How to Learn Any Language in 3 Months

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

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543 Replies to “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

  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

  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.

    1. 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

      1. 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

      2. Hello there, he doesn’t say you will become a master in the foreign language. He means you can earn skills very fast and be able to decently communicate and read the press/watch TV/watch movies. From personal experience I can tell you that you need less that 500 words (probably even less than 300) in any language for a decent everyday conversations and stupid small talk. Of course if you are planning to read Goethe in German, you will need more than that, but then who reads Goethe nowadays? Less than 0.000000000000001% of the World’s population… and the majority of people are satisfied to talk about food, drinks, sex, sport, politicians – in this same order if importance. Cheers 🙂

    2. “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

      1. It’s strange that people get angry and mean over every little thing.

        “Dead language.”

        Oh, no, you didn’t. I’m going to get you now, you pathetic frothing atheist.

    1. 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!

  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

  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.

  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?

  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.

  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.

  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 !!

  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.]

  11. Perfect timing. I just started a French-German-Italian (30 min of each) conversation group in NYC and we have our second meeting tonight. I’m going to print this out and bring it!!!

  12. 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)

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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. 😉

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. I love the most common words approach. It definately works. It’s especially helpful for travelers who are going to a country for the short-term and need to understand the locals or get around. This paired with a decent phrasebook make the trip more enjoyable.

  19. http://www.iknow.co.jp

    I stumbled upon this site 3 months ago when I saw a video from Tofugu mentioning it. I’m already having decent broken conversations in Japanese over Skype and hopefully I’ll be pretty able to talk pretty smoothly in 2 more months. Best of all, it’s free!

  20. Tim, great stuff as always. You need your own language books/cd’s/videos etc. Let travel or tech be the subject matter for adherence and put out your own word lists, and materials.

  21. What would you suggest to someone trying to learn (and use) multiple languages over a short period of time? I’m preparing for a trip through 11 different countries over 11 months with about a month in each place. There will be about 7 different languages (besides English) to wrestle with. I have 7 months to prepare before I leave.

    Any tips? Or any resources you’d suggest for dealing with this kind of multiple language acquisition?

    Your articles are the best resources I’ve found for learning languages. Thank you.

  22. Can anyone recommend some effective Russian materials? I’ve just arrived in east ukraine for work on my startup and a “mini-retirement” but the russian course books available here are very awkward. if you can help – spasiba!

  23. Hey Tim,

    Great words. Kim and I used your last language post (as well as your Pimsleur recommendation) to practice our language skills on our mini retirement (and last dreamline goal of 2009) in Rio for the New Years celebrations. It works- even in Portuguese 🙂 Look forward to implementing this one in France for our next mini-retirement.

    Best and Happy New Year

    Rob and Kim

  24. Hi Tim,

    I have a question specifically about Japanese study.

    Should I bother with Kanji, if so, to what degree?

    I’ve passed the JPLT Level 3 test, and I can read perhaps 400 Kanji, since it was an equal part of my Japanese curriculum at uni.

    The next natural step is to work toward the nikyuu, but I’m a little unsure about it as it involves studying a lot of kanji on my own, which I might not have the patience for.

    It would be nice to be able to read and write, but a bigger priority is to be able to converse fluently, especially in business situations.

    Given your 80/20 principal, wouldn’t it be wiser to drop kanji study altogether? On the one hand I realise kanji would help me understand even the spoken the language, on the other, learning kanji I find far more tedious and it would take a longer time to master – but is it essential do you think?

    1. @H Roark,

      I recommend kanji. It’s very difficult to accumulate a large vocab in Japanese with a visual kanji image to associate for “jukugo” and other combinations due to the few phonemes of the language and massive number of homophones.

      So, in short: yes, I would recommend learning to read kanji.

      Good luck!

      Tim

    2. Have you checked out the methods at AllJapaneseAllTheTime.com (AJATT)?

      A book that is highly recommended on that site, and one that many have had success with, including myself, is ‘Remebering The Kanji’ by James Heisig. Combine the techniques from that book with an SRS, and you can easily learn them a lot faster than traditional methods. Many people learn the 2042 in the book in less than a year — it all depends on how consistent you are with your studies.

      I only knew about 100 or 200 from college, but with this book, I now know 1040.

  25. The Vis-ed approach is great for certain languages– the Hebrew ones are terrific since each card gives gives adjective, noun, adverb, and verb variants for a particular root. The Korean ones, however, are full of archaic, obscure, and otherwise infrequently-used vocabulary–and the phonetic transliterations into Latin letters does not match the actual pronunciation of the word.

    I did French in junior high and high school, majored in Russian in college, did an intensive Hebrew language program in Israel for seven months, and have lived in Korea for almost five years. At some point or another, I have had conversational fluency in each (having gotten rather rusty in each since then).

    Korean is BY FAR the hardest of them all: it has all the nuance of Chinese pronunciation combined with the sentence structure of Japanese. That’s why I’m studying it– if I can get over that hump, I can do anything. If anyone wants tips on studying Korean, drop me a line.

    1. I am trying to learn Korean because that is where my boyfriend is from and if I don’t speak it then I can’t meet his parents. I just got out of collage and can’t afford to take classes are there any materials/books/guides that are really useful?

      Thanks in advance!

  26. I live in Taiwan and when I got here my first priority was learning how to read and say food and drink items. I spoke to another guy who learned how to give directions to taxi drivers as his first priority.

    Second to that, as I teach yoga I learned more chinese from yoga books written in chinese (that had been translated from english and I translated back to english to figure out the terminology that I needed).

    I also study tai ji and that was another source of language learning matierial.

    One other thing that helped me is that I am interested in chinese calligraphy and so learning to write the characters also helped me to recognize them easier.

  27. Hi Tim!

    Quick Question:

    Im Trying to be a spanish speaking rep this june. now i have the complete set both Michel Thomas and Pimsleur (w/c u ‘voted’ on the comment in the other article).

    1. Now which should I start first? MT –> Pims or the other way around?

    2. Any ‘supplemental’ things / materials / doings? eg. movies to watch things to tweak, forums to join, in a 80/20 fashion?

    Hoping for your response thanks

    Racann

    Manila, Philippines

  28. Hey Tim, Great blog. Good to hear that you enjoyed Nikko. I live in Utsunomiya, about 45 minutes from Nikko. There are many cool places to see and things to do around here.

    If you’re still in Japan, let’s hook up and I’ll show you the local sites.

  29. Thank you! I love this! And I really need it for my traveling!

    Thanks again!

    ps. Any updates on your show? More episodes hopefully?!?!

  30. Where can we find information about the 100 most common written and spoken words in languages other than English, say Spanish or German?

    Thanks so much!

  31. Great! I’ve been waiting for more on this subject for quite a while. I used your previous posts in years past to help me tackle some of the european languages while living in Berlin. I can’t wait for more.

  32. Hi Tim,

    This is definitely useful for people who are considering taking up a 2nd language. Learning a new language can be grueling and somehow you just make it look so easy. Kudos to you.

    Cheers

    Vincent

    Personal Development Blogger

  33. Tim,

    What are your feelings on interactive language learning programs? The Rosetta Stone set for example. I had a friend recommend it for spanish, but I’m not sure if I should spend the money on it based on what you cover. Let me know if you can! Thanks

  34. Very interesting stuff. I learned Spanish in about 3 months but it has taken me more than 5 months to get anywhere with mandarin. The only significant difference that I can see in the experience was the fact that when I learned Spanish I was deeply interested in the content and immersed myself in it. As I’ve been learning mandarin I’ve dealt with topics that hold no interest. Time to change my tactics.

    On a side note, my boss recently tasked me with a program to teach several hundred native mandarin speakers English so that we can do business in China in English. Any recommendations? I’ve got a plan but am always open for ways to improve it.

    1. I’m living in Shanghai/China since 2 years, of which I spent one year at university studying Chinese. I met one dude who “mastered” Chinese in 6 months. Basically he lived in a neighborhood with no english speakers and studied ALL day (which means 6+ hours textbook and then go out and talk talk talk talk talk) .

      Other than that usually after 2 years of daily study you can have simple conversations in Chinese language. Not talking about serious stuff, but simple chit chat.

      On the other hand usually a Chinese person can learn to speak basic English in 3 months, I mean normal, useful conversation. If you want to do business in China, however, you better connect with people who know this country and its people a bit, or you’ll be unpleasantly surprised, a common joke goes like this:

      “How do you become a millionaire in China? You arrive as a billionaire”.

  35. Relevancy of the material is vital to adherence. As English speakers in Germany my kids don’t learn the same words and phrases that are important to me. They want to understand the rules of the neighbourhood games and one of their first words was “spiel” which is play in English.

  36. I wish i could find a list of the most common SPOKEN words in japanese…

    I’ve found some older written lists, and sites like iknow seem to use the same lists… but they seem to be based on writing… and to be a bit out of date.

    They often feature words like “typewriter”, and also seem to be based mostly on newspaper articles, as political and finance terms seem to come up way too often…

    I wonder if there is some software to analyse a website and make a list of words by frequency??

  37. Hi All!

    Thanks for the great comments and contributions. A few things:

    1) There is a great resource about word frequency lists here: http://www.lextutor.ca/research/ Thanks, Rene!

    2) I do not recommend Rosetta Stone or similar “we’ll teach you to think in a language instead of just speak it” and “we’ll teach you to learn like a child does” systems.

    Most cognitive neuroscientists who do semantic/phonetic mapping will agree the former is impossible, and learning languages like a child is slower than learning like an adult. If you read the research of Hakuta or look at anecdotal evidence like mine, adults can learn much, much faster than children by using their native language for associations.

    Using “learn like a child” is a great excuse for a company to produce materials with the same images for every language and minimal tweaking of translation, which = lower cost of production. It’s designed to be simple to produce en masse, not for best results.

    Here’s the thing, though: any system you stick with is better than a fantastic system you don’t stick with. If you absolutely love Rosetta Stone and enjoy the CDs, you will eventually learn the language. For me, and many I suspect, “eventually” isn’t good enough. I’m happy to do some hard work to get really good really quickly.

    Just my two cents!

    Pura vida,

    Tim

    1. Hello Tim,

      My brother needs to learn basic English in one month and not sure what method is more effective for him right now given that are many websites offers. I saw the “Pimsleur Approach” but it has other languages but English. Any recommendations?

      Thank you very much.

      rita

  38. @H Roark and anyone else learning Japanese.

    If you’re serious about learning Japanese for business purposes or mastery, unfortunately you’d also better be serious about learning Kanji. I bit the bullet and learned all 1945 of the Joyo Kanji and then some when I was studying for 1kyu, and it was absolutely worth it.

    Kanji really start to pay dividends when you move on to more advanced vocabulary. The more words you learn, the more you start to get amassed in a sea of homonyms. And before you know it, the language just dissolves into a blurb of same-soundiness in your head. Since Kanji retain actual meaning, it becomes much easier to distinguish which word it is.

    Another great benefit of learning Kanji is that you can often accurately guess what words you’ve never heard before mean, or spot read new words in print.

    That said, there is an 80/20 way to go about learning Kanji. The standard rote method of memorizing each character individually stroke for stroke is not it. I highly recommend the “Remembering the Kanji” series by James Heisig for a systematic approach to learning to read and write kanji that takes advantage of common radicals.

  39. @Tim

    Funny, in my own language learning I was always frustrated that I was force fed English transliteration as a method of learning grammar and new words. I often found it easier to just think in terms of the native grammar. In my own mind I conceive of language as a serious of modular blocks that connect to each other to create meaning.

    Once you figure out something like Japanese uses SOV word order, it seems like a gigantic step backwards and a whole lot of extra work to start with an English sentence as reference and transliterate it into Japanese. That said, for learning new or advanced grammatical structures, using English as a reference can be helpful, but I feel should be discarded as quickly as possible once you’ve properly learned to use the new grammar. It’s also useful sometimes when you just can’t quite figure out how to say what you want to say.

    In my purely anecdotal experience, what I’ve consistently observed over and over again in native Japanese and Korean speakers learning English (and those speakers learning each other’s languages for that matter), is that the biggest barrier to sounding natural is failure to properly learn and internalize grammar. Starting from very basic word order, not even advanced grammar. What these speakers wind up saying is clearly just a word-for-word transliteration of the sentence in their native language that doesn’t quite survive translation.

    I love language learning so much I could go on about it ALL DAY.. maybe even all week.. but I’ll stop here.

  40. Thanks for all your posts on language learning, they are proving very encouraging for my situation: I’m Icelandic and my Japanese fiancée will move here in the summer and start studying Icelandic.

    She is a bit worried (and so am I) because the sentence structure is vastly different from Japanese, there are 4 (dreaded) noun cases, and nouns can be masculine/feminine/neuter which affects the adjectives. I’m hoping we will be able to use the techniques you have described to help her reach fluency quickly, but secretly I worry considerably about the blasted grammar. Do you have any suggestions for our particular case?

  41. One of the things I do when I learn a language, is doing research about the country in which it’s spoken, or the people who speak it if they happen not to have a country. It’s amazing how small details can help me connect bits of linguistic rules.

    Also, I always try to do languages exchange with people speaking the language I learn, and learning the language I speak. However, that’s not always easy.

    Nice video, Tim. Off-topic though, are you losing hair??

    Sorry, couldn’t help it! 🙂

  42. Hi Tim,

    Thanks for your post. Can you recommend any specifc programs or materials for Japanese, from which we can find one we love?

    I’m using Pimsleur and for the first time ever, learning fairly effortlessly and easily.

    However… I’m always open to even better ways if you have them.

    Thanks so much,

    Michael

  43. Hi there Tim,

    my nname is Kei

    I am enjoying your articles here in Tokyo

    and I often see that you are visiting Japan…

    If you have sometime next time,

    why dont you stop over to my restaurant in Tokyo

    would be honored to serve you,

    offcourse if you like Turkish food!

    Please do contact me if you are to come to the restaurant.

    Thanks for the vibe always

    regards

    Kei

  44. Great Post Tim,

    You keep on impressing me; I love your style of accomplishing anything with a more time efficient system; you seem to be able to accomplish anything; I am so impressed and have been using your principles in my lifes mission of giving anyone and everyone a simple proven system to not only get the best body of their adult life; but lifestyle and life;

    So that they can be fully engaged and reach their true potential in all the major areas of their life with the most time efficient, results orientated program on the planet.

    I love to do the same as you; please keep the vision of the better school systems; I would love to see a post on that topic to start to round up your team that may be able to help you.

    Having two young daughters of my home; and mentoring hundreds of kids in the Chicagoland area; and seeing what is going on throuogh out the country with people going $100,000 in debt for a degree then trying to go out and get a “JOB”, is heart breaking;

    Lets do it; I can’t wait to see your next post / publication on fitness / fatloss.

    Keep up the great work; You have won me over as a fan, Tim.

    Darin L. Steen (the Chicago Kid)

  45. Great post.

    Quick question to anyone reading:

    Do you know of any Dictionary series like English – German, with a 2000 word limit?

    From what I gather from this, 2000 words is the most effective number of vocabulary to learn http://www.lextutor.ca/research/ for a given language, assuming that a dictionary limits itself to the most frequently used words.

    I am quite good at what other people would consider boring repetitions, so my most effective method would be learning 2000 words and grammar to ‘master’ a language.

  46. Joey,

    You ROCK!!! your flashcards are awesome, I was using cumbersome paper flashcards before.

    I’ll be studying them from now on as user nate_ch

    Thanks again Tim for sparking up more inspiration!

    Nate

  47. Excellent points about why learners should choose the subject matter.

    I’ve found that instant translation tools, like Loqu8 iCE (Chinese-English) work very well. By picking a subject matter, I browse websites and documents that are improtant to me. Unliked “canned” language programs, this immersion method lets me focus on learning what’s important to me. Personal motivation goes a long way towards adherence and efficiency.

  48. Hey Tim,

    Great content. It is important to remember that learning a language when you are a adult should not take years of theorical studies.

