How to Learn Any Language in Record Time and Never Forget It



Preface from Tim

Back in 2012, Gabriel Wyner wrote an article for Lifehacker detailing how he learned French in 5 months and Russian in 10, using mostly spare time on the subway.  That article went viral.

But don’t run off! That was nothing but version 1.0.  This post gives you version 2.0 and more.

He’s spent the last two years refining his methods and putting them on steroids. Kevin Kelly, founding editor of Wired, was the one who told me, “You have to check this guy out. His new book is amazing.” Keep in mind that I’d previously told Kevin that I thought most books on language learning were garbage.  I took his endorsement seriously, and I wasn’t disappointed.

This post gives you Gabe’s new blueprint for rapid language learning:

  • A revised and updated version of his original post
  • New techniques from the last two years of experimentation
  • How he learned 6 languages in just a handful of years
  • Tips and tricks you won’t find anywhere else

The “and never forget it” in the headline was Gabe’s idea. Read the article and let me know what you think. Is it possible? I, for one, hope it is.

And speaking as someone who’s studied 10+ languages as an adult, I can tell you: you’re much better at learning languages than you think.


Enter Gabriel — An overview of what this is and why it works

Two Foreign Words

Let’s compare two experiences. Here’s the first one: you come into a language class, and your (Hungarian) teacher writes the following on the board:

Kitchen cabinet – konyhaszekrény

She tells you that this is going to be on your vocab quiz next week, along with forty other words you don’t care much about.


Experience two: You and your most adventurous friend are sitting in a bar, somewhere in Scandinavia. The bartender is a grey-bearded Viking, who places three empty shot glasses in front of you in a line. From behind the counter, he pulls out a bottle labeled Moktor and pours a viscous, green liquid into the three glasses. He then grabs a jar and unscrews the lid. It’s full of something that looks and smells disturbingly like slimy, decaying baby fish, which he spoons into each shot glass. He then pulls out a silver cigarette lighter and lights the three shots on fire.

“This – Moktor,” he says, picking up one of the glasses. The locals in the bar turn towards you and your friend. “Moktor! Moktor! Moktor!” they all begin to shout, laughing, as the bartender blows out the flame on his shot glass and downs the drink. Your friend – your jackass friend – picks up his glass, screams “Moktor!” and does the same. The crowd goes wild, and you, after giving your friend a nasty look, pick up your glass and follow suit.

As a result of this experience, you are going to remember the word “Moktor” forever, and if you still remember the Hungarian word for kitchen cabinet, you’re likely going to forget it within a few minutes.

Let’s talk about why this happens. Your brain stores memories in the form of connections. Moktor has a (bitter, fishy) taste, which connects with its (rotting) smell. That taste and smell are connected to a set of images: the green bottle, the jar of rotting fish, the grey-bearded barkeep. All of that, in turn, is connected to a set of emotions: excitement, disgust, fear. And those emotions and images and tastes and smells are connected to the writing on that green bottle and the sound of that chanting crowd: Moktor.

NewImageKonyhaszekrény, in comparison, just doesn’t stand a chance. In English, “kitchen cabinet” may evoke all sorts of multi-sensory memories – over the course of your life, you’ve probably seen hundreds of cabinets, eaten wonderful foods in their presence, and assembled your own cabinets from IKEA – but konyhaszekrény has none of these things. You’re not thinking about IKEA’s weird metal bolts or bags of Doritos when you see konyhaszekrény; you’re just associating the sound of the Hungarian word (which you’re not even sure how to pronounce) with the sound of the English words ‘kitchen cabinet.’ With so few connections, you don’t have much to hold on to, and your memory for the Hungarian word will fade rapidly. (For a more in-depth discussion about memory and language learning, check out this video excerpt)

In order to learn a language and retain it, you’ll need to build Moktor-like connections into your words. The good news is that if you know what you’re doing, you can do this methodically and rapidly, and you don’t even need to travel to Scandinavia.

The Components of a Memorable Word

If we strip a word down to its bare essentials, a memorable word is composed of the following:

  • A spelling (M-o-k-t-o-r)
  • A sound (MAWK-tore, or ˈmɑk.toʊɹ, if you want to get fancy)
  • A meaning (A viscous green drink, served on fire with dead, baby fish in it.)
  • A personal connection (Ick.)

If you can assemble these four ingredients, you can build a long-lasting memory for a word. So that’s exactly what we’re going to do. In addition, we’re going to use a Spaced Repetition System. This is a flashcard system that automatically quizzes you on each of your flashcards just before you forget what’s on them. They’re a ridiculously efficient way to push data into your long-term memory, and we’ll take advantage of that, too.

My language learning method relies on four stages: Begin by learning your language’s sound and spelling system, then learn 625 simple words using pictures. Next, use those words to learn the grammatical system of your language, and finally play, by watching TV, speaking with native speakers, reading books and writing.

Keep in mind that different languages will take different amounts of time. The Foreign Service Institute makes language difficulty estimates for English speakers, and I’ve found their estimates are spot on – in my experience, Russian and Hungarian seem to take twice as much time as French, and I expect that Japanese will take me twice as long as Hungarian. For the purposes of this article, I’ll assume that you’re learning a Level 1 language like French, and you have a spare 30-60 minutes a day to dedicate to your language studies. If you’re studying something trickier or have different amounts of spare time, adjust accordingly.

Here are the four stages of language learning that we’ll go through:

Stage 1: Spelling and Sound: Learn how to hear, produce and spell the sounds of your target language
1-3 weeks

One of the many reasons that Moktor is easier to memorize than konyhaszekrény is that Moktor looks and sounds relatively familiar. Sure, you haven’t seen that particular set of letters in a row, but you can immediately guess how to pronounce it (MAWK-tore). Konyhaszekrény, on the other hand, is completely foreign. What’s “sz” sound like? What’s the difference between “é” and “e”? The word is a disaster when it comes to spelling and sound, and it gets even worse if you were looking at Russian’s кухонный шкаф, or Mandarin’s 橱柜.

