How to Learn Any Language in 3 Months

505 Comments


The Okano Isao judo textbook I used to learn Japanese grammar.

Post reading time: 15 minutes.

Language learning need not be complicated.

Principles of cognitive neuroscience and time management can be applied to attain conversational fluency (here defined as 95%+ comprehension and 100% expressive abilities) in 1-3 months. Some background on my language obsession, from an earlier post on learning outside of classes:

From the academic environments of Princeton University (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Italian) and the Middlebury Language Schools (Japanese), to the disappointing results observed as a curriculum designer at Berlitz International (Japanese, English), I have sought for more than 10 years to answer a simple question: why do most language classes simply not work?

The ideal system — and progression — is based on three elements in this order…

1. Effectiveness (Priority)
2. Adherence (Interest)
3. Efficiency (Process)

Effectiveness, adherence, and efficiency refer to the “what”, “why”, and “how” of learning a target language, respectively. In simple terms, you first decide what to learn, based on usage frequency (priority); you then filter materials based on your likelihood of continued study and review, or adherence (interest); lastly, you determine how to learn the material most efficiently (process).

Let’s cover each in turn. This post will focus on vocabulary and subject matter. For learning grammar, I suggest you read this short article. For “reactivating” forgotten languages — like high school Spanish — this sequence will do the trick.

Effectiveness: If you select the wrong material, it does not matter how you study or if you study – practical fluency is impossible without the proper tools (material). Teachers are subordinate to materials, just as cooks are subordinate to recipes.

Adherence: Review, and multiple exposures to the same material, will always present an element of monotony, which must be countered by an interest in the material. Even if you select the most effective material and efficient method, if you don’t adhere with repeated study, effectiveness and efficiency mean nothing. In other words: can you persist with the material and method you’ve chosen? If not, less effective materials or methods will still be better. The best approach means nothing if you don’t use it.

By analogy, if sprinting uphill with bowling balls in each hand were the most effective way to lose body fat, how long would the average person adhere to such a program?

If you have no interest in politics, will you adhere to a language course that focuses on this material? Ask yourself: Can I study this material every day and adhere until I reach my fluency goals? If you have any doubt, change your selection. Oftentimes, it is best to select content that matches your interests in your native language. Do not read about something that you would not read about in English, if English is your native language (e.g. don’t read Asahi Shimbun if you don’t read newspapers in English). Use the target language as a vehicle for learning more about a subject, skill, or cultural area of interest.

Do not use material incongruent with your interests as a vehicle for learning a language – it will not work.

Efficiency: It matters little if you have the best material and adherence if time-to-fluency is 20 years. The ROI won’t compel you. Ask yourself: Will this method allow me to reach accurate recognition and recall with the fewest number of exposures, within the shortest period of time? If the answer is no, your method must be refined or replaced.

An Example of Effectiveness (80/20) in Practice

Pareto’s Principle of 80/20 dictates that 80% of the results in any endeavor come from 20% of the input, material, or effort.

We can adapt this principle and prioritize material based on its recorded likelihood and frequency of usage. To understand 95% of a language and become conversational fluent may require 3 months of applied learning; to reach the 98% threshold could require 10 years. There is a point of diminishing returns where, for most people, it makes more sense to acquire more languages (or other skills) vs. add a 1% improvement per 5 years.

To see exactly how I deconstruct the grammar of new languages, I suggest you read “How to Learn (But Not Master) Any Language in 1 Hour”. Now, on to the meat and potatoes of communication: words.

If you were a student of English (though the list can be adapted to most languages), the following words would deliver the greatest ROI per hour invested for the initial 1-3 weeks of study:

The 100 Most Common Written Words in English

1. the
2. of
3. and
4. a
5. to
6. in
7. is
8. you
9. that
10. it
11. he
12. was
13. for
14. on
15. are
16. as
17. with
18. his
19. they
20. I
21. at
22. be
23. this
24. have
25. from
26. or
27. one
28. had
29. by
30. word
31. but
32. not
33. what
34. all
35. were
36. we
37. when
38. your
39. can
40. said
41. there
42. use
43. an
44. each
45. which
46. she
47. do
48. how
49. their
50. if
51. will
52. up
53. other
54. about
55. out
56. many
57. then
58. them
59. these
60. so
61. some
62. her
63. would
64. make
65. like
66. him
67. into
68. time
69. has
70. look
71. two
72. more
73. write
74. go
75. see
76. number
77. no
78. way
79. could
80. people
81. my
82. than
83. first
84. water
85. been
86. call
87. who
88. oil
89. its
90. now
91. find
92. long
93. down
94. day
95. did
96. get
97. come
98. made
99. may
100. part

The first 25 of the above words make up about 1/3 of all printed material in English. The first 100 comprise 1/2 of all written material, and the first 300 make up about 65% percent of all written material in English. Articles and tense conjugations that can often be omitted in some languages or learned for recognition (understanding) but not recall (production).

