Hypothetical situation: Due to some last-minute deals, you’re able to book that dream vacation you’ve always wanted to take. Awesome! You’ve always wanted to go, and you finally get the chance. Of course, it’s all last minute, and you never actually got around to learning the language they speak where you’re going.
Let’s try another one: You get a phone call from your mom, and it turns out your cousin from abroad is coming to visit. Maybe s/he is coming with someone you are attracted to. Only catch, neither of them speak any English.
How about this: By some stroke of luck, your job is sending you to abroad. Sure, it’s for work, but it’s free travel! Of course, your colleagues there will speak some English, but what do you do if you want to do some sightseeing?
These are just a few of the very real situations that people face – more often than you might imagine.
Of course, we’d all love to be that cultured, worldly individual we dream about—you know, the one who visits the opera, knows which size spoon goes with which course, and speaks several languages.
We’d also all love to have six pack abs and a million dollars in the bank… but sometimes we just can’t find the time.
So what do you do when – by some stroke of luck or fate – you are in a position where you want (or need) to learn a language fast?
In the following pages, I’m going to explain a bit more about who I am, and how I came to develop this system. I’ll even share the exact experience that led me to invent it. But before I do, let me tell you exactly what the system is and why it works so well.
I know, I know, I should keep this until the very end and try to trick you into reading more… but I hate it when people do that to me, so I’m not even going to try to do it to you. If you like what you read, then it’ll be your pleasure to read on. If you don’t like (or believe in) the system, then why waste your time, right?
Most modern languages contain anywhere from 25,000 – 35,000 actively used words. What I mean by “modern” is any language that is spoken by a relatively large community of a million people or more. When I say “actively used words”, I mean words that are actually used by everyday people on a regular basis. (For example, many modern English dictionaries include the words “thee” and “thou”, but these are no longer “actively used words”.
But let me introduce you to the concept of a “word vector”. Word vectors represent the idea that stands behind the word.
For example, “hi” and “hey” are really the same word vector. You don’t need to know both words in order to have a meaningful conversation.
Also, let’s look at the following:
am -> are
both are forms of “to be”
did you go -> went -> am going
there are six unique words there that all reflect one word vector – the concept of going, albeit with different tenses.
Let’s see what happens if we radically simplify this dialogue by avoiding proper grammar:
A: Hi, how you?
A: Where you go?
B: I go store.
A: I go tomorrow.
Look, I know the original dialogue was pretty artificial, and the one above is not grammatically correct, but if you were in a foreign country, and this was the best you could speak, you would still be fully understood by a native speaker from that country.
The original dialogue had 22 words, 18 of which were unique. In the simplified dialogue, however, there are only 9 word vectors. That allows us to use 50% fewer words and still get our point across. So if a fluent speaker of a language typically only uses an average of 2,500 words per day, those words probably only cover around 1,250 word vectors.
Later in this post, I’ll cut that 1,250 figure in half again and show you the ~600 words (and ~150 phrases) you need to learn in order to survive speaking a foreign language. That’s a huge simplification (and a lot less work) than learning 25,000 – 35,000 words!
Later in this post, I’m going to give you the minimum, essential vocabulary you should learn, and I’ll share the essential “survival” phrases. Feel free to skip there now. The vocabulary and phrases are at the end of the post. They’re all in English, since I don’t know what language you are trying to learn… remember, this is a survival guide, not a comprehensive learning program. (That’s the third time I’m saying that!)
Before I get into the steps above, let me share how I came up with this system, and why I know it works. Whether you are skeptical, intrigued or just looking for an interesting story, please read on…
Speak in a Week is a framework designed to help people learn a language as quickly and efficiently as possible. There are tons of people looking to learn languages, and few of them want the slow, inefficient way. How I got here is what makes me a bit unique.
Speak in a Week is the brainchild of me, Jonty Yamisha. I am an ethnic Circassian, and I speak the Kabardian dialect of that language…. except I didn’t always. My parents came to the United States as refugees and worked hard to ensure I had a solid education. This meant a heavy emphasis on academics and English. As a child, aside from English, I was exposed to many different languages, including: Circassian, Arabic, Turkish, Russian, Hebrew and German. Growing up, however, I spoke none of these.