Before you can even begin assembling memories for words, you’re going to need to create a spelling and sound foundation upon which you can build those memories. So spend your first 1-3 weeks focusing exclusively on spelling and sound, so that the foreign spellings and sounds of your target language are no longer foreign to you.

To break down that process a bit, you’re learning three things:

  •  How to hear the new sounds in your target language,
  •  How to pronounce the sounds, and
  •  How to spell those sounds.

We’ll tackle those in order.

How to hear new sounds

Many people don’t think about hearing when they approach a new language, but it’s an absolutely essential first step. When I began Hungarian, I discovered that the letter combinations “ty” and “gy” sounded basically identical to my ears.



If I had rushed ahead and started learning words and grammar immediately, I’d have been at a severe disadvantage whenever I learned words with those letter combinations, because I’d be missing the sound connection when trying to build memories for those words. How could I remember a word like tyúk (hen) if I can’t even hear the sounds in it, let alone repeat them aloud?

There are a few different ways to learn to hear new sounds, but the best that I’ve seen comes from a line of research on Japanese adults, learning to hear the difference between Rock and Lock.

I’ve made a little video summarizing these studies, but here’s the short version: to rewire your ears to hear new sounds, you need to find pairs of similar sounds, listen to one of them at random (“tyuk!”), guess which one you thought you heard (“Was it ‘gyuk’?”), and get immediate feedback as to whether you were right (“Nope! It was tyuk!”). When you go through this cycle, your ears adapt, and the foreign sounds of a new language will rapidly become familiar and recognizable.

For Hungarian, I built myself a simple app that performs these tests. In the end, it took me ten days at 20 minutes a day to learn how to hear all of the new sounds of Hungarian (of which there are quite a few!). It is a ridiculously efficient way to learn pronunciation; after experiencing it myself, I made it my personal goal to develop pronunciation trainers for 12 of the most common languages, a goal that – thanks to Kickstarter – is coming to fruition. These trainers will walk you through ear training tests and teach you the spelling system of your target language in ~2 weeks. As I finish them, I’ll be putting them on my website, here. But if I’m not covering your language yet, or if you prefer to do things on your own, I have an article on my site explaining how to make them yourself for free.

How to pronounce new sounds

With your ears out of the way, you can start mastering pronunciation. But wait! Is it even possible to develop a good accent from the start? I’ve long heard the claim that developing a good accent is only possible if you’ve been speaking a language before the age of 7, or 12, or some other age that has long since past.

This is simply not true. Singers and actors develop good accents all the time, and the only thing special about them is that they’re paid to sound good. So yes, you can do this, and it’s not that hard.

Once your ears begin to cooperate, mastering pronunciation becomes a lot easier. No one told you, for instance, how to pronounce a K in English, yet the back of your tongue automatically jumps up into the back of your mouth to produce a perfect K every time. Most of the time, your ears will do this for you in a foreign language, too, as long as you’ve taken the time to train them. That being said, there may be occasions when you can hear a foreign sound just fine, but it just won’t cooperate with your mouth. If that happens, you may benefit from a bit of information about where to put your tongue and how to move your lips. I’ve made a Youtube series that walks you through the basics of pronunciation in any language. Check it out here. It’ll teach your mouth and tongue how to produce tricky new sounds.

This gives you a few super powers: your well-trained ears will give your listening comprehension a huge boost from the start, and  your mouth will be producing accurate sounds. By doing this in the beginning, you’re going to save yourself a great deal of time, since you won’t have to unlearn bad pronunciation habits later on. You’ll find that native speakers will actually speak with you in their language, rather than switching to English at the earliest opportunity.

How to spell new sounds

Spelling is the easiest part of this process. Nearly every grammar book comes with a list of example words for every spelling. Take that list and make flashcards to learn the spelling system of your language, using pictures and native speaker recordings to make those example words easier to remember.

Those flashcards look like this:


Spelling Flashcard 1
(Trains individual letters and letter combinations)


Spelling Flashcard 2
(Connects a recording of an example word to the spelling system of your language)

And I have a guide to building them on my website.

Author’s note: For Japanese and the Chinese dialects, you’re going to be learning the phonetic alphabets first – Kana (Japanese) or Pinyin (Chinese). Later, when you get to Stage 2, you’ll be learning characters. You can find an article on modifying this system for those languages over here.

Stage 2: Learn 625 Basic Words: Learn a set of extremely common, simple words using pictures, not translations
1-2 months

To begin any language, I suggest starting with the most common, concrete words, as they’re going to be the most optimal use of your time. This is the 80/20 Rule in action; why learn niece in the beginning when you’re going to need mother eighty times more often?

On my website, I have a list of 625 basic words.  These are words that are common in every language and can be learned using pictures, rather than translations: words like dog, ball, to eat, red, to jump. Your goal is two-fold: first, when you learn these words, you’re reinforcing the sound and spelling foundation you built in the first stage, and second, you’re learning to think in your target language.

Often, when someone hears this advice, they think it’s a good idea and try it out. They pick up a word like devushka (girl) in Russian, and decide to learn it using a picture, instead of an English translation. They go to Google Images (or better, Google Images Basic Mode, which provides captions for each word and more manageably sized images), and search for “girl.” Here’s what they’ll see:


Google Images search for “girl” (Using Basic Mode)

It’s exactly what you’d expect. They look like girls, and you could pick out a couple of these images, slap them on a flashcard, and teach yourself devushka within a few seconds. Unfortunately, you’d be missing out on the most interesting – and most memorable – bits of the story. You already know what a girl is. What happens if you search for “девушка” (devushka) instead? 


