Deconstructing languages

In a recent post on his blog, Tim Ferriss explains how he deconstructs languages in order to get an idea of their structure, grammar, sound system and writing system. This gives him an idea how long it will take and how difficult it will be to learn each language and helps him to decide whether or not to do so.

His method is the find native speakers, ask them to translate a number of sentences into their language, writing them in their native writing system, if one exists, and in transliteration. The translations of the sentences give him an overview of verb conjugates, word order, whether or not noun cases and/or auxiliary verbs are used. If possible, he also asks the native speakers to give examples of words for each consonant and vowel.

Some of the sentences he uses include:

The apple is red.
It is John’s apple.
I give John the apple.
We give him the apple.
He gives it to John.
She gives it to him.
I must give it to him.
I want to give it to her.

He suggests that before you take the plunge into learning a language, it’s worth your while finding out just what you’re letting yourself in for. He compares it to a return on investment – with some languages you will get a much better return, i.e. you will learn them more rapidly, than with others.

I also found an interview with Tim Ferris in which he discusses some of his techniques for learning languages.

This entry was posted in Language, Language learning.

4 Responses to Deconstructing languages

  1. John Murch says:

    Learning a new language or reteaching yourself one is hard. Tim’s tools and book, the 4 hour work week is just an amazing piece of work. I am a BIG fan of Tim Ferriss and recently meet him. I am giving a way an autographed copy of his book please be sure to check it out.

  2. That’s a really neat idea. This is somewhat what I am doing with Nahuatl; I have been unable to obtain any materials on the grammar of the Western Huasteca Nahuatl dialect, so I have been trying to figure out as much as I can on my own, asking for translations from native speakers in Mexico. A good way to practice linguistic skills, I must say!

  3. Perez says:

    A very good idea. Certainly applicable if one is to go on a mini-retirement somewhere in a little known part of the world. Thanks to

  4. Good idea. But may not give a very full picture of a language.
    For instance it’s easy to translate these sentences into Welsh but these sentences don’t include any mutations which is the big problem for Welsh learners.

    Someone looking at the Welsh version may not be aware then of a central plank of Welsh grammar.