    I’m currently learning German in Berlin after leaving Paris. I’ve taken a 3 months course and my objective is simple : being fluent in everyday life.

    To reach this goal i have to learn numbers, common verbs and words and some rules.

    Quite simple in fact but challenging anyway 🙂

    It makes me smile because all the people who studied German for 8 or 10 years at school say that they can’t say anything in German.

    It’s like comparing orange and apple. Time in school isn’t time you choose to spend.

    Pura Vida !

  49. I speak 9 languages fluently and since Tim’s first post on language learning have learned another, Russian, well enough to understand political discussions on the radio, and to read and listen to literature.

    I totally agree with many of the points in this post of Tim’s.

    Efficiency: The greater the efficiency, the greater the intensity of the learning experience. Massive listening, reading and word review is the most efficient way to learn. Classes, grammar explanations, Rosetta Stone, and even having conversations before you have much of the language, is not efficient.

    The classroom is a low intensity language learning environment.

    Effectiveness: Which I understood to mean focusing on important things first. To me this applies mostly to making sure that the content you are learning from is interesting and meaningful. I would not worry too much about prioritizing words and structures to learn. The brain will figure that out, and shelve the odd low priority word that pops up. The point is that if you want fluency you need a lot of words, a lot, and you need a lot of input.

    Adherency: Absolutely important. It is best to stay with interesting content and you will learn, because you will be motivated to continue listening and reading. You cannot learn from boring content. I agree wholeheartedly with Tim. Content that is artificially built around “easy words” is only useful at the very beginning, and soon loses interest for the learner.

    This article of Tim’s is very useful. If his previous one about mastering a language in one hour served more to attract the attention of people to the opportunities of learning languages, this article offers more concrete advice for the long haul.

    I would caution people about the 3 months. I am a good language learner. I have been studying Russian for over 2 years, and I have a ways to go yet. But it does not matter, I enjoy the process. That is the most important thing.

    1. I’m attempting to learn Russian while going to college at University of North Florida. The Michel Thomas and Pimsleur approach appear to be the most interesting. What advice can you offer, as a linguist who has spent 2 years with this language, to learning to read and understanding Russian. Thank you for any advice you can offer and hopefully you can assist me with any curve balls you wish you had known when you started.

      1. Actually, it would not be very helpful to translate the English word list for use in other languages. Because language is so culturally bound, each language will have a different word frequency list. For example, in some languages, there is no translation for the word “the” because articles are not used. In other languages, the word “the” has several different words based on case, number, gender, etc. So… if you are learning English as a second or foreign language, then by all means make use of the list of most common words in English. It will not be so helpful for learning other languages.

      2. As an experiment, I compared a list of the 100 words most frequently appearing in the Yiddish language Forverts newspaper (compiled over a three year period) with a list translated into Yiddish from Tim’s list of the 100 most frequently written English words, using the Google translate engine. Here are the results:

        Shared words: 57

        Of the shared words, 46 were unique.

        Of the shared words, seven appeared twice.

        Of the shared words, two appeared three times.

        Most remarkable, of the shared words, three appeared in the exact same position of frequency: positions 1, 27 and 36

        Unshared words: 44

        Both lists were based on written frequency. However, without knowing the source of Tim’s list, I don’t know if a newspaper as the only source of the Forvert’s list is as balanced as the English list provided by Tim. At the same time, words like “oil” in Tim’s list makes me wonder about the source of his list.

        Another important consideration is that both Modern English and Yiddish have a common ancestor in Middle German. This shared origin may help to explain some of the high proportion of shared words. However, when faced with less commonly used languages, such as Yiddish, finding a list of frequently used words, even when compiled from a mechanically translated English frequency list, may not be the worst idea for self-learners.

      3. Continuing my analysis of the lists recommended by Tim, I compared his 100 Most Common Spoken Words in English list with his 100 Most Common Written Words in English list, and this is what I found:

        Shared words: 55

        Unshared words: 44

        (This totals 99, I know. The written list shows the word “one” twice. It is a shared word of the two lists and so I removed the duplicate from the total. Otherwise, the shared words would total 56.)

        Interesting that it is so close to the earlier ratio of Yiddish to English shared frequency words.

        Because I don’t have a corresponding authoritative source for the top 100 spoken Yiddish words, I compared the results of the above comparison of Tim’s list with the shared results of my earlier comparison of written Yiddish and English. Here are those results:

        From a total of 57 words (the total shared between Tim’s top 100 Written Words in English and the top 100 Written Words in the Yiddish newspaper Forverts):

        Shared words: 36

        Unshared words: 21

        No duplicates

        I am making these comparisons out of curiosity and I think Kiki is right to be cautionary about generating these frequency lists from mechanically translated English alone. As a teacher of Yiddish as a second language, I have never warmed to mechanical translation. The idiomatic and collocated phrases of language give richness and meaning more easily finessed by people than software programs at present. Also, idioms and collocations have never been sufficiently documented for the number of languages people are interested in learning. Thus, immersion within the native country of a language remains the fall back recommendation for rapid successful acquisition for committed learners such as Tim. This doesn’t solve the larger problem, though, of second language acquisition for students before adulthood, which is a far more complex logistical and cultural problem in the States. But based on this initial comparison of lists, mechanical translation of English frequency may have some value for language learning if approached knowledgably regarding its limitations.

  50. I challenge any reader to summarize Tim’s 3-4 language posts. Now that you were able to pick Tim’s brain on language hacking, what practical advice would you give to your friends?

    Could it be something simple as “study a language not in class but as you apply it”?

    Tim, your writing style seems great for getting applause, but it clutters your message. Listen to yourself – quote:

    “Principles of cognitive neuroscience and time management can be applied to attain […]”.

    ###

    Fair enough, F. The first version of this was written about two years ago, long before I adopted a more comfortable tone. The next will be more conversational.

    Tim

  51. I totally agree that learning the Japanese language without learning kanji alongside your vocab will hamstring you later in your studies. It is also a cultural thing. Many Japanese will give the explanation for homonyms as they have different kanji, which makes perfect sense to a Japanese, but is frustrating to NJ who can’t write.

    Here again, Tim is right on. Learning the basics of kanji, the radicals, and the reasons for them will go a long way than rote memorization methods of the 70s.

  52. This is great! Thanks everybody!!

    Still would like to know Tim what you recommend then as the best materials for learning Spanish (I had been told Rosetta Stone as well). Or would you just say get the word list and learn some basic grammar and practice? Wanna get that materials thing right and then go for it. I want to get to proficiency at the ability to teach in Spanish.

  53. Yet another knowledge-boosting post. Thanks Tim!

    Sorry to ask what a totally unrelated question, but something has been bothering me for a long time and I was wondering if you might be able to help.

    I recently quit my job at a fairly secure financial firm (yes, I did just put the words secure and financial together) because I realized that it was not meant for me. I now have my own website that presents eco-innovations and tips on how to recycle stuff creatively. It is my dream to be able to live off of my writing and I love talking to people about it…with strangers. My problem is that I’ve been finding it very hard to communicate these ideas with the friends I have grown up with and love very much. Maybe it is an inevitable part of growing up, but my interests just aren’t the same as the other 26 year old girls and guys in my group. I feel at times that when I’m trying to discuss what makes me happy (green practices, social media or what I think will be a revolution in advertising and the way that we relate to one another), people take it as preachy or uninteresting. Some people have told me to find new friends, but I feel the issue is within myself, and that I can somehow make the change I want to see happen. Any thoughts?

  54. Fantastic article. I’d like to add two things:

    First, this advice applies to every skill, not just language. You cannot overestimate the importance of “Priority, Interest, and Process.” I’ll be bookmarking this article as inspiration for any new skill I want to acquire.

    Second, as someone who speaks four languages (with varying degrees of fluency) I’ll say that the best, and in my opinion the only, way to learn a new language is move to a country where you will be forced to learn. It took me four years of high school to learn Spanish because I was in the US. It took me two months to become just as fluent in Italian when I was living it Italy. And I didn’t even take a language class when I was there. (And I would have never learned Hungarian if I hadn’t lived in Budapest!)

    When living in a foreign country you will have the Priority (otherwise you won’t be able to buy lunch). And finding the Interest will be easier because you can easily seek out your Italian-speaking judo schools or whatever.

  55. @Ewan Sinclair: mnemosyne is an option for spaced recall. I personally have used vistor’s cards (essentially blank business cards) in a more manual system. Something I picked up from Goethe Institut tips was colour-coding gender on the cards (blue = masc, red = fem, green = neut; black for verbs, etc). This worked well for knocking gender into my subconscience – I found I started to visualise the nouns as different colours when writing. When I was playing around with ancient greek I extended this to using colour with tense for memorising the basic forms of verbs.

    A second tip that seemed to push me over a bit of a plateau in my learning German (which is mainly for reading novels – travel doesn’t really interest me that much) was switching all the music I listened to to music in German – there are some great bands like Rosenstolz, Klee, Juli and Wir sind Helden – and so creating something a bit closer to an immersion environment. In three years of studying mainly on my own I have gone from basically scratch to having just read my second German novel (Treffen sic zwei by Iris Hanika).

    Many thanks for the word lists (and the commenters who pointed out where to get them).

  56. Tim,

    Glad to see you considered my comment! Even though I think you got it, allow me to clarify. See this as constructive criticism from a reader who is really interested in what you write and eager to apply it – but who finds that an overabundance of 1. buzzwords and 2. abstract statements isn’t helpful and often even hinders proper understanding just when you got to an extremely interesting part. Think of a soccer game broadcast on TV; just as someone is about to score, electricity falls out. That’s exactly the issue I repeatedly have had when reading your blogs or listening to one of your interviews. Still, they’re worth it! 🙂

    Keep up the good work!

    Frederik

  57. Hey Frederik, (aka “F”)

    Tim’s opening statement in this blog makes sense, maybe it’s complicated to you and I get that. We all have various learning styles, it happens.

    Let me make it simple for you,

    A + B = C

    Principles of cognitive neuroscience (applies to understanding memory and language use) + time management (application of Tim’s techniques) = conversational fluency within 1-3 months.

    The rest of Tim’s post explains how this can be achieved by the application of certain techniques.

    Also, to answer your question, I would tell my friends to apply effectiveness, adherence, and efficiency to create a realistic learning model for a new language. I would also advise them to incorporate the 80/20 principle (apply 20 percent of activities which lead to 80 percent results). The trick is to find success with a set of proven fundamental models to get the most out of our creativity. And that is exactly what Tim has demonstrated. Great job Tim!

  58. Hi Tim,

    I have always struggled with foreign languages but this post give me a renewed motivation to finally give it another stab.

    As ever your posts are excellent and a cut above the rest.

    Cheers

    Andy

  59. Great article with great comments.

    Some additional resources: I found the 2000 most frequent words (in the correct order :)) from the Brown Corpus googling for brown corpus wfk2. Some other word lists (movie and TV scripts, the British National Corpus, Project Gutenberg, etc) for English and other languages can be found in or reached from Wictionary’s “Frequency lists” article (linked to my name.)

    These lists are also good for testing purposes. I remember how surprised I was when I could only find one or two unknown words in the first 5000 most frequent English words 🙂

  60. Hey Tim,

    So glad you did another post about learning languages.

    The fact that you spoke Japanese on your pilot (and made absolutely NO reference to your own linguistic abilities) was deeply cool.

    Well played.

    More on language learning! Write another book or something . . . .

  61. hey all

    first of all thanks for great posts.

    One idea came to me while reading this post and its comments: what if we collect 600-700 hundred most frequent words and combine learning them by rosetta stone method? I used to learn 20-30 words a day using Rosetta, and those 600 will be devoured easily…

    Second, last year I’ve spoken with Lingua Center Professor in Moscow, and he said that 70% of word usage is 658 words (I guess russian words, I didn’t ask). With those properly learned words and basic grammar one can do everything in different country but teach…

    Third, I’ve compared my lists of 600 hundred words in English and Spanish – they were very close, but different. Using method how to define most frequent words, it will be useful to have it for every language…

    Thanks All and Tim,

    Vadim

  62. Hey Tim,

    I’m having a problem with the effectiveness step— deciding what I want to learn. I’ve been studying Mandarin for a while now, and I’m still working on my conversational fluency. I have also recently started learning Japanese. I’ve learned the Hiragana, and a little vocab.

    I’m at the point where I want to become fully conversationally fluent in Chinese, so I want to learn the Chinese characters I know a couple hundred, but I’m nowhere near literacy. I know that Heisig’s books are very effective and I have the choice now to learn traditional hanzi or simplified.

    I currently use simplified characters when chatting with friends, because I hang out with mostly Chinese Mainlanders, but I know that Kanji and traditional hanzi are written just about the same. I eventually want to master conversational fluency in Japanese as well, so I’m wondering whether I should purchase the book “Remembering the Simplified Hanzi” or “Remembering the Traditional Hanzi”. I plan to move to Mainland China (probably for a year) at the end of this year, so simplified hanzi seem to be most immediately practical for me, but I’ve heard arguments for both.

    What’s your take on the issue? Thanks a lot!

    Nathan

  63. Outstanding! I use similar methods in teaching at North Carolina Central University. One of my courses is Statistics and I use many non-traditional techniques to inspire and capture my students attention (this led me to author a non-traditional Stat book to aid in student learning and comprehension). I have found however, that collaboration is the greatest teaching method. Similar to your judo experiences, I dare to say that the collaboration between you and your Japanese colleagues greatly aided in your level of interest, intensity to learn, motivation, will to compete, and coherence of the material. If you add this factor (one of interpersonal interaction and collaboration to your 3 initial components) I believe that you will find that your instructional methodology is even more effective.

    Great Article! (I love the one on “getting back up” post as well and plan to share it with all of my grad and undergrad students)

    Please continue doing what you do. Take care and be blessed!

    With Greatest Respect and Warmest Regards.

    James

  64. Thanks Kerry, I’ll definitely try those out. Also Routledge publish frequency order dictionaries in a couple of languages, and I think they’re expanding their list this year.

  65. “Word List Expert” is a excellent software for make lists! Works in all alphabetical language. Count frequency of word in any given text. the list can be widelly configurated and export result list for Excel, clipboard or text file.

    1. @Fabio,

      Very cool recommendation. To repeat — software for creating word frequency lists:

      “Word List Expert” is a excellent software for make lists! Works in all alphabetical language. Count frequency of word in any given text. the list can be widelly configurated and export result list for Excel, clipboard or text file.”

      Tim

  66. What I wrote in kanji that your site didn’t like very much:

    chotto senmontekina nihongo wo shaberaretemo, nihongo ga wakaru wake deha nai dato omoimasu. sono jyoukyou kara sukoshidemo hanaretara, chittomo yakuni tachimasen. hontouni nihongo wo naraitakattara, ganbattekudasai.

  67. I listened to one of your videos. You discussed Public School System and requested contacts. I am highly interested in what you would plan. I work in schools as a speech-language pathologist. I love reform and change… So I am interested learning more about your ideas. blessings.

  68. Nathan,

    I’ve had similar problems in the past so i hope you don’t mind my 2 cents. If you will be spending all of your time in mainland i’d stick with simplified. Master simplified and learning traditional and kanji will be so much easier. The more characters you learn the easier it is to learn additional characters. The tricky problem with learning Chinese and Japanese is making sure you correctly pronounce the character using the right language. You might find yourself reading a Japanese text and every time you see a character you pronounce the Mandarin instead of Japanese. This can make reading very interesting!

    Good luck

  69. @ branden

    Kak dala!

    A friend of mine gave me a book called “DERMO! The Real Russian Tolstoy Never Used” (ISBNs 0452277450 & 978-0452277458) I would give you the link but I think Tim frowns on that. You’ll find it on Amazon with the LOOK INSIDE! feature..and maybe some places in Ukraine.

    The book will not make you fluent in Russian, it contains LOTS of nasty words, but also contains lots of handy phrases that real people use in Russia, not just text book stuff, it certainly is not “Russian for entrepreneurs”!