Google Images search for “девушка” (Using Translated Basic Mode)

Russian devushki tend to be 18-22 year old sex objects. Devushka is not a word you’d use to describe your Russian friend’s 3-year-old daughter (That word is ‘devuchka’). And while knowing the difference between girl and devushka may keep you out of trouble with your Russian friends, it’s also a thousand times more interesting than simply memorizing “devushka = girl.” By searching for images in your target language, and by looking for the differences between a new word and its translation, you’ll find that the new word suddenly becomes memorable.

Devushka is not some random exception; it’s the rule. Nearly every new word you encounter will be subtly (and sometimes, not-so-subtly) different from its English counterpart. So your first step when learning a new word is to search for it on Google Images, look through 20-40 pictures, and try to spot the differences between what you see and what you expect to see. This experience is the learning process for your word. It’s the (often exciting) moment when you discover what your word actually means. Once you’ve had that experience, grab 1-2 images and put them on a flashcard to remind you of what you saw.

Note: This is why you can’t just download some flashcards and successfully learn a foreign language. If you do this, you miss out on the actual learning experience. The flashcards aren’t particularly effective, because they’re not reminding you of anything you previously experienced.


Armed with an image or two from Google Images, you’ve now managed to connect a spelling (k-o-n-y-h-a-s-z-e-k-r-é-n-y) and a sound (“konyhaszekrény!”) to a meaning (really old-fashioned looking kitchen cabinets).

At this point, the only thing separating konyhaszekrény from Moktor is a personal connection, and fortunately, you have plenty of personal connections to choose from. When’s the last time you encountered a particularly old-fashioned kitchen cabinet? Search your memories, and you’ll find that for nearly every word you learn, there is at least some experience you’ve had with that concept. In my case, my grandmother’s old house definitely was full of konyhaszekrények. Find your own personal connection with each new word, come up with a short reminder of it – in my case, I’d choose my grandmother’s name, Judith – and stick that on the back of your flashcards as well. When you include personal connections, you’ll remember your words 50% better.

Once you’ve built these connections, start making your flashcards (guide here)

Tip 1 – Regarding Word Order
When learning words, never learn them in the standard order you see in grammar books, where similar words are grouped together: days of the week, members of the family, types of fruit, etc. When you do this, your words will interfere with each other (is ’jeudi’ the word for ‘Tuesday’ or ‘Thursday’?), and on average, you’ll need 40% more time to memorize them, and they’ll last 40% less time in your memory compared to a randomized group of words. You can find more information about the effects of word order over here.

Tip 2 – Mnemonics for Grammatical Gender
If any of you have studied a language with grammatical gender, you know how much of a pain it can be trying to remember whether chairs are supposed to be masculine, feminine or neuter. Some of the friendlier languages may give you clues – perhaps masculine nouns usually end in ‘o’ – but those clues aren’t always trustworthy. So what can you do?

There’s a simple way to make abstract information like grammatical gender stick. Use mnemonic imagery, and for this particular case, use vivid, visualizable verbs. Make your masculine nouns burst into flame, your feminine nouns melt into a puddle, and neuter nouns shatter into a thousand razor-sharp shards. You’ll find that mnemonic imagery like this makes gender extremely easy to memorize, right from the start.

Stage 3: Learn the grammar and abstract words of your language
2-3 months

Now it’s time to crack open your grammar book. And when you do, you’ll notice some interesting things:

First, you’ll find that you’ve built a rock-solid foundation in the spelling and pronunciation system of your language. You won’t even need to think about spelling anymore, which will allow you to focus exclusively on the grammar. Second, you’ll find that you already know most of the words in your textbook’s example sentences. You learned the most frequent words in Stage 2, after all. All you need to do now is discover how your language puts those words together.

Grammar’s Role

So let’s talk about what grammar does, and how you should learn it. Grammar is a story telling device. It takes a few actors and actions – you, your dog, eating, your homework – and turns them into a story: Your dog ate your homework. This is a tremendously complex operation; not only can grammar tell you who’s doing what and when they’re doing it, but it can simultaneously tell you what the speaker thinks about the story. By switching from “My dog ate my homework” to “My homework was eaten by my dog,” for instance, we move from a story about a bad dog to a story about a sad, sad homework assignment.

In every single language, grammar is conveyed using some combination of three basic operations: grammar adds words (You like it -> Do you like it?), it changes existing words (I eat it -> I ate it), or it changes the order of those words (This is nice -> Is this nice?). That’s it. It’s all we can do. And that lets us break sentences down into grammatical chunks that are very easy to memorize.

How do you learn all the complicated bits of “My homework was eaten by my dog”? Simple: Use the explanations and translations in your grammar book to understand what a sentence means, and then use flashcards to memorize that sentence’s component parts, like this:

NewWordsCardNew Words (Front Side) – [Guide to construction]

NewWordFormsNew Word Forms (Front Side) – [Guide to construction]

WordorderWord Order (Front and Back Sides) – [Guide to construction]

You can memorize any grammatical form using this approach, and this has a few advantages over the standard sort of grammatical drills you’ll find in your textbook. For one, you’re learning each grammatical form in the context of a story, which allows you to connect images to abstract words. This makes them a lot easier to remember. What’s a “by” look like? For this story, it looks like a guilty dog.

Second, you’re learning grammar with the help of a Spaced Repetition System, which will provide you with the exact amount of repetition you need to definitively memorize any grammatical form. This lets you skip over the hundreds of grammar drills in your textbook. Instead, you can take just one or two examples of every new grammatical form and move on to the next section of your book. This lets you move very, very fast, and devour a textbook worth of information within a couple of months. It’s also a lot of fun; without getting bogged down with boring grammatical drills, you’re constantly learning new ways to express yourself.

