How to Evaluate a Random Language for Acquisition in an Hour

12 Nov 2007

Ever since reading Tim Ferris’s book, The 4-Hour Workweek, I’ve been reading his blog occasionally. He has some interesting ideas on language learning, and I value his opinion because he’s a smart guy and he’s apparently gained competence in many languages. I’ve considered writing about some of his ideas before, but when his latest article hit the internet hotlists last week, I had to put in my two cents.

My overall impression of Tim Ferris is that he’s a very bright, enthusiastic go-getter. He has written an inspirational, interesting book with valuable information in it, but I think ultimately the man is not in touch with his audience, i.e. the people who actually read his book in order to put the ideas to use. To put it another way, Tim Ferris’s ideas are interesting and they work for Tim Ferris, but they’re not going to work for most people. Whether Tim Ferris knows this or not is unimportant; he’s still making big bucks.

His latest article is called How to Learn (But Not Master) Any Language in 1 Hour. I have to say first that the title is entirely misleading. The whole point of the article is to describe a method for assessing a foreign language that will help you to determine how easy it will be for you to acquire. This is not what “learn a language” means to me. I know Tim Ferris is good at hype, but this is pretty blatant false “advertising.” It just makes him look bad.

Now suppose the title were not misleading. Suppose he titled it How to Evaluate a Language for Acquisition in an Hour. What’s the point of this? How many of us are really just looking for a foreign language–any language–to learn? It seems to me that the reason so many Westerners are starting to study Chinese is that they feel it will be useful to them in the future. Or maybe they feel a personal connection with it. It’s pretty safe to say there is some reason for it. The only person who’s going to choose a random language to learn based solely on ease of acquisition is a linguist with too much time on his hands… (perhaps someone who only works four hours a week?). If you’ve already got your language picked out and just want to evaluate it using Tim Ferris’s method, that makes sense, but it seems like the method would be really useful only to someone trying to decide between Japanese and Spanish or some similar situation.

Despite all the misleading hype, it’s still an interesting read, and what he says makes sense. Check it out.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. What’s the point of this? How many of us are really just looking for a foreign language–any language–to learn?

    Ooh! Ooh! Me! As long as it has an isolating analytical grammar — Classical Greek can kiss it as far as I’m concerned.

    His little aside about Gwoyeu Romatzyh leading to more accurate tone reproduction is not borne out by experimental evidence, but I have a soft spot for the baroque Rube Goldberg-ness of the system, and Y.R. Chao is a hero of mine, so I’ll let it slide.
    It is interesting, though, that Ferris should be clued in to a long-since extinct way of transliterating a foreign language when his first language (I’m assuming) is apparently a bit rusty. He may want to break out an English dictionary and look up the verb “to learn”. In the immortal words of Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Learning about, maybe — but if figuring out the basic nature of a language counts as learning the language, then I just learned how to do a motorcycle jump from watching YouTube.

  2. Interesting stuff, but his method of assessing a language seems flawed in that it assumes that all people are created equally in terms of language learning ability. Rather, the method seems to be based on how close the grammar of target language is close to the learner’s native language structure. And yes, I agree, motivational factors are left out of the equation.

  3. Brendan,

    Sweet reference to the swordsman of the Princess Bride.


    You get full agreement from me. The title was more than misleading, and the sports analogy is just stupid. I play a lot of sports and I don’t remember choosing them after analyzing the rules and choosing the ones that seemed the easiest.

  4. You know what, in an hour, I can search wikipedia for the typologies and writing systems of 20 languages, and still have time to walk down the street and get a taco. That’s if I’m too lazy to pull a copy of Comrie 1987 off my bookshelf.

    Still, if you want to do homegrown typology, you better make sure your informants are cooperative, patient, and understand what the heck you’re doing.

    I read the post, and I don’t really get the guy. Are people really still talking about SVO vs. SOV order? Isn’t reliance on order inversely related to morphosyntactic coding?

    In any case, I have a grasp of Chinese word order and I can read pinyin just fine. It’s taking me a lot longer than an hour…

  5. I find this entire article quite frivalous. It’s as if he is breaking language learning down into a science. Anybody who has ever taught English in a Chinese school knows exactly what kinds of problems arise from this method. I find especially ridiculous his assertion that people who learn tones with GR know them twice as well as those who use pinyin. Personally, I think a lot of problems arise when you try to substitute learning a language (the oral part) by ear, with learning a language from paper.

  6. I thought that his name was Iago, not Indigo. (“James” not “blue”)

  7. Brendan got it right. It’s Iñigo (a name you might know better as “Ignatius”).

  8. JP,

    Good points. He’s speaking from experience, though, and from my own experience, a lot of what he says is true. If you’ve dealt with SOV already, it’s a lot easier to get down the second time (regardless of morphological considerations). I remember learning Japanese, the first SOV language I had ever dealt with, and SOV blew my mind. 🙂

  9. Ben,

    Break down language-learning into a science? Clearly such a goal is sheer insanity… 😛

  10. I’m assuming John’s retort to Ben’s comment is meant to be a playful sarcascism, because I do think language learning is somewhat of a science…….but I agree with Ben in noting that auditory language learning cannot be substituted with visual learning by text.

  11. learning a language is really a hard work.when you get older,you will feel much harder to learn anything.I am learning french now.but just like after 1 year,i still just know the first few words never increase.That is really terrible.and the desire to learn one language is very important for students.

    Nothing is easy in this world

  12. Ni Eng Lim,

    Yes, that was meant to be playful sarcasm.

    I study applied linguistics, and “breaking down language-learning into a science” is one of its goals. (It still has quite a long way to go, though…)

  13. Hi John

    I’m a PhD applied linguistics student too, but at the other end of the world, in UCLA more precisely…..