    It has Cyrillic and Latin spellings of words. It may help you out with some simple stuff quickly.

  70. Great article Tim,

    There has been a few mentions in the comments about the language teacher Michel Thomas. I seem to remember from some of your previous articles that you also recommended him as a good resource for language learning. Is that still the case or do you solely prefer this new method now?

  71. Great post, although it sounds like some rote memorization which is not as fun as some other ways.

    Just throwing this out there, I’m planning a mini-retirement to South America (exact destination still undecided) for Jan ’10. Is anybody else in the same ballpark? Please email me if you are, it’s edwardkbartlett at gmail.

  72. Great advice… missing.

    To summarise.

    1) Use a good course

    2) Use material you’re interested in

    3) Use a good course

    Sadly no practical advice on choosing a good course.

    Plus of course number 2 is only a half-answer. It can sometimes be incredibly frustrating being interested in something but not quite understanding it.

  73. As someone who had to learn a foreign language (Spanish) to survive in my occupation overseas, I wished I would have had this post 10 years ago. I eventually became fluent but not without wasting hundreds of dollars on programs, tapes, worthless “instant” programs, etc. I eventually stumbled onto my own “system” very similar to Tim’s.

    Lessons learned from my personal experience:

    –learning like a child is much too slow. It’s easier to associate new foreign words with my existing English vocabulary. This also provides a future benefit: You will be able to translate between the two languages faster and more accurately. My wife is fluent in both languages and grew up speaking both of them in the home. She never had to sit down and learn that “galleta”=”cookie” or “cama”=”bed”, she just knew them independently. As a result, she is a slower translator than I (although she speaks each language with native fluency and Spanish better than I).

    –Don’t spend a dime on tapes/CD’s unless there is absolutely no one around that speaks your target language. They are only good for getting the accent right, not for LEARNING the language. A dictionary (or word lists–to include a list of verbs), and a good phrasebook to start, is all you need. Determine common phrases that you can plug in other verbs and nouns into to communicate different ideas. I believe this is similar to what Tim explains in his Judo vocab example.

    –Don’t learn ABOUT the language, learn THE language. I think this is the biggest problem with current language programs out there. And the reason someone can take 2 years of high school Spanish, get A’s in it, and not be able to successfully conduct a simple business transaction in the target language. Is it REALLY important to know indicative, demonstrative, past participle, and other grammatical terms as they relate to the target language? If you think they are, ask yourself why a fluent, English native-speaker, who reads, speaks and writes intelligently will get so many questions wrong on a typical English grammar test. Learn THE language, not ABOUT the language.

    –Most important key to learning a language that overrides all of the tapes, books, classes, etc…….You have to be willing to TRY. Just speak. You WILL make mistakes. But the faster you make them, the faster you learn. Thinking you’ve learned it in your head but never trying to communicate won’t work. Leave those inhibitions at home.

    Tim, muchisimas gracias por todo! Estamos muy agradecidos!

  74. My obsession for the past 12 years has been becoming fluent in a multitude of languages, and it really is hard finding good insight on this topic. I find that most people are turned off to the idea of language learning based on past experiences during high school or college language classes.

    Your post hit this topic perfectly.

  75. It’s cliche to say where there’s a will there’s a way, but I’m a fan of the compelling why … and as you put it, the compelling ROI.

    I’m also a fan of expert techniques that get exponential results. I value time.

    When it comes to any sort of knowledge work, I’ve seen the right techniques produce ridiculous results many orders of magnitude greater over lesser techniques. That’s why I’m always on the prowl for patterns and practices for skilled living.

  76. Tim,

    Your take on language learning really hits home for me. In High School I struggled like mad to just squeeze out a passing grade in French. Although I’m not currently looking to rekindle my French, your take makes a lot of sense as to why I couldn’t grasp it.

  77. From an article linked to by my name, which verifies my experience of the effect of having pop music, in the language I am learning, constantly playing in the background:

    Dr Sulzberger [of Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand] has found that the best way to learn a language is through frequent exposure to its sound patterns—even if you haven’t a clue what it all means.

    “However crazy it might sound, just listening to the language, even though you don’t understand it, is critical. A lot of language teachers may not accept that,” he says.

    “Our ability to learn new words is directly related to how often we have been exposed to the particular combinations of the sounds which make up the words. If you want to learn Spanish, for example, frequently listening to a Spanish language radio station on the internet will dramatically boost your ability to pick up the language and learn new words.”

    Dr Sulzberger’s research challenges existing language learning theory. His main hypothesis is that simply listening to a new language sets up the structures in the brain required to learn the words.

    “Neural tissue required to learn and understand a new language will develop automatically from simple exposure to the language—which is how babies learn their first language,” Dr Sulzberger says.

    He was prompted to undertake the research after spending seven years teaching Russian to New Zealand students and observing drop-out patterns.

    “I was very conscious of the huge difficulties students have when they tackle another language, especially at the beginning. Many drop out because they feel they are not making progress.”

    Dr Sulzberger says he was interested in what makes it so difficult to learn foreign words when we are constantly learning new ones in our native language. He found the answer in the way the brain develops neural structures when hearing new combinations of sounds.

    Read the whole article.

  78. Tim, My husband and I were inspired by 4HWW – enough to finally start taking some action. As a matter of fact, we just recently launched our blog which will chronicle our journey as we redesign our lifestyle. We’ve been exploring some possible ways to earn a living “on our own terms” so we can quit our 40-hr-week jobs. One of the ideas we’ve tossed around is providing multi-language translation services. We have a relative who is doing this with good success. The information in your post is great stuff! I especially like the suggestion of reading material in an interesting subject matter to learn the language. Seems so obvious now! I once learned American Sign Language to communicate with a co-worker. But, once I quit working with him I quickly forgot most of what I had learned. What’s a good way to increase retention if you don’t use the language(s) on a regular basis? Thanks again.

  79. Hi Tim,

    I made the decision to take a sabbatical and used your recommendations as a source to explore my options. I will head towards Central America and will pick up volunteer work along the way. Let me know when the opportunity strikes to volunteer with you or contribute in some way to build a school overseas.

  80. This concept will work well in my music class. Musicians must be able to sight read well on the band stand. They rarely get the chance to see the music before the gig. Therefore if I concentrate on teaching my students the most common used rhythms in music, I’ve produced some fantastic sight readers who can cover 90% of the gigs available.

    Similarly to language, there is a point at which one can study obscure rhythms that will rarely be seen on a page of music.

  81. I’m a little confused on your method here. Let’s say I’m learning Chinese. I’ve got my Chinese newspapers out. How do I pick up grammatical structures from these direct sources? It seems like you need some kind of textbook intermediary to learn the grammar before you could read anything.

  82. Hi Tim,

    Thanks for another very interesting post!

    I’m wondering, though, specifically about becoming conversationally fluent in Japanese. I’ve been studying the language for three years, both in small classroom settings and with a private tutor, but I’m still not even close to the 95% comprehension rate you cite as possible in three months.

    I’ve read all your language posts, and I understand the 80/20 rule, but there are just so many types of grammatical structures and vocabularies in Japanese. For example, even after I’ve mastered the plain form, Japanese people often instead communicate in keigo, which is completely different, so how could I hope for a 95% comprehension rate of all conversation in only three months?

    Am I missing something? Because even if I learn the 100 most common words, 95% comprehension still seems like a daunting goal. I don’t doubt you, because you seem to know a lot about this stuff, but do you have any specific tips or advice for understanding spoken Japanese?

  83. Hi!

    This all very cool, but a ran into a guy who has a method for learning languages in 1 day – and I mean really to learn.

    The stuff his got going is amazing and I’ll learn about it when get on his course.. If it’s a success I’ll be talking russian in by valentines =)

  84. Dear Tim,

    I am indebted to you for giving me the tools to dramatically increase productivity, reduce stress and increase free time. A German mother and years on Wall Street led me to view productivity in the number of hours worked – 80+ hours a week used to make me feel good. Overstimulating myself with information was another big lesson for me (major OCD).

    I have spent the last 15 years learning how to invest from several proven macro investors. No surprise, but the guys on Wall Street are no more enlightened, and in fact very often underperform the average Main Street investor.

    Interestingly enough, the principles you have developed have very relevant applications in successful investing:

    Focus on Macro Asset Classes: this is absolutely critical. 2-3 years ago, it was strikingly obvious that the credit markets were out of control. Yet, how come very few took the time to stand back and assess the massive bubble that was being creating. The next much larger bubble is the shortage in liquid transport fuels (oil, which provides 95% of our transport fuel is in major decline – read any industry report). Yet, even some of the smartest investors have no clue about this – perception vs. reality – investors like to delude themselves.

    Low Information Diet: 95% of the news on the financial news channels is nonsense and most often the promoter is conflicted. Read only the truly independent sources from those who have made money over decades (and not someone was up 150% last year due to probability). Dr. Marc Faber, Jim Rogers, Warren Buffet (though I think this cycle he has become the system – very hard to outperform when you manage that much money) are some of the best.

    Work 4 Hours: this is key. On Wall Street, you are kept on major emotional roller coasters and fast money is exciting. Unfortunately, this is not the way to make money – the vast majority of traders don’t last very long. Again, you have to select the right major macro trend and then sit for 3 to 5 years. The volatility will be intense, but the upside is much greater than the whole “diversification” theory that Wall Street markets. Look how 99% of investors faired in this downturn (granted, this is an extreme example).

    These and a few more principles really do work. It has taken years of testing various strategies from some of the best investment renegades to truly learn how to invest money. If you are ever in Singapore, you have a place to stay – happy to share whatever I can about financial enlightment.

    Best,

    Ron

  85. Pingback: Prialto -
  86. Automating the translation of the “100 Most Common Words”

    =================================================

    Great article yet again!

    Inspired I made a small script to automate the translation of the 2 lists in Tim’s post into Pinyin (Chinese romanized script), which I blogged about yesterday.

    Thinking today about the generic case for any language I checked out the Babelfish site and figured out an automated translation was doable. With a copy-n-paste of the list of words Tim stated into a file called, for example, “100-most-common-words-spoken”, and then running the following oneliner a Linux system, it automatically grabs the words for whatever language you want. Just change “lang=fr” to “lang=xx” where xx is the two country letter code of choice. Here I chose xx=fr (France) and a snippet of the output of this oneliner as it scrolled by is shown here:

    [kiat@kiat-t61-uk pinyin]$ for word in $(cat 100-most-common-words-spoken | awk ‘{print $2}’); do export lang=fr ; echo -n “${word} = ” ; elinks -dump -force-html -dump-width 1600 -no-numbering -no-references “BABELFISH/translate_txt?ei=UTF-8&doit=done&fr=bf-res&intl=1&tt=urltext&lp=en_${lang}&btnTrTxt=Translate&trtext=${word}” | sed -n ‘1,/Search the web with this text/p’ | tail -n 2 | head -1 ; done

    a = a

    after = ensuite

    again = encore

    all = tous

    almost = presque

    also = aussi

    always = toujours

    and = et

    because = parce que

    before = avant

    big = grand

    but = mais

    Because of the comment rules here I had to change the Babelfish website name in the oneliner to BABELFISH, which is not hard to find and replace with the real one.

    Cheers,

    Kiat

  87. Oops! a simpler method is given above in Tim’s response by just pasting the list into the Google translate site or maybe even Babelfish. From there it’s easy to put that into a doc. No need for all this command line stuff. Can I get my post back? 😉

  88. Hi Tim,

    I like the idea of deconstructing know-how to it’s smallest bits & parts and to leave away all the non-essential stuff in order to get a maximum in a minimum of time. As you mentioned in your article “Pavel: 80/20 Powerlifting and How to Add 110+ Pounds to Your Lifts” this principle can be applied not only to languages but to any skills you want to acquire. I ask myself, if there are, so to say, global deconstruction rules to melt down certain skills to it essentials. Would be a nice topic for an article; something like “The 10 Rules of Deconstructing any Skills”

    Regards from Munich (Germany),

    Alex

  89. Great post Tim!

    After studying French in HS and college, never became fluent until lived in France for a semester in school, ah Paris. I remember reading Le Canard Enchaine as great help in learning topical French as well as some slang, since was satirical. Going to see if online.

    I also remembered that learning a few current slang terms helped tremendously in conversation and reduced the foreign accent and “tourist” stigma. Never learned slang in school, wasn’t until in country that picked up some.

    A great ice breaker I learned was, “Je parle francais comme un vache espagnol.” This self depricating response to questions of whether I spoke French always resulted in a laugh, and opened the door for locals to work w/me on my French.

    Seems like internet would be place to find topical articles/material in other languages.

    Wonder if you have an suggested sites in various languages.

    Bob

  90. Hi Tim,

    Thanks for the wonderful post on Language learning, however with the 80/20 principle you mentioned I’ve been trying to find out how to learn the violin. I’ve searched high and low to understand what is it that I need to focus to learn the violin, do you have any insights/tips on this.

    Warm Regards

    Jayanth

    PS. I do go to Violin classes.

  91. ????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????

    ?????????????????????????????????????????????1000????????????????????????????????????????????

  92. Hey Tim,

    Do you know about Supercool School? Essentially they provide Virtual Classrooms, making school Web 2.0. Everyone with a microphone and webcam can be a teacher, and everyone with an internet connection can join in and learn. On any topic they like, free.

    This might the revolution of education that we need. A woman from Germany already taught a woman from South Africa. And an L.A.-born entrepreneur living in Shanghai taught on how to enter the Chinese market.

    Check it out!

  93. Damn… Now that’s one useful post! I’ve never heard it broken down with such simplicity before. I had 4 years of Spanish in high school and still have a decent vocabulary. My girlfriend is Colombian so I’m getting the practice in now.

    Does anyone know if Rosetta Stone for learning languages is the real deal or just a bunch of hype? I wonder if it expands on the principles laid-out here…

  94. Fewer commenters than I expected brought up the suggestion of learning the language through the lyrics of songs. I think it’s a tactic worth stressing.

    It seems like without even realizing it, I have memorized enough song lyrics to fill several phone books worth of pages, and I’m sure most of the readers have too. For example, if I say “I been to Phoenix, all the way to Tacoma, Philadelphia, Atlanta, L.A.”, I’m sure 99% of you can recite the next several lines.

    There’s an Israeli/Spanish singer named David Broza, who has some fantastic stuff (very listenable), and with a good clear voice. Once I ran some lyrics through the Google translator, they “locked” into place since they finally had meaning attached to them. Really, within a few minutes I was memorizing the song (“Hoy No”).

    What does this “rote” memorization do? Well, it gets you familiar with pronunciation, syllable stresses, sentence structure, and most of all, it certainly keeps you motivated.

  95. hey tim,

    have you ever tried learning a language in the combination with music? there used to be cassettes in germany called “superlearning” in the 80’s. I tried to learn some italian with them back then and was surprised that I was still able to converse with my girlfriend (now my wife) about 15 years later although I never actually spoke or further deepend my italian knowledge during those years.

    the idea is that the music relaxes and opens up some parts of the brain usually not used in our daily routines and you learn by imprinting the language into the subconcuious. sounds very esoteric and the music they used was, too. (lot’t of slow classical chamber music)

    there’s also a german label (Orkaan Music) that has a series of german-italian audiobooks out where you learn the language in combi with the music.

    they also apply the 20/80 principle by only teaching the essentials you need to get through the holiday (ordering food, buying tickets, going to the market etc…) no grammar, no books needed…

    maybe this is interesting to try?!

    greetz and rock on!

  96. Tim –

    Regarding education: Start with http://www.childrenofthecode.org. Sets a good foundation for where we have come from and you can read interviews of some of the true leaders and innovators in education, child development and literacy. A whole bunch of great videos as well.

    Dr. David Rose of Harvard suggests that the future is in the margin – that what we do to teach kids with learning differences (we refuse to call them disabilities, since many dyslexics prove to be geniuses once they are extracted from the oppression of the system) today is, in many ways, how we will teach all children in the future.