Other Sources of Example Sentences

Occasionally, your textbook won’t give you the example sentences you need. Instead, it’ll throw a bunch of verb conjugations at you – I am, you are, he is – and tell you to simply memorize the forms. When this happens, you can turn to two wonderful, free resources to produce example sentences: Google Images and Lang-8.

On its surface, Google Images is a humble image search engine. But hiding beneath that surface is a language-learning goldmine: billions of illustrated example sentences, which are both searchable and machine translatable. If you mess with it just right (Instructions here), you get this (I’m searching for French’s ’peuvent’ ([they] can)):


And if you mouse over the text, you get this:

Berlusconi2Google Images Basic Mode, jammed into Google Translate
(Mouse over to reveal original text)

Yup, that’s an effectively unlimited source of illustrated, translated example sentences for any word or word form in your target language. It’s the largest illustrated book ever written, and it’s both searchable and free. Gold.

Alternatively, you can write your own example sentences. Naturally, you’ll make mistakes, but with, you can get those mistakes corrected for free by native speakers, in exchange for correcting someone else’s English. You can then take those corrected sentences, break them down into flash cards, and use them to memorize even the most complex of grammatical forms. I really like writing my own flashcard content. It makes my flashcards a lot more personal, it gives me practice using the words I already know to express myself, and the corrections show me exactly where I need additional flashcards to help push my grammar in the right direction.

Using these tools, you can easily memorize any word or grammatical concept you’d like to learn. I’d recommend using these tools to accomplish two things:

  • Memorize the first half of your grammar book, since it’s the half that typically contains all the meaty, useful bits. (The second half often contains specialized stuff like reported speech, which you might not need.)
  • Learn the top 1,000 words of your language. By this point, you’ve already learned many of these words from the original 625, and with your newfound ability to learn abstract words, you can learn the rest of them.

This part of the process is a lot of fun. You can feel your language growing in your head, and since you’re never using translations on your flashcards, you’ll frequently find yourself thinking in your target language. It’s a particularly weird and wonderful experience.

And by the end of this stage, you’re ready to start playing.

Stage 4: The Language Game
3 Months (or as long as you want to keep playing)

This stage is extremely flexible, and in many ways, obnoxiously simple. Want more vocabulary? Learn more words. Want to be more comfortable reading? Read some books. But there are some efficiency tweaks you can do here that will help you transition more easily from an intermediate level to full fledged fluency.

Vocabulary Customization: 

Learning the top 1000 words in your target language is a slam-dunk in terms of efficiency, but what about the next thousand words? And the thousand after that? When do frequency lists stop paying dividends? Generally, I’d suggest stopping somewhere between word #1000 and word #2000. At that point, you’ll get better gains by customizing. What do you want your language to do? If you want to order food at a restaurant, learn food vocabulary. If you plan to go to a foreign university, learn academic vocabulary. Get a Thematic Vocabulary Book, a book that lists vocabulary by theme (food, travel, music, business, automotive, etc.), and check off the words that seem relevant to your interests. Then learn those words using the methods from Stage 3.


Books boost your vocabulary whether or not you stop every 10 seconds to look up a word. So instead of torturously plodding through some famous piece of literature with a dictionary, do this:

  • Find a book in a genre that you actually like (The Harry Potter translations are reliably great!)
  • Find and read a chapter-by-chapter summary of it in your target language (you’ll often find them on Wikipedia). This is where you can look up and make flashcards for some key words, if you’d like.
  • Find an audiobook for your book.
  • Listen to that audiobook while reading along, and don’t stop, even when you don’t understand everything. The audiobook will help push you through, you’ll have read an entire book, and you’ll find that it was downright pleasurable by the end.


Podcasts and radio broadcasts are usually too hard for an intermediate learner. Movies, too, can be frustrating, because you may not understand what’s going on until the very end (if ever!).

Long-form TV series are the way to go. They provide 18+ hours of audio content with a consistent plot line, vocabulary and voice actors, which means that by the time you start feeling comfortable (2-4 hours in), you still have 14+ hours of content. To make those first few hours a bit easier, read episode summaries ahead of time in your target language. You can usually find them on Wikipedia, and they’ll help you follow along while your ears are getting used to spoken content.


Fluency in speech is not the ability to know every word and grammatical formation in a language; it’s the ability to use whatever words and grammar you know to say whatever’s on your mind. When you go to a pharmacy and ask for “That thing you swallow to make your head not have so much pain,” or “The medicine that makes my nose stop dripping water” – THAT is fluency. As soon as you can deftly dance around the words you don’t know, you are effectively fluent in your target language.

This turns out to be a learned skill, and you practice it in only one situation: When you try to say something, you don’t know the words to say it, and you force yourself to say it in your target language anyways. If you want to build fluency as efficiently as possible, put yourself in situations that are challenging, situations in which you don’t know the words you need. And every time that happens, stay in your target language no matter what. If you adhere to that rule whenever you practice speaking, you’ll reach fluency at a steady, brisk pace.

Naturally, you’re going to need practice partners. Depending upon your city, you may find friends, colleagues, private tutors ( or large language practice groups ( for speech practice.

No matter where you are, you can find practice partners on the Internet. is a website designed to put you in touch with a conversation partner or tutor for free (if you’re willing to chat in English for half of the time), or for $4-12/hr (if you don’t want to bother with English). It’s a tremendous and affordable resource.

The more often you speak, the more rapidly you’ll learn. Speech practice pulls together all of the data you’ve crammed into your head and forms it into a cohesive, polished language.

