Tim Ferriss on languages again

Tim Ferriss has produced another post on language learning called How to Learn Any Language in 3 Months.

The post contains some interesting ideas. Ferriss says “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.” To Ferriss the key elements of a successful language learning strategy are:
1. Effectiveness (Priority)
2. Adherence (Interest)
3. Efficiency (Process)

By Effectiveness he seems to mean making sure that you choose the right language, one that you are likely to succeed in. In his view similarity to a language you speak, especially in terms of phonemes or sounds,?? is key. In my experience the most important factor in choosing a language is how badly you want to learn it. Good language learners are able to be positive about the language they are learning and do well in all of them. I think Ferriss himself is an example of this, as he is really very good at a number of languages.

It is his concept of Adherence that I really buy into. In other words choose methods of study that you like and are likely to stay with. I have never been a fan of memory systems, mnomonics and the like, and am a light user of SRS systems even though I know that others really enjoy them. Stick with what we like, in terms of learning systems and in terms of the content that we read and listen to. Absolutely. This also means taking control of one’s learning, something that I know Ferriss also recommends.

Where I am not so much in agreement with Ferriss is his third point,Efficiency. He seems to suggest that focusing on high frequency words will get us 80% of the way to our language goals, to “learning a language”. In my experience, you need a lot of vocabulary to feel comfortable, lots and lots. This applies to comprehension and to expressing yourself. I think the goal of 95% comprehension and 100% expressive ability can be achieved in we drastically limit what we want to talk about, or if the language we want to learn is very similar to one we know, in terms of vocabulary (Spanish-French-Portuguese-Italian). Otherwise three months is just a start.

But that is just my experience.

How to remember grammar…anyone know of easy to use verb conjugators and noun decliners and the like?

The problems of grammar, or of the structure of a new language, are of two kinds. One, is the problem of understanding a concept that we are not familiar with in our own language. This can include the use of articles for speakers of languages that have no articles, aspect in Russian verbs,?? some tenses in English, or the subjunctive in some languages etc..

The second category of grammar problem, is actually remembering the verb form changes and case endings, and being able to use them correctly without thinking.

For the problem of understanding concepts, we need a combination of an initial general explanation, a heads up so to speak, followed by lots of exposure, then more explanation, more exposure, some correction, especially in the written form, if the learner is up to it, and more exposure and gradually these concepts start to feel natural.

For the problem of remembering noun case endings, or verb conjugations, and the like, we need to be exposed to them in context on the one hand, and also to review them in tables on the other.

I would love to find the best verb conjugators, and noun decliners for different languages. I would just enter a word, and click to see the different forms of the verb or noun, adjective etc. Anyone know of any good websites where I can find these?

The three stages of language acquisition

To follow up on how long it takes to learn a language, here is something I wrote a few years ago on the stages of language learning.

“You are what you eat”

-popular saying

In the global information age, maybe it should be “you are what you can say”. Language, in its varied manifestations, is mankind’s defining achievement, and it also defines us. Language can be social, political, technical, practical, entertaining, sensual, philosophical, and much more. At the banquet of life, each language is another course. The better you can use languages, your own and others, the more you can enjoy the feast. At least that has been my experience.

I have achieved varying degrees of fluency in 12 languages, and look forward to learning more. To me, there are three natural stages in language growth, which I outline here. Billions of dollars are wasted on ineffective language and literacy instruction programs, which ignore these natural stages.

The first stage?? ?? Connecting with the language?? -?? 60-90 hours

My Goal: ???????????????????????????? ???? ????????????????To become familiar with a strange language
My Measurable: ???????????????? ????????????????Learn to recognize 1000 words
Main task:???????????????????????????????????????????????? Listen repeatedly to short, simple content
My Target Languages:???????????????? (planned) Czech, Arabic, Hindi, Turkish

When I begin, I need to “connect” with the new language and overcome my resistance to its strange sounds and structure. I don’t need to speak. I don’t need to understand any grammar. I don’t need to get anything “right”. I am not interested in mastering a few phrases or simple greetings. I want to get into the language, to get a feel for it.

Here is how Fred Genesee of McGill University describes the beginning stages of language learning.

When learning occurs, neuro-chemical communication between neurons is facilitated, in other words a neural network is gradually established. Exposure to unfamiliar speech sounds is initially registered by the brain as undifferentiated neural activity. As exposure continues, the listener (and the brain) learns to differentiate among different sounds and even among short sequences of sounds that correspond to words or parts of words???

I start by repeatedly listening to short morsels of content. These are 30 seconds long at first, eventually growing to one minute or longer. I listen to the same mouthful (earful?) 20 times or more, to help forge the new “neural networks” in my brain. Ideally these short episodes are part of a longer “story”, which makes the whole context meaningful. After focusing intensely on a new episode, I review all the old ones, so that I am able to digest longer and longer cumulative doses of the language. The Internet and my iPod shuffle make this content accessible and portable like never before in history.