At the tender age of 31, I decided to learn my ethnic language. I just had a few problems:
Oh, did I happen to leave out that the few materials that exist on Circassian are written in Russian, Turkish or Arabic? I should also point out that the language has 56 letters, with sounds that don’t exist in any other spoken language on the planet.
I felt overwhelmed. I didn’t know where to start, and I was worried I’d have to learn an intermediate language (Russian, Turkish or Arabic) in order to achieve my goal. (Don’t get me wrong. Today, I love these languages, and speak all three of them to varying degrees, but it’s tough when there’s a big barrier to the real goal at hand.)
Today, I’m just about fluent in Circassian. During the course of my efforts, I eventually started a non-profit foundation for the Circassian language, and over the past decade or so, I’ve taught over 500 people how to speak Circassian. I’ve written my own teaching materials, and they’ve been translated into several different languages.
In order to get there, I’ve purchased and used every commercial language learning program on the market. I’m not kidding here. You name it, I’ve tried it. Some of these programs helped me to develop my own Circassian language teaching materials. Several inspired me to take bits and pieces of different programs to create the “best of the best”. Sadly, most were just a waste of time.
I absolutely believe that there is a place for professional, packaged language learning programs, but I also believe that the Speak in a Week method is a great place to start.
It is almost embarrassing to admit, but I would say it took me several years to learn Circassian. Granted, I had to develop my own learning method and all of my own materials, but way back when I started out, I didn’t really know much about the best way to learn a language, so I tried a lot of different things.
Let me expand on that. Let’s say I taught you the most amazing, simple, easy, super-fantastic way to memorize words, quickly and painlessly. (There is no such thing, but just bear with me here….) Let’s say that I taught you how to memorize numbers 1 – 1,000 in another language in an hour.
We all know that numbers are important, but if that’s all you learned, you wouldn’t actually be able to communicate in any meaningful way with a native speaker of the language you learned.
Now let’s go the other way: Let’s say that I used this imaginary system to teach you the 500 most useful words, but I completely omitted numbers. You’d be able to communicate, but any attempt to buy something, show up at a certain time or check into a hotel room would be complete failures.
Speak in a Week is all about learning the right things… the right way.
So the first part of Speak in a Week is focusing in on the right materials—the right mix of essential “survival” words and expressions that get you the most bang for your buck.
The next step, of course, is the learning process. We’ll get into that in a bit, but let me share how I actually discovered the Speak in a Week method.
I’ve mentioned that I’m a Circassian. I won’t get into all the details of what that means. You can Google it if you’d like, or check out my non-profit foundation’s web site to learn more (www.nassip.org). Long story short, we are a large Diaspora community, and I have relatives in the United States, Germany, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Turkey, Abkhazia and Russia.
When the war in Syria broke out, many of my Syrian relatives had to flee. Thankfully, most of them are now safe, but they spread out into more than a few countries. One of them is a place called Abkhazia. (Depending on who you ask, Abkhazia is either a break-away territory, unrecognized state, or independent republic. Again, I won’t get into it, but you can Google more if you’d like.)
A short while ago, I decided to visit my relatives who emigrated from Syria to Abkhazia. Abkhazia is a place where the Russian and Abkhazian languages are both widely spoken. There was just one simple problem: I didn’t speak any Russian or Abkhazian at the time. I didn’t have any Abkhazian language materials then, so I had to go with Russian.
Now at the time, my Speak in a Week method was more theory than practice. I spent about five years learning Circassian, and several more teaching this language to others…. I had a hunch that my Speak in a Week method could work, but it was time to put it to the test.
From the time I booked my ticket until the time I was set to arrive in Abkhazia, I had about two weeks. It took me a week to formalize my method and then a week to put it into practice.
So what happened when I arrived in Abkhazia and attempted to speak Russian?
Did I speak fluently? NO!
Did I speak beautifully? NO!
Did people laugh at me? You bet!