Learning a foreign language is a fluid process; you’re building a lot of different skills that meld into each other. The more vocabulary you learn, the easier it will be to speak about a wide variety of topics. The more you practice speaking, the easier it will be to watch foreign TV and movies. So rather than be strict and methodical about this (“My reading comprehension skills are lacking; I must read 15 books to maximize efficiency!”), just do what you find most enjoyable. If you like writing about your day on Lang-8 and making flashcards out of the corrections, then keep doing that. If you like to chat with your tutor on iTalki, do that.

There’s a very simple way to figure out if you’re spending your time well: if you’re enjoying yourself in your target language, then you’re doing it right. In the end, language learning should be fun. It needs to be fun; you retain information better when you’re enjoying yourself, and the journey to fluency takes too much time to force yourself through using willpower alone. So enjoy yourself, and play around with new ways to think about the world. See you on the other side.



  • My book, Fluent Forever: How to learn any language fast and never forget it, is an in-depth journey into the language learning process, full of tips, guidelines and research into the most efficient methods for learning and retaining foreign languages.
  • My CreativeLive Workshop is 18 hours of language learning insanity in video form. I go through everything I know about the language learning process, with detailed, step-by-step walkthroughs of every computerized and analog tool I recommend.

Related & Recommended Posts:

12 Rules for Learning Foreign Languages in Record Time

How to learn any language in 3 months

Why language classes don’t work: How to Cut Classes and Double Your Learning Rate

How to Learn (But Not Master) Any Language in 1 Hour

Posted on: July 16, 2014.

Please check out Tools of Titans, my new book, which shares the tactics, routines, and habits of billionaires, icons, and world-class performers. It was distilled from more than 10,000 pages of notes, and everything has been vetted and tested in my own life in some fashion. The tips and tricks in Tools of Titans changed my life, and I hope the same for you. Click here for sample chapters, full details, and a Foreword from Arnold Schwarzenegger!

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88 comments on “How to Learn Any Language in Record Time and Never Forget It

  1. Joshua Foer would be proud of the story in the beginning! Strong memories associated with words will make it so much easier to learn a language. Anyone interested in learning their memory techniques (via memory palaces and mnemonics) should check out his book “Moonwalking with Einstein.” It helped me learn Spanish exponentially faster than I did in grade school!


    • I’ve read “Moonwalking with Einstein” and the “The Memory Book” (which is closely related) and I was just wondering what your technique looked like for learning words in foreign languages.

      Was it something like:
      perro looks like pear
      perro means dog
      So you imagine a dog with it’s body caught in a giant pear.
      And then draw the image

      Or did you do something else?


  2. Excellent post Tim and Kyle. Where can we find the 625 most common words translated into (in my case) their Spanish equivalent. The post kind of died without explaining. I had assumed that those were available for the popular languages.


  3. This is very interesting and I definitely want to try it! But in my case I am interested in learning Thai and I have learned quite a few words already but I have no clue how to learn writing (I can’t imagine it would work the way described here?)


  4. Hi Tim,

    Thanks for hosting Gabe. He has been described as a polyglot but he reminds me of Yoda: always teaching, always learning, always doing.


  5. Great article!

    “Russian devushki tend to be 18-22 year old sex objects.”
    That’s where google may mislead you 😉 The term devushka means a young women or a virgin. But in reality when Russians address girls and women of the age of 16-45, they use devushka.

    “Devushka is not a word you’d use to describe your Russian friend’s 3-year-old daughter (That word is ‘devuchka’).”
    It is devushka vs. devochka (not devuchka)


    • Alex, it’s a nice addition, but russian word devushka is rarely matters a virgin, for virgin meaning is used devuchka. Ok, devuchka is spelled with the letter O (девочка), but pronounce as U, if you pronounce it like O, you’ll speak like a yokel or a certain regions’s resident.


      • Dani, I’m sorry but you are wrong. Devochka is spelled with an O, which therefore should be reflected in transliterations. The sound is NOT /u/, but rather the normal reduced /o/ (it’s reduced because stress is on the first syllable, you do know about vowel reductions?). If you pronounce it with an /u/ sound, you will sound like a yokel to me, a native speaker who grew up in Moscow.

        Virginity isn’t strongly connected with either of those words anymore, but more traditionally, a “devushka” would be an unmarried young woman (and therefore a virgin), and a “zhenschina” would be a somewhat older married woman. “Devochka” is reserved for young girls who haven’t fully matured physically.


  6. I really like the detail of this article. I am experiencing some of the lessons as I introduce my baby to French (a language I have never studied or spoken, but I love it). It’s really hard without understanding how the words are actually pronounced. I sound horrible reading them, having learned Spanish, but I’ll follow these steps. Onward to fluency.


  7. Extremely interesting points in here. I really like the approach of using Google Images to help with making words more memorable, and also like the challenging thing in forcing yourself to speak the target language even if you do not feel 100 % comfortable doing so.
    Once again, fun begins when moving out of the comfort zone!


  8. Great tips. However I couldn’t tell in the reading section if you listen to the audio book in English as the link to the audio book doesn’t work. I assume it is as it’s pretty to find audio in say Flemish.


  9. Great article, great tips. I like your take on pronunciation and listening. Most people start learning grammar and rules, but I believe vocabulary is the most important part. Even if your grammars sucks (“me need milk”) people will still understand you, but if you don’t know the world for “milk”, you can say the most prefect sentence but no one will know what you want.

    I’m helping my friend learn English and flashcards have been the most effective method so far. I’m currently learning French via DuoLingo which I love because it also implements listening and speaking into lessons. The site offers great foundation, but as you said, you should develop on your own afterwards based on what you need.


  10. This is an excellent balance of approaches thanks guys!!!! I’ve been trying quite a few things out myself learned from different people and systematising it a simple and fun way and this comes closer than I have for sure. It focuses on the beginning stages which is great! Sooner or later you also need to listen to a lot of native audio and speak a lot.