    I am fascinated with the broad notion of how we can equip everyone to reach their full potential. Its not just education. Your parents were a huge part of why you learned what you learned and how you applied it.

    I’ll be interested to see where this next passion takes you and hope that I can be a part of it.

    Joe

  97. Tim & All

    Anyone familiar with a mac program that has proven worth while with regard to language learning? I took note of the “Super Memory” but wonder if other goods like this are out there. Thanks in advance for sharing- tons of good leads, shares and suggestions here. 🙂

    -Mig

  98. Yo did it again Tim! Great insightful post.

    I happen to have a site which may be useful to your audience.

    I run a website called Leximo, and its a Multilingual User Collaborated Dictionary.

    You can find information on Leximo’s vision by reading the Leximo Dictionary Manifesto.

  99. Hi Tim

    thanx very much for this approach to language learning.

    For years now I always had the same feeling, that the way of teaching ( thinking in a foreign language or learn it like a child) does not work for my “engineer” approach to new things.

    Is there any material available (books, audio books) where language (esp. Spanish) is presented in this way ?

    Greetings

    Alex

  100. Anyone who wants to learn languages…or anything.. I suggest checking out iKnow! – http://www.iknow.co.jp. It’s a website that’s popular in Japan but has 180 different possible language combinations. iKnow! has an algorithm that remembers how fast you learn and forget so it can teach you whatever you want to learn as fast as possible. Very personalized and fun.

  101. You narrowed it down to the essential! Great post! After learning a couple of languages and having always a hard time doing so, I’m currently learning Spanish in Costa Rica. I learnt the 100 most common words in the plane and when I arrived I could already ask for the most necessary things. Now, after two weeks of intensive Spanish class I can have a more or less fluent conversation and expanded the list to the 1000 most common words.

    The frequency list was a great help. For the grammar it is more or less the same. For the start it’s enough to just learn the grammar that you will need most frequently.

    Pura Vida!

  102. Good info, Tim. As a 25+ year speaker/writer of Japanese, I wholly agree: Forget the textbooks that present “lessons” on random (and dull) topics, and instead delve into topics that interest you. Create your own learning materials and system, from whatever texts/audio/people/etc. address your interest. After all, as you point out, the goal should not be “the language” itself, but should always be *doing something using the language*. So, learners, jump in and start doing stuff!

    Another tip: Music is perhaps the best memory aid of all. The memory lays down lyrics like no other text. Even now, I can think, “I know the word I’m looking for was in that one college textbook we studied…”, but is there any chance of my recalling the generic lesson paragraph that contained the word, even though we read it a hundred times for test prep? Of course not. But when I think, “I know the word I’m looking for comes up in that one song… let me find it…”, can I hum to myself and dredge up the word? Yep, works like a charm! The mind has a magical ability to store lyrics.

    Best of luck to everyone here learning Japanese or any other language. (For the interested, on my site I write about the *few* things that are hard about learning Japanese, and the *many* things that are easy. Take heart and master it!)

  103. Like Nick, I also plan on learning the most frequently used words in Japanese. I think I’ll buy a dictionary or something. Your language posts are very thought-provoking.

    By the by, do you know any stores or sites that carry that textbook?

  104. Thanks Tim. Great Post.

    I pasted these words into my word processor and hit translate to get started on the basics of translation to any language

    Here are the lists in comma form so everyone else can do the same (easier on the eyes than long lists). Or you can use the program suggested by Kiat Huang.

    Written:

    The, of, and, to, in, is, you, that, it, he, was, for, on, are, as, with, his, they, I, at, be, this, have, from, or, one, had, by, word, but, not, what, all, were, we, when, your, can, said, there, use, an, each, which, she, do, how, their, if, will, up, other, about, out, many, then, them, these, so, some, her, would, make, like, him, into, time, has, look, two, more, write, go, see, number, no, way, could, people, my, than, first, water, been, call, who, oil, its, now, find, long, down, day, did, get, come, made, may, part

    Spoken:

    a, an, after, again all, almost, also, always, and, because, before, big, but, I can, I come, either/or, I find, first, for, friend, from, I go, good, goodbye, happy, I have, he, hello, here, how, I, I am, if, in, I know, last, I like, little, I love, I make, many, one, more, most, much, my, new, no, not, now, of, often, on, one, only, or, other, our, out, over, people, place, please, same, I see, she, so, some, sometimes, still, such, I tell, thank you, that, the, their, them, then, there is, they, thing, I think, this, time, to, under, up, us, I use, very, we, what, when, where, which, who, why, with, yes, you, your

  105. Great tips everyone!

    To improve my French reading I have been following some blogs on topics I’m interested in. I also read entries on the French version of wikipedia– since I have to read French for history it’s a great way to brush up on very specific topics — but in small doses!

    If you are a studying a less commonly taught language, I recommend you look for language exchange partners— just google “free language exchange” or similar, there are several great sites. You will find people eager to speak with you and they can provide you with websites, online radio stations, you name it for practicing your target language. I have found this to be effective with my Mongolian studies.

    Good luck with your studies everyone!

  106. I had trubbs with French especially the female male verbs + conjugates – very confusing. I can’t even begin to imagine Japanese Chinese + Korean which seem to use symbols?? 69SWW = 69 Second Work Week!!

    It’s all Greek to me Tim but the word Ouchykins sprang to mind with yer Judo Text book! ;))

  107. Tim,

    I think you made a mistake in the “100 most common words” list. Surely “Dude” and “Like” must be high on the list! 😉

  108. I stumbled across your site at around midnight and it’s now 8 in the morning! Thanks to amazon.co.jp your book will arrive on my doorstep later today.

    Your posts on language have given me the inspiration to finally take up a 2nd foreign language. I found your advice on finding material that interests you spot-on. My Japanese reading skills and most of my vocab initially came from reading manga and martial arts magazines. A friend of mine learned to read playing Final Fantasy in Japanese. The best thing is that it doesn’t feel like study at all.

  109. Quick comment: the intersection of top 100 written and spoken words is smaller than it seems at first. There are 44 words in the second list that are not in the first — and so if you add the first list with my list below, you’ll have the union of the two sets, without the repetitions:

    after

    again

    almost

    also

    always

    because

    before

    big

    either/or

    friend

    good

    goodbye

    happy

    hello

    here

    am

    know

    last

    little

    love

    most

    much

    new

    often

    only

    our

    over

    place

    please

    same

    sometimes

    still

    such

    tell

    thank you

    there is

    thing

    think

    under

    us

    very

    where

    why

    yes

  110. First off, I love the book. I found a language learning software that adheres to your method if you are learning Spanish to travel to a Spanish speaking country. They even have different dialects.. Click on the link to watch the demo of their product.

    Thanks.

  111. I think the 100 common spoken written words is a great idea. I have been trying to do this for modern Greek, as I have had endless attempts at grasping this language. I was wondering if anyone else was making these crib sheets or whatever you wish to call them for other languages, maybe someone can make a database?? Anyways great blog!!! keep them coming.

  112. I have been trying to learn Spanish for 3 years. I have used Rosetta Stone and taken private classes and done a variety of other things, including spending about 3 months in Spanish speaking countries.

    I just came across your concept of language learning. How does one determine a list of the most commonly used word, spoken and written, in a language. After that has been mastered, what are the next steps.

    I like you basic idea but do you explain it in more detail somewhere? Not sure how to proceed further to improve my Spanish.

  113. Hi Tim,

    You didn't elaborate much on your technique to learn the Joyo kanji on your TED presentation where you talked about swimming.

    How did you manage to master 1945 kanji in just 6 months? Can you share a bit of wisdom I could use?

    Cheers

  114. That's why when I read for pleasure it's only in the language I'm learning (Spanish). I love it… especially when I get into a story so much that I don't even realize I'm reading in a different language. Love that!

  115. Hi Pedrorica,

    I highly suggest learning the 192 or so “radicals” that comprise kanji first. Then, get kanji cards and also read manga comic books, most of which will have “furigana” subscript on the characters to indicate pronunciation, which then allows you to look up vocab and characters on an electronic dictionary.

    Good luck!

    Tim

    1. The best cook with the worst recipe is the worst cook. And the job of the (language) teacher is to supply resources. And so the metaphor is flawed, because it assumes the teacher is one, true benefactor of the entire language.

    2. Yes! A good cook (a) recognizes the difference between good and bad recipes and (b) is likely to adjust a bad recipe to make it work better!

    3. Yeah – I agree. What’s wrong with these people – they assume that a real cook doesn’t bend a spoon or two? They fly around on walls … jump over tall buildings … and know what works and do that…! Right, Patty?? Sheech! Knuckle heads.

  116. Great post! Identifying the core words in a language is really key, and is the basis for the Pimsleur method as well. I think you have a talent for measuring your own progress…a lot of students find it hard to gauge their own effectiveness, and thus rely on a teacher or tutor to push them along. Motivation is essential too!

  117. I think the most efficient way to learn a foreign language is by the method of “shock therapy”. It’s based on my personal experience. My family immigrated from Soviet Union to Israel when I was 15. I had a year and a half to learn two languages – English and Hebrew – to the level high enough to pass high school exams. Otherwise, I would’ve been pretty much left behind in this life.

    I had no choice but studying like 15 hours a day. That was a powerful motivator and worked like a charm.

  118. Evgeni, I agree with “shock therapy” too. When I went to Japan, I went to a language school, but the teachers couldn’t (wouldn’t?) speak English; I didn’t get a bilingual crutch there. Also, I bought an English/Japanese dictionary to help out, the sort of tool any language student should get – and wisely, I got one intended for Japanese speakers, not English speakers. So that forced me to learn reading quickly too.

    I’d advise any learner to do the same, if possible: Throw yourself into some “sink or swim” situation, and don’t make things too easy for yourself. DO have fun learning, though – seek out all kinds of social situations and media sources to keep the variety flowing.

  119. I’t been a LONG time since I posted on your forums Tim. I’ve been very busy following the advice of one of your former teachers (Andrew Krauss) striving for inventing and licensing success. I found invent right from this site.

    I first found your site via a search about langage teaching and learning, because I’m an ESL teacher in Japan.

    Now I come back for my own learning purposes, to get more serious about learning Japanese. To that end I found this forum again looking for the top 500 spoken Japanese words to make my primary vocabulary study list.

    Now that I see Tim’s comments about using Google translator I have a another question. Tim, do the top 500 most common spoken words in a language hold across languages as the top100 do?

    Does anyone here have the top 500 spoken Japanese words in Romanji (Japanese words written with the English alphabet) and Japanese. I’d really appreciate finding such a list.

    Thanks,

    Tim

  120. Ok, first of all I really enjoy your blog especially this particular article. I just have one question, how can you tailor learning a language using your method to a situation where the language your learning is dead or in a severe linguistic recession (!) and there is an absence of modern commentary on issues outside of language rights i.e. Irish!

    P.s. pictures of you with the hurley… very good!

  121. Hi Tim,

    I just went to Alexanderplatz in Berlin to try and memorize the irregular German verbs by placing them in various locations, and it failed spectacularly. I decided that I needed something linear, so I returned to Friedrichshain and walked down Warschauer Str, only to find that after committing fifteen verbs and their various forms to memory, I couldn’t recall them.

    Do you have any suggestions for memorizing verb vocabulary?

    Thanks,

    Will McNeice.

    PS I saw the comment by the bread woman on Twitter. While I question with her enthusiastic use of language, I have to admit that I’m on her side. Bread is one of the most delicious foods in the world (especially here in Germany). Why would you want to cut it out just to lose a little weight? In fact, I just ate two Schrippen with peanut butter, and it made my morning!

  122. Tim,

    This is the best and only good article I have ever read about language acquisition. I have spent the last 18 years studying about 14 languages. Much in the same way you did. I break them down and see how they tick. Not great in most of them, but can get by.

    Please contact me. We are kindred spirits in language learning. I won’t bore you. Take a look at my website. I am just launching a foreign language software that is 100% unique in every way. It’s called PeanutButter.

    You can download a free trial version for mac. I look forward to hearing from you.

    By the way. My first foreign language and best is Russian. I know why you keep avoiding it.

    Dale

  123. Tim and/or anyone else who may be able to help,

    Is their currently an “Argentina Spanish” version available of the 4HWW?

    It’s my understanding that Argentina Spanish can vary much from other dialects of Spanish so I want to make sure I’m getting the “right” Spanish version of the 4HWW if possible to be a main part of my Spanish learning material for my mini-retirement to Buenos Aires next month…

    Thanks in advance,

    Adam Sherwood

    Cincinnati, OH

  124. Hi,Tim.

    I should say that your blog and bestseller are useful for English learning. It is interesting to read, therefore it is easy to learn language. My compliments.

    My English isn’t good enough. However, I am seriously thinking about second language. So, a couple of questions, I am intersted in your opinion.

    1. How do you think, what language is the most prosective, I mean the number of native speakers and its usage around the world?

    2. Is it really hard to learn two (or even more) language at the same time? Especially, if you are not efficient in the first?

    1. Hi Ilya,

      Thanks very much for the kind words! To answer your question, I believe 1) English is the most useful language for speaking worldwide, and 2) it is almost impossible to learn two languages at the same time simultaneously. If you are reviewing one language while learning another, that is absolutely possible.

      Good luck!

      Tim

  125. Hey Tim i have a question, i’m planning to learn a new language, i’m from MExico so my native language is Spanish.

    I have read about you and the rules that you propose to learn, also have learned some techniques to improve my memory

    do you think that a software like “tell me more” (not following the course) just using the vocabulary and the spoken word tool, can be handy to avoid the search over and over again and just click the word, learn it with the techniques i already know and then get more into rules and sfuff after i already get the vocabulary and basics of the language?

    i want to learn french and since spanish and french share the same grammar structure, and stuff ithink i would be a lot easier for me

    Well have a nice day! hope you can answer and keep on the quality work you are doing here

  126. Looks like I’m late to the party.

    Hire a viritual assistant who speaks the language you want to learn. Have him/her only communicate in that language. Just with emails at first, then spoken.

  127. I want to strongly agree with the suggestion to read intellectually relevant and stimulating material in the language you’re trying to learn. I have had good success reading newspapers (leftist) in Mexico City and then later in Rome and Barcelona, and because I was interested in what’s happening locally and in the world, I could begin to follow the news narratives quite well. When I didn’t know vocabulary I circled it and then later did or didn’t come back to it. I have one additional comment. I do think it’s going to be possible for me to learn TWO languages at the same time this fall because one’s going to be ASL – American Sign Language. So there! 🙂

  128. Hi,

    I’m looking at learning Norwegian, German, Icelandic and Hindi (not all at the same time!)

    If anyone has any experience learning these languages with Tim’s methods, or has deconstructed them, please get in touch as it would be useful to hear your insights and ideas.

    Many thanks,

    Ash

    1. Hi Ash –

      I’m an American living and working in Norway since 2007.

      Did you ever get any support/feedback on your pursuits to learn Norwegian? I have something to share which you may find useful. 🙂

      Whitney

  129. I am not sure if this has been asked or not but how would I go about improve my English vocabulary in an efficient way? English is my first language. I’m currently reading The Snowball and I am just looking up every word I do not understand but it seems to tiresome and 3/4 of the time I look up the same word 3 times and still can’t remember the meaning.

  130. Thanks Tim, i really liked ur blog.

    I agree that travelling to other countries will bcom easier wid ur blog

    n help lots of people to learn other languages

    Great tips for everyone 🙂

    “Thanks for sharing!”

  131. Thanks Tim, great Thoughts!!

    I agree that this blog will help to learn other languages faster n make travelling easier.

    I am very much intrested in gaining knowledge of a language and so it will help me to recognize them easier.

    It will also help alot of people 🙂

    “Thanks for sharing!

  132. hello, everyone

    Tim it seems that you have been studying chinese, according to that what would you recommend as a good (best?) material to learn chinese (mandarin) ?

