and when I searched Amazon for the title you listed as “Action #3 – ‘The Entrepreneurial Venture'” Amazon can’t find anything. Do you have any other information on what you’re referring to by “The Entrepreneurial Venture?”
      Thanks in advance!

      Like

  31. Loved the post!
    I really enjoy the nuts and bolts stuff; it helps show me how you think as you approach things, and sparks my own experiments. That’s the biggest takeaway from your book so far for me: changing the way you act, perceive, and dream so that your life becomes what you wish it to be.
    Method not working? CHANGE IT!

    Cheers,
    Dameron

    Like

  32. Hi Tim,

    I enjoyed your article, it is very true! 2 years ago I just sat down and broke apart the Korean language, and it was so easy from then on to learn it. Then after I went to Korea and the whole experience was amazing!

    Last summer I went to China, but at that time I wasn’t as well prepared. I’ve found it more difficult to break down Mandarin Chinese, any advice or recommendations?

    I have been using the Rosetta Stone software, I find it very helpful to keep me active at learning.

    I think the main reason mandarin is so hard is because it does not have phoenetics like you mentioned in your article. I’ve used pinyin and understand that fine. But I still find the language more of a challenge.

    Have you tried going to a foreign nation and testing out your knowledge? It is an amazing experience!

    Thanks for the help

    Like

  33. Not sure I fully understand the use or application of this. I mean, not sure this really buys you anything as you can get the same thing from the quick language section in a Fodor’s or Lonely Planet. Plus in order to deconstruct a language you need to know something about it, yea?

    Like

  34. This is the first time I’ve seen language approached from anything other than a ‘wrote learn these words and phrases’. I’d love to hear more. I’ve been wanting to learn another lanugage.

    Like

  35. Bonjour

    C’est un article trés intéressant, je vais essayer d’apprendre le cambodgien grâce à votre méthode.
    Je vous tiens au courant !

    Merci

    Alex

    Like

  36. Hi.

    Sorry to be a party-pooper, but I honestly don’t see the point of this post.

    The process described above doesn’t talk about learning a language at all (as indicated by the title), but about learning which languages are close to languages you already know. Everyone knows some languages are similar than others – and naturally it takes more time for an English speaker to learn Chinese than to learn French. This is even admitted by the author in the text (“how long would it take to become functionally fluent”).

    All this is nothing but the identification of several major grammatical traits (do cases exist, is the word order SVO or SOV), given the somewhat pompous name of “deconstruction” (which ignores the important meanings this term already has in the academic world).

    So make no mistake – it’s possible to learn several interesting facts about a language in an hour, even some facts that would allow you to gauge how close a language is to your own (even though this info is usually already readily available), but learning a language in an hour like the title say :) Please…

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  37. Regarding GR vs Pinyin, I found at least one study online that concluded otherwise. “GR did not lead to significantly greater accuracy in tonal production. Indeed, the use of GR reflected slightly lower rates of tonal producation accuracy for native speakers of both American English and Japanese.”

    http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0026-7902(199722)81:22.0CO;2-R&size=SMALL

    or just go to the wikipedia article on GR, and look at the rferences;-)

    Like

  38. This is useful to a freakish extent! I’m a native American-English speaker and I’ve been trying to learn Dutch over the last few weeks, as well as master Spanish for the last 5 weeks. Your method worked very well and now I can safely say I’m conversationally fluent in Dutch! As for Spanish, which isn’t as relatable, I sat down with a Salvadoreño I know yesterday and we went over the pronunciations like you suggested. It helped greatly in learning to speak without an accent. That still doesn’t pass me with the Mexicans, who are certainly more populous in America than the Salvadorians, but it helps! Thanks a lot!

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  39. I like the idea behind your approach, but it seems to me you’re missing a few key factors. While deconstruaction is probably a necessary step in language learning, it shouldn’t form the basis of whether or not one learns a language. Your method does not address the issue of learner motivation, which I have found in my linguistic work to be very important. “I’m learning langauge X because it’s got the easiest rules” does not seem like it would be sufficient motivation to really get anywhere. It assumes that learning any language for a student is the same as learning any other language (from an application perspective). Furthermore, selecting a language based on it’s similarity to one’s native tongue seems contrary to the spirit of learning a language at all. If we’re setting the bar as low as possible, why not just rent a foreign film with subtitles, congratulate ourselves on being so worldly, and call it a day? Learning another language is one of the most difficult things a person can do; setting out to do so with a “minimal effort” mindset to me seems like bad idea.

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  40. An hour seems a bit short (but, hey, it’s showbiz :-P), though i don’t disagree that common language teaching methods painfully under-emphasize what can be learned from a bit of linguistic deconstruction. Especially in languages with very synthetic morphologies, a bit of top-down can make the bottom-up so much more efficient. It’s blatant cruelty to omit it when it can do so much good. That’s been a big deal for me in Russian, and a big help in figuring out which English words are likely to be Spanish cognates.

