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

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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:

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.

Watch The Tim Ferriss Experiment, the new #1-rated TV show with "the world's best human guinea pig" (Newsweek), Tim Ferriss. It's Mythbusters meets Jackass. Shot and edited by the Emmy-award winning team behind Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and Parts Unknown. Here's the trailer.

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704 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