Before going to Romania, I decided I'd try to learn a bit of Romanian. By almost any measure it's sort of a pointless language to learn, but I figured I'd get a kick out of pretending to my I didn't speak any for a couple days, and then all of a sudden surprising my friends by speaking it.
My friend Brian did me a huge favor by going to the library, checking out the Pimsleur Romanian I series, ripping it, and then sending me the MP3s. After finishing the first lesson, I was struck by just how much I enjoyed doing it. I've used Pimsleur tapes to learn Chinese, Japanese, and French (which I never finished and consequently don't remember), but it had been six years since I'd started one.
The returns on learning the first bit of a language are huge. While I don't have nearly enough vocabulary to have an actual conversation in Romanian, doing one half-hour tape every day for a month left me with enough to be able to ask directions, order things at a restaurant, exchange pleasantries with strangers, and buy things. I think I successfully made a joke in Romanian, too.
So after all that, I decided that I'm just going to learn every language. Pimsleur has a list of over fifty that they support. I'm going to start with the ones I'm most interested in that have ninety tapes instead of the thirty that they had for Romanian. I did the full ninety in Japanese, and it got me to the point that I could have actual, if a bit kludgy, conversations.
I probably won't actually do every single language Pimsleur has. Swiss German and Lithuanian, for example, may get passes. But, looking at the list, I count over ten that I'm really interested in, and maybe twenty that I'd probably do. Assuming that half are 30 day and half are 90 day courses, I can get twenty languages down at a "survival" level in under three years.
I also think that there will be a lot of synergy between the languages and that I'll get better at the skill of learning languages. There have got to be some universal language pathways in the brain that will be strengthened just by learning language after language.
There are a lot of things that I don't like about Pimsleur. It teaches the formal versions of langauge (usted vs. tu, in Spanish) and is way too focused on business. What it has going for it, though, is that it always works. You just do one tape per day, it takes exactly thirty minutes, and in one month you can get by, and in three months you can have little conversations. You don't have to make flashcards or study or anything like that-- you just hit play and learn. I clean my RV while listening, so the actual impact on my time is almost nothing.
I don't have any trips planned for the next six months to countries I haven't been to, so I'm going to do German and Italian for the next six months. Then I think I may do Korean and Arabic after that. Also high on the list are French and Portuguese to cover all of the Romance languages, Thai because I love Thailand, and maybe Russian so that I can sound like a spy. That's two years, since all of those courses are three month ones.
Will I actually learn eight languages in the next year? Nu ştiu, dar sper ca da!
Photo is me and Lucia with Yasmin, a girl we met on the train. She tried to talk to me in Romanian, and when I was finally able to understand and respond to something, she said, "He's smart!". Of course... that had to be translated to me.
Pimsleur is cool, but I (and a LOT of serious language learners agree) that it's really slow. In my opinion, the Michel Thomas courses are about infinity times superior.
And DEFINITELY check out Benny Lewis's blog, FluentIn3Months.com - he reached fluency in over 12 languages. Incredible resource, tons of great articles.
I'd also say the thing that helped me more than anything, including any course, is finding language exchange partners and actually using the language. ConversationExchange.com and MyLanguageExchange.com are the best ones. A lot of people recommend italki.com as well for private lessons but I haven't used them.
I did a few tapes of Michel Thomas Italian and it seemed really inefficient. I know a lot of people don't like Pimsleur, but it's always worked really well for me. It's not as good as active study (like Benny does), but great for spending no time prepping to learn and being easy to complete every day.
Agreed that in-person is the best way... maybe that's why I like Pimsleur so much, though-- it gives enough structure that learning from others is effective afterwards.
Pimsleur is the king of low-effort survival-level language acquisition. If you feel like learning more phrases *afterward*, check out book2: http://www.goethe-verlag.com/book2/EN/
The audio is free; the books are sold by a German publisher, but for your goals you don't need them. Click the "2" link next to a language you want to learn, and you'll get a zip of about a hundred sets of phrases around various topics (like eating at restaurants), with English first and your target language second for each phrase - using it like this, you can learn while you're cleaning, with just the audio. Obviously, you can pick and choose sections. The phrases are the same for each language, so you can also download other pairs (like Italian/Spanish) if you want to reinforce the first one as a base language and compare/contrast. I quite enjoyed the Esperanto/Polish pairing as preparation last time I was a tourist in Poland!