    Caveats: I know plenty of linguists who know all the trivia and little more. Also: listening?

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  41. It’s fine that you try to understand the challenge you’re about to face before starting to learn a language – or anything else, for that matter… –, and it’s fine that, if you realise that that challenge is too big, you just go into something else instead, but putting things the way you do is oversimplifying a bit…

    First of all, not everybody – far from it – has linguistic knowledge enough to make the tests you suggest. Most of the people don’t have any idea what a case is, or even a direct or indirect object. But even people with more technical knowledge about language very often cannot suspect what the problems will be just by dealing with a few sentences – and the ones you choose are certainly not well designed to make you aware of the complexities of certain languages. Let’s take noun case as an example, since you talk about it: the sentences you propose will tell you if there is case declension only if that case declension is syntax-based, as in Russian or Latin, but what if the distinction is semantic, like in the so-called ergative languages? Even if you saw that the subject has different endings in, let’s imagine, “the soldiers fell” and “the soldiers fell upon their enemy”, you wouldn’t even probably understand why (or perhaps you would, but many other people wouldn’t…). But imagine that the problem is something that you don’t even know exists and these sentences don’t give you any clue about – a huge number of noun classes, for instance, or a fixed position in the sentence for some kinds of adverbs, or complex systems to mark time/mode/aspect/aktionsart, the list is endless… The same about phonetics: it’s not always the case that vowels are the problem. Sometimes, consonants are the problem and we can’t hear it, because we don’t recognize the relevant distinctive features – like difference between aspirated and non-aspirated occlusives, for instance…

    Anyway, it’s good to try to be aware of what the problems will be, I repeat, but, as any language teacher knows, you don’t learn a language by being aware of its structure. Most of the learning process has little to do with awareness – although it cannot be bad to commit yourself and to study. Factors that can determine your success in language learning – or in specific parts of that learning, say, pronunciation – are far from any possible control – like age, which is one of the most important! Also other aspects of the learner’s background (like being used to learning languages, but also many others) can be of great importance. But not only: we don’t know exactly why, but some people are very fast at learning languages and some people don’t learn them at all – and my experience tells me that, in most of these extreme cases, the method used is completely irrelevant for success or the lack of it…

    Another thing that, as someone refers in a comment to your text, you should take into account when determining how easy a language will be for you to learn is the amount of vocabulary that is similar to your language or one you speak well. One of the problems of learning Bahasa Indonesia for a normal English speaker – compared to learning French, for example – is to remember words that have nothing in common with the ones you already know, whereas 50% percent (or more) of the English words have some similarity to French ones; and, if I agree that too big a proximity between too languages can be a problem (like learning Danish after Norwegian, or vice-versa, or even simply learning Danish for a Norwegian native speaker), it is only a problem for speaking and writing properly: to know a very similar language is always a precious help to understand it and specially to read it.

    Besides, most people do not (cannot!) choose if they want to invest on learning a new language and in which language they will invest based on some cost-benefit calculation. The reality in language learning is that most people learn languages they have not chosen to learn and for reasons beyond their control. Take the most obvious example – English. You do have to learn it nowadays, whether it is easy for you or not and whether you want it or not. You cannot simply decide that you’ll learn Chichewa instead….

    By the way, there is nothing special about Brazilian Portuguese open vowels. They exist in most English dialects as well… What do you mean? Like in já, só e pé?

    Like

  42. Pingback: Metagg
  43. Tim~
    What a great article, I know what I’ll be doing this weekend, thanks for the insight and advice! I added u to my favorites in TechnoRati and will (unless you object) list you as a ‘recomended Blog’ on my blogs (well the 3 of the 4 I keep updated)
    ~Dr. J. Robert M.

    Like

  44. Tim,
    Excellent article, and I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who is fascinated by other languages. I’d like to think that I’m illiterate in French, German, Japanese, Arabic, Spanish, Tagalog, and of course, English. I wish I’d had this article when I first moved to Japan 2.5 years ago…

    More Please!

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  45. Hi Tim,

    I think a lot of people would very much like to see larger images of the samples you have shown. It sounds all very well that you’ve deconstructed a language on one sheet of paper, but I can’t for the life of me make out anything you’ve done, so you can imagine it sounds very skeptical.

    More personally, as a Japanese language learner for a few years now, I would be interested in how you’ve done the same for that language. I’ve been told that my grammar and pronunciation are superb, but my vocabulary is highly lacking and it seems like your method of deconstruction arrives at a similar situation. Hard to tell without some details ;)

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  46. Very interesting read. I’ve been giving my own students a subset of these rules for choosing questions in exams for years, but I think it’s of limited use to anyone not looking to learn a language just for the hell of learning a new language. Then again, over here in continental Europe, English is so compelling as a second language that such considerations are largely insignificant.