    The things that I’ve found really useful to complement these methods are:

    1. Reading books that you really really love in your target language (while also listening to the audio). Then copying some your favourite sentences into anki that contain an aspect that is new to you that you want to learn. Then create a cloze deletion for that aspect. Which let’s you actively recall the new thing you’re learning nested in a familiar and cool sentence.

    eg. Side 1: eres una _____ solo de cintura para abajo
    (the space is a cloze deletion)

    Side 2: eres una rebelde solo de cintura para abajo

    This is taken from 1984 and means ‘You’re only a rebel from the waist down!
    Not only do I love this sentence but I love this book, so this enables me to have basic conversations in spanish about something that I love. And something pretty advanced! If you’re not into this kind of literature, use a book that you are into.

    2. Recording small chunks (5 – 30 seconds) of natural native speaker audio that you don’t understand because it’s too fast. Then spending some time repeating the audio until you can separate more of the sentences and get a gist of the meaning. This will help train you to understand natives when they talk to each other. Often really fast!!

    I hope this helps. I really think the do what you find interesting and fun is essential to sticking to something like this!

    Here’s a suggestion that may appeal to the experimenter and explorer in you Tim:

    I second the getting a great language learner (as well as yourself!) on the podcast.
    How about as an experiment getting a couple of guests at the same time to discuss these things with you for example Benny Lewis and Gabriel Wyner to find parallels, break new ground and also differences?

    Or even two experts who operate in different fields but that have crossover to seek the parallels between sports skills acquisition and language acquisition from example.

    Just a thought!

    – Ian O’Brien : )


  11. Kyle – these ideas are brilliant. Memrise uses the same idea by adding images/memes to words. It’s why the word ‘grimper’ (‘to climb’ in French) sticks in my mind because it’s associated with a pic of a grandpa climbing a mountain.

    I’m English and live in Paris. Contrary to belief, simply living in a country doesn’t make you fluent in a language. It still takes work. A lot of it. But in my experience? It’s all about confidence – which is reflected in your point about using the words you know to make yourself understood.

    Awesome article.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. So..sooooo Useful!

    I fly to Korea in 3 months. I have been banging my head against my Grammar Books. Thank you for sharing so much valuable information.

    Can’t wait for Gabriel’s book to be released!

    Thanks again.


  13. I’ve been learning Spanish on my own for about 3 months now and gotten to the point where I felt comfortable enough to start reading a book in Spanish. I followed a lot of the same basic ideas here but using free apps that means I didn’t have to create my own study materials, which I am too lazy to do.

    Start using Duolingo in your target language. This is helpful because you can get some basic sentence structure and grammar and somewhat decent pronunciation. I’ve done 2 lessons a day in Duolingo almost every day since I started. (I think I missed 1 or 2 days) It is a nice app to use because it has a combination of translating from English and translating to english and gets you to think more intuitively.

    Along with this some sort of tool that helps with pronunciation to make sure you get the sounds right helps. I ended up doing the first few lessons of the FSI (Foreign Services Institute) Spanish course so I got some of the important pronunciation down from this.

    Then soon after, add in Memrise and Lingq, both free though the Lingq app isn’t as good as the web version on your computer. Memrise gives you the pre-set images with easy vocab and proper intervals so you remember things better. They have a basics lesson in Spanish that introduces some grammatical structures you might not know yet and then another one for the 675 most common words.

    Then add to memrise with Lingq. Lingq gives you audio that is recorded by native speakers along with text in your target language you can follow along with. Then you can also slowly mark words as known as you go so you can see some progress in this system. This might seem like something that if you start too soon would be impossible but it is actually the opposite. If you start Lingq too late, the early lessons can be boring to get through once you know a lot of the grammar.

    Doing a combination of these three apps, Duolingo, Memrise, and Lingq for learning Spanish I just recently started reading The Alchemist by Paulo Cuelo (though it is a little different because it is Colombian Spanish). With the Kindle e-readers, you can install a Spanish dictionary so you can look up words as you read. This makes it much more interesting than if you had to stop and pull up a separate dictionary.

    I also wanted to say that I am tired of seeing the suggestion to read harry potter in some other language. This is from what I read the worst translation you could possibly read because so many of them were done rushed and are thus really bad. There are plenty of easier books in each language by authors who wrote originally in the target language that someone can find with a little searching online.


  14. Hungarian is pretty difficult to learn, only about ~10M people know it, and with no added benefit of related languages, I never thought that anyone would want learn it, if it wasn’t an absolute must. Quite a pleasant surprise for me, as a Hungarian!:)

    I am currently learning Indonesian from English, already simultaneously using anki flashcards with pronunciation audio, a grammar book, a practical/colloquial textbook, rosetta stone cd and pimsleur audio. Progressing pretty rapidly already, but hoping to up the ante with this guide! Thanks!


  15. Thank you Gabriel and Tim for posting this. I like how methodical it is.

    I found the flashcard vocab learning method particularly effective with Chinese languages since Chinese characters are actually pictures to begin with. Since most of the languages in China (Mandarin, Cantonese, Shanghainese, etc.) use the same writing system, one can simply write the spelling/sound/pinyin on one side, and the character on the other, so you do not need to download any pictures.

    So if you want to learn a language like Cantonese, you write the character/word which you learned from learning Mandarin on one side, and then the Cantonese sound for the word on the other. Of course all this presupposes that you have learned the characters really well in Mandarin first.


  16. ‘Fess up Tim. There is *no* way you wrote the following sentence:

    “I check reports from fulfillment each Monday and monthly reports from the same the first of each month.” (p. 205, “Four Hour Workweek” (revised edition)).

