How to Learn Any Language in 3 Months

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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!

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

  1. Know something there is another method called Pimsleur Approach that makes it possible to learn to speak a foreign language in 10 days! According to them, you can engage in simple everyday conversation after listening to the basic course.

    • I have been using Pimsleur to learn Ukrainian. And for a packaged program I think it works with my brain a lot better than the other methods I’m trying. The things I’ve learned come back to me when I have a real conversation, but I’m still frustrated at the speed of learning and the fact that the content lacks to much of what I want to talk about. I’m beginning to feel pretty isolated here in Ukraine. So I am going to have my friend who is tutoring me start teaching me how she paints – we are both artists but work in different media. I also have a friend willing to talk with me, and she is an amazing cook. Fun!

  2. Man, I’ve gone through this post several times over the past year or so. This really nails it. Break down the language, 80/20 the vocab by starting with the most commonly used words first, then talk to people! Priceless post; this has made a huge impact on my life!

  3. I like how that breaks the % of word use – very valuable to know. I’m moving to Mexico from the US in a couple weeks (thanks to my muse) and I plan on being perfectly conversational within 90 days. Full cultural immersion!! Spansh first and then… who knows?

  4. Thanks Tim. As a table tennis player and coach I’ve set myself the goal of learning Mandarin as there is so much great table tennis information available in the language that is untapped in the UK/Europe. I will try and find some table tennis material to learn from.

  5. Hi Tim,
    Fantastic stuff..love it! Can this technique b used to learn Serbian. And do u have a list of the languages it Can b used for n the languages it can’t?

    Thanks
    Yivan :)

  6. Hi Tim,

    Great article love the technique, thank you so much for sharing it.

    I’ve bee trying to learn the Serbian language out of a book for the past 6 months….the results have not been great at all. I was seriously going to hire a native tutor next week as I am determined and committed to learning the language. Then I came across your article. I going to hold off as I would love to try this technique out on the Serbian language.

    Do you have a translation of the list of words and sentences in Serbian?

    Thanks
    Yivan :)

  7. I read this and was very excited to put it into practice – I’d really like to learn Japanese. I was telling my fiance about the article when I realized that I had learned fluent Portuguese (and a great understanding of Spanish, but I had a greater interest in learning Portuguese) in 3-4 months while living in Germany when I was 16. I used this exact method. I sat in class and would write simple things for my Brazilian and Mexican friends to translate: I, you, she, want, like, etc. Then I had them write simple sentences and I figured out on my own how to use these to form more sentences. After that, it was just a matter of putting it into practice with chatting online and listening to Brazilians talking to each other.

    I had learned French to a written fluency in 2 years (before learning Portuguese), learned German in 6 months (all while living there with a German family), but Portuguese was, by far, the most successful case of my language learning. Now I know why!

    Thank you for posting this, I have a renewed hope in myself to learn another language!

  8. hey, this is really cool and kinda gets to me cause I want to master japanese, and also want to learn mandarin and korean.

    i’m gonna get back into studying and I’ll apply this to it, thanks!

  9. Really liked the post and found it more helpful than most of my Mandarin classes in college. That said, do you have a favorite website for skype chatting with native speaks in foreign countries?

  10. More content!!! Awesome stuff however would love to see some language specific content or links to it that follows your approach. Would love to help to build content.

  11. Hey Tim, I like what is written and I have read the 4Hour Chef (I was more interested in the language learning part) but it’s still a little vague to me as to how you used the Judo textbook for grammar.

    I know the interest in material played a part, but how? I think I remember an interview where you said you used comic books (manga), an electronic dictionary and the Judo textbook. Was the electronic dictionary for translating anything? Or was the method similar to the polyglot Kato Lomb, where just by reading, she eventually began to understand the material?

    I’m trying to Spanish and would like to implement alot of your methods but this part is just too vague for me. For you to became decent in Spanish in 8 weeks? I just feel like there is more to your language learning method.

    Possible 4HourLanguage???

  12. You’re right on about learning a language.

    We teach how to read efficiently. In half-day workshops, you end up reading better and faster with improved comprehension, retention and recall.

  13. Very interesting post. I like that idea that it doesn’t have to take years to learn a language. When I learn a language, I don’t learn list of most common vocabularie. But what I do is similar. I read news, watch movies and series, read forums, talk to people, and only learn words that I hear a few times. If a word is only said once, I consider it not useful enough to learn now.

    That method is like building a pyramide. You start with the basic, the vocabulary that is used 80% of the time, then you learn the less useful vocabulary. How high the pyramid ends up depends on how well you want to speak the language.

  14. Hello all -

    Let’s say I wanted to peace out for three months in Peru or Ecuador and become fluent in Spanish in three months. How would I begin my research on where to go and who to hire? (I’d prefer to hire someone to teach me one-on-one, and simply want to immerse myself in the experience.)

    Gracias,

    Adam

    • u have to be surrounded by native people preferable a family with kids and tell them to talk to like u understand.
      Give yourself 3 weeks, you will be shocked, do not use or speak on your mother language and don’t be shy to make mistakes.
      Join the circus for 3 months, that’s what i did :-)

  15. I have learned the English language in the same way, on the streets of Britain.

    I am associating/linking words and phrases to emotions and adherence.