You may also like the LanguagePod or LanguagePod101 podcasts; they're from two competing companies, despite the similar names.
Personally, I don't really like Pimsleur, but for your goals it's a good match. I'd be interested to hear if you're still enjoying it after doing it for 10 languages, though - most people who start off with your approach seem to get tired of it. I find it's also less useful for phonologically difficult languages (such as Russian and Thai, for an English speaker), and languages where the grammatical structures are particularly different from English; it feels like it was designed for the Romance and Germanic languages.
Michael Thomas isn't inefficient, but it does exactly one thing: it teaches you structure. The people who are amazed by it tend to be ones who have had a few years of poorly-taught classroom study in a language, who then consolidate their half-learned knowledge of grammatical structures quite quickly. It doesn't directly help your communicative ability much, but it does help your ability to use core grammatical structures, which is helpful as as an intermediate speaker who's focused on communicative ability and phrases thus far, or a beginner who doesn't realize there's more to a language than slotting words into, say, conditional phrases. Like Pimsleur, it's not as good beyond the Romance and Germanic languages.
An SRS (memrise is mentioned below; anki is also popular) can help you learn words. As a beginner, this probably isn't what you want to do; a phrase approach like Pimsleur goes a lot further, especially in languages where words are inflected and combined quite differently from languages you've had previous exposure to. As a supplement, it's a mixed blessing; you'll have more words, but use them like Tarzan. A lot of language is idiomatic; if you say "take a shower" in a language where people say "do a shower", reactions'll vary from restrained smiles to genuine confusion about why you want to move the shower. Words also cover different semantic fields; the Japanese "nomimasu" is usually translated as "drink", but actually means pretty much anything you consume through your mouth without chewing - including pills. Words in isolation leave you in the dark more than having learned words in context - but they're better than not knowing the words at all.
A friend of mine swears by italki; I don't use it. She has some pretty impressive conversations in a pretty wide range of languages on it, including Indonesian.
For maintenance and language exposure while you're cleaning, audiobooks in target languages you already understand are unbeatable. If you can't understand most of what you're hearing yet, use some combination of the above, or forget about the cleaning and read along with a parallel text as you listen. Getting very familiar with a couple of stories helps: you can break into a new, related language pretty fast this way.
That's exactly the reason why I love Michel's method. But interesting that you didn't like it. I haven't done the italian one, just the spanish one... but I felt like I learnt more in about 12 hours (of total listening time) than I did of 3x weekly classes in school for 3 years.
It gives you the structure of the language so that you can basically fill in the blanks with vocabulary and straight up practice.
I thought Pimsleur was similar in that way, just slower. But obviously the best one is the one that works for you.
Anyway, the final thing I'd add is that it's a very good idea to start "immersing" yourself in the language from day 1. Listening to music, tv, movies etc. To get your brain accustomed to processing that language. I started WAY too late with spanish, and now I have a lot of problems with listening comprehension.
I love learning languages too. I've listened to Pimsleur and Michel Thomas. The thing that is great about Michel is that you really learn the structure of the language. The thing he misses is all of the tourist typical conversations. I can't order in a restaurant, ask directions, etc. just with the Michel Thomas method. For that, I will listen to other tapes.
I've done the French, Italian and Spanish. The overlap between these languages is really remarkable but it gets a bit confusing. I found that when I was in Mexico recently, I would ask for things in Italian and get very perplexed looks from whomever I was talking too.
I've tried the Chinese too, just for fun and was amazed at the complexity of language.
I love reading your blog.
