20 Jul 2009

How to Learn Any Language in 3 Months: Thai

Learning a language in one hour was, admittedly, a bit of a tease but the analysis done in that hour will set you up in how to really learn your new language. Tim Ferriss's research on language acquisition at Princeton and his practical methods for becoming proficient as quickly as possible tear up most other learning methods.

The method consists in three simple steps: Priority, Interest and Process.

For most of us the most immediate priority is in speaking a foreign language. Whether you're a tourist, on business or studying abroad the first skill you need as your plane lands is to speak. This article has a useful list of the 100 most common words in spoken English. As a comparison there is also a list of the 100 most common written English words. Perhaps surprisingly, there is only a 60% overlap between the two lists. Here is another useful word list generator. If you need to be understood by a native speaker then learning to read is not the way to achieve this.

If you're currently learning another language then it is a good exercise to input these word lists into, say, Google Translate and see how many words you need to know. Word lists for spoken languages are pretty consistent as people do pretty much the same things around the world. But once beyond the most common 300 words how do you progress from there? This is where your interests are fundamental. It really doesn't matter what that is - it could be learning judo, going fishing, listening to music, the history of architecture, the football results, whatever - just so long as you have the desire to learn and communicate.

The problem with most language courses is that they largely ignore this fundamental motivation. For example, learning Thai grammar from magazines on Buddhist talismans and sculptures is far more interesting (to me) than paying a school to teach me how to plan a train journey in four different tenses. I can figure that out myself; after all, I'm an adult! And this is one major quibble that Ferriss has with many courses that somehow try to teach a language in a similar way to how a native child would learn it. Adults already possess mastery of at least one language so can make connections between their native tongue and their new target language. Even if your topic of interest is really obscure the grammar remains identical - negotiating the price of a bronze statuette is the same as negotiating a taxi fare to the local zoo. However, how many zoos am I likely to visit?

The third step, the process, is simply the act of repetition. If you're in the actual country whose language you're learning then you have little choice. If, however, you're trying to learn a language in your home country then it's obviously a bit more difficult but there are now lots of free resources online. Listen to music or watch films in your target language. Merely hearing the correct pronunciation helps tremendously in the long run. It may sound like complete gobbledegook at first but you will start to pick up words amid the noise. You will also start to notice common phrases that your textbook has ignored. I carry around a low-tech paper notebook and jot down anything that sounds common and ask a friend what it means.

Most Thais are shy of making any social gaffes, and this includes showing up their poor English. But after a few drinks it is amazing how much English they can dredge up from their school-days. I make enough mistakes in Thai and laugh it off so they can make a few in English. Some Thais will actually speak pretty fair English but were too embarrassed to try with a native speaker yet then seem more interested in perfecting their rekindled English rather than my Thai! So the conversation turns into a bilingual game so that both sides alternate as student and teacher. Mastering a new language is ego-crushing - if that scares the pants off of you then best stay at home! I myself avoided this for a long time as I could get by with very few Thai words.

In terms of sheer volume, the vocabulary of any language seems daunting compared to the grammar. But once you have the nuts and bolts of sentence construction the act of acquiring new vocabulary is pretty easy. Just 300 words make up 65% of written English. With just 1,000 words you can be understood in most situations. Word lists make the adult learning of a new language much more efficient than ploughing through textbooks of often useless situations and unnatural conversations.

The internet has made language learning more accessible. These methods will make your language acquisition more efficient, more relevant and hopefully more enjoyable.

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