Most frequency lists are erroneously presented as the “most common words” in English, with no distinction made between written and spoken vocabulary. The 100 most common words as used in speech are considerably different, and this distinction applies to any target language.

The 100 Most Common Spoken Words in English

1. a, an
2. after
3. again
4. all
5. almost
6. also
7. always
8. and
9. because
10. before
11. big
12. but
13. (I) can
14. (I) come
15. either/or
16. (I) find
17. first
18. for
19. friend
20. from
21. (I) go
22. good
23. goodbye
24. happy
25. (I) have
26. he
27. hello
28. here
29. how
30. I
31. (I) am
32. if
33. in
34. (I) know
35. last
36. (I) like
37. little
38. (I) love
39. (I) make
40. many
41. one
42. more
43. most
44. much
45. my
46. new
47. no
48. not
49. now
50. of
51. often
52. on
53. one
54. only
55. or
56. other
57. our
58. out
59. over
60. people
61. place
62. please
63. same
64. (I) see
65. she
66. so
67. some
68. sometimes
69. still
70. such
71. (I) tell
72. thank you
73. that
74. the
75. their
76. them
77. then
78. there is
79. they
80. thing
81. (I) think
82. this
83. time
84. to
85. under
86. up
87. us
88. (I) use
89. very
90. we
91. what
92. when
93. where
94. which
95. who
96. why
97. with
98. yes
99. you
100. your

Individual word frequency will vary between languages (especially pronouns, articles, and possessives), but differences are generally related to frequency rank, rather than complete omission or replacement with a different term. The above two lists are surprisingly applicable to most popular languages.

Content and vocabulary selection beyond the most common 300-500 words should be dictated by subject matter interest. The most pertinent questions will be “What will you spend your time doing with this language?”

If necessary, the most closely related rephrasing would be “What do I currently spend my time doing?” It bears repeating: do not read about something that you would not read about in your native language. Use the target language as a vehicle for learning more about a subject, skill, or cultural area of interest. Poor material never produces good language.

Feed your language ability foods you like, or you will quit your “diet” and cease study long before you achieve any measurable level of proficiency.

As a personal example, I used martial arts instructional manuals to compete effectively in judo while a student in Japan. My primary goal was to learn throws and apply them in tournaments. To avoid pain and embarrassment, I had tremendous motivation to learn the captions of the step-by-step diagrams in each instructional manual. Language development was a far secondary priority.

One might assume the crossover of material to other subjects would be minimal, but the grammar is, in fact, identical. The vocabulary may be highly specialized, but I eclipsed the grammatical ability of 4 and 5-year students of Japanese within 2 months of studying and applying sports-specific instruction manuals.

The specialization of my vocabulary didn’t present a single problem in communication, it is important to note, as I was spending 80% of my free time training with people who also used judo-speak and other vocabulary unique to sports training and athletic development.

Once the framework of grammar has been transferred to long-term memory, acquiring vocabulary is a simple process of proper spaced repetition, which will be the subject of a dedicated future post.

In the meantime, don’t let languages scare you off. It’s a checklist and a process of finding material you enjoy with a good frequency ROI.

Ganbare!

###

Odds and Ends: Giveaway and USC Video

I’ll be giving away some very cool stuff this week on Twitter (electronics, my favorite bags, etc.). Just click here and follow me to see the goodies.

The Cisco-sponsored video about my house by the USC team is in the final 24 hours of competition and needs a few more views to win. Unfortunately, none of the embed views counted last time due to bad code. Please click here and wait a few seconds to help these kids get their big break!

Posted on: January 20, 2009.

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505 comments on “How to Learn Any Language in 3 Months

  1. Excellent post, I especially enjoyed the idea of breaking a language down by word frequency for maximum retention, something I’d like to practice with Japanese.

    I really enjoy your blog; I check it on an almost daily basis and would consider you a sort of “tech” big brother. I appreciate your genuine insight and tips on a variety of topics and would like to offer you a, “hats off” from Arkansas.