    I have lived in enough countries (9, and counting) to know where this lovable linguistic idiosyncrasy originates. The *only* people who use “the same” as above are Indians. Earnest, breathlessly hardworking, well-educated, upper middle class Indians, probably at about $20/hour.

    C’mon bro. You can tell us…


    • Very well. I challenge you to translate this into perfect Danish, or any alphabet based language of your choice, in 2 months. It is from a book by Christopher Hitchens.

      ” One can only mourn over the dismal and stupid lectures on sexual continence that we might have been spared if this nonsense had been exposed earlier than it was. Augustine was a self-centered fantasist
      and an earth-centered ignoramus: he was guiltily convinced that god cared about his trivial theft from some unimportant pear trees, and quite persuaded—by an analogous solipsism—that the sun revolved around the earth. He also fabricated the mad and cruel idea that the souls of un-baptized children were sent to “limbo.” Who can guess the load of misery that this diseased “theory” has placed on millions of Catholic parents down the years, until
      its shamefaced and only partial revision by the church in our own time?”

      Your clock starts now.


    • Hi Dave! Depends on the language! French should be out in a week, German beta in ~3, Spanish beta in ~5, and I’m planning on having a more detailed timeline for the rest of them once I’ve produced a few of these and get a real sense of the timing. I’ll be handling pre-orders and putting more detailed timelines up at


  17. I am hungarian, and I while I totally see your point, the examples between “ty” and “gy” are kinda just bad quality audio…even I can’t really hear the difference. The difference is a lot stronger and its easier to distiguish.
    However the hungarian pronounciation of “a” and “o” does cause a lot of problem for foreigners.


  18. Hey there! Was an interesting read, I like the methodical approach. But, before getting anything deeper into this, there’s one question: Will the material prepared by Gabriel be suitable for people whose first language is not English? While my English is quite good, I have some hesitations to using it to learn another language…


    • As long as you can understand the content, yeah. It’s about the techniques, rather than your native language. (That, and translations of the book are starting to come out already; I think by May 2015, there will at least be Russian, Italian and Dutch translations.)


  19. Some good ideas there, just a couple points I’m skeptical of:

    – 2-3 months of grammar until you get fluent seems very little, if you are studying around 30 mns each day (even for an “easy” target language). But then again it depends on your definition of fluent and how comfortable you are making mistakes when talking.

    – I don’t understand the need to separate the “pronunciation” phase, the “vocabulary phase” and the “grammar phase”, especially the last two. Why not integrate them, like in the Assimil method for example?


  20. Tim, your readers will find an interesting community of language learners who practice what they are learning using Google Hangouts. If they go to, they can see the languages which have practice sessions currently scheduled. The community on Google+ has over 75,000 members who participate in guided practice sessions or exchange language skills with each other, all for free.


  21. Some great articles in the ‘new scientist’ collection this month on learning to play an instrument which then helps you improve cognitive abilities, including speech, language, memory, attention, IQ and even empathy. Trained musicians are better at discriminating pitch change in made up words similar to those found in mandarin (tonal language). Music training has also been shown to enhance empathy because it fine tunes your ability to recognise emotional nuances in speech. Other articles you might like are on skill flow and memory.


  22. I agree with this because honestly, one cannot be fluent in any language if he himself did not use it in any way as possible to challenge his fluency. Fluency is also a matter of practice, it is more into the familiarity of the language to be really good whatever it may be. This is really an informative article and the book would truly help and inspire everyone.


  23. I’ve set the goal on becoming fluent at Portuguese within the next year, so I will apply these lessons because I’ve been stuck at the intermediate/advanced beginner for a long time.


  24. Hi Tim,
    Is the difference between Tyúk and Gyuk a mere difference between unvoiced and voiced palatal stops? It sounds tricky, but my mother tongue (Spanish) only makes this distinction with bilabial and dental stops, ignoring pairs like labiodental, alveolar or labioalveolar fricatives (most of which are found in English), or other ones like retroflex or alveolo-palatal sibilants found in languages like Mandarin or Polish, so it is no wonder it doesn’t come easy.


  25. Hi , i will try to learn swedish language, thank from your advice! You traveller, Finland is now full lingonberries and mushrooms, free in forest, moust beautiful nature. Did you know Sahaja yoga ? If you dont ? find out, you will never regret, it is free and Joy giving, you try and never will be unhappy, money or not does not matter, Then your Beautiful self will shine even more.
    Yours Mervi,
    Finland 🙂


  26. I am starting to get fascinated by learning languages again. thanks for the resource. here is something I wanted to share, its a chart of all the names of chess pieces for many languages.
    thanks again


  27. This is incredibly helpful, especially the part about the ability to hear new sounds – something I really struggle with. I wish I would have had this when I was learning German a few years ago.


  28. You need to call this something like “The White Paper of the Language Learner”. A great deal of work but it is really helpful. I know when I studied Greek …. almost 20 years ago …. I desperately needed this paper. Come on, one can come to the same conclusions but it will take him few years of his live …


  29. Language Learning: should we treat knowledge of any language as “just in case” skill or “just in time” skill? If we don’t use it we lose it anyway right? And you showed us that you can get fluent enough in any language pretty fast for most situations. Nowadays there are more and more apps to help us to translate and learn fast. Do you think there is a need anymore to invest a lot of time into learning any language? We can just pick up necessary skill when we need it and there are so many helpers: apps, online resources, soon some AI interface will do the translation via app or device. Should we even worry about language skills anymore? We can just learn it for pleasure, have it as a hobby.