Did I feel a bit silly / awkward? Of course!
But… was I able to make myself understood? And was I able to effectively navigate and get around?
How did I do it? Read on below, and you shall see!
So let’s go back to the 5 steps in the Speak in a Week method:
Step 1: Have a reason to learn your new language.
Step 2: Have a specific goal AND timeframe in mind to achieve the above.
Step 3: Focus on minimum, essential vocabulary.
Step 4: Learn minimum, essential “survival” phrases.
Step 5: Improvise.
I cannot stress this enough. You need to have a really good reason to want to learn a language. Otherwise, it’s like watching a movie you have no interest in… or trying to learn how to play an instrument you really don’t like. There are tons of reasons you might want to learn a new language, by the way. Maybe you’re about to travel to a new place. Perhaps you have a work reason to learn, or maybe there is a person you’re looking to impress. The list is endless, but the point is that the reason needs to be important to you—important enough to keep you motivated and determined.
In college, I had a friend who was studying Japanese. On his own. In his spare time. For fun. WOW, I thought… I was so impressed. I asked him how well he spoke, and he said, “oh, not very well, just yet.” Ok, I figured, he’s still learning. I asked him how long he’d been studying Japanese. “Since I was about 13, when I got into anime.”
My friend was 22 when I met him.
That’s eight years of “learning a language”. I’d actually argue he was playing with the language, not learning it. Now don’t get me wrong… my friend was a unique kind of guy. He still is. He was one of those people more interested in the journey than the destination, and there is nothing wrong with that.
But that’s not what Speak in a Week is about. For you to be successful, you need to have a specific goal AND a timeframe in mind. Let me expand on that for a moment. Your specific goal might be:
Having a goal in mind is important for a few reasons: if you don’t have a goal, you can’t measure progress. Also, setting a goal helps keep your expectations realistic. Speak in a Week is NOT about fluency. Speak in a Week is about getting by and surviving in the environment that’s calling for you to speak this new language.
Setting a specific timeframe is equally important. It’s human nature to procrastinate, and without a deadline, we’d all put off as much as we could until the last minute.
Now you may be asking yourself, “Gee, why shouldn’t my goal be one week?” I’d answer, “Why couldn’t your goal be one day? What about one month?” The timeframe is not actually all that important. All that matters is that you set a goal, set a timeframe, make sure you are realistic and then work towards both.
Remember, you’re not going to become fluent in a week. Depending on your definition of fluency, you probably would have a hard time becoming fluent in less than a few months. But depending on your goal, and how complex your personal situation is, a timeframe of a week, or even a day, could be very realistic.
Side note – don’t believe me? Read on…
Let’s say you have ONE DAY to “Speak in a Week”. (This is the super accelerated program.)
This is your situation: You are going to a foreign country for work. You have English-speaking colleagues there, but you need to leave the airport and get a taxi to your foreign office. Once you’re at the office, your English-speaking colleagues will take care of everything, but you need to get there first!
In one day, you can learn the following:
Can you help me?
I need a taxi.
Where is it?
(I’d actually argue that you could learn the above in an hour or so, but that’s just me.)
In total, there are fewer than 14 words above, and the reality is we could simplify the above even more. Check this out:
Taxi? (As you shrug with your hands in the air.)
Four simple words. If someone can’t learn four words in the course of a day, then maybe they shouldn’t be reading this post anymore… actually, maybe they shouldn’t be allowed unsupervised in public!
Joking aside, the above illustrates the power of Speak in a Week. Set a goal, set a timeframe and achieve it. This may sound overly simplistic, but in my experience, most people tend to get overly complicated when it comes to learning a language. Remember, your goal is not fluency. That takes time. Your goal is to make yourself understood and survive. The example above does exactly that!
Steps 3 and 4 are bundled together because they go hand in hand. The example I provided above is a great start. After years of personal experience, and a LOT of statistical evaluation (and a bit of machine learning) looking at word frequency tables across dozens of languages, I’ve compiled a list of around 600 words that are designed to help you survive just about any situation you’re in.