    Regards,
    Nick

    Like

  2. Hi Tim,
    Great article – but I especially like the reading time at the top. That way I knew I’d have time to start and to finish the post.
    Thanks,
    Bman

    Like

  3. I was very excited to see a new language post pop up in my reader. Unfortunately I was a little disappointed after reading it. It looks like you simply repurposed material from your previous posts and from the 4HWW site.

    Overall it is great material – especially for those who have not yet seen it but selfishly I was hoping for more.

    Just my take, thanks.

    Like

    • I speak four foreign languages fluently from best to worst: French, Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese. I’m always amazed by claims that it’s possible to learn a language in only three months. I do believe it’s possible to learn a language fast – say in one year or so, but there’s a big underlying condition: You first must know a related language very well. For example, I was able to reach a very conversational level in Brazilian Portuguese after about 7 months in the native-speaking environment. However, if I didn’t have prior knowledge of Spanish and French before trying to learn Portuguese it would have taken much longer – like several years – to learn. -david

      Liked by 1 person

      • If you are interested to learn even more languages I recommend the following book. Very fascinating about what a human person is capable, or in other words: Why learn a language in 3 months when you can do it in 1 week instead!
        No joke, just read:
        Born on a blue day by Daniel Tammet

        Like

    • “dead language”

      What a truly pathetic mocking attempt frothing atheist. Biblical Greek is very easily understood by any modern Greek speaking person very similar to Shakespeare English to modern English. Most people of any decent educational level understand it if they have a desire to actually read which is the problem today nobody likes to read instead of playing video games and watching movies like you.

      Hebrew I don’t even have to respond to your claim is so beyond pathetic. There has never been a large population of Hebrew speaking people, but they have always kept their language and it is very easy to compare modern reading of Hebrew to ancient 2000+ year old scrolls of your so called “ancient” version to see if it really is as different as you claim it is.

      I am not even going to get into for the last 2000 years how large groups of Christians have studied both languages and made the most exhaustive language concordance books ever published with extensive information known about each and every word. Purchase an unabridged strong’s concordance to see one of only many examples

      Like

    • Hey Adam,

      This is a great goal and although it is from several years ago I would highly recommend busuu.com to practice using your language skills. The site puts you in touch with native speakers of the language you choose and allows you to practice with natives (which I think is one of the best ways to learn). When I moved away from an area with lots native Spanish speakers I found it difficult to practice and this site made it possible for me to connect with native speakers all over the world!

      My fluency in Spanish has been one of the best things in my life so I wish you nothing but the best in your pursuit of fluency in another language!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Tim, glad you linked to the digital crib video. Enjoyed it, rated it, commented on it.

    By the way, “Post Reading Time” is something I have been stressing for others to do for so long. First I noticed it on your blog, but want to congratulate you for using it.

    Cheers!
    James Bressi

    Like

  5. Brilliant. I was actually logging on to the site as I know you have written about language learning in the past, and here’s some fresh stuff. I always struggled with languages at school, but I think it was the teaching/learning methods and relevance. Planning to live in Spain & Argentina for a few months with Spanish lessons in 2009/10.

    Like

  6. Sound advice. It’s striking that courses which promise “fluency” disappointingly turn out to offer conversational fluency only rather than reading ability. The latter being much more demanding in terms of vocabulary. As someone more interesting in having a reading knowledge of a language than making chit-chat I’m very interested in study techniques for memorizing large vocab lists. I’ve had some success using Linkword Languages off-the-peg mnemonics product in Russian, the only problem with it, however, is the limited vocabulary size. Moreover, coming up with your own mnemonics for 10,000+ words is a chore that would tax even the most creative person. I plan on experimenting with spaced learning (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spaced_learning) in the future, but I wondered if anyone else has useful memorization tips such as semantic grouping or the like?

    Like

  7. Thanks for a great post! I took two years of Arabic during my time at the Air Force Academy and have been wanting to “reactivate” the language and gain more proficiency without wasting time on ineffective methods.

    You stated once that you don’t care for Rosetta Stone and I was wondering why? I have never used the software, but it is available to me for free through my organization and I was planning on trying it – wanting to know your reasons before I pursue this route.

    Appreciate your personal experiments in living, much more insightful than listening to some critic sitting on the sidelines spouting off theories.

    Like

  8. I love this. Thank you. I am a Japanese speaker but to be honest, it’s not perfect and a little childish – in fact, it’s been referred to as “Mardi’s Japanese” in Japan. Oh dear… Will definitely take on your points. In fact, I have just printed it out! Thanks again Tim.