  30. Hi Tim and team,

    Thanks for the brilliant post, I am a huge fan of the 4hour-series. I have a few questions on applying the rapid skills acquisition principles to two spheres of life that I am struggling with:

    Broad question – So I love your advice for learning skills you have mastered in the past and can easily follow your roadmap and advice for learning those skills quickly. But, what about skills which probably you haven’t learnt yet or encountered? How can I use your principles to create my own rapid skill acquisition process for a particular skill I want to learn but isn’t there on your blog?

    1. Dancing – I know you’ve mastered a lot of dance forms and won international competitions and dancing is my achilles’ heel when it comes to social gatherings (literally). Any tips on how I accelerate freestyle dancing within 6 months, without joining a weekend dance class? (So essentially my question is how do I use your principles and framework for skill deconstruct and apply it to say freestyle jazz dance to reach a proficient level within 6 months with Minimum Effective Effort). How/Where do I begin my journey?

    2. Academics – I am studying for GMAT and I want to get a 750+ score but without 10,000 hours of study which most students do. How can I use your principles and apply them to studies. Is there a way to score high but with minimum effort (I am asking for the Holy Grail here)?



  31. What is a meant by a “long form TV series”. Is it something with a long overarching plot like Lost? Or does it include shows like the Simpsons? or Friends?


  32. This was helpful, but to be honest was still too much work for me. Here’s what I did instead to learn Spanish (a level 1 language).

    Step 1: For 100 dollars I took a beginner Spanish course that was 5 x 2 hour classes. While taking that class, I would force myself to study for just 1 hour a night. I would study notes from class. I found this helpful to memorize a few hundred words and some phrases. I would write out paragraphs or sentences of things I wanted to know how to say in Spanish and then memorize them fully by repeating them out loud 10-20 times. This helped to memorize several words.

    Step 2. I created a phrase calculator. This was just a simple piece of lined paper folded into 4 quadrants so it opened like a book. On the first page were things like Me, I, You, I like and things like that that were starting points for phrases. On the other pages were verbs separated by what type of verbs they were (IR verbs, ER verbs, AR verbs) this way I knew how to use the rules of the language quite easy, and then the last page had a huge list of words that I knew I’d need to know. I could flip through my calculator and come up with phrases and questions that were grammatically correct. (I did the same for numbers as well).

    Step 3: Tinder. I’m not really one to use Tinder too much, but when a friend showed it to me I realized I could add myself to different locations. So I signed up and added myself to cities like Cartagena, Barcelona, Buenos Aires etc. And I started swiping right. Here was the best part, being a tall light eyed male from an english speaking country I GOT MATCHED A LOT. And with some very attractive women. This made it fun and interesting to try and talk in spanish which further helped my learning. On top of that, every girl had the exact same sort of stuff written on her profile: What she likes to do, what she doesnt like, what shes’ looking for and all written with various slang and in the way that people actually talk. So after reading hundreds of profiles I started to quickly notice the same words and phrases over and over again. Also, when I did have conversations with people, it was almost always small talk and me explaining to them I didn’t know the language but wanted to learn. It was like having the same conversations over and over again so it was easy to memorize how to say certain things. And when I was wrong, the girls thought it was cute and wanted to correct me politely.

    I have been doing this for about 6-7 weeks now and I can carry on full text conversations in Spanish with very few mistakes. Of course, there are times with the person talking to me says a bunch of stuff I don’t understand, but that’s when Google translate comes in handy and I paste it in there, and also use it to help me learn how to say some other advanced things so I can keep the conversation going.

    My 5th and final step to this plan begins in 7 days as I am moving my life to Barcelona to take more classes and to speak Spanish every single day. I don’t feel nervous about it because as I play on Tinder and use Duolingo I very easily understand most common phrases and know I will get by. Oh, and on top of that I’ve already made 3-4 new friends living in Barcelona by using Tinder. They’ve told me great non-touristy attractions to check out, offered to meet with me when I arrive and even helped me find a great apartment in a wicked part of town for way cheaper than I would have paid looking on my own.

    I suggest trying some of my techniques combined with the great list of techniques above and you’ll be on your way in no time!


  33. Great read! Thank you. I’m a native Russian speaker I would just like to point out that the Russian word “devushki” does not mean 18-22 sex objects. “Devushka” means “young woman” and is the polite way of calling someone on the street, for example. “Devushka, you dropped your hat!” In fact, some women will be offended if you call them “woman” = “zhenizhina”, instead of “devushka,” because that would imply she looks old.


  34. I’m thinking about learning Spanish. My husband is from Spain and i want to be able to speak with his family members and of course i NEED to understand what he is talking with friends 🙂 I bought myself a book few years ago, but i’m too lazy to read it and i have no time for that because i have a job and a kid. So i decided that i need a good audiobook to listen in the car while driving to my job. Any recommendations?


    • You can check out the FSI language courses for some good and free audio material, but generally speaking, if you’re “lazy” and “have no time for that”, don’t expect any significant results. Learning a language takes time and effort, and there are no shortcuts.


    • My suggestion would be the Pimsleur CDs. I used all four levels and it really takes you step by step through simple conversations up to more complex ones. It takes you through a lot of the phrases necessary for getting around and having a simple conversation. It won’t be enough on its own but it should get you closer to understanding. Then once you have a base line find other Spanish podcasts like Spanish Obsessed or Notes in Spanish to fill in the gaps. Those will require more effort aside from listening but they will help if you want to get as much as you can from simply audio.


  35. Hey Tim, thank you for this great article full of useful tips and their explanation. I happily use some of the techniques myself, especially the reading tips (Harry Potter), and also pass it to my ESL students, although not all of them are as excited about it as I am. It gave me the much needed inspiration to try some new things and I’m really grateful


  36. I created a business out of thin air that grosses a mil a year, but trying to learn a new language makes me feel stupid. I’m in Thailand right now and am daunted about even trying. I know that’s a piss poor attitude to have about it, but it seems impossible. Thank you for the article.