    I’m starting from nearly nothing (just speaking a little japanese), will take classes at the univeristy here in shanghai and as soon as I get a basic level I will add a private teacher to the mix.

    thanks for the post,

  133. Tim, I love the principles that you outline. After 10 or so years of academic language learning, and about 1.5 years of REAL language learning I can truly say you are spot on with those principles. Make language learning a RATIONAL process! I saw all the language learning websites that were thrown up here, and I don’t want to seem like I’m advertising just another site…but checkout lingq.com. I’ve spent along time learning what to do and what not to do, and this site is a real help as far as giving free resources. I suggest finding the podcasts, these have very organic and natural conversations in the languages that you want to learn. Once again, thanks Tim for demystifying the obvious and giving us all a little road that leads back to common sense and logic.

    -Paul

  134. I am doing a review of Rosetta Stone for my language learning site and remembered your comments about them above:

    “Using ‘learn like a child’ is a great excuse for a company to produce materials with the same images for every language and minimal tweaking of translation, which = lower cost of production. It’s designed to be simple to produce en masse, not for best results.” I remember you said that same thing about text books that are printed exclusively in the target language (e.g. Berlitz.) Like you, I have also worked for Berltiz, and was equally frustrated by their monolingual, ineffectual materials.

    Rosetta Stone and Berlitz are good examples of a well-funded, well-marketed, but altogether mediocre products. Like many of the most profitable companies, they have taken a weakness (i.e. not wanting to pay for language specific images, translations, etc.) and turned them into product features: “No translation! No memorization!” On the surface, this looks good, but when you dig down into the products, you realize just how limited they are.

    My conclusion: Instead of wasting hundreds of dollars on CD-Roms that require sitting at a computer, why not just download any of the 100,000+ podcasts on a topic that floats your boat.

    Interest = More time with the language = Fluency

  135. Tim,

    Thanks for the post, but I do have some questions about the effectiveness and efficiency portion. Adherence is easy, because one can say, “This is great stuff. I think I’ll stick with it.” However, effectiveness is not. As an example, since you are a tango buff, to a person who has never danced and seen tango before, it would be difficult to determine which crosstown tango schools are more effective. How would he/she know which is better? Or, more importantly, better for him/her?

    I think the same thing can be said of efficiency. How does one measure progress when learning a language on one’s own?

    I guess my main concern is that in the 1 to 3 month time frame, it seems that determining which materials and processes are the most efficient and effective would eat into that time – especially if finding the perfect materials and methods turns out to be a trial-and-error process.

    Any thoughts or ideas? Or better yet, recommendations?

    Thanks,

    Marc

  136. Amazingly insightful. Breaking bigger jobs down in to bullet points makes a lot of sense – I’ve seen this used for speed reading courses, so it looks like you’re right on the money. Maybe in 90 days I’ll be posting comments in Italian!

  137. Tim,

    Old post, but I decided to revisit today.

    I’ve recently begun working with a refugee family from Syria.

    They have very little English and this has given me some ideas on helping them learn English.

    As they are new to Canada it seems we need to focus on ensuring they get the most bang for their buck as fast as possible to a least get some semblance of comprehension.

    Thanks

  138. Tim,

    I am in Geneva right now, where I have been on a mini-retirement for the last 2 months. I have used your methods and those of a few others in accelerated learning to develop my French extremely quickly. I can understand and express myself 9 out of 10 times. It works. Thank you.

    BUT!!! despite really working on it, I am struggling to improve my pronunciation. I can always get my message across, but its not the way I want to speak the language. Do you or anyone else out there have any methods to train pronunciation???

  139. Hi Tim,

    I watched your random video with Kevin Rose…love the show by the way! You mentioned some language resources that you use. Do you know a really good resource that teaches Canadian French (Quebecois)? Thanks.

  140. Great read. Especially in the beginning you have to focus on the main material. Another tip i can give is to “group” words togheter when learning vocab and make a mental projection or link between them.

    This is a technique used by the ancient greeks who were memorising speeches. E.g. make a mental walk through your house and memorise the translation of each object you see in your “mental walk”.

  141. Hi!!!

    I have been in Beijing for 2 weeks know and I am studying Mandarin – I am a Colombian guy(spanish) who speaks no more than xie xie and ni hao. I know you speka mandarin and i was wondering if you have any special sugestion about mandarin -i know you speak it very well-, not just speaking but also writting.

    Thanks,

    Juan

  142. Hey Tom,

    Thanks for compiling/finding/researching a list of the most common written and spoken words. When I began my studies of French, Japanese, Italian, Spanish and Dutch, I thought that a sensible approach like learning the most common words would be the most efficient way to begin my studies. I did a cursory search of such a list a month or so ago, but was unsuccessful in acquiring one. Yesterday, a friend of mine turned me on to your book and your blog. Thanks again for your ingenuity.

    Take care and thanks for your help,

    Peace and smiles,

    Michael

  143. One method that is so great for those who want to learn the English languauge is to begin with the most commonly spoken words. A new learner can start with the 100 most common words, then the 500 most common words, then the 1000. The truth is that there is just so much more research and materials out there for learning English as a second language simply because of its popularity and because of the ESL or TESOL methods. However, when it comes to learning Polish or any other language for that matter the same principles can be applied. Start with the most common words or phrases and build yourself up from there. How do you know what the most common words are? Well, many are probably the same as in English. Also, consider the languauge that you most likely hear when experiencing the language.

  144. Hi Tim,

    First of all — wonderful article! And thank you everyone for all your thoughts!

    I am a Peace corps volunteer, native English speaker, living in a francophone (French speaking) country, trying very hard to learn the African language as well build on my French. I noticed you mentioned to another commenter it is impossible to learn two languages at once, but possible to learn one and review another.

    Since English is not spoken in my country of service I am learning the African language, in French. I hope to build on both languages at the same time and I’m hoping this is possible because they are not at the same level….My French, I would say is on the mediocre-poor end of being conversant (intermediate low level) and the African language I am learning is from scratch.

    What are your best recommendations for learning both languages and is it possible to build on both languages at the same time? Or should I just focus on one. I’ve never had a flair for languages and it’s always been challenging for me.

    Has anyone else been in a similar situation? I’d love to hear about anyones experiences learning two languages at once, or learning a language in another language (that’s not the native tongue).

    And to everyone learning new languages, exposure and practice is key. Most Peace corps volunteers are conversant in another language within three months in country, and fluent within the two year service.

  145. Tim

    Great work by you and everybody!! Much appreciated. I have been looking for a long time to find a method that will best suit me and I think this is it. Do you mind though giving us a bit more detail on your learning schedule during these 3 months? A summary step-by-step from blabla to fluency.

    Thanks!

    Etienne

  146. Hi,Tim

    Cheers for the article!

    I am a Japanese>English Translator working in the UK. Over the last 3 years I taught myself Japanese to near fluency by creating an environment where it was basically impossible to not learn Japanese.This involved having the TV or Japanese music running all the time, changing my computer OS over to Japanese and reading comics and books constantly. Even if you don’t live in the country, the internet now means you can create an immersion environment anywhere.

    I wrestled with textbook study for about a year and found it boring and exhausting. Language learning is fun, immensely rewarding, and should never feel like a chore. I found I was able to learn and remember a lot more from watching dubbed versions of Fight Club and the Matrix, learning recipes, playing Taiko at a local club and reading Japanese translations of personal development books or novels I’d already read in English.

    The biggest discovery for me was the spaced repetition system (SRS). It has made a *huge* difference to my recall, reading and fluency. Native level fluency is said to lie at around 10,000 sentences (if you add 25 new sentences a day, that’s a language in a year). I am at about 7500 for Japanese, and will definitely be using another when I tackle the many other languages I’d love to learn. I’m looking forward to your future article on spaced repetition.

    Check out these links on SRS, immersion, motivation and the awesomeness of language learning;

    – alljapaneseallthetime.com (this guy reached fluency in 18months)

    – antimoon.com

    good luck language learners!

    Dan

  147. I am learning American Sign Language in a community college in Berkeley and there are definitely some more key components to add to the discussion. An excellent instructor with a superb book (Signing Naturally) and a classroom community of other students supporting each other is a big help! We meet twice a week, have to take written, comprehension, and expressive exams and practice ASL together in every class. Learning language is repetition over time, coupled with a desire to communicate. Those who have the most to say and the greatest interest in what others say will advance faster. One more VERY important detail. I recently found an adorable and skillful tutor to meet with me weekly. I want to understand and be understood so badly that my language skills have taken leaps and bounds with the tutor. Language is social. Have fun and be yourself with it.

  148. First of all to mention that this is a interesting article so far. I just stumpled on this some days ago. As a German native speaker and foreign language addicted (Spanish, English, Russian) I experienced the following:

    For me it doesn’t make any sense to learn languages at the same time or one after another if they are from the same family of languages (e.g. learning at the same time Spanish, Italian and Portuguese or Dutch and German). Doing this you can get easily confused and instead of improving your language skills you are actually worsen them (that happend to me while learning Portuguese I lost some of my Spanish grammar)

    In contrast to that, I never experienced problems of studying for example Spanish and Russian at the same time and thanks to that nice experience I enrolled me at some Chinese class instead of hang on to my Portuguese.

    Regards

    Florian

  149. Thanks for the tips. I’ve studied Japanese for about two years now and I’m still not as fluent as I want to be. I am currently in Japan studying and was just recently debating whether to take more language classes which would limit my time with the school judo team or to continue with a small number of classes and continue full speed with judo. Your above article addressed my specific debate head on. Thanks.

  150. Great post. The systematic way in which your mind works is quite contrary to my fantastical, imaginative brain habits: it inspires me. I was thinking of translating the most commonly used English words (that you listed) into other languages and using this as a basis for an audio CD of basic vocabulary that I could listen to in the car. However, in the post you mention that “the first 300 make up about 65% … of all written material in English” but only actually post two lists of 100 words. Do you have a list of the other 200 words (or 100 words if you were referring the lists of written and spoken combined)? Thanks and cheers.

  151. hola Tim! te escribo en español ya que supongo que todavia mantendras tu español ^^ soy de Argentina, y hablo ingles y aleman a un nivel conversacional fluido, ambos los aprendi de manera auto-didacta(vivi 1 año en Austria), y estudie 2 años de japones (noryoku shiken 4-kyu aprobado) ademas que tengo ganas de empezar a estudiar frances por un posible viaje a suiza durante las vacaciones de verano 2011… asi que te queria comentar que tus posts de aprender idiomas se agradecen y son muy buenos! segui posteando… estos dias voy a ver si puedo conseguir tu libro, pero no tengo demasiadas esperanzas de encontrar nada aca… 🙁

    saludos desde La Plata!

    Bruno

  152. Hey Tim,

    I just received a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship and I’m going to use it to apply to a 10-month MBA program at INSEAD in Fontainebleau, France. Getting into that program will be my Everest.

    As part of the scholarship, I need to be fluent in French. I’m going to follow your techniques to make that happen. To enhance my “interest,” though, I was wondering if you are at all interested in a real-time FHWW case-study challenge? We could set the parameters of the challenge and then I’d get to work while giving updates so my progress could be followed. What do you think?

    Best,

    B

  153. Hey Tim,

    I apologizein advance if you know this or someone else has suggested it. (I don’t think reading every comment here is very time-smart, although I did browse by checking your posts and the ones you responded to) Anyway…

    For learning Kanji, it sounds like you learned through typical radicals and saturation. Did you ever try Remembering the Kanji by James Heisig? I’ve been using it lately and have found it a great way to learn 25, 50, or even 100+ kanji a day. It doesn’t give readings (there’s a seperate book for that), but learning how to write them and what they mean helps a ton. I’m learning the readings as I go. (I live in Japan, so saturation is easy as pie) Heck, sometimes I already know the readings because it’s vocabulary I’ve already learned!

    Hope it helps!

  154. http://www.semantica-portuguese.com

    I stumbled upon this site 3 months ago when I saw a video from Xuxa mentioning it. I’m already having decent broken conversations in Brazilian Portuguese over Skype and hopefully I’ll be able to talk pretty smoothly in 2 more months. Best of all, it’s free!

  155. I wish I had this advice earlier. There are two other shortcuts that have helped me tremendously. They are rather rote learning, and a bit painstaking. However, I would not have passed the 2kyu without them. One is the nintendo DS and the Kanken kanji program. The other is Smart.FM. I am onto Chinese now!

  156. I am native speaker of Japanese and I really agree with your method.I have not tried learning other than English but I saw some of my friend learned many different languages like you did.he focused on one target language then find the place where he can use the language he learned.He worked for chinese restaurant in china town.He learned not just chinese and also learned cocking chinese.It’s really to kill two birds with one stone.

  157. I’m not convinced of your method at all. It might work if your native tongue is English and you’re trying to learn a European language or any language that has a phonetic alphabet.

    I’m Japanese American, and I speak Japanese (and English) at home. I went to Japanese school from preschool to high school. After high school I bought college textbooks and I continue to study to this day (I’m 30). I’ve been to Japan twice. I watch Japanese tv. I bought a Canon wordtank V903 in Japan last summer. I’ve studied 5 other (European) languages. I STILL have a very hard time with Japanese. I MIGHT be able to pass JLPT level 2, maybe. No matter how hard I study, the kanji is impossible to retain. I hate the few phonemes and the homophones. It seems that the vast majority of words are 2-kanji combinations. How many words rhyme with kyousou? The lack of sounds makes it very hard to distinguish words, and they all sound the same. I have a hard time putting together sentences of even intermediate complexity. Japanese is probably the 2nd most inefficient language in the universe. Every time I look at something written in Japanese I see kanji I’ve never seen before. Brute force memorization seems to be the only way. I’ve never noticed an improvement in language ability just by being immersed in it. My learning has come almost entirely from book learning.

  158. Hey Tim,

    I agree with your ideas.

    I taught English in Korea for 2 years, and the system is all book based for kids in kindergarten and elementary school..rediculous carry on!

    I told the boss, i wanted to teach through creative story making, comic character creation, etc.. Luckily she agreed but still wanted to get through the books

    By focusing on what the kids enjoyed, the rate of learning was found to be miles ahead, and by the way, the more empowered they were, and given mature treatment, the better they did.

    Do you think a health/communication/creative thinking style 1 year program would work in the US, to improve kids health consciousness, and creativity?

    Its just that im thinking of getting a team together in Korea to test it out.

  159. I’m a resident of Japan with over 25 years of Japanese study behind me. I read R. Hashi’s troubles, and – well, I certainly don’t dispute his personal tale, but let me assure would-be learners that not everyone has the same experience. I’ve found my learning difficult, sure, but not particularly more so than other languages I’ve approached. (I wouldn’t even know what it means to say Japanese is “an inefficient language”.)

    As R. suggests, learning to read/write Chinese characters is likely the biggest obstacle for anyone learning Japanese or Chinese – though I say that if well over a billion people can do it, then so can you and so can I! (And so I did.)

    For the curious, I’ve listed the few things that make learning Japanese hard, and the many more things that make learning Japanese easy. Would be interesting to hear from other learners of Japanese, who may or may not agree with my lists! (Sorry, can’t give you URL, though; this comment won’t post if I put a URL in text or in the Website field. Try homejapan dot com slash learn-japanese .)

    In any case, good luck to all learners of all languages. It’s fun stuff, n’est pas?

  160. I found the article very interesting, but I’m confused on the paragraph following the listing of “The 100 Most Common Written Words in English”

    “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.”

    What is meant by “and the first 300 make up about 65% percent of all written material in English”????

    What 300??? The list is “The 100 Most Common Written Words in English?!?”

    What am I missing here?

