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  • Hey everybody today I have got a very interesting interview for you.

  • I am talking to Tim Ferriss who is very well known initially for writing the 4-Hour work week but he has since expanded on that,

  • he has written about the 4-Hour body and now the 4-hour chef

  • and I like the way he talks about this trio of books it's Benjamin Franklin's healthy, wealthy, wise, isn't that it?

  • That's right you got it.

  • Ok so most people talk to you relevant to these kind of "life hacking" things,

  • business ideas and so on but today I want to focus almost entirely on language learning

  • because what you have done in other areas is very impressive but just looking at your background,

  • it's very relevant to languages because you did your degree in East Asian studies and your thesis was in Neuro science

  • and unorthodox acquisition of Japanese by native English speakers, if I got that right?

  • Right.

  • And just before you graduated you were the curriculum designer at Berlitz International?

  • I worked on Japanese and English curriculum re-design.

  • I actually work for Berlitz myself too but just as an English teacher and from then you...

  • well before all this you as a teenager you had done a year abroad in Japan

  • and you kind of changed your language learning process over time and I think if I have got this

  • you reached a certain stage that I want to ask you about, in Japanese in one year,

  • Mandarin Chinese in six months, German in three months and Spanish in eight weeks,

  • so we will get into the meat of that very shortly but the first thing that I am really curious is

  • how did you get interested in Japanese in the first place because you as a teenager you went to Japan

  • so obviously something kicked that off in advance before you went over there?

  • It was really simple. In my particular case I concluded I was bad at languages after my Spanish experience in the few years prior to that because like everyone,

  • well I shouldn't say everyone but most people who go through the normal formal schooling approach couldn't string more than a few sentences together,

  • certainly couldn't have a conversation and I ended up switching to Japanese when I switched schools and I had the opportunity to study other languages

  • and my thought was well I am going to be bad at languages no matter which one I choose I might as well, number one study something related to a culture that I am fascinated by,

  • so Ninjas and all that stuff, Samurai and what have you and secondly my friends were in and one or two of my new friends at that school were in the Japanese class, so I jumped into Japanese.

  • And actually what people don't realise is it was sold or described in the course handbook as conversational Japanese and so as soon as they started introducing (Japanese terms)

  • you know the two sylaberries I was like whoa what is this, what is this nonsense so I had like two big meetings with my residential adviser

  • and the Japanese teacher because I was considering very seriously quitting Japanese on two different occasions

  • because of the writing which is hysterical looking back because I was so phobic,

  • I was like if I have trouble with Spanish I don't want to do something that is already harder than Spanish plus all this crazy character stuff,

  • but that is how the Japanese class came to be and Mr Shimonu who is the teacher was great he was actually very different from my previous Spanish teacher,

  • so for instance anytime he could see our faces falling or we were having trouble with Japanese he would say "ok time out" and his English was still very Japanese English

  • he would go "right time out" and then he would say "squirrel" in English to make us laugh because that is probably the hardest word possible for a Japanese person to say,

  • so we would go "ok watch" and he would go "squirr.." and everyone would crack up and the mood would improve and then we would continue with the lesson

  • and I think he understood really well that it's not just having the right method on paper you need to deal with the psychological emotional aspect of it.

  • Absolutely.

  • There is always going to be frustrations as you know. So that is how the class came to be and then at some point I actually ended up doing quite well it

  • and I think partially because the class was very frequently after sports and I have some thoughts on how physical activity pairs with language learning really well

  • but I did progress in it really quickly and at one point he said we had this sister programme at Saiki University or Saiki High School

  • in this case in Tokyo would you like to be an exchange student and that just came out of that field for me

  • and I talked to my parents and off I went for my first major overseas trip.

  • Excellent and one thing I didn't know before or I would have missed it in your previous books,

  • is you said that you had actually spent six months at first in Japan where you didn't feel that you had made that much progress

  • and I don't have the same kind of background, I wasn't you know I didn't have such a good language education at first

  • and I have got a degree in electronic engineering but after graduation I moved to Spain and I lived in Spain for six months

  • without actually learning Spanish to any kind of degree so I know you said something similar to this, so what happened?

  • I think there are two things so I don't have a lot of data to support this but I do think the six month point

  • there was something like related to neuroplasticity about that six month point,

  • there was something really unusual about it but secondly I gave up on trying to mimic what I done in school because it wasn't working.