Now I know what you might be thinking: who the heck are you, and why should I put any stock into this magical word list?
Well, it’s not a magical word list, thank you very much. It’s probably not even a perfect word list, but let me introduce you to Zipf’s Law.
Zipf’s Law is a variant of the Pareto Principal, which most people know as the “80/20” rule. This rule states that 80% of the bang comes from 20% of the buck.
You can Google both concepts for more information, but when it comes to languages, most of the time, a very small number of words account for the most commonly used words in a given language.
As I stated at the beginning of this post, roughly 80 – 90% of every day spoken language is covered by somewhere between 2,500 – 3,500 words. When you throw away “word particles” (like “of” or “a” or “the”- words that don’t have any real meanings by themselves) and you consider word vectors—understanding that “go” and “went” are really the same concept—you’re actually left with a surprisingly small number of words.
Take a look at the illustration above.
Fluency: 20,000 words
Competency: 10,000 words
Every day communication: 5,000 words
Survival: 250 – 750 words.
What do I mean by this? Well, once you get to 20,000 words, you’re probably a fluent speaker of a given language… depending on how you define fluency.
There are a number of established frameworks out there that are designed to evaluate how well a human being speaks a new language. In the United States, the federal government uses the Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR) scale. In Europe, governments and schools use the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR).
Both systems consider someone with 5,000 words to be able to communicate in most every day environments – even professional environments. Around 2,500 words is enough for most day-to-day activities and some simple professional discussions. Again, there’s really no controversy here. You can Google more on the ILR or the CEFR to verify all of the above.
But what happens when you go down to smaller vocabulary sets? That’s when you run into Mikey Territory.
Here’s Mikey. Now, you probably don’t know Mikey, but in your life, I’m sure you’ve come into contact with someone like him. He’s somewhere between 3 – 4 years old, and he probably knows somewhere between 250 – 750 words.
But let’s think about that for a moment. All the Mikey’s of the world are able to communicate:
Needs: I am hungry!
Wants: I want chocolate?
Desires: Can we go to Disney Land?
Moreover, the Mikey’s of the world are typically able to communicate with a broad range of people (parents, other children, care givers, etc.) and in a variety of different circumstances (at home, at the store, in pre-school, etc.)
In fact, Mikey can even watch television, listen to the radio and sing along with songs.
Moreover, despite Mikey’s limited vocabulary, when he speaks with adults (who have much larger vocabularies), he’s able to understand most of what they say.
Mikey can do a heck of a lot with just a few, basic words… and so can you!
So what are the actual words and phrases you need to learn? Well, you don’t need to learn *all* of them. You can pick and choose the ones you think best meet your needs, but here’s the list below:
Side note – I suck at memorization! How do I learn this stuff?
You know who’s really great with memorizing stuff? NO ONE! It’s true. There is no such thing as a great memory? Don’t believe me? Check out a book called Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. (I have no financial association with this book, the author or the publisher. It’s just a great book!)
Long story short, Joshua Foer was a reporter covering The World Memory Championships. He was shocked to learn that the event champions all claimed they just had average memories. What they did have were great methods.
So here are a few methods that work for me and many people I know. Your results may vary, but I’m willing to bet there’s something in here that’ll work for you:
Don’t let the name fool you. The most basic SRS is the old fashioned flash card method… and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with using physical flash cards. If you want to be a bit more modern, you can also use free resources like Memrise (desktop, Android, iOS, free), Anki (desktop, Android, free; iOS costs money) or Tiny Cards (iOS, free). There are tons more free and premium SRS programs, and of course, there’s plain old flash cards as well. How do they work? You are exposed to a new concept (chemical symbol, math formula, foreign language word, etc.) and you take a moment to process this new piece of information. A short time later, you test yourself, and based on whether you remembered it or not, you then are exposed to the same information at gradually longer increments of time. This is what we do naturally with physical flash cards, and various SRS programs use different algorithms to do similar things. Spaced repetition systems are great, and I use them often, though not all the time….