  161. hey I am learning chinese and I am trying to apply this stuff. Does anyone have a list of the 1,000 more SPOKEN words in english (I know I am learning chinese but I can translate the 1,000 words)

    Thanks

    xie xie

  162. I found the coolest book for learning French at the Dollar Tree. I guess it was a publisher remainder. It appeared to be the reprint of a novel published in the 1940s. I wish I could remember the title, but it escapes me at the moment. I will try to hunt it down and post the title in case anyone is interested in tracking it down. The book starts out in English and gradually begins to scatter a few French words and phrases in each chapter, all perfectly understandable in context. It gradually adds more and more French language to each chapter, until you reach the final chapter, which is entirely in French. By the time you have finished reading the novel, you will also have learned to read basic French. Pretty amazing. I have a MA in Spanish, but I never saw a book like this for Spanish.

  163. You missed the mark on this one. The title is misleading and you don’t give any concrete examples of how this actually works (in your book for example you use a lot of anecdotes to drive a point home which is how you put these into practice). Effectiveness, Adherence, Efficiency. Check. Check. Check. Memorizing most frequent words–ineffective. I agree that you must start with frequent vocabulary but think about it . . . you can get by pretty far in English (at least spoken English) without some of those words. If a new English language learner says “I no have food. Please where restaurant.” that communicates a great deal while still omitting high frequency words.

    I feel like what you are trying to say is that language learners need high frequency vocabulary (vocabulary phrases vs. words) in a meaningful context that will keep them engaged in the learning–a funny story for example, romance, drama . . . Storytelling is a powerful way to do this. Reading is another way to build an incredible amount of vocabulary (and language acquisition) in a short period of time.

  164. This post is incredibly helpful! My husband and I will be implementing many of the ideas in the 4HWW very soon and so are planning to fulfill dreamlines of travel abroad (starting in Europe). I love languages and would like to have at least some “get by” knowledge before going to a new place, but I think my husband feels a bit daunted. The lists are a great idea for picking up the most important basics and learn the rest as you go/as interest is piqued.

    I really wish that the military would take some pointers from you! I studied Arabic when I was in the service, and it was a 63-week course of nothing but Arabic for 7 hours a day for 5 days a week, and I graduated the course without feeling as fluent as I would have expected after so much study. Your ideas on language learning seem so much more practical. It really seemed that 90% of the vocabulary for the course was for words that would only be used in very specialized situations that might not ever come up–like in- and out-patient procedure for surgeries–but could be learned on the fly if the situation arose.

    Most of the words that I still remember well (after almost 3 years of not using the language) are the ones that appear on the lists.

    Thank you!

  165. Hi Tim! Thank you so much for your BOOK! I live in Russia (St. Petersburg)and I am real happy that my brother gifted yor book 🙂

    I’ve read this article, so I find it very interesting and useful) I’m 20, I am historian of art and I schould to know lots of languages. I study 7 foreign languages. I learn its with languages-groups (latin – spanisch – italian – french – portugal; englisch – german) and I belive that this way is rational. What do you think about it?

    Have you ever been in St. Petersburg?

  166. in reference to:

    “Teachers are subordinate to materials, just as cooks are subordinate to recipes.”

    I would like to contend.

    A master chef can create recipes just as a superior teacher can create the materials needed to teach. Subordination occurs only whenever we choose to be bested by something which, often enough, occurs due to a lack of desire and laziness. When we do not ultimately want to understand something ( ex. bread baking) we will always fall victim to recipes because, in the end, why bother? someone has already figured this out – why waste your time learning to cook without recipes?. To have understanding there must be the desire (adherence – interest) to reach that understanding. Modern living does not lend itself to such advocacy. The lack of want and desire makes us less inclined to achieve.

    We are not subordinate to the information or materials – just to our own desire to understand. But one can hardly be blamed. With modern advances turning over every month – it’s hard to keep up.

  167. Disagree. I teach English to toddlers in China, and by order of my employers, I am subordinate to the material. That’s reality out here in the working world.

    Of course,I supplement the materials by realia and have created entire learning units for the kids that aren’t in the materials they’ve supplied. However, I have to admit that the texts are really pretty good but no textbook is perfect. They could certainly be much worse–seen those, also!

  168. Add another to the SRS category. Supermemo is fantastic, it is the best tool for long-term retention of information and languages.

  169. It would be interesting to see how you attack the vocabulary also. What techniques do you use to actually memorize words, sentences etc?

  170. I have some numbers about Supermemo. After 12 months I got retention 97%.

    Before, when I was studying individual words I had retention 78%. Now I’m putting the whole phrases into Supermemo. It works a lot better.

  171. I speak, write and read 4 languages with native speaker fluency (English, French, Russian, Arabic), plus my native language: Georgian. Most of these languages are considered some of the hardest to learn because of their grammar, except English and French. Except English language, I have NEVER EVER studied anything related to grammar from any of these languages. I simply detest grammar and I learned by listening, reading and simply using common sense. Just like a child learns. I have never used Rosetta Stone and I’m not sure what their “child learning” philosophy means and how it compares to what I did, but I can honestly say that English (being one of the easiest languages generally) was the hardest and most time-consuming to learn because I was forced to learn grammar by my parents. I am an artist and my mind is simply NOT conditioned to learn rules and formulas – I learn by associations and observations. You can try to memorize words and grammatical rules, but if you don’t observe how native speakers interact (on TV, radio, etc) and if you don”t read voraciously you will be stuck in learning hell… possibly forever. Of course, this doesn’t mean you should disregard building of your vocabulary, on the contrary. Main thing is how you build it, not by what you build in terms of quantity…

    This may not be for everyone, but I found that if you just let go, stop worrying about what is conjunctive, infinitive, past present (I don’t even know what these mean) and simply observe you will progress much faster. Tim wrote somewhere that you have to make many, many mistakes in order to learn a language fast. That is absolutely true. The best way to do this is to actually interact with native speakers. Unless you stop being conscious about the rules and what is what and what comes after what, your progress will be tedious, slow and painful. This can only be done if you force yourself to interact with others. Interaction in turn, will force you to think less and talk more. This is the most important stage where you begin to abandon useless references to grammatical rules and begin to relate to the language like a native – that is, without thinking about grammatical rules. The more you read the less you need grammar because through reading you will eventually discover patterns that repeat themselves and that’s really what will help you to learn a language. Through observing the patterns you will learn the grammar and sentence structure in a way similar to what native speakers do.

    For example, my private tutor in French was one of the most renowned experts and translators of French in Georgia and she had a mind of her own. She taught me with her classical, traditional method for 2 months, but I gained nothing but a headache. Her stubbornness was no match for mine. I refused to learn difficult names of even more difficult and elaborate grammatical rules and structures. I demanded that she just teach me with examples. For example: “John would have gone to school, if he hadn’t had forgotten his books.” If she were to explain to me the structure of this sentence from a purely theoretical grammatical stance, I would’ve never learned French. But, I just wanted to know the translation. That’s it. The rest I found out through context. If you begin to study words or grammatical structures without a context, your spirits might dampen pretty soon. I did the same thing with “la” and “le” in french. Even though there is a general rule that helps to differentiate words with different gender, depending on the ending of the word, there are numerous exceptions. In French, there are so many exceptions to the rule that one wonders why they are called exceptions and not the rules. What I did, was to simply READ and READ and observe what kind of articles are you used in conjunction with these words. After a while, I didn’t even have to worry about any rules, I just knew all the exceptions, just like a native speaker does – intuitively, subconsciously, without applying structures and theoretical rules. In exactly 6 months I was her favorite student. Period. She had other students who also spoke GREAT French, but they spent at least 2-3 years with her. I’m not saying you won’t learn a language by following the classical model, I’m just saying it’s not for everyone and it’s very time consuming.

    What do you do if you can’t travel to the country the language of which you’re trying to learn? In that case READING and listening (literature, newspapers, magazines, TV shows, movies) become even more paramount. If you don’t read enough, your conversations and/or writing style will always be very basic, street vendor level. Reading quality books (i.e. literature) will enhance your vocabulary immensely and build language structure subconsciously, while also receiving pleasure from reading. Reading is very important.

    I wanted to learn Japanese and I looked up Rosetta Stone web-site several days ago. They mention a very important word “immersion” which is a key word. You have to immerse yourself in any language and the only way you can do it is by forgetting whether “dog” is a verb or a noun. You know anyway that “dog” is different from “to smile”, don’t you? Just read and listen to examples and you will learn to differentiate and construct sentences by simple observation.

    Same in sports. If you get stuck on rules you will never learn. Learn the basics and then immerse yourself and learn from your mistakes and practice. Ask people who know better, don’t just learn theoretical rules, otherwise you will always catch yourself thinking “well, now I’m in the water so let me swing my arm while at the same time criss-crossing my feet and trying not to bend my knees too much. well that’s good, but oh shit I’m forgetting to breathe, ok breathe breathe. Oh shit, I’m bending my knees too much. Etc, etc” You can simply drown.

    When I was 7 I became fascinated with horses and by the age of 14 I was racing horses in official races with people who had Master Jockey qualifications and were 30-40 years old or older with decades of racing experience. I never went to an Equestrian Academy, but I learned by simply observing the Masters at work. For one year I simply took care of horses, washed and fed them. When I turned 8 I asked one Jockey to let me ride his race horse. He was a kind-hearted man and let me seat on it thinking he would simply walk the horse around while holding the reins. As soon as I sat on the horse I assumed correct back posture, right leg position and held the reins correctly. He was amazed. I asked him to run for a few seconds and lead the horse. He did and was amazed that I could rise and and fall on the saddle in rhythm with the trot of the horse. I didn’t know at the time that students were taught how to move in rhythm with the trot by counting, like in music. 1,2, 1,2… Most of the students were lost in counting and would flop their buts on the saddle until it hurt so much they were disoriented and the horse didn’t heed anymore. I learned this by simply observing that it was necessary to raise your butt and put it back on the saddle, because that’s what the Masters did. Simple as that. In 3 months, I had an enormous privilege to be selected as a candidate rider for a beautiful Akhal-Teke horse (a most beautiful and gracious breed of horses in my opinion from Central Asia). In another three months I rode the horse full time without setting a foot in the Equestrian Academy, which was almost unthinkable then.

    One doesn’t wind up in an unexpected street fight and think: “Oh let me swing my arm from my shoulder and not open up my arm all the way, that way it will have more effect and I will protect my wrist and hand.” You do it naturally,. You just do it. Language is the same. Mistakes and endless repetition/practice.

    Sorry for such a long post. Good luck to everyone with languages.

    1. This reply is four years old, but I think mastroiani ‘s post is one of the best short summaries of how to learn a language that I’ve ever read.

  172. Hi,

    I had a crazy passion for learning Russian. I still love it, but my motivation isn’t alive.

    What I find is that if I am trying to talk Russian and the Russian I am speaking to begins to speak in English, I automatically revert back to English. So I think “Why do I need to learn?” This is why I prefer to have just a couple of female Russian friends who have no idea how to speak English. It forces me to keep practicing.

    My wife is Russian. I met her on Skype and we met for a holiday in Thailand. Amazing trip, but now we only speak in English (she needs it if she is going to survive here and work). And because i’m still learning, if I force myself to speak (I can actually hold a deep conversation in Russian), if I don’t know words, I go back to English and then have to force myself to go back in, even though these Russians know English.

    However, when I started learning to speak Russian, one of the best CD’s I bought taught me to speak romantically in Russian. Sure there were useful day to day lessons and great grammar lessons, but I loved the romantic Russian. It REALLY helped when I met my girl in Thailand and when I travelled to Russia and met her family and friends. Once again, she doesn’t require that learn Russian. She prefers to speak to speak in English.

    Anyway, this program, which I highly recommend is at http://speakrussian.bilstonaudio.com . It’s awesome if you want to get a jumpstart in the language. What I found is that after I mastered this series, learning all the past, future and gender versions of other words was a breeze. PLUS I know how to speak romantically in Russian.

    In the end, you have to drive yourself to do it. Nobody will care but you. Only you miss out on the experience by not practising against all opposition.

    Hope it helps.

    Greg

  173. Does someone have a link to a Katakana/HIragana poster?

    I think it was mentioned somwhere on this blog.

    In Tim’s words: Ganbare!

  174. Tim,

    Since you learned Japanese How did you find the 100 most written and spoken words in Japanese? I am going to use your method to learn Japanese so I was wondering where to get started. I have a Japanese wife and she wants to help me learn.

    Thank you,

    –Shoki

  175. Hi Tim,

    I’m new to your blog which I found after accidentally stumbled on your video on TED website. I never heard of you or your book before, and I wish I did. My life could have been different by now.

    I don’t agree that most language classes don’t work.

    I used to hate the idea of learning a foreign language, until I decided that I absolutely had to learn English. I wasn’t ready to start from scratch or to spend all my time learning vocabulary and grammar on my own. So, I decided to take language classes and persuaded the school to accept me to the third (out of six) and not to the first level. In three months I caught up with the rest of the class. I applied the same principle to learning French and Italian.

    So, I highly recommend taking language classes to those who are lazy and not very excited about doing extensive self-study. Do it the same way I did, take language classes of two proficiency levels higher than yours, and you’ll see how fast you can learn!

    But I’m definitely going to try Tim’s approach and finally start learning Japanese as I can’t find Japanese language lessons in my town.

    Thank you!

    Svetlana

  176. Really good post Tim. Before reading 4HWW and the content on this blog I too was one of the many who believed learning a new language should take years of tireless practice. Now I’ve opened my eyes to these new and efficient ways of learning I hope to vastly improve upon my Spanish and French and maybe even look further afield!

  177. How to learn 40 languages in 10 years ?????

    So that is very easy then. You just start out with learning 1 language in 3 months and then start learning every 3 months a new one. 3 times 4 times ten = 40 languages in just 10 years.

    I’m right now learning Chinese my fourth language and it is very hard so. Please that nobody gets the idea of that learning a language is that easy. If it would be like that every person in the world would invest 2 years of studying hard and at least speak 8 languages……… 😉

  178. Hey, cool blog. Cool like Fonzie. I am an English tutor in Germany and this guy just contacted me wanting to go from almost no English to speaking and writing well within four months. We are going to meet 15 hours a week for four months (he’s got a lot of time). I’ve never tried to teach someone that intensely… I’ve been more of a conversation helper and once-a-week intermediate teacher… and, as a native speaker, my understanding of the English language is relatively poor. How can I help this guy most effectively? What kind of structure and exercises? (besides teaching him frequency words–a great idea, by the way–and phonetics right off the bat)? I got a book for adult learners, but I mean… I want to actually get results and motivate him and not just follow a simple, stupid book. If you have any advice as a language guru, I would really appreciate it. Thanks!

  179. Ok and PS. I am fluent in German, and attained fluency rather quickly, but have been stuck for a while at approximately the same level. It is very hard to motivate myself to do grammar exercises because the holes in my grammar are so scattered, and I can already use the language so well (you shouldn’t put off learning German, it’s fun!) the missing pieces have to do with prepositions, when verbs are transitive or intransitive, and specific expressions. Thanks, guru.

  180. In school I really disliked German lessons – mostly because the text book was about 2 unrealistic sensible youngsters playing detectives – how boring can you get?

    But when I was interested in the subject of radio antennas I went through a highly technical book about this subject in German with no strains or worries at all. The concepts just got to me, and I never thought it as ardous or hard to read.

  181. Ellen, I would suggest you have him read… a lot. After he gets some basic grammar in English (which shouldn’t be hard, English grammar is a bit more forgiving than in some other languages) the more input he gets the quicker he will pick up vocabulary and get the “rhythm” of the language. Have him read something (he is interested in, such as some articles from wikipedia or a blog about hobbies he likes or what his profession is) and then have him summarize or state his opinions about them to you, and you can discuss them. Have him highlight the words he doesn’t know so he can study them, or remember them when they come up again in another context. Also, teach him “filler phrases”, phrases that are there only to keep one’s mouth moving while they are thinking of something useful to say. This is something native speakers do which a lot of foreign speakers don’t, and will make him sound more natural. Examples are stuff like “now that you mention it”, “to tell the truth”, “while we are on that subject”, “its on the tip of my tongue”, “this reminds me of an interesting story”, “from my point of view”, “that could be, but” etc. And have him listen to English radio or tv when he’s not with you. Hope this helps.