The last point above is a very important point which should not be overlooked if you are serious about learning a language. Learning a language is "easy" but to make it stick you do need to immerse yourself in it. This will increase your learning and utilisation of the language immensely. Dat heb ik ook in nederlands gedaan en kan je zien hoe ver ik ben gekomen ;-)
Great post Tynan, it's great you encourage people to learn foreign languages. However, I don't know why you mentioned that Romanian is a "useless" language. I think the mainstream utilitarian view of language learners does tend to favor learning the languages spoken by the largest population or in the most economically powerful ones, but I don't see any language as "useless". Ultimately it really depends on the reason behind undertaking its study.
In any case, I've gone through the Pimsleur tapes for Mandarin and Portuguese, and while I like the method I think it also has some drawbacks. Perhaps the greatest thing about it is that it can be listened to in the car while driving (or even when in the bus or when walking with your MP3). However, personally I prefer other methods while at home, as I find it hard to just sit still and listen to the endless repeating of sentences.
Have you ever tried Assimil or Teach Yourself? I'd be interested in hearing about your experience using those methods.
"and maybe Russian so that I can sound like a spy"
I constantly get accused of being an American spy in Moscow.
I have done extensive research on learning languages and am familiar with all methods aforementioned. Personally, I like the Pimsleur method as well, although a bit slow, it usually has perfect accent and articulation. I used the Pimsluer method for french, and my roomate, who is a native french, says I a perfect accent.
If you would like to try an accelerated approach, I would check out this:
The us govt, Foreign Service Institute developed accelerated language courses for people going to work abroad. I.e. spys! Perhaps other govt workers as well. This website includes many languages, all of which are public domain. Let me know what you think.
By the way, love your blog.
Have you done FSI? And if so, do you think it's better than Pimsleur? For German there are a bunch of different courses... do am I supposed to do Basic?
I'm not him, but I've used FSI quite a bit (mostly in Spanish) and researched it as well. Both FSI and DLI are basically the fastest, most intensive programs to reach full functional fluency (assuming you're entering their actual program, which requires you to be in the army for DLI or be training as a diplomat for FSI). The materials are extremely thorough, but there are some caveats:
-The public domain FSI course are a few decades old - that being said, they're still really high quality
-These materials aren't standalone, they're used in classes (at least 6 hours of class per day + 2-3 hours of homework) taught by native speakers, and they bring in a ton of other resources - newspaper articles, natives to speak for a bit, etc. As you go through the program, you'll quickly see how the courses were intended to be used with access to a teacher.
-They're based on Skinnerian thinking, so while they're extremely effective some people just find it too boring (I'm not one of those people, so I can't say)
My recommendation is use them to supplement what you're already doing, especially by drilling weakspots. Also, courses (well, at least Spanish) tend to start with pronunciation lessons that are extremely helpful. It's very difficult to go through a full unit (dialogue, pattern drills, translation drills, etc) and not have the material mastered.
So, as a TL;DR: They're very effective and thorough, but I wouldn't use them as your only source of material. And yes, the basic courses tend to be the best.
I've been trying to learn Spanish for years. You really need to be immersed to get to that next level. Good luck!
Have you checked out Memrise (memrise.com)? It's created by a couple of fellows who are pretty much pros when it comes to memory techniques and learning (one of them competed in memory competitions and the other one is a neuroscientist at Princeton). The learning is built up pretty much like a game and it's super fun and easy. With every word people add "mems" which is various pictures/animations and stuff associated to the word. Just crazy shit that makes everything really easy to remember. What makes it so efficient is that they've got an algorithm which builds on the principle of "spaced repetition". The big difference of repetition which is perfectly timed (since Memrise knows exactly what words you know and how well you know them) is that you can cut down the time with about half (instead of cramming it all together). You're basically kept right at the edge of your knowledge at all times. No waste simply put.
Here's an article about it with a guy who learned Lingala on an OK level. He learned 1200 words (which would be sufficient to get by in conversations and manage the basics in any language - about the level of proficiency you're looking for?) in two and a half months. The longest session he spent on the site was 20 minutes. On average he spent 4 minutes per day. In total it added up to about 22 hours for 1200 words.
Good luck with the learning! Love your blog btw, really awesome.