  • When I went to Saiki I remember the first day of classes so I had been measured for my school uniform

  • I looked like a WestPoint cadet and went into the English department office because I was basically their pet for the year

  • and this guy came up to me and he goes you know and he gives me this paper and I couldn't...

  • I was like sorry I can't read this what does it say and he is like ok, ok

  • traditional Japanese [Japanese] physics ok and read through the whole list and I was just puzzled by this and it turned out that what I had been told before

  • I went because I was very nervous he said don't worry you will have plenty of Japanese classes and lost in translation was that they were all regular high school Japanese classes,

  • so I went to book stores and I bought what I thought appeared to be Japanese text books like my Spanish text books had been

  • and it just didn't work at the end of the day, whether I was bored by the material or the books themselves were a problem in the progression,

  • either way it didn't work and around the six month point is when I really embraced judo text books and comic books and I found that the judo text books

  • because I was interested in the subject matter gave me the grammar because the grammar transfers of course between subject matter

  • and I actually think electrical engineering would be really good training for languages but at least as good as an East Asian studies degree

  • but we can come out with the comic so I have a little show and tell,

  • the comic books turned into a real outlet for me because it's all dialogue it's almost all dialogue and not only is it almost all dialogue but it doesn't try to be,

  • it does not attempt to be formal there is some formality but it's mostly very informal so for a high school kid that was perfect.

  • So here is one example this is "one piece" I have... the covers are the same so once I did that in Japanese

  • this is one piece in German and one piece in Spanish and it's a very popular series as you can get it in every language

  • but the main difference was focussing on native materials that were not intended to teach language in the first place if that makes sense?

  • Yeah.

  • So that was a big breakthrough point and I think that much like physical adaptation for sports there is a neuroplasticity aspect that does take time

  • and there are ways to compress it but in my case with Japanese is was between that six and eight month point where there was a real inflexion point and that's pretty much how it turned out.

  • Yeah and for me it was mostly a mentality shift because I think those six months weren't necessarily helping me when I was learning Spanish

  • but something I am sure you have written about this, one of the major issues in languages is in a traditional education people look at a native speaker

  • and that is kind of the goal and the presumption is let's say for example that mastering a language a hundred per cent to sound like a native,

  • let's say it takes 15 years I mean I don't know how long it takes, let's say it takes that

  • and then they kind of think logically it has to take 15 years so to get fifty per cent of that you would need seven and a half years?

  • Right that's a great point.

  • So what is wrong with this logic?

  • Well I mean it's a....

  • I know it's not logical that's what's wrong with it.

  • You're preaching to the choir! Because languages are very front loaded but if you do an 80/20 analysis

  • and you know this of course looking at the frequency of word occurrence then I mean if you just learn the word THE in English you cover a lot of ground,

  • now you are not going to speak to anyone you are just using THE and drive you and them crazy

  • but as you add words there is a dramatic point of diminishing returns, many points of diminishing returns so if you wanted to get...

  • the explanation that I sometimes give to people is if you wanted to fool a native speaker into thinking that you are close to native or perhaps grew up there,

  • let's say 30 days out of a 30 day calendar month that might take 10 years,

  • it might like you said I don't know maybe but to get to the point where you can do it 29 days out of 30

  • I think you could do that in a year or less without too much trouble if you really apply yourself.

  • But it's getting those final grains of salt, those final words that really requires that huge investment or so it would seem but yeah that is a good point I think the mathematical...

  • when you run the mental arithmetic and distribute it across 15 years, oh well if I wanted to be even 50% is good which in most people's minds is pretty crappy still,

  • it will take seven and half years I am not even going to try like that is the way it's...yeah that's a good point I have never put it that way.

  • Yeah because like what I found is when I am trying to learn a language something similar to the Parato principle

  • you talk about a lot is I am much more focussed on the short term and what can I do in the short term

  • and I think this is very very different to traditional methods that kind of see anything less than mastery of a language as a waste of time and useless

  • and I mean realistically yeah it would be great if everyone thought I was I native 100% of the time but I mean why do I really need that,

  • what I am looking for is I want to have good conversations with people, I don't want there to be any misunderstandings and I have actually reached the stage

  • where I can pass for a native speaker in particular situations for you know up to two minutes

  • and there is a lot of restrictions there like I have to be in a situation that I am comfortable in and so on

  • and so I can't say you know you are going to confuse me for a native all the time but these are all realistic things if you look at what you want to work on

  • and you know people can come up with silly things like you have to be able to debate Kantian philosophy and I am like you know I don't do that in English,

  • yet you have to like my standards for fluency are based on what I can do in English and when people start saying you know you have got to be able to talk politics,

  • I am like I find politics boring you know if you talk to me in English about politics I am not going to be able to do that.