    Like

  9. Really Nice Post !! My native language is spanish Im from Puerto Rico . If any one speak spanish or know speak it I recomended to read “Aprenda un Idioma en 7 Dias ” from spanish author Ramon Campayo. Campayo also have some other books as ” Desarrolle una mente Prodigiosa ” . One of my goals for last trimestre of 2009 is begin to use a knew language, maybe italian or french.Ahh i finally bought a Ferriss’s Book arrive this week. Yeahh !!

    Like

  10. Hey Tim,

    I’m a web developer, and recently released an online language-learning application which applies the principles you mention in this post. The app takes advantage of the spacing effect to make practice as efficient as possible.

    It also has a ton of Mandarin Chinese content (more of which will be added soon), ordered by level of the HSK exam (a tiered, standard test of Mandarin fluency), and ordered within each level by frequency of occurrence within the written Chinese language. You can also add and share your own content all you want.

    The app is completely free and even has an iPhone interface so you can practice on the train or wherever else. You can check it out [by clicking on his name. Sorry, Joey — comment rules are such.]

    Like

  11. Miguel,
    When I determine my average reading time I divide my post length by 250. I have seen under many sources that the average reading speed is anywhere between 200-250. Someone correct me if I am wrong.

    As far as a dead language. I have been studying Greek and Latin because of my interest in Medicine. I find I apply the rule that Tim gave in finding literature of interest. This usually consists of medical textbooks but at the same time, I do enjoy greek mythology and have dabbled in similar texts in Greek. I really don’t speak either well but I find it improves my knowledge of medicine.

    Great post Tim, I always enjoy a good post on learning a new skill.

    Cheers,

    Jeremiah (Digital Trainer)

    Like

  12. Hey Tim,
    Thanks for your reply and advice.

    I was just about to ask you to share your strategy for learning languages, and here it is… unbelievable. It will take quite a time to review it and tell you a proper thanks for that…

    To tell you the truth, my friends and your russian fans said that your book is like a Bible for Entrepreneurs for the people in their 20-30s. And more over, always moving forward and learning more – that’s what makes your lifestyle unique and fabulous. To get rich – and apparantly get fat, bored and lazy, or a different way of living with daily automated income and doing what you are REALLY want to do, without worrying about paying a rent for next month, – that’s what most people didn’t know about at all…

    Do you consider to make a family in your life? How do you think it will change your life? I am 31 myself, live with my girlfriend, and I am always thinking which bachelor things I want to keep no matter what influences marriage and kids can bring on me, and very interesting if you thought of that and have any answers for yourself…

    Thanks for what you are doing,
    sincerely,
    Vadim.

    Like

  13. Great stuff Tim. It’s amazing how “unscientifically” most people approach language learning. When you think about how long you need to invest to become fluent in a language it makes complete sense to focus a lot on the *how* upfront.

    We’ve been working a lot at eduFire one trying to make the language learning process a lot more convenient. I think the notion of traditional classroom learning is on its way out and quickly being replaced by a number of great alternatives. Online language exchange sites like Friends Abroad and iTalki, self-paced sites like Live Mocha and Mango Languages and online tutoring and group classes at places like eduFire and Myngle are definitely the wave of the future.

    I’m looking forward to a world in which learning languages becomes much more accessible. It does wonders for pulling together societies and increasing economic opportunities. Let’s hope that all these new tools and methodologies make that a reality.

    Like

  14. After dating my Australian born taiwanese girlfriend (now fiance) for four years, i’ve picked up only a few words of Chinese (Mandarin) even though I spent alot of time around the language with her and her parents.

    I’ve consistently had problems breaking through the comprehension barrier and am afraid to “practice” as much as I would like because of personal fear. This post really speaks to me! I can see now that it’s not really my attitude toward the language (which is generally quite positive, barring the frustration!), but the materials. Thanks for the wake up call Tim.

    Love your work, can’t wait for your next book. ;)

    Like

  15. Tim,

    I have now established two of your posts into my everyday life. I loved what you had posted about Leo Babauta and decided to make 2009 my year for small but life-altering incremental changes. I’ve written down the 30-day challenges I’d like to accomplish during the year, and March will be when I start learning a different language. I will attempt Mandarin or Hindi.

    Thank you for your posts and your continued inspiration. May 2009 be as awesome for you as I know it will be for me.

    Like

  16. I like the ideas, especially the word list. This will come in handy. I have never thought of reading things that actually interest me instead of merely reading. I thought it didn’t matter what I read as long as I was reading, but interest plays a big part of it. Perhaps I should try to learn Japanese so that I can read manga. I know I wouldn’t mind that.

    Thanks for the ideas.

    Like