I am trying memrise for learning Japanese following your suggestion. What I love about it is that is addictive and have used it fairly regularly for the past month or so. Whether its the app or whether its just me I dont know but although I can successfully recall about 90%+ of what I learn, the speed of recall is very slow and it doesnt seem to get quicker over time. But I have a very low concentration level so maybe that has something to do with it.
As an amateur Nova Scotian philologist, I would advise the perusal of Dr. Alexander Arguelles' website http://www.foreignlanguageexpertise.com. It contains to me some very valuable information; especially his method of "shadowing" foreign languages. This comes from a long-time lurker and first time commenter who speaks 1 language but is fluent to some degree in perhaps 5.
When you "have time" check out Live Mocha. It's an online community where participants can have exchanges and practice with native speakers of a myriad of languages. You can talk in real time or you can leave a post and have a native speaker critique your work and coach you with pronunciation and intonation. Can't hurt. http://livemocha.com/pages/the-livemocha-community/
You should actually give Swiss German a try. I want to learn it before I head to Zurich this summer. My daughter was raised there and lives there now with my five year old grandson....he speaks English, Swiss German, High German, French, Spanish, and some African language (I forget which one). I can barely communicate in pidgin-Spanish (my hybrid of English and Spanish). - Tyger
Hmm, I'm not sure I agree with this approach. Doing those tapes will leave you better than a phrase-book wielding tourist, but it really won't let you have much meaningful interaction with people that hand gestures alone wouldn't allow you. I'm reminded a bit of Laoshu (http://www.youtube.com/user/laoshu505000), who does "level up" videos where he goes around in public places (usually malls, food courts, whatever) and tries to speak a ton of languages.
The thing is, though, he's objectively pretty terrible at every language he speaks. Any difficult sentence he has to revert back to English, and while you'd expect his Chinese and such to be weak, even his Spanish is pretty atrocious. Why dip your feet into 20 languages, rather than dive into 3 or 4 over the course of the next few years?
Learning a language is learning a culture - from everything to what you say when you don't know what to say (people definitely don't say "umm" in Chinese) to how much eye contact you make. That's not really something you pick up in 30 minutes a day.
Anyway, that's just my two cents. As a TL;DR: I think you should strive for mastery in a smaller number of languages rather than learn the very basics of 20.
Life Nomadic has begun. Six months of not particularly careful planning and a full week of hectic scrambling to rid ourselves of nearly every earthly possesion has paid off.
As I write our first post for Life Nomadic, Todd's in the next seat over editing our first video. The kid behind me is pounding on my seat. Holy god. It's like he's playing Rock Band back there and the tray table is the drums set.
I'd always talked about freeing myself from a single location... making my income portable, all of my belongings portable, and becoming more comfortable being a nomad. After Todd and I took a random trip to Japan I realized that there are probably MANY places in the world that I'd like as much as, if not more than, the U.S.
I had a wonderful chat with Oscar del Ben last week. We swapped some interesting ideas, but one that fascinated me was him telling me how fast he learned English. Given I travel a lot, I was curious as to how he did it. Here's his thoughts -
Hey Sebastian, I think that in order to learn languages quickly, you have to use them. It took me a bit to learn English pronunciation, and I still make many mistakes without knowing it, but the trick is to continue despite the mistakes you make. When I was learning, my girlfriend said that there was no chance for me (bad memory, bad pronunciation), but I didn't give a damn.
Anyway, in my case I had some background from school, even though very little. What worked for me was reading tons of books in English, and then talk with other people via skype.
If you only read books, you'll be able to understand 70% of your target language in one month, assuming it's similar to ones you know (I've never tried wit very different languages). But by only reading you'll have no idea about pronunciation, so I encourage you to listen to music or audio as well. Note that you'll have to get the lyrics of the songs, otherwise it will be nearly impossible to understand, even if you already know the language.
With this, you can get very far, but you'll be missing communication abilities, because you never exercise your speaking abilities. To do that, find a friend who communicates in that language over skype (should be easy if you do english exchange), or practice alone by recording your voice.