    What’s more, you’ll almost certainly end up better in a language you have a larger cultural interest/investment in, anyway, regardless of how tricky or weird it is.

    Like

  47. Hi Tim, thanks for the amazing article. Please continue with this stuff! It’s extremely interesting. I’m Italian, living in the US, and my inlaws are chinese (cantonese). I want to learn cantonese for a long time now, but I’ve always been discouraged. Your article instilled new hope! Do you have any specific insights about cantonese?
    Please write more – it’s not dense at all, it’s awesome. Grazie mille!!

    Like

  48. “You can merge this with the above comment if you want”

    Just thought of this after commenting. Would you be able to show your notes on each of the languages you have deconstructed. Similar to the pictures you have posted just plus the others as well. :)

    Matt

    Like

  49. Hey,

    I have to say this is interesting article and what is more, I think everyone can do that. For example in Lithuania everyone speaks three languages and it is matter of few months to learn new one. But I don’t agree that it is very easy to understand new grammar or spoken language. Technically – Yes it easy, but in reality You will face with problems like dozens and hundreds of exceptions in grammar and speech…

    Good luck doing wonderful job!

    (
    Labas,
    Turiu pasakyti, kad šis straipsnis yra ?domus, manau kiekvienas tai gali padaryti. Pavyzdžiui Lietuvoje kiekvienas šneka trimis kalbomis ir išmokti nauj? kalb? yra keli? m?nesi? reikalas. Bet aš nesutinku, kad nauj? gramatik? ar šnekamaj? kalb? suprasti yra labai lengva. Techniškai – Taip, bet realyb?je susidursi su problemomis kaip tuzinai ir šimtai gramatikos ir kalbos išim?i?…

    S?km?s darant nuostab? darb?!
    )

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  50. There are some languages that are totally different. Basque and Japanese,to name a few. You suppose that all languages have structures including subjects, verbs and objects which is wrong (but mostly right for 80% of languages).

    For example, Japanese’s structure is not as simple as you state (it is not SOV). The closest (but right) you could state would be V.
    Other langugages have totally different meanings (because of their culture and beliefs). For example, hebrew (biblical) has a very particular notion of time (in fact it is not organized as past, present or futur, but as “to be done”, and “has been done”).

    So your analysis only works with very similar languages.

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  51. Sounds like a great approach to learning a second language but quite different from the methods used in our schools today. Time for a change?

    And is it that maybe bilingually raised children subconsciously use that sort of deconstruction approach? It is said that they are much better at acquiring fluency in a third language.

    [To be continued?] Please!

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  52. This 4 hour work wee sounds worrying!!
    I suggest you drink less coffee …

    In the UK, we are told at school that Spanish is really close to English and that, by learning French, languages romance like Spanish become easier to learn. And I think that overlaps with some of what you are saying.
    I come from a ‘memory techniques’ background and so I am always interested to hear about ways of learning languages quicker.
    http://www.nakedscience.com/articles/foreign language.htm

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  53. Very interesting post, Tim. I just hope I won’t ever sit next to you in a plane ;-)

    Kidding aside, a key thing you did not mention are exceptions.

    For example: I have studied both Turkish and Finnish. They share similiar construction logic, grammatic rules and have similar pronounciation. Finnish is much more difficult to learn because they are so many exceptions.

    Of course, this is important mostly if you intend to be fluent (i.e. not to sound like a monkey or make the sames mistakes as a 3-year old). Then if your objective is “just” to be able to have a conversation, you might chose different targets.

    The initial learning curve is steep for some languages and easier after a while (e.g. for Westerners: Turkish, German, French?), while for others, it is easy to learn the basics but very difficult to speak really well (English, Spanish or other Latin languages when you already know one). Then of course, some have a steep curve all the way (Finnish)…

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  54. Strange that no one noticed that this does not, in fact, describe how to “learn” anything, but it simply a way to filter which languages you should be considering…

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  55. This, for me, has been your most beneficial post, hands down. I’ve been learning Mandarin since April. It’s nice to see language learning from a different perspective. Thanks Tim, and keep the language posts coming.

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  56. “Second, I’m looking at the fundamental sentence structure: is it subject-verb-object (SOV) like English and Chinese”

    ^^^ make sure to fix this “subject-verb-object (SOV)” to ‘(SVO)’^^^

    Good times.

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  57. Nice article. Not sure it’s as definitive as it could be, so a follow-up might be a good idea.

    I would recommend more examples or possibly going through one language as a simple reference.

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  58. This technique sounds very promising. I think I’ll try it out when I start learning Hebrew.

    And your thesis sounds really interesting, actually. Any way you could provide us with a way to read that?

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  59. This is fascinating stuff, if a little hard to digest – I’d LOVE to speak Spanish, Italian and French – not necessarily in that order but probably. Are there any suggestions as to the easiest and quickest way (apart from moving there) to learn languages? Or indeed a suggestion for a fantastic course?

    Like