Archive for September, 2010

Learn Any Language in 6 Months

Wednesday, September 1st, 2010

Read Time: 15 minutes

By utilizing techniques such as spaced repetition, complete immersion, and prioritized learning, I’m confident that anyone can learn any language to conversational fluency in six months or less.  I started learning Japanese in November of 2008 and within two months I had learned the meaning of 2000+ kanji, and within six I was having conversations with strangers at rock concerts (cute Japanese girls!). I’m not trying to glorify myself here either – I’m a particularly weak-willed person and getting motivated for me often involves a literal act of God. Language learning has been put on a golden pedestal for most people, achievable only for the super-intelligent. Because of this false imagery and a bad case of failure-leading-to-lack-of-motivation seen in high school language classes, very few people achieve any real success. But if you are simply willing to put in the time, you too can have interesting conversations with people from distant lands.

Step X: Prepare Your Mind

You can do it.

Believe and have faith, this is the first and most important step. I know it sounds cheesy and motivational, but it’s true. Decide that you want to learn a foreign language and commit yourself to it. Imprint it to your mind and imagine yourself already at the goal. The most successful people are the ones who can best visualize their goals, and they don’t let excuses prevent them from reaching their goals – they find a way get around them. Understand that you’ll encounter barriers preventing and hindering you from reaching the goal, but decide beforehand that you’ll find a way to overcome them.

Step X: Learn the Characters of Your Target Language

For languages with alphabets differing drastically from English (Chinese, Japanese, Hindu, Arabic, etc.), learn the alphabet first. This shouldn’t take more than a day or two when using an SRS (I’ll explain what this is in a moment).

For Chinese, Japanese, and languages with characterized written languages, I suggest familiarizing yourself with the meanings of characters before learning their pronunciation. This may seem counter-intuitive at first, but there’s a reason. Essentially there are three parts to a character – meaning, pronunciation, and the written character. By skipping pronunciation you can simplify the learning process and familiarize yourself with characters faster than by trying to memorize two things at once. Check out Charles Heisig’s books – “Remembering the Kanji” or “Remembering the Hanzi” for learning characters and further discourse supporting this method.

Step X: Using an SRS (Spaced Repetition Software), Make Native Sentence Cards

SRS is a flashcard-like computer program which allows you to create digital flash cards and study them in the most efficient manner possible. Basically, our memory works best when we repeat items that we want to learn. Just like when you repeat the chorus of your favorite song twenty times on your iPod, SRS imprints the facts into your mind by repetition. But the problem with conventional flashcards is that you end up studying the difficult cards with the same frequency as the easy ones, wasting your precious time. Using an SRS solves this problem by automatically repeating the cards at the optimum time interval. Difficult cards get seen more often than easy ones, and you learn your language faster.

The SRS I use is called Anki, and I highly recommend it.

Now that we have the right tool for memorization, we need to know how to use it for maximum effect. From personal experience I’ve found that learning complete sentences, even if they are small, is the best way to study a language. Cognitive reasoning is one of our most powerful tools here. The brain easily takes phrases and pieces them together to create sentences and communicate ideas. Don’t study vocabulary by itself as this is a waste of time. All you have to do is fill your mind with example structures of everyday sentences in your target language, and your mind will automatically fill in the necessary vocabulary and verb conjugations.

Example flash card from my Anki deck (you may need Japanese text support enabled):





Who is person who watched movie?

There are a few things to take notice of in this example. First, I didn’t worry about “translating” the sentence into English. As long as I can understand the meaning it doesn’t matter. Second, the sentence is short and simple. Linguist Dr. Stephen Krashen suggests the “i + 1” method, where you add one new item to your knowledge. Try to never make a card with two new words in it.  Thirdly, the sentence is native. I don’t remember where I got it, but it’s not an English thought translated into Japanese, it’s real Japanese from a native Japanese source. A dictionary with good examples sentences is one of the best sources for word-specific native material.  Thinking in L1 (your mother tongue) and trying to translate to L2 (target language) is detrimental. Learn to think like a native by imitation, just like a baby!

