Unlocking a New Language: A 90-Day Experiment with Common Words and Language Tools à la Tim Ferris

Enrique Viveros Acosta
7 min readMay 29, 2023
meme spanish learning

Ramblings on language learning

Learning is a complex word and its meaning is becoming increasingly vague, nowadays even more with all the AI Hype going on, can machines learn? can only biological beings learn? what exactly is to learn?

Those are hard questions and when it comes to language “learning/speaking” I am afraid there is no straight answer neither, and the word can mean many things: from a youtuber trying to get views bragging while saying a few sentences, to a more concrete attempt like the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR)

This makes it difficult to start from a common reference point, but if you ask me, the answer lies more towards the independent and spontaneous use of the language which would be something from a B2/C1 level onwards on the CEFR reference framework. So for the purpose of this experiment, the general idea is to test how much can you learn/speak after a 3 month test.

I grabbed some ideas to try from this Tim Ferris blog’s post, which I highly recommend , but the general inspiration came after being constantly exposed on my last vacations to Dutch and also just for fun!

I already speak ( or use on a daily basis?) german and english so dutch sounds like something you were supposed to understand but you don’t, and If you have heard it before you would notice those weird noises they do with the throat like kind of a person is having a mini choking/ clearing their throats. So for me the starting point would be to figure out how to pronounce that and how to recognize what is being said when I hear it or worse see it written.

This made the perfect occasion to try language learning apps; for me they are pretty new, and I have been more a pen, paper and that audio recorder every teacher uses guy, so yes I know the pain.

the legendary audio recorder

I did a small search on the app store and I didn’t really think much about it and went with Duolingo I had seen before some people using it, as well as the owl memes, and it finally came under my radar when they announced the new GPT-4 integration. You start translating some basic phrases and they give introduce you more words progressively. They also gamify it so there are some challenges, leaderboards and games which makes the app catchy.

duolingo Dutch

However, as I used it daily even though I liked it, and it hugely helped me getting started and with the basic sounds, I had this feeling it was going too slow; some exercises started to get repetitive and sometimes kind of restrictive, probably I also wanted ti get rid of some weird phrases too like I am eating bread and crying on the floor (too many tears already)

Exploring the frequency lists

So I went with Tim’s idea and got a list of the most frequent words in dutch. The basic idea is that there is a point of learning you can reach while every portion of time allocated to learning translates directly in progress, and after that point you need to spend much more time learning for just a small progress (law of diminishing retuns)

To understand 95% of a language and become conversational fluent may require 3 months of applied learning; to reach the 98% threshold could require 10 years

So the idea is to look for the best return per hour invested- ROI and for that we search for the most used/frequent words in any language. For the case of English:

The first 25 most common writen words make up about 1/3 of all printed material . The first 100 comprise 1/2 of all written material, and the first 300 make up about 65% percent of all written material in English

So that’s great ! there are some words that you commonly use and that make up a vast part of the vocabulary you would normally use, and If you think about it, it makes sense. We all use the word the, eat, I far more than exarcerbate or ultracrepidarian.

Given this fact, I used a frequency dictionary in this case for dutch and searched for the 72 most common verbs, then for the 72 most common adverbs, then adjectives and finally (conjunctions/ prepositions), I decided to make flashcards with them and to study them everyday using a spaced repetition software (Anki )

Creation of the Deck

I created the decks as simple as possible with the dutch question and the english translation on the back for those 72 items of each mentioned above, but I also made one deck for general conjugation and another with present, past and perfect tense for those 72 verbs.

dutch-english verb frequencies
anki vocabulary card

The idea was to spend from 15 to 30 minutes a day reviewing the cards but I also run some simulations with an extension, to check how much of the deck would I could cover, according to different settings like more cards in a day, see the easiest one less frequently and so on, the idea was just to experiment with it.

general conjugation dutch
learning simulation Anki
time spent on a day reviewing on Anki

Grammar and Six Lines of Gold

According to Tim, you should deconstruct the language before starting. This is to consider them like a sport. There are some prerequisites, some rules and according to that you can have an idea of how long it will take for you. Here are six questions he used from the outset to start the deconstruction:

1. Are there new grammatical structures that will postpone fluency? (look at SOV vs. SVO, as well as noun cases)

2. Are there new sounds that will double or quadruple time to fluency? (especially vowels)

3. How similar is it to languages I already understand? What will help and what will interfere? (Will acquisition erase a previous language? Can I borrow structures without fatal interference like Portuguese after Spanish?)

4. All of which answer: How difficult will it be, and how long would it take to become functionally fluent?

You can make the exercise according to your target and needs, try to reduce it to the most essential features and to mark your goals as precise as possible, this can be easier said than done specially if you are just getting started it may be not that intuitive what you will need or how to get there, but the exersice itself may be helpful to keep you on track.

Reading, reading, reading

There are many ways to apply what you have learned, for one thing is the passive learning act like going t o class, listening casually to something, seeing a word on the board, but the active learning part is where you can test how much you actually know and where are your gaps. Things like writing a text, having a conversation or reading a text either reinforce your learning or give you new insights.

Some people have the possibility to move to a new place where that language is spoken, making it easier, to adapt it to your routine, some others know a person(s) with whom they can practice on a frequent basis. Nonetheless this is not always the case, and one of the strategies I think are also useful regardless of your situation is reading in your target language. In The inescapable case for extensive reading the authors argue how graded reading is an “indispensable part of any language program” and they also explain it in a statistical context like with the image given bellow:

reading volume needed in English according to a word rank

what they are trying to measure here is how many words need to be read to learn all the 500, 1000 and so on most frequent words in English. The basic idea is: you can build a vast vocabulary simply by reading.

So for this to be more effective you have to aim for books and texts aimed to your level and keep aiming for new and longer texts as you progress.

In my case I started with child books like the Aesop’s fables after my basic vocabulary review. Kid books offer pretty good material to start and there are also books graded by level like A- Beginners, B-Intermediate ones where they adapt the texts specifically for this and you can even find adapted versions of literature classics.

de vabels van Aesopus

Summing Up

There are many learning strategies and everything depends on your personal situation, as a general rule you should be aware of over-promising and scams, nevertheless there are indeed some ways to make your learning process more efficient and some of them were presented on this article. Many of the things mentioned here deserved their own article but for the sake of brevity I tried to keep it short, I hope that anything mentioned here may inspire you or help you with in something. Also general experimentation is a good thing and you may try it too, May the Force be with you on your learning journey.