    It makes you feel like you have reborn again because you learn everything from scratch from other people, not from a books will set back you step 1 :-)

    Really is so much fun :-)

  16. Your analysis is perfect on the exact “how to” when it comes to learning a language. This method removes the overwhelming aspect of learning. Thanks for this post.

  17. Thanks for all the language learning tips – I’m really going to need them! Because I also learned that my language will be slow and difficult to learn, for an English speaker. But here I am living in Ukraine, and Ukraine has almost all the factors that will slow down my progress: both vowel and consonant sounds that don’t exist in English, consonant grouping that we don’t use, cases that change the nouns – for example articles are incorporated into noun changes and the endings indicate whether a word is the object or subject in a sentence, words also have gender.
    I should have fun though because I am going to have my friends how to teach me to cook Ukrainian style, to paint in a style I’ve been wanting to learn for years, and how to chat with little children. Thanks!

  18. I am interestedto learn in German language. Is ti possible? Can u me me any certificate? is It fee of cast? let me know.

  19. Greetings from Los angeles! I’m bored to death at work so
    I decided to check out your site on my iphone during lunch break.
    I enjoy the information you present here and can’t wait to take a look when I get home.

    I’m shocked at how fast your blog loaded on my phone ..
    I’m not even using WIFI, just 3G .. Anyhow, great blog!

  20. Hi Tim. Really great information so far (as it’s already helped with my redesign – body first…) … but I have a particular question… In particular, as your approach applies to language learning, it seems fair to say that “you’re only as good as your material”, so – let’s say I want to learn German – how do you find or create the properly distilled material? It’s one thing to say – “if you learn most common words”… but how do you find out which to study? (or am I missing something?). Thanks again! Fantastic job.

  21. Hi Tim,

    Excellent post, though I think the 100 most common spoken word list is arranged alphabetically, rather than frequency wise. Could you please check if it is the correct list?

    Thanks and Regards,
    Jimmy

  22. Thank you Tim. The article which completely changed my life. Using methods described in the articles I become fluent in English, quit a dead-end job and have been traveling for almost two years, met tons of incredible people and even started a blog about learning languages in Russian http://ilingo.ru/. Hope some day have you for an interview!

  23. Hey Tim,

    I know you might not get to read this anytime soon, but maybe down the line I hope you do. I, like many others, have been grateful to find something that been more intellectually stimulating than guessing answers on Jeopardy and finding out that it’s right. I’m really glad that I stumbled upon your work on learning how to learn and I really appreciate it.

    The fact that I’m motivated to learn has been an eye-opener for me, I’ve never felt such a drive before because I never really felt like I could learn well. I’ve never had the principles, the understanding or the motivation to see that I can improve my skills in something as fast as other people, and so I’ve failed to learn so many new things because of physical and mostly psychological behaviors.

    Your work has really changed my thoughts, and like the nature of mastering an art such as calligraphy, it really isn’t all that painless when you break things down step by step. As my thirst is slowly being quenched, I hope to see that I can learn just as much as you did. Thanks for all the books, writing, and no bullshit approach.

    Aloha, Josh

  24. I recently read the 4 hour chef & loved it. I was curious about more language learning tips & that brought me here.

    I just noticed that the 100 written words are arranged by frequency, but the 100 spoken words are arranged alphabetically. Is there a reason for this? I felt the implication was that they are arranged by use.

    I just got the 4 hour workweek – looking forward to it

  25. Hi Timothy,

    First I want to thank you for giving birth to The 4-Hour Workweek. I know many people before me have already said it, but your book has – without any comparison – been the one book that has made the biggest difference to me. Thanks!

    Besides having cut down my workload significantly I’ve just started learning Spanish which I wouldn’t have believed I would ever get to do post 4HWW; because of lack of self confidence and not least because I thought I didn’t have the time for it. Now I have time for that and a whole lot of other things I would never have dared dreaming of before.

    Thanks!

    Nina – a true Danish fan of you.

  26. Hi Tim,

    I just want to let you know that 4HWW and your blogs on learning language has made a huge difference in my life. If it wasn’t for your contributions there were so many things, among these learning several new languages, that I (still) wouldn’t be doing. Thank you so much, and keep up the brilliant work you are doing …. I simply need words to describe my gratitude!

    Nicolai Kostakis

  27. Yes – I concur: 4HLanguage would be a certain success. Pls write ;)

    DuoLingo is my starting point for brushing up Portuguese. Was fluent some 30 yrs ago in Rio as a 10-yr-old … Will hit Ipanema soon, Swedish springs are just too darn cold!

    Also, I general thanks to your 4HWW theories. My extensive airline pilot career has surprisingly hit the crossroads — your insights are priceless ;)

  28. @Peter Owen: I know the feeling – and your choice of language doesn’t make things easier. I know, it’s generally meaningless to try ranking languages as more or less difficult than others, but Polish is such a shining example of just how intricate and convoluted grammar gets in those European languages…

    I’ve tried several times to tackle it, and have always run back to the comfort and (for me) the ease of the other language I tackled in earnest (Japanese). Ah, the beauty of not having to worry a whit about the grammar of plurals and genders and cases and all that.

    Maybe what we need is a “survivors of studying Polish” support group. : )