Interview with Tim Ferriss: Intensive Language Learning and the Tim Ferriss Experiment

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Interview #2 with Tim Ferriss: Intensive Language Learning and the Tim Ferriss Experiment


Full disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. ?

I finally had the chance to catch up with Tim Ferriss and interview him about language learning. It went well besides my bad connection in Brazil meaning I had to upload the lowest possible quality video. We had a great chat about language learning in general, around the launch of his 4 hour chef book.

A little bit ago, Tim launched an entire TV series about rapid learning, so I invited him back on to chat about it. Rather than vague questions though, I had the unique perspective of interacting with Tim twice since my last video on language learning projects, so I brought that up in this discussion, namely:

  • Being the small world that it is, without planning it we had the same teacher in one of our languages, and that person told me how crazy a student Tim was
  • One of the episodes of his TV show was about Tim attempting to learn enough Tagalog in 3 days to survive a televised interview in the language. He got in touch with me and I coached him on some shortcuts in the language, and what I tend to do for my first Skype chats or first Youtube uploads to be able to say as much as possible. He combined my tips with his own vast language learning experience and did a spectacular job, and you can see that in one of the earlier episodes of his series.

Other than that, the theme of our discussion is based around rapid language learning for immediate uses. I hope you enjoy it! (This time in HD 😉 )

You can read along with the transcript below!


Benny: Hey everyone, how are you doing? This is Benny Lewis and I’m interviewing Tim Ferriss again, and I wanted to ask him a bit of different questions from the last time we had a great chat, as he was launching the Four-Hour Chef. This time he is launching the Tim Ferris experiment TV show where he tries to cram as much knowledge as he can on completely different topics in a single episode of a TV show. I want to talk to him today about one particular episode that he did, which was cramming a language in a short period of time, so how are you doing Tim? Great to have you back.

Tim: I’m doing well, thanks so much; I appreciate you having me back. This TV show was a test endurance doing 13 weeks and 16 weeks I think, of filming 12 to 16 hours a day for 5 to 6 days a week, definitely not a four-hour workweek in Television.  So, I’m taking a break from the TV but I’m happy with what we did.

Benny: Yeah, that’s right; and out of all that time, just to kind of give people the summary, the episode on languages, what you had to do  let’s say survive a brief televised interview in Tagalog and you only gave yourself 3 days to prepare for it, am I right?

Tim: Yeah, it was 3 or 4 days. There are two things to realize about that. Number one is that I severely underestimated as one of the executive producers is how much of my time would be taken up not training and in retrospect it’s so obvious that I would have all these obligations that would consume at least half of the day in some cases three quarters of the day. I had 3 or 4 days to prepare for a 3 to 6 minutes interview in Tagalog, which is long. That’s like ten Good Morning Americas right there!

So I probably only had legitimately 3 or 4 hours a day to prepare so it was maybe 12 hours of total prep time, which was brutal. Obviously you were very instrumental in helping me pick which language to tackle and also gave me some very helpful tips on a potential approach. I had the chance to interact with a guy named Ed Cook as well  who’s a memory competitor – not specific to language although he has a lot of experience there but had a real A-team to help me try to survive.

You know, I’ve done a lot of languages but doing it in a week is a lot different than doing it in a couple of weeks or doing it in a couple of months.

Benny: Exactly, yeah.

Tim: Very, very stressful; and I think part of the reason for that is you don’t have as many sleep cycles for consolidating what you’re absorbing. So I only had 2 or 3 nights and as you might imagine given the stress of the situation, I wasn’t really sleeping soundly for 8 or 9 or 10 hours. These were short stints of sleep, so I had to use all sorts of tricks like supplements to try and improve or increase my percentage of REM sleep like Supraxine-A for instance is one; which is super powerful so talk to your doctor before you use it.

Those were some of the hacks that I had to employ which I might not ordinarily use but it was a hell of a trick. The other thing you have to realize is that when you do 13 of these in a row and you’ve probably experienced this, but if you cram say, on a trip to Turkey and you learn some Turkish and you’re like great I got [Turkish phrases] all this stuff, and then you go to Greece the next week and you’re cramming Greek, at least in my case the Turkish is just right out the other side of your head. So going from Tagalog to these others I would have to basically go back and I think there would be warm leads but I’d have to go back and really review the Tagalog in depth. So that was on one of the first episodes.  I think I had 9 or 10 after that.