Nowadays, I read the text of whatever I am listening to on my computer. This allows me to access an online dictionary and create my own database of words and phrases for review in a variety of ways. This acquisition of words and phrases, encountered in my listening and reading, is my key measurable goal as I grow in a language.

New words in a language at first seem strange and confusingly similar to each other. However, by staying with simple content, where common words appear often in different contexts, these words eventually start to stick. I usually associate the new words and phrases with episodes where I have heard them. The more associations I can attach to a word or phrase, the easier it is to remember.

I don’t speak much at first. I have so few words anyway. I practice repeating words and phrases out loud to myself, in a haphazard manner. I don’t worry about pronunciation. That will be easier to work on once my brain gets better at distinguishing the sounds.

I might speak a little, just for fun, to try out what I have learned. I can easily find a native speaker tutor or language exchange partner via the Internet. I don’t got to classrooms, since I don’t want to be confused by other non-native speakers.

The second stage ?? Getting comfortable in most situations ?????? 180-360 hours

My Goal:???????????????????????????????????????????????????? To understand ordinary conversations and most everyday language
My Measurable:?????????????????????????????????? Less than 10% unknown words in most conversations
Main tasks:?????????????????????????????????????????????? Listen to natural conversations; Work on vocabulary; Step up speaking and writing activity
My Target Languages:?????????????????? Russian, Portuguese, Korean ??

Now that I no longer find the language strange, I want to deal with the language as it is usually spoken or written by native speakers. This is sometimes referred to as “authentic” language.

Conversation is the easiest “authentic” content to understand, because the most commonly used words of a language account for 90-95% of conversations. The same most commonly used words usually account for 70-75 % of more formal written material.

Each item of study is now longer, 3 to 5 minutes or so. I listen to each item less frequently and cover more material, in order to learn more words. I use dead time, doing chores, driving or jogging to listen, over and over. The more words I already know, the easier it is to learn new words. Vocabulary is like money, “the more you have the more you get” or “the rich get richer”.

I like to stick to interesting and familiar subjects in my listening and reading, so I quickly drop anything that is uninteresting, or where I do not like the voices.?? At first it seems that native speakers talk very quickly, but my brain gets used to the natural flow, with enough repetition. I am not frustrated when I do not understand “authentic conversation”. I feel exhilarated when I do.

Again, Professor Genesee’s observations are helpful. Students’ vocabulary acquisition can be enhanced when it is embedded in real-world complex contexts that are familiar to them.

I sometimes talk to native speakers on the Internet. Speaking helps me to identify weaknesses, missing words, concepts that I can’t express, and words that I have trouble pronouncing. I can then work on these things on my own.

With limited contact with native speakers, I also write, especially on Internet blogs and forums. Writing is great for learning. I have time to compose my thoughts, and retain a record of my mistakes and problems.

At this stage, my main emphasis is still to listen, read, and increase my vocabulary.

The third stage?? ???? Constant improvement?????????????????????????? ???? ?????? 180 hours to forever

My Goal:?????????????????????? ????????????????????????????????????????????????To continue to enjoy the language, to learn more words, and to use the language better
My Measurable:?????? ???????????????????????????????????????????? Less than 10% unknown words in contexts that are of interest to me
Main tasks:?? ???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????? Follow my interests
My Target Languages:???????????????????????????????????? French, Japanese, Mandarin, Spanish, Swedish, German, Italian, Cantonese, English

This is the most rewarding stage. I can travel to the country where the language is spoken, or meet with native speakers. I know I will enjoy the experience, even though I make mistakes. I can maintain the language, even if I go for long periods without using it.

This is the best stage to study grammar. I?? have books and audio books on grammar, intended for native speakers of the language. I am now familiar enough with the language, through exposure, that I can use style and usage manuals intended for native speakers. Nevertheless, my personal interest takes me more to history and literature. I find reading books and listening to audio books, on subjects of interest, is the most enjoyable and most effective way to continue improving, or to refresh in a language that I have not used for a while.

I am not required to take any language proficiency tests. If I were, this is the stage when I would prepare in earnest for them. The keys to success on these tests are, the ability to read quickly and comprehend the spoken language, and a wide vocabulary of words and phrases, all of which I have already acquired, enjoyably and painlessly. Only at this level would I take these test, since I know that I would score well.

This is also the stage to work on special skills like making presentations, writing academic papers, or producing business reports. It is easy to find relevant material in the target language on the Web and elsewhere. The goal is to imitate the wording and turns of phrase, as well as the ways of organizing information, that are most appreciated in a particular language and culture. It is easy enough to find a native speaker professional tutor or coach, again via the Web, to work on these skills.