This is another great way to pick up new words and phrases. Get all of your vocabulary and expressions in front of you and slowly read through them. Take your time and go step by step. This is all about quality, not speed. After reading each word or expression, take a pause, close your eyes, and visualize something that helps you associate the new word with something you already know.
For example, let’s say you’re learning German, and you want to say, “My name is Jonty”. That would be, “Ich heiße Jonty”.
You know that Jonty is a name, so that just leaves two words. You might visualize the letter “I” in the word “Ich”, or you might imagine being on a beautiful, warm beach and introducing yourself to an amazing looking guy / girl. It’s warm and hot, which sounds a little bit like heiße. Or maybe you are a hockey fan, and you have this picture of the Stanley Cup trophy in your hand as you introduce yourself to someone. The possibilities are endless, but the point is to do something that works for you.
This option is similar to Option 2, except that you’d take the time to actually write out the words and / or expressions you’re trying to learn. Personally, this is the method I like the most. Handwriting is linked to tactile learning, and the process of writing things out does a pretty good job of helping to burn something into long-term memory. Also, this may sound a bit strange, but in addition to visualizing images associated with words, it helps me to visualize letters as well. For example, let’s say you’re using this option to learn Spanish, and you wanted to learn the phrase: I cut myself. (Me corte.)
Spanish is closely related to English, so connecting “me” to “I” wouldn’t be too difficult. You might then visualize a cork screw cutting your thumb (heaven forbid!) as you open a bottle of wine. After writing this phrase out 2 – 3 times, you might also visualize the letters c o r t e and imagine the “c” biting into the space next to it, creating a hole called “o”, with “r t e” spilling out. Hey, it may sound strange, but it works for a lot of people, not just me.
The key to all of these options is simple: Don’t focus on memorizing. Focus on understanding and linking. Understand the real meaning of what you are trying to learn, and then link that understanding to something you already know.
Of everything you read in this post, those words above are probably the most valuable. I cannot stress this enough.
Improvise, improvise, and improvise. Remember, your goal is not fluency. Your goal is to make yourself understood and to survive. Don’t worry about perfect grammar, and remember Mikey. If a 3 – 4 year old can get everything he wants and live a happy life, I’m positive you can survive (and thrive!) in a foreign language.
Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about. Below, I’ve selected a few words and phrases. Take a look:
The list goes on and on. How many unique expressions can you create just based on the list above? Well, if you’re a math geek, you might be familiar with “factorial expressions”. (If you’re interested, you can Google that term as well.) If you’re not familiar with factorial expressions, the simple explanation is that factorials are mathematical expressions that show how many unique combinations (without repetition) can be created based on a certain number of items.
For example, if you wanted to make a fruit basket, and you had an orange, you have one unique combination: a basket with one orange in it. If you have an orange and an apple, though, you actually have three unique combinations: a basket with an orange; a basket with an apple; a basket with both an orange and an apple. As you add more items, the number of unique combinations goes up faster than the number of items.
Using the word / expression list above, with 20 items, there are 20! things that can be said. What does that mean? Well, 19! = 19 x 18 x 17 x 16 x 15… x 1.
So 19! = 1.21645E+17. That’s a number that’s bigger than one hundred trillion.
I know, I know… you don’t believe me. The reality is that not every combination of those words is going to lead to a real sentence, but even if you excluded 99% of the possibilities as “junk sentences” that just don’t make any sense, you’d still be left with a huge number. Heck, if you excluded 99.999% of the possible combinations, you’re still left with a huge number.
Sadly, there’s an even larger list of reasons why people fail to pick up languages. They might lack the right motivation, the confidence, time, right instructor, etc…. but the fact is that anyone can pick up enough of a language in order to get through basic, day-to-day activities. If you remember just one thing in this whole post, just think of the typical 3 – 4 year old and look at all the things a child of that age, with a vocabulary of 250 – 750 words is able to do.
As noted in the beginning of this post, Speak in a Week is not a comprehensive guide to get you to where you need to be… but it’s a great start. I really hope that this short read helped you, and if you ever have any questions, comments, or need for advice, feel free to drop me a line.
Thanks, and good luck!