  182. Do you know what an English idiom push up daisies mean? Well, now with WikIdioms, you can know in no time. WikIdioms is a new collaborative effort of translators and language lovers who have created first Internet multilingual dictionary of idiomatic expressions. It is both useful and fun! Everyone can also contribute expressions that he knows. Visit WikIdioms, educate yourself, translate idioms, contribute, have fun!

    Idiom translation is one hardest translation-related tasks. Idioms cannot be translated literally, as it will result in non-sense. In order to translate an idiom one should find the equivalent expression in the second language. It requires deep familiarity with the language and knowing the specifics of its metaphorical speech. WikIdioms is in fact a multilingual dictionary of idioms, created by native language speakers.

  183. I found your blog post during the course of some research to learn Zulu, and am most impressed with your insight and methodology with regards to learning new languages. The 80/20 rule is a business concept that I never really would’ve applied to language learning, but your point is well taken!

    Thank you for your excellent insight, I am going to look for some more similar posts on this blog straightaway.

    Best wishes

    Tim

  184. This is awesome to hear as I have been studying Spanish with one foot in the door (barely in the door). I was surfing for language study tips on google when I came across this post! Thanks for the swift kick in the butt to just do it!

  185. Nice article. as a successful Japanese language learner and now a teacher, I’m always looking for ways to make language learning more efficient. I like the idea of approaching learning from the perspective of greatest ROI. I think most decent materials attempt to do this to some extent, but I’ve always thought that the process could be made even more efficient. Good food for thought!

  186. My favourite is: seeing DVDs. But not the usual, lazy way.

    Turn OFF subtitles. Listen to the dialogues in the foreign language. Maybe you don’t understand the meaning, but you can write the words down. Pause after sentences. Rewind if neccesary (it is, almost always). If you can’t make a word out for the third hearing it’s a complicated one. So jump on to the next sentence.

    Then turn ON the subtitles. Write down the written words, the idioms. Be thorough.

    In a week or so you can kill a film.

    After 2-3 films (one month) you’re done. You ‘ve got excellent and LIVE, USEFUL vocabulary.

    Go for advanced level exam!

  187. It’s all about motivation and incentives. I just came back from a 4 month China trip and mainly stayed in Beijing to learn Mandarin Chinese.

    1. compared to other European languages such as Spanish for example Mandarin Chinese is even more easy to learn from my point of view

    2. there is almost no grammar to learn and the verbs aren’t conjugated

    3. shì (be) is always shí (and no be, was , been, were, is, are) whatever

    SO WHY THEN SO MANY FOREIGNERS (ESPECIALLY EUROPEAN ONES) LEARN RATHER SPANISH THAN CHINESE ????????

    ANSWER: BECAUSE FOR SOMEBODY FROM EUROPE OR AMERICA THE INCENTIVE TO LIVE IN A NICE COUNTRY SUCH AS SPAIN OR SOUTH AMERICA IS 100 X BIGGER THAN THE INCENTIVE TO LIVE AND WORK IN BEIJING FOR EXAMPLE.

    LANDSCAPE-WISE AND CULTURE-WISE THE DIFFERENCES ARE SO BIG THAT NO “NORMAL” EUROPEAN WANTS TO LIVE IN CHINA FOR A LONGER PERIOD OF TIME TO LEARN CHINESE PROFFESIONAL (LETS SAY MORE THAN 2 YEARS)

    IF WE TALKING ABOUT LANGUAGE LEARNING ———- AT LEAST I PUT ALWAYS THE MOTIVATION AND THE INCENTIVE FIRST.

  188. Hey Tim (or anyone else out there),

    I love this article, however can you explain HOW you learn a word list once you have one?

    Do you learn batches of words at a time (say 20 per day, then review each day after)? What is a good way of remembering – writing it down many times or is there a better way? I tried to find an answer in the comments but didn’t have much luck.

    Cheers!

    Luke

  189. After reading this article I searched for frequency lists and came across a set of books called “The Ultimate Word List” for a ton of different languages on Amazon. I haven’t seen them before but will check out the Hebrew one since that’s the language I’m studying. Tim, did you get your list from those books?

    Steve

  190. Follow-up: My actual DVD is Couples Retreat. It rocks (not a Monthy Python but still very good).

    Yesterday I got to the point that having turned off the subtitles maybe 80% of the film remained understandable for first hearing, with rewinds it climbed up to 90%.

    (the English guy’s dialect and manner is awesome)

    Icing on the cake: when I switched to German audio (DVD was bought in Vienna) it was still relatively easy to understand (my mother language is none of the above 😉

    Oh nooo, maybe it is too easy a film to understand … ?

  191. @Luke: experiment with your methods. Yes, start with 20 words. Then change. Important is to meet a word quite a few times. Triple-check your vocabulary.

    Obviously you must have your word list written (I use different colors, but without any specific order, just to make it colorful, playful).

    No struggling. If a word is really important you’ll meet it quite a few times (and eventually you’ll learn it). If not, it wasn’t so important, don’t feel guilty when you forgot it.

  192. Hello

    great post

    I have to say as a linguist it really doesn’t take much to learn a new language. I learned to communicate in chinese in 1 month after 30!

    Now I am not really feeling the motivation to learn more well not at the moment, maybe try a new challenge… new language at 40, 50, 60 etc…

  193. Tim, you have referenced second language acquisition a few times (like in a video while talking about living languages when you mentioned the importance of being able to create words not just understand them) but I find the way you learn incongruent with Stephen Krashen, a polymath like yourself considered basically as the yoda of SLA theory. His emphasizes input, input, input (like Steve Kaufman with linq and his successful blog) on the path to learning. Its not so much talk all the time, but listen and read all the time. What do you think about input theory? Some people say it is ABSOLUTELY essential and others (like Benny the Irish Polyglot) say the complete opposite.

    1. Hi Michael,

      I do both. I don’t think it’s either/or, BUT I do maintain that recognition doesn’t automatically mean recall, but active recall nearly always (I’ve never seen an exception) means recognition.

      Just my 2 cents,

      Tim

    2. Michael,

      Krashen did a lot to advance SLA research in the 80s, but more current research suggests that “input is necessary, but not sufficient.” If interested in knowing more, check out Input-Interactionist theories. (For example, Michael Long’s research is very well respected in the field)

  194. Ah, very good point with needing to chose material that interests you! That actually reminds me of how I learned to read in the first place.

    I was actually placed into the slow kids group because I couldn’t read. I couldn’t read because I didn’t care… “Spot ran down the road.” *Yawn*.

    It wasn’t until my first class trip to the public library that I garnered any interest at all. There was a book with nice clear pictures that let me figure out the context right away. It was a book on building things, like batteries, radios, and other surprisingly simple toys. After that, it can’t have taken more than a month for me to be able to sound out 90% of all words. (But it took me years on the internet to be able to spell more than a handful. Seriously, I probably would have wrote “More then a hand ful.”)

    I also like how you concentrate on common words. I have a friend who is very well spoken, the closest to perfect I’ve ever met.

    We often argue because his perfect grammar and huge vocabulary allow him to make his words speak for him… And that turns him into a terrible communicator.

    Using abstruse words too often is only one issue when you ignore how a language is actually used, and concentrate on perfection.

  195. This sounds like a lot better way to learn then what they do in school. I always had trouble learning languages. Maybe I’ll apply this to my wife’s first language and suprise her one day. lol. She would be shocked.

  196. These are some great suggestions made here on how to learn a language. It really not how much you know that matters, it’s what you do with what you have learned and then applying it everyday. Most people don’t use over a few hundred words anyhow with any given language on a daily basis. So it’s better acquire quickly the basics and the rest will follow quickly. Nice tips!

  197. G’day Tim!

    I was very interested in your learning language article as I’m here in Taiwan.

    I have previously learnt some basic German and never had too much difficulty with it due to the similarities with English.

    I understand that you have learnt Chinese and have spent some time here in Taiwan. I also understand what you’re saying in respect of breaking down and analyzing a language, however, I have done this previously but I feel I am really tone deaf.

    I not only have trouble in retaining the sound of each tone but I feel I also have greater difficulty in memorizing vocabulary compared to German, perhaps due the different nature of Chinese.

    Any tips?

    Thanks in advance,

    Warren

  198. Hey Tim and other readers,

    What are your thoughts on this video and the thesis listed below? I realize it is long (15 mins,) but I think it is VERY persuasive and worth it. It is from Stephen Krashen–maybe the most regarded researcher in the field of Second Language Acquisition. This video summarizes his enormous body of research.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4K11o19YNvk&feature=related

    If you dont have time for the entire video, start it at 14:30, although you sacrifice the emphasis he puts on comprehensible input. Its more about that than anxiety.

    Basic summary:

    1) We only learn through comprehensible input

    2) Everyone learns the same way

    3) You can not learn by speaking

    -but speaking can allow you access to more comprehensible input in conversations

    4) To learn, anxiety must be zero. Anxiety prevents learning. We must want to learn and believe we can.

    This has worked very well for me with Spanish and French, although I realize they are not especially demanding languages.

    Thoughts???

  199. Tim and other readers,

    What do you think of this video and the thesis it argues? It is Stephen Krashen, who is pretty much the Michael Jordan of Second Language Acquisition Theory. It is longish (15 min), but I think its persuasive and worth it.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NiTsduRreug&feature=related

    If you dont want to watch the whole thing, check out start at 14:20 (but in doing this you will lose the large emphasis he puts on comprehensible input)

    If you dont want to watch it at all, here are the major ideas:

    1) You only learn when you have Comprehensible Input. There are no exceptions

    2) Everyone learns the same way

    3) Talking is not practicing

    -Talking only helps expose you to Comprehensible Input because your conversation partners respond

    4) Anxiety can prevent the language acquisition process

    This has been the case with my language learning process. I speak fluent French I think because I have listened to and read alot of French. I speak very fluent Spanish because I have listed to and read A TON of Spanish. Clearly to master a language you have to speak it and languages with sounds that dont exist in English (like the retro-flex R in Chinese or the deep throat H’s and G’s in Arabic) need to be practiced. These well-supported theses, however, argue that what comes in seems much more important than what comes out. Who agrees or disagrees with this?

    I posted something similar on this above but after seeing this video felt compelled to further push our dialogue. Hope you enjoy it.

  200. Hi Mr Tim

    I have bought your book “Four hour work week”. It’s very great!

    I come from Vietnam and now I’m studying English. I love studying language. What you share is very helpful!

    Thank you very much.

    Van Lun from Hanoi, Vietnam.

  201. Hi Tim

    I really apreciate your tips in Brazil you are very popular we call you here a 171 guy maner, 171 cleaver , gorgeous and freely

    best regards

    See you on DP

    Robin

  202. Hi there Tim,

    I love your language articles.

    Do you think you will be able to share this in Japanese?

    ????????????

    Best wishes from Japan,

    Kimi

  203. Hi Timothy, I wanted to give this book to my father in-law, but unfortunately I can’t find any in korean print as he does not speak or read english very well. I thought this book would greatly help him out as he’s always stressed working at his dry cleaning business and never takes a day off and has to make all the decisions. Is there any way to get this book in Korean?

  204. I agree with you about the how, why, and what we study is important. But I don’t see how you claim to learn “95% comprehension with 100% expressive abilities” in 3 months when you said yourself that you need to understand the top 300-500 words in a language just to understand 65% of conversation. Learning a language is so much more than memorizing 500 vocabulary words, especially if you are studying Japanese as a native English speaker or any other combination of unrelated languages. And especially when most of the “common words” are not vocabulary like dog and cat, but intangible grammar words that take on multiple functions according to situation, such as “which” and “almost”, and likely have multiple translations in the target language.

  205. hi Tim, can you help me with a a question, can anybody learn a language in three months with a home study packages such as Rosetta stone? and just curiosity how much language a person can learn in three months?

  206. Hi Tim,

    I had the pleasure of meeting you after your presentation at the Commonwealth Club last week. I’m the guy that is introducing the Japanese method of fly-fishing, ???? (tenkara) to the US (and of the tea). As per your post on meeting Warrent Buffet, rest assured I’m not looking for money, I’m happy with no headaches and a true 4HWW, which I have achieved.

    I just wanted to say again how much I have appreciated learning the 4-hour workweek approach to things. Though I got a BA in international business and finance with emphasis in entrepreneurship, and my entire family seems to have the entrepreneurial gene, nothing has been so inspiring, and helpful as the thoughts you presented in 4-HWW. In the last 2 years I have created what is perceived as the biggest innovation in the fly-fishing industry, and quite a revolution here, while being able to work 4 hours a week, when I want to 🙂

    Now you also inspired me much on language learning. Over the years I have accumulated very good knowledge of 5 languages, 3 with fluency. However, though I’m introducing a Japanese method of fishing outside of Japan, I have struggled getting started with Japanese. After hearing your very excellent accent in Mandarin and German (two languages I learned relatively well), and you speaking Japanese, I decided to revisit your blog posts on language learning. I will be spending 2 months in Japan learning more about tenkara, and need to get better with Japanese to communicate with my sensei. Your thoughts on language learning almost feel like a new breakthrough, despite the number of languages I have learned well. I have had my face on Japanese books, comics and my ears and eyes on Japanese tv. I have been deconstructing the language. And, over the last week I have learned more than in many other months of unsuccesful attempts at Japanese. I think I got it this time.

    Thanks for the insights, and I would really like to read more on language learning from you.

    Should you want to join me in Japan for some tenkara fly-fishing, I’ll be there May-June 2011.

    Daniel

  207. You may find this article by Dinoj Surendran and Partha Niyogi (CS, U of Chicago) interesting: http://arxiv.org/pdf/cs/0311036v1

    “Measuring the Functional Load of Phonological Contrasts”

    It basically suggests that contrast is more important than frequency, as far as pronunciation is concerned.

    I ran into it while working on a blog post related to a language learning application that I’m building. I see a lot of potential for measuring important aspects of the learning process here, but I need some time to think that through.

  208. Hi Tim, or anyone else that can help me here.

    My native language is Chinese Mandarin, and second language is English (9 years). And I’m going on an exchange program to Japan in about 8 months. So the question is:

    Is it best to study Japanese using Mandarin as the base language, or English? In terms of my fluency, Mandarin > English (Speaking), English > Mandarin (reading and writing)

    Sincerely,

    Wei

  209. Great post…..I recently bought an apartment in Italy and this requires me to have far more fluency in the Italian language. So this is a very interesting thread for me. I’m planning to subject the ideas to scientific trial.

  210. Great article!

    Just wanted to point out a small error in the last paragraph:

    “If you were a(n) student of English….”

    Looking forward to reading more of your blog, thanks!

  211. Hi Tim,

    I’m Vietnamese, I love English but it is difficult to learn. The old methods in High School of Vietnam is not really suitable. When I read your article, I liked it very much.Thanks you….

  212. Hi loved the books one question for Tim or anyone else on this blog who knows where can I get a list of the 2500 high frequency words in Spanish that are mentioned in 4HWW. I am very interested in getting to this level of Spanish quickly. Many thanks Matt

    1. @Colin

      “The Ultimate Word List – Italian” also seems to exist. It looks like there is a bunch of them if you just search for that author’s name. I have the Hebrew one, and it’s quite good.

  213. I’ve been in Japan for 10 years, but my Japanese still sucks! I study on my own and I’ve tried many language schools (they are often so boring!) I can communicate in Japanese but it’s very poor and depending on who I’m talking with I can speak more or less. Honestly, my motivation goes up when I start studying, then down because I realize I’m not learning as fast as I should. I wish there was a more dynamic and engaging way of learning Japanese. If anyone out there did something that really helped, please share your wisdom with me. onegai shimasu!!

  214. Hi Tim,

    If you have the time (a big if), I’d love to get your feedback on the (Mandarin) pronunciation learning iPhone application I built. It sends your pronunciation to a human teacher in China for feedback.