Having done it a few times, I know that I can learn a new language, or improve in a language I already speak well, including my own. So can anyone else who wants to. The key is motivation and enjoyment, not a school or a diploma. I know, as well, that the pursuit of perfection in any language is futile, so I am happy to make mistakes and do not really ask to be corrected. I just like to feast on languages, drinking, eating, tasting, chewing and digesting them. I never get full, although I may get a little intoxicated from time to time.

How long should it take to learn a language?

Language learning depends mostly on three factors, the attitude of the learner, the time available, and learner’s attentiveness to the language. If we assume a positive attitude on the part of the learner, and a reasonable and growing attentiveness to the language, and even a method that cultivates the learner’s attentiveness, how much time?

FSI, the US Foreign Service Institute, divides languages into groups of difficulty for?? speakers of English:

  • Group 1: French, German, Indonesian, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, Swahili
  • Group 2: Bulgarian, Burmese, Greek, Hindi, Persian, Urdu
  • Group 3: Amharic, Cambodian, Czech, Finnish, Hebrew, Hungarian, Lao, Polish, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Thai, Turkish, Vietnamese
  • Group 4: Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Korean

FSI has 5 levels of proficiency:

  1. Elementary proficiency. The person is able to satisfy routine travel needs and minimum courtesy requirements.
  2. Limited working proficiency. The person is able to satisfy routine social demands and limited work requirements.
  3. Minimum professional proficiency. The person can speak the language with sufficient structural accuracy and vocabulary to participate effectively in most formal and informal conversations on practical, social, and professional topics.
  4. Full professional proficiency. The person uses the language fluently and accurately on all levels normally pertinent to professional needs.
  5. Native or bilingual proficiency. The person has speaking proficiency equivalent to that of an educated native speaker.

On this scale, I would call 2 above basic conversational fluency.

FSI research indicates that it takes 480 hours to reach basic fluency in group 1 languages, and 720 hours for group 2-4 languages.

If we are able to put in 10 hours a day, then basic fluency in the easy languages should take 48 days, and for difficult languages?? 72 days. Accounting for days off, this equates to two months or three months time. If you?? only put in 5 hours a day, it will take twice as long.

Is ten hours a day reasonable? It could be. Here is a sample day.

8-12: Alternate listening, reading and vocabulary review using LingQ, Anki or some other system.
12-2: rest, exercise, lunch, while listening to the language.
2-3: grammar review
3-4: write
4-5: talk via skype or with locals if in the country
5-7: rest
7-10: relaxation in the language, movies, songs, or going out with friends in the language. depending on availability.

To some extent the language needs time to gestate and often things we study today do not click in for months. On the other hand intensity has its own benefits. I have no doubt that someone following this intense program, or something similar, would achieve basic conversational fluency in 2 months for easy languages, and 3 months for difficult languages.

To go from level 2 to level 4, or full professional fluency would take quite a bit longer, perhaps twice as long. This reminds me that I wrote something on this a few years ago. If I find it I will post it.

In praise of passive learning again.

Passive learning is the opportunity to just listen to or read something of interest, without having to interact with anyone, do drills or exercizes, or answer comprehension questions, or say anything when prompted.

It is a tremendous way of learning because;

  • you can do it anytime, even, in the case of listening, while doing other chores
  • it is relatively stress-free, and usually enjoyable
  • you do not have to go to a class or make an appointment with a teacher
  • you can choose what to listen to and read
  • if you read or listen to a variety of sources on related subjects, you can reinforce your understanding almost effortlessly
  • you can tune in and tune out and you will still learn, especially if you blend different sources of similar information
  • it is inexpensive
  • it is easily controlled by the learner
  • technology has made it easier than ever
  • you reinforce the power of listening by reading and vice versa

Benny?? the hyper Irishman has what he terms a “bombshell” of a rant on passive listening. He tell us that

“A whole industry of language learning products is based on something that I have to frankly say that I think is absolute rubbish.

Some people swear by it, and yet it rarely ever produces any useful results.

The shocking truth is that passive listening is never going to get you to fluency in a language. What???s even worse is that it won???t even help your ability to understand.”

As he often does, he constructs a?? straw man situation, that ” a whole industry of language learning” has thousands of people listening to unintelligible language content, and then delivers the shocking truth that this won’t work. He claims that he failed in the oral portion of his recent Geman exam because he had the German radio on in the background while he studied grammar or something. Well what did he expect?

I just scanned his article but found very little earth shattering there. Just putting a language on in the background is not going to help all that much. But realistically few?? learners rely on that to learn.

However, passively listening to content that you then can read as a transcript as we do at LingQ, and then listening to that content over and over,?? is a tremendously powerful way to learn, even if you tune out now and again.

The problem with Benny’s article is not so much what he says, but rather the impression he tries to create, that passive listening is brain dead listening, and that we have to find a native speaker to speak to before we can learn. That is simply not true.