Same thing with poker, same thing with professional poker, you know a lot of these skills made a dent but I’d have to go back and get reacquainted to be comfortable with any of them.

Benny: Yeah, I’ve actually found exactly the same thing myself. The thing is both you and I write very consistently about intensive learning, learning things quickly, you know, language hacking or life hacking or whatever it may be. But there is the downside that the quicker you learn something if you’re not maintaining it the quicker you’re going to forget it. And I’ve had exactly the same experience. If I’ve learned a language for 1 month or 2 months then if I do not maintain that it’s gone, it’s just out of my head.

And something interesting else that you said that I can relate to in my own language projects is even if you’re learning it intensively – you may say I’m learning it over a week or over a few months – and if you want to document this for the world then you cannot learn the language fulltime because there are all of these other things. There is talking to your video guy; in my case I’m trying to do all the editing and the sound and the subtitles by myself so you know, it’s impossible to say you had 3 days in terms of 24 hours a day so that’s one thing. But what I did want to kind of emphasis here is something you said there, that if you’re going from Turkey or to Greece and so on.

So based on your experience of going between places so quickly if somebody watching this has decided this summer they’re going to do a Euro trip and they’re going to spend a week in each country and they don’t really have the time now but maybe just as they’re about to leave they can cram for 2 or 3 days. So you know, we both talk about the long-term process of learning languages but how would somebody cram a language efficiently? Obviously they’re not going to get fluent but they want to be a respectful tourist. So based on your experience, this one and you’re passed experiences what would you advise someone in that case?

Tim: Which should be the goal, by the way. I think that you hit the nail on the head; not only being a respectful tourist but just out of pure self-interest. If you have 5 to 10 phrases in a language, you’re going to go from the equivalent of flying coach in the worst seat by the bathroom to flying first class and having the whole staff take care of you and give you hot towels all day. I mean, it’s that big a difference.  So memorize 10 phrases for God’s sake; it’s such an amazing return on investment.

The way that I would go about cramming – and you’re a lot better at this stuff than I am so I’m sure you have your own portfolio of techniques and you’ve certainly attempted more languages than I have – but my first step is always if I’m going to fly to the target country, so let’s say I’m flying to Turkey, that’s a great example. I really loved Turkey and had a great time there – or Greece; it’s the same thing. The first thing I’m going to do is get a phrase book and it could be whatever you can get your hands on. Let’s just say it’s a plain phrase book. I’m going to try to become intimately familiar with how the letters sound and what sounds those letters co-relate to.

So if you have a little C with a hook at the end what is that sound like? If you have like an “y griega”, it’s a Y; it’s in Spanish for some reason that’s how I think of it because they call it a Greek Y… So if you have a Y or something like that in Greek what is that sound like?

And the reason that it’s so important is that if you understand how to read the script – and it’s not that hard with most of these languages. Japanese or Chinese, forget about it because you’re not going to get anywhere in a week but if you’re talking about almost any Romanized language or even Cyrillic for instance in Russian, you can learn that and how those sound in an hour or two. You can use mnemonic devices to figure it out. And once you’ve done that, this is the key; let’s say you cram and memorize 200 words or 300 words and 10 to 20 phrases, which you should be able to do in a day or two with a handful of techniques and we could go into that certainly but mostly based on combinations of images, some of them link word technique or using the Loci mnemonic where you’re actually placing different objects in different locations on a path you’re familiar with, which has implications for series of things or related objects that I find.

And these can all be studied very easily; there are a couple of books. Your Memory and How to Improve it I think it’s very good and I’m sure you talk about it in your book which is great.

The goal then here is once you land, when you know how to read, you’d be like, Oh! I forgot how to say bathroom but I see that sign over here and that says bathroom. Or you see a sign that says “McDonald’s, on sale, 99 cents”, you can read and be like, hmm; I wonder if that means on sale? Then you can look it up on your smartphone or in a dictionary and you’re like, cool, that does mean on sale.

You can start to absorb hundreds of words literally hundreds of words over the span of a week or 10 days without a lot of explicit flash card-like effort. So my first start is always the script, their orthography and learning what sounds like co-relates to.