    I also wrote a blog post about my quest of trying to find the minimal set of phrases needed to get to a reasonable quality of pronunciation.

    I’m trying to decide what to build next. I could work on analytics, for example which tone a student has most difficulty with, based on their scores. Or I could improve the learning material based on learning curves (I store each successive pronunciation and score).

    Or I could change some other functionality in the app. What would be most interesting?

    Cheers,

    Sjors

  215. Hi Tim. I’m starting my own blog on learning a specific language (portuguese) and found your article very stimulating. As a teacher I think that we always have to learn so we can teach better, Will be checking your site.

  216. My tip for languages is to get an audio book course (I use the Pimsleur ones) and play it in your car during your commute. It is one of the best ways to make better use of time I would normally just be listening to music or the radio

  217. Until the graduation from a graduate school in the U.S., I thought I am pretty good at English. But, as I started to work in the U.S., I realized that there is a long way to go. Especially, whenever I have lunch or dinner or hang out at a party with my American friends, there have always been expressions that I have no clue about what they mean. Without learning them, it is in fact really hard to get involved into conversations. To get over that issue, I decided to take a few steps.

    1. Spend as much time with American friends as I can.

    2. Do not be afraid of asking questions to them if they use any expression that I have never heard of.

    3. Do my best to use them in writing and speaking.

    In doing so, I have not only met amazing friends but learned a lot of expressions that most non-native English speakers have no idea about.

    One good example is scumbag. My friend read your article and told me about it in relation to another expression, low life.

    Good time and fun!

    Thank you for your great post, Tim!

  218. Challenge for Tim,

    I would love to see your results if you applied your principles to learning a musical instrument.

    -Jeff

  219. This is right on. I spent a summer in the Ivory Coast and for the first month I really struggled learning with my language partner (French). Finally I sat down one afternoon with a French/English dictionary and I wrote a page full of all the nouns and pronouns I had been wanting to say for the last month, then another page full of verbs and adverbs. Over the next few weeks of working with those 2 sheets of paper and my language partner, my French comprehension exploded. I realized at that point that starting with the most commonly used or most needed vocabulary was the way to learn a language!

    BTW, loved the 4 Hour Work Week. It is a life changing book. -Thanks

  220. Hola! It’s funny… I studied English for years while I was in Colombia, but only after I went to the U.S. for a year I became really able to use the language. And it was not thanks to studying the language, but just doing a bunch of stuff in the language: reading, listening to music, talking to people, watching movies… in the end, having contact with the language in the form of native media and people is the sure-fire way of becoming fluent in [insert target language here]. Thanks for the post Tim!

  221. Hi Tim,

    Thanks for the great post. I go back to this every now and then to keep myself on track in my language learning journey.

    So I have a question about learning Japanese. Once you’ve found the Jouyou kanji list, what’s the best way to go about incorporating all 2000 or so words into one’s repertoire? One of the problems I’ve been having lately is that there seems so much content to take in (frequency lists seem to be so easy to get with all the software that’s floating around), but as for the “efficiency (process)” part of your article, I’ve yet to find something that tells me exactly where I will be able to get to in X amount of time, doing such and such. How did you become fluent in Japanese in just 6 months, and is it possible to do it in just 3 months (assuming you live in Japan)?

    Also, on a side note, I grew up in a bilingual household (english and mandarin chinese), though my chinese is probably equivalent to that of a 6th grader. Would you recommend people who are partially bilingual to work on two languages simultaneously?

  222. Hi Tim,

    In Brazil, last week to be more precise, you’re on the front page of one of the most important magazine from here; sorry for my bad english, because I’m studying german language, anyway, how can i get some specific material to improve my fluency in german, of course, following yours rules;

    By the way, The articule about you is amazing

    Answer to me in portuguese, if you can, (just a joke!!)

    Hugs

  223. Hello, I’ve finished with my first year of Freshmen Mandarin in High School and after reading this book I decided to take a trip to London. I was wandering the streets when I came across a Japanese manga and anime shop, I’m a real big fan of Gundam, the only problem was it was all in Japanese! I still bought the first edition of Gundam 00 and a Japanese- English dictionary. Is it possible to learn to read Japanese Manga and understand Japanese anime like an actual Japanese teenager while learning Chinese in High School? Thanks

  224. I would like to second the importance of using content that regularly interests you when learning a language. Once a grammatical foundation is built, incorporating natural language study is incredibly effective.

    I think the vocab lists are a great idea, though I would recommend a significant amount of effort be placed in sentence structure and verb study in the early stages of learning, simply because a list of vocabulary words won’t help a person to formulate thoughts or express themselves. Sentence structure and verbs are the dynamic part of languages, and deserve more attention in the early stages than vocabulary, simply because the vocab will come naturally over time.

    Great post though. Keep it up!

  225. I’m going to be doing some Muay Thai training in Thailand this Dec, so I shall put your theory to the test Tim! Three months to learn Thai it is. I’ll report back and either revere your method as genius or slate it as shonk in mid-Dec. 🙂 I’m sure a system is only as good as the person implementing it though, right?

    On that – how many hours a day (minimum) do you suggest studying in order to nail a new language in the 3 month time frame?

    Thanks for the linguistic headstart and look forward to hearing from you, Camilla.

  226. Hi Tim,

    I would like to write a lifestyle/success coaching book, but unsure what the word length should be. Therefore, read your amazing book, the 4 hour work week for guidance. However, I can’t seem to find what the word count of the book is. Could you find this information out for me? I am looking at the original edition’s word count, not the orange/red updated edition.

    Thank you!

  227. Tim, thank you for inspiring me to learn Chinese. I was thinking, if you can do it in three month I will get there somehow. I am in my second year. I still suck but I enjoy it and your tricks helped me a lot.

  228. My 2c:

    I’m not interested in learning to read any languages, just speak.

    What I do is this: ignore grammar completely in the beginning and attempt to learn a pidgin so I can *communicate*.

    I figure babies learn the most common words and then figure out the grammar afterwards from context. So do I.

    Initially I learned about 5,000 words or so of written words in Spanish in Supermemo then I started reading grammar books and watching telenovelas in Spanish. It took about a year and I have university level (or better!) fluency in Spanish complete with grammar etc.

    Right now I have to work with three main languages at the airport (german, dutch and italian). So far I only have limited Italian and very very little Dutch and German. But here’s the rub: my Italian is seriously pidgin but I can communicate in a baby like way well enough. I reckon I need only a few hundred words and I can kludge my Spanish and Italian together for maximum effect even if the grammar is crap.

    The same method I used to learn Spanish I will apply to learn Dutch. This time, however, I’ll be using spoken words rather than written words in Anki and I expect I’ll accumulate them much, much faster because the brain is geared to learn spoken language faster than written.

    1. I am responding to db’s comment above: I am learning much the same way as you describe (vocabulary first using spaced repetition, then grammar) only I am hoping to learn about 10000 words of vocabulary in my target language (which is Polish) and I AM trying for reading proficiency as well as speaking proficiency. I have so far learned about 7000 words using Anki and have found that I have also picked up some grammar and speaking proficiency along the way, though my main study of grammar and practice in speaking comprehension and production will begin when I have learned the 10000 words with a fair degree of proficiency. My eventual goal is to reach near-native proficiency,

      I am also working on learning Dutch and Italian on the side, but at a much slower rate than I am learning Polish.

      1. How can you learn Polish (and other exotic languages) at an advanced level at all? E.g.where do you cull your vocabulary from and how do you determine word frequency? How do you find right and useful usage examples of those words since almost every part of speech is heavily conjugated and looking up by headwords only in a search engine usually won’t do the trick?

  229. @traveler,

    I reckon many people give up because they set the bar too high.

    I’m cheating a little by being satisfied when I can speak and have minimal functional conversations in a pidgin. I suspect that many people give up because their bar is fully functional conversation in a range of subjects. That probably requires being immersed for at least some months AND doing all the rote memorization stuff or else spending at least an hour or a couple hours every day watching TV in the target language which is really sore on the head because you can’t get any feedback from the speakers.

  230. Hey, Tim: I just heard you via the Long Now Foundation Web stream. I’m most interested in your practical applications of learning how to learn. The more you speak and write about those the better. Thanks. Nice presentation.

  231. Tim, I saw you speak about this in SF just a few days ago. I live in a house with many people and everyone speaks at least 2 languages if not more. It has been a personal embarrassment that I do not. I’ve always wanted to learn French and am scared out of my mind to do it, but I promise to put at least a few weeks in to see if I can get up the courage to continue.

    I do have a question. The majority of my time is spent working on my company and do not read for leisure much or anything else for that matter (just emails, facebook, and some blogs). The majority of my consumption is through videos. How can I apply this to watching a movie or watching a video on my customer base?

  232. I like your post, and the idea that one can learn languages outside of traditional methods, but, having been an expat in 4 different countries for over 10 years, I have to say that people here seem to be a bit overly optimistic about how quickly they can learn a language. Not trying to be argumentative, but, let’s face it, learning a language is hard work, and it does take time. …longer than 3 months!

  233. My approach to learning Spanish was very similar to the one that Tim describes. I needed a good dictionary that would allow me to work efficiently without switching between languages and without the need to type the whole word. Knowing word frequency was essential. Ability to save searches and having a history of searches was important. Being unable to find a dictionary that would satisfy that criteria, I wrote one. It’s located at http://www.meomero.com

    I also built the number of other tools that would simplify language learning. If you are interested, just email me at esadov AT yahoo

    Later.

  234. Great post Tim,

    I’m learning Spanish (and how to live in Spain!). I wish I had given this some thought a few years ago! Speeding up learning is the best advice I can give anyone, focus on the language for a few months, learn it and go out and enjoy!

    BTW shouldn’t your English list have ‘It’ on… it! It is a pretty common word!

    Hasta luego

    James

  235. Very helpful, learning a language can be very easy depending on the commitment of the person.

    I have found a very good website, where you can learn online with native speakers or meet up with them during events or even live together in flat or room shares inorder to learn languages.

    foreigntalk.com

    The website i have found to be really good and by far the most userfriendly.

  236. Why don’t you address the difference in plasticity (the ability to learn new information and absorb experiences) between the per-pubescent brain vs. the adult brain. It is a well documented fact that children are better able to learn languages than adults because of their exposure to phonemes and the receptiveness of their brains to this particular type of stimuli. If you take a bit of time to explore this contrast, you will find that this is the primary reason why it is difficult for adults to learn a new language.

    Do your homework before you propose the solution to a difficult problem. If you don’t, then you may appear to be uninformed, like you do in the above post.

  237. Hi Tim,

    Your point about the “proper tools” is so very important. Yet the truth is, when I was learning Spanish, the very best “tool” I had – and the one that enabled me to learn VERY quickly – was a Spanish girlfriend! Much better than any book…

  238. One thing I found useful, rather than simply working on getting down the most common words, is getting down your most common phrases. You could memorize the top 100 words, but may not be able to put them together very well. Of course, this will correct itself over time as you try communicating and practice and get corrected enough. But, I’ve always found it easier to start with phrases because that will make it easier to start communicating right away.

    You would be surprised how much of your conversation can be boiled down to 15-20 phrases or questions. You will also learn quite a bit from the responses, as they will also be somewhat standard. Use this as a foundation, and expand outwards from there.

    As a side note: when I travel to new places, I typically focus on learning introductory conversational phrases, a couple polite phrases (pleases and thank yous, and the like), a few restaurant/food phrases, and perhaps some sports words if I’m playing sports. Take the time to think about who you’ll be around most that speaks your target language, and in what situations. It should be a situation that you are in often, and then you can easily switch to 100% in their language.

    1. Definitely a good idea: learning words in groups (such as phrases) makes it much easier to remember them, and in addition, as you point out, such phrases can be used for everyday basic communication.

  239. I like how you encourage those learning a second language to use the language as a vehicle to a their own interests. So often I train language teachers who bring students materials that the teacher enjoys when it’s better to let students decide what THEY want to read, what topics they are curious about online, for example. I’m doing research on how to teach yourself another language. Check out some quick videos on http://www.youtube.com/getbilingual and it’d be cool to hear what other topics would help you learn a language.

  240. I’ve just read your post for a third time; it still impresses me! Being a language learner/teacher myself for decades I can only second practically everything you say. Most especially, your point about concentrating on material that interests you is, I have found, of truly supreme importance. I myself would much rather expand my vocabulary by reading philosophy, than about going shopping, for example. A good idea is to buy a book in the foreign language that is a good translation of one you already own in your language, then work your way through it with the help of the translation. This method, employed by Heinrich Schliemann, worked like a charm for him, and I feel it is still recommendable.

  241. Thank you so much Tim Ferriss, with this tactics, I will push myself to learn all languages in all over the world as I could. Up to that time, I hope you can join my party_Live Strong

  242. I want to nth Michel Thomas tapes. They’re freakin’ awesome (for romance languages at least).

    On the train the first time I went to Italy I got through about 4 hours of the foundation set and could have basic conversation when I arrived. By the end of 3 weeks I could nearly converse. They’re pretty impressive.

    One of the cleverest things they do is emphasize learning ‘helper’ verbs like I need, I want, I can. It’s a neat trick because in romance languages if you use one of these verbs you don’t have to conjugate the second verb, and you can be surprisingly expressive once you know a few helper verbs and a range of other verbs in the infinitive form.

    e.g. Spanish

    Quiero (I want)

    Quiero bailar: I want to dance

    Quiero beber: I want to drink

    Quiero ir al bano: I want to go to the bathroom.

    A useful thing to try if you’re learning a new language and don’t want to buy the michel thomas tapes.

    1. I totally agree, James. I encountered this same process used by another teacher, Marcus Santamaria, who calls his approach Shortcut to Spanish. Santamaria uses out-of-the-box marketing templates which give his websites the look of a scam, which is sad, because his language approach materials are some of the best I have ever used, bar none. I have been learning languages for over ten years now, and his approach for my adult brain and schedule has been the most effective. But even though his marketing is not as sophisticated as that of the larger publishing companies, don’t think his work is unsophisticated. Like Thomas, he focuses on modal verbs, like quiero, necesito, and you can quickly become conversational, rather than spending months learning only to discover you have the conversational abilities of a five-year-old. Always a good thing.

      I wish more companies would use this approach. As it is, I have to take every text for a language I want to learn and develop a modal verb approach before I begin. I find all other techniques a waste of my time, but, without a modal tape approach available for other languages, I have depended on Pimsleur to get a start on the spoken language. I then use my own modal verb approaches to go deeper into the language quickly. Good to know Thomas uses the modal verb approach. I have been trying to figure out how to do a similar approach with Mandarin and Japanese, which are different.

      Santamaria has a subscription plan which allows me to start and stop as I have time or money. He is constantly developing more advanced programs for listening and advanced conversation. His tapes use native Mexican speakers and are terrific. I assume Thomas teaches Castillian. I grew up in Texas and prefer the Mexican Spanish dialect and Latin American syntax/vocab. He is native to Australia and married a woman from the Baja area of California, according to his website. Much of his approach was developed in Mexico and southern California. I think he may have moved his family to Australia, even though his business is still located in San Isidro.

      Other techniques which Santamaria has developed and are applicable to rapid language learning are the use of cognate patterns. He has glossaries of thousands of English/Spanish cognate roots, grouped by the suffix or prefix necessary to change the English word into Spanish. After you learn the patterns you can quickly change thousands of words you already know from English into Spanish. I’m doing the same for Yiddish classes that I teach. This is very helpful on European languages that share many cognates. For Asian languages, it would probably be less helpful. It’s another great technique, and is a terrific next step after you have learned the 100 most frequent words that Tim recommends here.

      I know some of this sounds like an ad for Santamaria, but I have never met him and have no connection to him except as a student online. My teenage daughter is learning Spanish from Bard College professors and I find what I learn from Santamaria is identical in quality and content if not technique–and I’m not in a classroom everyday.