Tim Ferris: How to Learn a Language in Three Months

Thai Frequency Lists with English Definitions

This article was originally posted on WomenLearnThai.com.

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Can you learn a language in three months?…

When revamping WLT I discovered several timestamped posts the never saw the light of day (WP gremlins working overtime). This is one.

Gotta love this guy. Tim Ferris’ post, How to Learn Any Language in Three Months gets into wonky theories for learning languages. If you remember, back a few years I wrote about his previous advice in Thai Sentence Deconstruction. It received mixed comments.

Just my opinion… In learning Thai, if you work hard, three months is barely enough time to attain a smattering of a vocabulary, start using simple sentences, and get your ears used to Thai tones (but your mouth might take longer to catch up).

Btw: If you want to see what real motivation looks like, read Paul Garrigan’s series: My Quest to Speak Fluent Thai in Six Months

Anyway, to help out Tim’s theory I’ve matched available Thai resources with his advice.


Tim’s three months promise boiled down to a few key points…

1) Choose learning methods and study materials that interest you.

As Nils mentioned in Learning Styles and Language Learning, mixing and matching learning styles just might suit you best. And for Thai study materials, the huge amount of Thai resources I compiled to go along with tips from David Mansaray and Robert Bigler in How to Learn a Language in a Foreign Country should be enough to get your whistle wet.

2) Start out with the most common 100 words (spoken and written).

This is an idea I stand behind, which is why I created a Top 100 Thai Vocabulary series: Compiling a Top 100 Thai Vocabulary List and A Top 100 Thai Word List Created from Phrases and UPDATED: Top 100 Thai Vocabulary List. Choosing the top 100 Thai words is not an exact science but I had fun trying (and I’m not done yet).

3) Once you are comfortable with sentence structure, start adding more words.

This is yet another subject covered on WLT in the post Thai Frequency Lists with English Definitions. That’s a lot of words.

So here’s a question for you. What do you think of Tim’s claim that you can learn a language in three months? How about six months even? Or two years? Which reminds me, there’s a post on learning Thai in two years waiting to be set free…

Of course, there are many variables to learning a language – available time, motivation, brain space, prior experience with learning languages, decent study materials even.

And if everything was on your side, how much could you realistically accomplish?

4 thoughts on “Tim Ferris: How to Learn a Language in Three Months”

  1. I know what you mean. One of the problems I have with a lot of ‘top’ vocab lists is that they are compiled from the frequency list for English that’s floating around. So if people do stick with it, they miss out on what makes that language unique. Some companies who create courses for multiple languages go that route. While dealing with different language courses, I’ve asked and they often admit to it.

  2. I skimmed through his article but I probably didn’t give it enough attention – whenever I see those stay-in-this-weekend-and-master-Ancient-Sumerian type things, I tend to switch off a little but my comment about word lists was based on his, not yours. I noticed that a really substantial portion of the top 100 English words which he had listed were function words which are going to be very difficult for beginners to do much with. What does ‘to’ mean? You might want to learn ‘to’ as a preposition and leave it at that but then if you really were a beginner, you wouldn’t be in a position to make that judgement.

    On the other hand, he is absolutely right about picking topics and methods which suit you. One of the things which I find most reprehensible about language learning blogs (not here!) is their tendency to promote the One True Method. Don’t learn grammar. Talk from day one. Read everything you can. Have a silent period. Nobody learns by writing. Immerse yourself. Do a little and often. etc., etc. The only rule seems to be that you need to find your own way and the fact that it works (or doesn’t work) for you probably doesn’t tell you an awful lot about how useful it is going to be for the next person.

  3. Good points Dan, but did you read TIm’s post and follow the links I shared in mine?

    Apologies for the short reply but I’m on holiday at the moment, just catching up on a few things before heading out.

  4. One of the problems with articles like this is that the goals are always so vague. What does it mean to ‘lean a language’? Or to ‘achieve fluency’? Order a meal on your own or give a seminar on deontological ethics? And for an English-speaker doing either of those in French or Spanish is a bit different to doing it in Chinese or Korean.

    I saw something on youtube recently which suggested that we should think of fluency as being what an average language user can do when s/he finishes compulsory education. That’s a bit less vague but I think it’s good to distinguish between highly literate activities (writing essays, reading op-ed pieces) and doing what most people do, most of the time. If that’s what learning a language means, it’s just absurd to think you can get to that level in Thai in 3 months. Assuming that you’re motivated, studying regularly and doing so with some intensity but not full time, 2-3 years seems a bit more likely.

    And I think those word-frequency lists are grossly misleading because you’re not learning words, you’re learning meanings and in those top 100 lists, you have vastly more than 100 meanings to acquire. Plus, many of these are function words, which are hard to learn in isolation and which may not be that much use to beginners. There is a difference in meaning between ‘the cat came in’ and ‘a cat came in’ but understanding that difference can probably be deferred for a while.

    I’ve just skimmed through ‘Fluent Forever’ by Gabriel Wayner. His methodology boils down to

    1. Learn the sound system.
    2. Learn a word list of 625 high-frequency words (colours, shapes, shops, common verbs, the kinds of objects you come across all the time, propositions, etc.) which are easy to learn and which will give you a leg up with your language but these aren’t picked solely on the basis of frequency.
    3. Start on the grammar.
    4. Get some practice using the language.

    I think learning the sound system before you do anything else has something going for it. It’s a slightly cerebral, abstract approach and many people won’t like it (and I think he is over-reliant on Anki-type learning) but when I start on Chinese, I think I might give this a go.


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