    It’s weird…’re caucasian American in china; and I’m Asian Singaporean in US. But we both got PRC wives though….hahaha

  14. I remember reading on obituary years ago in The Economist about a linguistics professor at MIT (not Noam Chomsky) who was conversant in over fifty languages. He said if he spent two days listening to a native speaker of a new language, he could figure out the basic structure of the language and become more or less conversant.

    Not sure how relevant my story was, but it certainly seems like rapid language acquisition is at least possible, if highly unusual.

  15. An obituary for Chomsky published years ago would be a little premature, wouldn’t it?

    But how does figuring out the basic structure of a language allow one to become more or less conversant? Surely that’s only half the equation? Or does figuring out the basic structure include learning the words you need to fit into the grammar?

  16. “If you go after Mandarin, choose the somewhat uncommon GR over pinyin romanization if at all possible. It’s harder to learn at first, but I’ve never met a pinyin learner with tones even half as accurate as a decent GR user.”

    This guy has to be kidding.

  17. Inconceivable!

  18. I didn’t know about the GR system before this, and there’s no textbooks or dictionaries with GR so studying with it really isn’t an option.

    On the other hand, yeah, I think GR or a GR like system would be a better way to study Chinese and have correct tones. For me, with lesser used words, I often remember the pinyin spelling but forget the tones. I think it’s just a matter that my brain is more used to remembering letters than remembering little swirly marks.

  19. The other question, of course, is why would anyone want to learn a language so quickly? For me, half the fun of studying a foreign language while living in a country in which it is spoken are the moments of clarity and understanding when you’ve figured something out that has bedeviled you for some time. I suppose it would be lucrative and convenient to have a Matrix-like ability to absorb languages overnight, but it just…wouldn’t…work. You’d be like those Chinese kids who memorize half the English dictionary yet still can’t string together a sentence. Language and culture are so intertwined that learning one without the other just wouldn’t be worth it, even if it were possible.

  20. wow, after being in China for a while, reading his blog makes him seem really super arrogent. First there’s the nice Princeton namedropping, and then there’s the “i’ve deconstrocted blah blah blah and dozens more” and then the i can converse fluently blahblah, ask the MIT students (another convenient name dropping)

    and who is he to judge whose tones are good or not????? who does he think he is? 大山???

  21. Learning tones with pinyin is really easy. They are as much a part of the spelling of a word as the umlaut in German or the accent mark in French or the “oo” “oh” spellings in this wacky GR system.

    Also, I just drew some doodles on a piece of paper and learned the fundamentals of gravitational science by determining the structure “what goes up must come down.”

  22. kmm: wow, you have no problems with tones! And according to your blog, after one year of studying Chinese (without a teacher), you can read Chinese newspapers. I think you should publish your own study methodologies, forget this Tim Ferris guy.

  23. @kp: His mention of GR resulting in more accurate tone reproduction sounds to me like something regurgitated rather than actually observed, or perhaps just the (understandable enough) assumption that since the system builds tone into the syllables, it must result in more accurate reproduction by second-language learners.
    Also, since when has it been impossible for second-language learners of Chinese to have good tones?

    @Jefrey D: There are textbooks and learning materials using Gwoyeu Romatzyh — Chao’s Mandarin Primer, Grammar of Spoken Chinese, and Readings in Sayable Chinese come to mind — but it hasn’t been used much in recent years, except by the same sort of people who are still going on about how Betamax was way better than VHS. Wade-Giles seems to have had a lot more staying power among Sinologists, in part because it’s much less intimidating, but for Mandarin-teaching materials now, Hanyu Pinyin is the definite standard, with Zhuyin/Bopomofo coming in, at best, a distant second.

    As far as the extent to which GR helps learners: I only know of one study done on the subject, and it found that:

    The results clearly indicated that GR did not lead to significantly greater accuracy in tonal production. Indeed, the use of GR reflected slightly lower rates of tonal production accuracy for native speakers of both American English and Japanese.

  24. (Gah — sorry about the blockquote there. Didn’t realize it’d format the text all crazy-like. Maybe change it to an <em> tag?)

  25. Jeffrey D–I didn’t say I “have no problems with tones”, I just said I thought using pinyin to learn them is really easy. For me at least, when I learn new words in pinyin I can usually remember the tones–this doesn’t mean I can actually say things correctly. So no need to take offense–I’m just observing my own experiences–sorry if I didn’t express that more clearly.

    Also, I don’t think I’ve said on my blog that I’ve been studying Chinese for just one year, because that would be completely wrong. I’ve been studying Chinese off and on for about five years now, which actually is quite depressing considering how poor my Chinese still is.

  26. I’ve just bought the four-hour workweek book on the basis that you seem to like it. If it’s no good you’re in trouble . . .

  27. Brendan,

    I fixed your ugly blockquote. I should really look into that issue at some point… 🙂

  28. Roddy,

    It had some worthwhile stuff in it. I’m definitely not sure you would like it, but… oh well.

  29. Too late, I paid for it already. Will probably never read it though.

  30. richwarm Says: April 2, 2008 at 5:06 am

    I use GR myself. I use the texts by Yuen Ren Chao and Walter Simon, as well as “Chinese Primer.” For a dictionary I use CEDICT (downloaded and converted to GR) and I use other materials off the web, similarly converted to GR (by software I wrote myself).

    Obviously, GR is not for everybody. It takes longer to learn, and pinyin dominates. But it’s a great system for people with a good visual memory, because GR gives words a more individual “physiognomy” and if you recall the shape of the word — its spelling — you’ve got the tones built in.

    It’s true that GR users are a bit like Betamax enthusiasts, but unlike Betamax and VHS, GR and Pinyin will both be available in another 50 years when pinyin turns 100 (and GR will be 132).

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