Step X: Complete Immersion: Input Before Output

Another deciding factor for success is immersion. Complete immersion. If you want to learn this langauge, really learn it, then you have to spend every waking moment in it. Most people fail at learning new languages because they simply don’t spend enough time in L2. Taking classes is especially deceptive because they make you feel like you’re learning, when in fact your going at a snail’s pace. I got straight As in my High School Spanish class, but when I took a trip down to Mexico City I realized just how valuable my two years of study were worth: NIL. I was one of the best students in my class, and I still couldn’t handle the most basic Spanish conversations.

Every aspect of your life should be entrenched in your target language. Do you use the internet? Download your internet browser in L2. Do you read the newspaper? Find a way to get it in L2. Do you have a smartphone? Switch the default language to L2. Watch movies in L2. Listen to L2 music exclusively. Every aspect of your life from now on should be done in the language you want to learn. If you want it bad enough you’ll find a way.

“But I don’t live in country X!” “How can I be completely immersed with all this English around me?!” – I feel this is one of the biggest language myths ever. You don’t need to live in France to learn French. You don’t need to live in China to learn Chinese. You don’t need to live in Latin America to learn Latin. Wait a second… that’s not right. Anyway, there are plenty of resources available to you (many for free) where you can get a life-like immersion experience without a 10 hour plane ride. Granted that the real immersion experience is better, but I can surf YouTube for hours and get nearly the same native language exposure as somebody who lives in Japan.

There is no need to worry about understanding the language right away. Complete immersion means you won’t understand everything, and that’s okay. Listen even when you don’t understand. It usually takes babies a year of listening before they start talking, and as adults we have the advantage because we can already think logically and don’t have to figure out our vocal chords.

Don’t force output. It will probably take months of high quality input before you’ll feel comfortable speaking. I feel this is a major flaw in modern teaching methods, and one of many reasons to avoid the classroom. Many college professors expect their students to produce native-like sentences after the first few lessons! Their theory is that you should make mistakes often so that they can be corrected, leading to a better understanding of the language. Bull. Mistakes only create bad habits and confusion. Learn it right the first time and you don’t have to worry about it. Output should feel natural and mistakes should be avoided at all costs; don’t be in a big rush to speak.

Recommended Inputs:

  • Listen to free audio-book downloads before going to bed. When was the last time someone read you a bedtime story? It’s incredibly relaxing.
  • Always carry an L2 book with you. Everywhere. Audio-books in conjunction with paper books are awesome when you want to learn pronunciation.
  • Computer programs with any clout will have a slew of language options. Switch them to your L2.
  • Buy an iPod touch or smartphone and download the Anki app and a dictionary. You’ll be able to study your flash cards anywhere.
  • Think in L2. Whenever I thought a thought in English, I did my best to rethink it in Japanese.
  • Eat your country’s cuisine. Life revolves around food in most countries, so being accustomed to and knowledgeable about native foods will give you an automatic “in” when visiting.
  • YouTube
  • Movies – but DO NOT use English subtitles! They’re a crutch that prevent you from diving into the language fully.

Step X: Prioritize

A typical unabridged Chinese character dictionary will have more than 40,000 independent entries. It would take a lifetime to familiarize yourself with all of these characters, but thankfully languages follow the rule of 80/20, a.k.a. the Pareto Principle.  What this means is roughly 20% of those characters are used 80% of the time. A well-educated Chinese student will recognize upwards of 7,000 characters, and reading a newspaper may require a working knowledge of 3,000 characters [1]. We can find the same thing in English – “The Reading Teachers Book of Lists claims that the first 25 words make up about one-third of all printed material in English, and that the first 100 make up about one-half of all written material [2].” Using an SRS like Anki and a dictionary with good example sentences, the initial effort of memorizing 100 words should take three days at most. Three days for 50% comprehension! I know I know, that number is slightly overstated because many of those 100 words are lemmas (more than one word – like “is” can be “He was”, “I am”, “You are” etc.), but you see the point I’m trying to make right? By learning the common words first, you quickly increase your effective comprehension of the language. Note: You can find the first 3000 common Japanese words in this post.

