Methods for Learning a New (Human) Language, Faster

August 11, 2014

I’ve been learning French over the past few months and, along the way, I’ve been trying to nail down a solid method for how to tackle learning a language in the most efficient way. This blog post is my thoughts on some of the interesting methods I’ve found out there and what I think of them.

Benny Lewis

My first encounter of Benny Lewis was his TED talk, which a colleague had pointed me towards. The main message behind Benny’s method is to speak from day one. He explains how he tried to learn Spanish several times and failed, even after moving to Spain. He believes that the main reason he failed was due to focusing on learning grammar rather than simply getting out there and communicating with people.

Benny runs the site Here, he writes some really useful blog posts and offers a premium service which includes a comprehensive guide to his methodology.

While I haven’t subscribed to Benny’s premium service, I totally agree with his focus on speaking from day one, or at least speaking as early as you can. I highly recommend checking out his blog and book.

I am totally agree with Benny’s philosophy of speaking from day one or as soon as possible. One aspect I struggle with here is how to set the ground rules for having a conversation from day one? For instance, if you agree to have a Skype call with a native, what is the best way to structure that call so you get something out of it and don’t end up frustrating yourself and the other person. Possibly Benny covers this in his premium content (which I haven’t yet subscribed to).

Moses McCormick

I think I came by Moses McCormick’s YouTube videos through one of Benny’s YouTube videos. Moses seems to tear through several new languages per year, learning them to varying levels and as you can see from his youtube videos he does pretty well. Moses has collated the method he uses and wrapped it up into a product called the FLR Method. Moses’ technique seems to focus on anticipating what someone will ask you and practicing those phrases along with a response phrase. In addition to that he suggests that you learn “keywords” to expand your responses to longer sentences (from what I can see these are just conjunctions).

Moses also has a rather unique approach to practicing his languages in the open and he calls it levelling up. Levelling up basically involves going to the supermarket/shopping mall etc and going up to strangers to start a conversation. It’s always pretty cool to see the reaction on the other persons face when he starts to speak their language (especially if it’s something obscure like Somali).

Again, in a similar way to Benny, I like the way Moses throws himself into the thick of things and starts comunnicating with the language. His focus on phrases that you expect to be asked and conjunctions to expand sentences are the backbone of his method.

The FLR Method is mostly made up of text files and audio to practice. This does the job fine but it could do with more app like approach to guide the user through the steps.

Tim Ferriss

I had already heard of Tim Ferriss from the 4 Hour Work Week book but, until recently, I never knew he was a language learner. However, Tim has some of the most interesting tips to give on language learning.

Tim suggests deconstructing a language into smaller pieces in order to build an understanding of the grammar. He has a set of sentences (see below) which allows you analyse this. The sentences have different structures that allow you to identify whether the language takes and SVO (subject-verb-object) or SOV (subject-object-verb) form.

  • The apple is red.
  • It is John’s apple.
  • I give John the apple.
  • We give him the apple.
  • He gives it to John.
  • She gives it to him.
  • I must give it to him.
  • I want to give it to her.

Tim also suggests that you prioritise the words that you learn based on the Pereto Princple, also known as the 80-20 rule. This is, again, very good advice. The 80-20 rule states that 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. So, in other words, 80% of the words spoken will come from 20% of words that exist. This is a big deal - It shows that if you prioritise the words you learn correctly, you will cover the bases of most conversations.

This also applies to phrases, prioritise 20-40 set phases to learn and they will go a long way.

I like several things about Tim’s approach. Deconstructing a language seems like a nice way to get acquainted with a language and a nice starting point. On top of this doing 80/20 analyses of the language is more great advice (no point learning words that you seldom/never going to use!). All in all, I really like Tim’s systematic approach to language learning - check out his blog posts on language.

Michel Thomas

Michel Thomas, a former intelligence officer with the US government, French Resistance member and Nazi concentration camp surviver, developed a method called the Michel Thomas Method. Thomas claimed that he could teach his students in three days what would normally take three years with conventional teach methods.

The methods consists of some ground rules, namely.

  • Not note taking
  • No conscious attempts to memorise the content
  • You should relax

Thomas says that the responsibility lies with the teacher to ensure the information is absorbed and committed to long term memory. In other words, if you’re not learning, it’s the teachers job to understand why and improve their technique.

Michel takes through a lot of lot of material at a blazing fast pace. You fare advised to pause the recording and try to attempt speaking the translation out loud as you go along. This is kind of hard to do in the car, where I listen to most of my podcasts etc.

Another approach that Michel uses throughout his recording is to use the following verbs at the start of a lot of his sentences. Using these verbs at the start of a sentence allows you to use the infinitive form of other verbs thereafter.

  • to have
  • to have to
  • to want
  • to go
  • to be able to

This greatly reduces the amount of verbs you have to learn to get to a stage of communication. For example, in French:-

I have to eat some food. J’ai manger de la nourriture Je dois manger de la nourriture

I want to go to the park Je veux aller au parc

I must talk to my mum Je dois parler à ma mère

I can read and write Je peux lire et écrire

You can see here how the verb after the helper verb is always the infinitive form. This is a really nice technique.

Gabriel Wyner

Gabriel Wyner, author of the Fluent Forever book and a classical singer, has a slightly different method. His method consists of these tasks in this order:

  • Learn Pronunciation
  • Remove translations completely
  • Use spaced repetition to learn vocabulary and grammar
  • Use the 80/20 principle when selecting what vocabulary to learn

The focus on learn pronunciation first is hat sets it apart from the other methods. I really find this interesting and I’m going to give it a try. Wyner explains that it is harder to memorise words that you can’t pronounce, therefore starting with pronunciation makes sense. He also says that it will help you with your listening skills, which is something that interests me because I struggle with listening a lot.

Gabriel’s kickstarter has enabled him to create some useful Anki decks that help you learn pronuncation and word lists. I would love if he made this into a web app like Duolingo as the user experience is a bit disjointed at the minute.

My Progress

I’ve been learning for 2 months now (with some time spent on research what method to use!). All in all it’s going pretty well - I’ve been using a mixture of all the methods above but mainly focusing on Tim/Michel/Gabiel’s methods. I’ve also been using a great (and free) tool called Duolingo - I highly recommend checking this tool out on your mobile device or the web (warning: it’s addictive). I would say I’m at a reasonably good reading and writing level but I hope to improve my speaking and (especially) listening skills over the coming months.

Tools I suggest

(in order of how much I use them)