  • So like in my understanding when I say I try to be "fluent" in a language I aiming to be socially equivalent to how I am in English

  • so I can follow many people speaking amongst one and other, I can talk to them without slowing the conversation down,

  • you know it's as good as speaking to a native even though you know I am not a native because I am making a few mistakes

  • and for me that's fluency and then a little bit higher than that would be doing these things in professional contexts,

  • so I have actually sat the Spanish DELE the C2 Diploma which is the professional level

  • but I still think below that it's still very very powerful and for me it counts as fluency,

  • it's what I aiming for what I think is realistic in three months is this social fluency.

  • So one of the big questions people were asking me when I told them I was going to talk to you,

  • is how do you define fluent because in a laymen's context it's very easy to throw these words around

  • like you know I learned how to speak Spanish in so many weeks, I mean what does that even mean you know?

  • So I like your social equivalency explanation applied by that but the example that I use,

  • like when in almost every language when you run through a typical training program for busy business people...

  • Yeah.

  • Alright let's learn to read the financial times, if I grab the financial times on an airplane I can't read the damn thing in English

  • and I never going to talk about it certainly but that is a whole separate gripe session,

  • so for fluency for me personally my marker has been can I have say a 10 or 15 minute conversation without slowing down the conversation

  • where I can express any idea I want to express and if I don't understand something immediately clarify it,

  • so it's really having like a 10 minute pleasant conversation where the other person would come away saying like yes,

  • now it's an ambiguous term but in their language to another native speaker he fluent in Spanish or he is fluent in fill-in-the-blank.

  • Right.

  • In some cases I am aiming for something like when I was in German I was at the Hochfachschule

  • which is actually a pretty good school and I was aiming for that Mittelstufe

  • and at first and then moving beyond that and then when I was in Argentina I like having concrete objective goals I think it's helpful,

  • not everyone needs it but I like to where with Spanish I was aiming for,

  • I guess it was like Nivel Avanzado in the University of Buenos Aires but just a side not real fast because talk about mental shift

  • I think part of the reason that people fail in languages is the same reason that they fail at many things like dieting,

  • think of dieting like ok this is a permanent change forever how do I feel and it's overwhelming. And so with dieting it's a two week trial,

  • just a two week trial if you don't like it you can stop, and with languages I think for instance I never tackle any language thinking this is going to be a lifelong project ever,

  • I don't ever tackle a language thinking this is going to be a one year project,

  • ever when I tackle a language if I go to let's say Turkey and I study Turkish I don't expect to ever use Turkish again after that trip

  • but because even having 20 phrases makes that trip ten times more enjoyable and I learn ten times more I will put in the time and that is how...

  • you know Japanese another reason Japanese came out is I had an exchange student at my house with my family and so we all learned five to ten sentences of Japanese and we got along really well.

  • That's actually exactly the same reason I got into Spanish because we hosted Spanish students in my home town in Ireland.

  • Right and for instance when I was in Galway, this is hysterical so when I was in Galway,

  • I am not sure I wrote about this I studied Irish and people think Japanese is hard I would say Irish just due to the lack of materials

  • and also if you want to practice with anyone because it was funny because very Irish person I would meet

  • they would go what are you doing here and I would be like I am doing a hurling and they would be like that's weird

  • and then I would say Irish and they would go what the hell are you studying Irish for and you would have to go to like Spiddal down in the Gaeltacht and oh man...

  • Yeah, yeah well you would actually be surprised I did read your mention this on the blog that you would consider Irish more difficult,

  • I think in terms of materials to come across yes you are going to find a lot less but I know a lot of people who have actually learned it at a distance and I don't think it's necessarily,

  • I mean comparing it to other European languages it's not that intimidating and especially because we are less used to foreigners learning it,

  • you give them way more flexibility in making mistakes and you don't necessarily have to go to Spiddal,

  • I mean there are quite large Gaeltacht communities especially in the North West it's a different dialect to the one in Galway but no don't give up hope on Irish just yet.

  • I know I haven't given up on Irish but I would say...I went there partially to study Irish and I ended up learning hurling instead which I fell in love with.