Step X: Make it Fun; Choose Material Comparable to Your Current Interests

Beyond the first 500 words or so, I suggest learning interest-specific or field-specific vocabulary. Take the things you currently do in L1, and do them in L2. Find a way to make an L2 copy of your current self. Language learning isn’t difficult, but it does take focused effort over a long period of time. If you want to make this endeavor sustainable, and it must be sustainable, it sure as hell better be fun. Like any good drug addiction, you want to keep coming back to it again and again. I treat myself to a cup of coffee or tasty drink every time I do my SRS reps.

When I was studying in Japan, I completed an introductory program for the PA-10 Mitsubishi robotic arm. It involved learning basic robotic arm control, which was comprised of creating a computer program from scratch, solving inverse kinematics problems, and a mother trucker load of questions for my Japanese lab-mates. In order to communicate effectively I had to learn some of the technical jargon associated with robotics. Now I’m pretty confident using words like 逆行列  (inverse matrix), 再起動 (restart), 軸線 (shaft axis), 運動学 (kinematics), and 機械工学 (Mechanical Engineering). This kind of vocabulary would be useless for anyone else, even most Japanese, but it was essential for me and my situation.

Step X: Goal Setting – Small and Achievable with Consistency

During my most intense period of learning Japanese, I bought this calendar for 100 Yen ($1) at a thrift store and used it as a daily visual reminder of my goal to become fluent. Each day I accomplished my (small) goal, I took a big red marker and made an X on the day. The sense of accomplishment I felt after each X’d day helped to create even more momentum for the next day.

Learning a language takes a lot of effort, so keep your goals small and achievable while finding ways to keep them sustainable over long periods of time. A small effort every day for a month is far more productive than three days of caffeine-induced cramming. After a few days of studying you’ll become more aware of your physical limitations; it’s at that point you want to create a daily goal. Make your goal achievable, but somewhat of a stretch. Too easy and you’ll end up cutting yourself short, too hard and you’ll get disappointed by failure. The key is long-term sustainability.

In contrast to this, don’t put an extended timeline on your goal to become fluent. When you’re first starting out you shouldn’t worry about when you’ll arrive at your goal, or make baseless assumptions about how long it should take you to acquire a 10,000 word vocabulary. Yes I know, the title of this post is “Learn any language in 6 months”,  but it may take some people longer and others shorter. Just start walking the road and have a surprise party when you get to the end.

Step X: Never Stop Learning

I attempt to live my life in such a way that I’m always exposing myself to new ideas and attaining new knowledge. But at the same time, I make an effort to not forget the things I’ve already learned. Learning a new language is an exciting and fulfilling experience, but not quite as fulfilling ten years from now when you’ve forgotten everything you’ve learned. The initial effort of learning is long and tough, but the fun kind of tough, and similar to getting a freight train moving. The power you need to start is immense, but as soon as you’re moving, it’s not too hard to keep going. Many people are willing to put forth the effort to get the train started, but don’t quite realize that the train will eventually come to a slow stop if they don’t keep shoveling the coal.

Step X: Further Reading and Resources – All Japanese All the Time dot com.  This is the blog that inspired me to pursue fluency in Japanese and provided the resources and ideas that are making it possible.  Purveyor of the 10,000 sentence method: learn 10,000 sentences in an SRS to achieve native-like fluency.  Major props. – Polish pioneers of the SRS/sentence learning method.  These guys learned English to college level fluency in 3 years using their method.

How to Learn Any Language in 3 Months – Author Tim Ferriss wrote an enlightening article that directly inspired my writing this post.  Hence, credit is due.  Our content is similar in many ways, but disagree with him on some points.  I encourage reading his post also to gain a broader perspective on language learning.

Anki – The free SRS that makes it all possible.  I suggest watching the Intro Videos to get a better understanding of the concept.

Supermemo Articles – Supermemo, the original SRS, was created by Dr. Wozniak who has written not-a-few articles about SRSing, memory, and acquiring knowledge.  Recommended reading: 20 Rules and Memory Myths. Fascinating stuff.

Do you have any language acquisition stories?  Failure/Success stories?  Discussion and idea-sharing are encouraged, so post a comment!