  • Right.

  • So I view learning as just an adventure and I read a quote once, sorry it's in the book I can't remember who said it

  • but he said 'you know writing a novel is a lot like driving with the headlights on" you can't see your destination but you can get there that way.

  • And I think learning is a lot like that, but I would also say that Irish whether...

  • I think not all languages are equally hard or equally easy for all people so it can be a very personal thing right so one of the pet peeves

  • that I have maybe is when something is Romanised but the phonetics of that language do not resemble English I get antsy and Irish is definitely that way, like...

  • Ok well another time I have got to sit down and talk to you about this it's not as bad as you think.

  • No, no I am not saying it's bad I am saying like it's a very personal thing like for me it's like Chinese whatever after Japanese

  • sure I will learn Chinese where as most people are like oh my god it's the devil's language and I am like it's not that bad.

  • Whereas just to point out how like hysterical that is that I went oh Chinese 5000 characters

  • I can do that and then like oh my god like spelling "Go raibh maith agat" (thank you) like oh forget you know.

  • I see where you are coming from because we do very uniquely among languages I have come across we have a lot of letters to describe

  • very few sounds but you know it can be very intimidating but believe it or not I among Celtic languages Irish is one of the easiest because of that,

  • I mean Welsh is much more phonetic from what I have heard and this introduces a whole lot of new problems.

  • So you know...

  • I believe it.

  • Yeah I read that you got into Irish I thought that was fantastic.

  • Ok so just going back from what I read in the 4-Hour chef and of course your blog post about language learning I think the core aspect of how you tackle a language is two things,

  • firstly you would focus on the top words like the top 100 words or the top 1000 words based on frequency

  • that they appear in a conversation or in print or something and you have a particular set of sentences that you deconstruct grammatically

  • to help you get an overall look at the language and you generally would apply this to any language,

  • it helps you a lot. What would you say... how does conversation come into your learning technique?

  • Yeah there is a bunch of different ways I actually have some more show and tell but I forget one so hold on I will be right back.

  • All right so conversation is...everything I do is with the target outcome of speaking fluently it's not that I don't value reading and writing and I can read and write,

  • well certainly could much better back in the day but I can still read and write quite well in Japanese and Chinese

  • and I studied Korean for a year or two and I don't mention that much but I can still read most Korean,

  • that is a really fun one to get people over their fear of reading because you can learn how to read Korean in about two hours.

  • But I focus on I guess I have a particular way I approach what the German's call Tandem so just two person sessions

  • and I would love to hear your thoughts on this because I know you do a lot of it, but the common way that this is approached,

  • so finding a language partner is I will teach you English and you teach my Portuguese and it never works, in my experience if it's that broad

  • it never works because native English speakers suck at teaching English just like people who are the best in the world at programming suck at teaching programming

  • it's second nature and also it's true with someone who speaks your target language so there needs to be a framework of some type and the way that I as an English speaker,

  • a native English speaker I am very unfairly given an advantage that almost everyone studies English, not everyone but almost everyone

  • so I will go to English schools and find students who are at an intermediate or advanced level assuming that I am trying to learn their language at a basic level,

  • ideally intermediate and we will come in and we will swap back and forth we might have a 20 minute session,

  • a 20 minute session and the first thing that we do is we will...and I have a bunch of notes I took on this

  • but one of the approaches is to always review materials beforehand and then come in with specific questions.

  • The second approach which I borrowed from Chinese 101 at Princeton is having a...

  • and this is one of the first things I do I don't think have I talked about this much but I will get a bio,

  • a self introduction of say one page in length down on paper so my little brother is this years old, he lives here,

  • my parents do this, my blah blah, I grew up here and it is amazing how much mileage you get out of that one page

  • because guess what that is the first three minutes of every single conversation you are going to have.

  • Absolutely.

  • But the point is I will have them help me if need be to translate that or refine it and then I will read that aloud and have them circle any phoneme or any pronunciation problems

  • that I have then work on those sounds and this is what we had to do every week in Chinese 101 at Princeton

  • which at the time I think was the best Chinese 101 programme in the entire country it was extremely effective.

  • We would have to go into a language lab and read out loud several different conversations and then the professors would take time separately

  • identify where we would have trouble and we would spend an entire private session going through those sounds.

  • So the tandem very often will start off light for me which means helping someone identify specific issues in English

  • and when I say identify specific English issues it's not going to be...

  • and I have a set