Then I would also get down your phrases, and so the usual “good morning, good evening, thank you, I’m sorry, excuse me, help, etc., where’s the bathroom?” I always try to learn one or two or three phrases and you can find these in a phrase book, or questions that are just really funny to native speakers. So you know, it could be something like
“Adelphia”… I’m making this up, you could be like “Are you allergic to eggplant?”
It’s going to be so weird that of the ten phrases you know one of them is “Are you allergic to eggplant?” You will always get a fantastic response and people will find that hilarious.

So in Greek there is a somewhat highfalutin kind of Shakespearian way to say
“goodbye”
or “see you late” which is [Greek phrase]. So I would always do this like {Greek phrase] whenever I take off and people find that hilarious and I was able to play the clown.

Or in Japanese this is from going have to gone to school there and having learned Japanese from comic books that are really violent I learned to say things like [Japanese phrase]. That is ‘detached retina’ in Japanese. Why on earth would I ever need to know that? Most English speakers don’t know what the hell that means.

I like having these kinds of gags. A great way to do that is with proverbs. For instance when I was in Greece, they can’t use the expression “Well, that’s all Greek to me.” So what do they say? I’d ask them; in English when something’s really confusing we say ‘That’s Greek to me.’ what do you guys say? And they’d say yeah, we have one of those. It’s {Greek phrase}, “That’s Chinese to me,” which is hilarious. So I started using that and they would be like, “Oh. Do you speak Greek?” and I'm like, “Sorry, it’s all Chinese to me.” What? You do speak Greek! I’m like, “No, I don’t at all, actually.” So having a couple of proverbs is a great way to get a laugh.

I would say that ah that point, once you have 10 -20 memorized phrases and you can read things and you have this entertainment value which will just make people love you, that’s when I start to dig into the grammar. I don’t find grammar boring. I’m actually really fascinated by it – and I haven’t always been that way. When you realized how much it helps when you’re incentivized and you’re being rewarded, and especially after you’ve memorized phrases and you’ve had some touch-time with locals and you’re getting positive feedback then you’re like okay, let me up my game a little bit. The way that I like to up my game is to look at the grammar, just the basic sentence structure then go back. So the basic sentence structure, how do they say past and then to go back and look at the set phrases. You’ll notice things like…I’m going to mess this up so you might want to correct me. Child in Turkish is “Chokuk” or something like that and children is “Chokuklar.”  So the “lar” makes it a plural. I noticed that when you say “Good day” or “Good morning” or “Good evening” in the phase book they would always translate that as {Turkish phrase}. But literally, I was like wait a second. That’s the same “lar”. Then I talked to someone who was a native speaker and they’re like, oh yeah, that’s really like “Good evenings.” It is a plural. And I was like, oh! That’s kind of cool.

Now I already have a reminder of the grammar baked into my phrases and that’s really helpful and fantastic. So your memorized phrases become kind of a crib sheet, a cheat sheet for a bunch of the grammatical concepts and you’re constantly reinforcing that.

A week is tough. I’ve done it and it’s a hell of a thing but particularly if you’re in country. Oh man, you can have so much fun with it. Just make sure if you’re going to trouble to be in Greece for a week, don’t spend 8 hours a day sitting at a desk in your hotel room memorizing phrases.

Benny: Right.

Tim: Get out there. Don't confuse the means with the end. But man, a little goes a long way, as you know.

Benny: It does. Another thing that I wanted to talk about today that I didn’t see on your blog, I didn’t see it mentioned there, but I managed to get a little glimpse into how you managed to learn one of your languages. I was passing through Bali and I decided to get a bit of a crash course in Indonesian. I went to this School and my teacher – for just an hour, I just learned a few basics – was Daniel

Tim: Daniel, yeah!

Benny: He was telling me about your experience learning Indonesian and I was impressed because I was there kind of on holiday. I had just finished a very long stretch of my book tour so I just wanted to get the basics. I wasn’t intensively learning Indonesian.

But he said what you did was impressive because you certainly weren’t in your hotel room studying the grammar from a book. You were getting classes from him then after the classes were over, he said that you would take him out for dinner to continue speaking Indonesian with him at dibber.

So your entire approach was not okay, I’m learning the language and then I’m just gonna use English to relax. Your approach was I’m gonna live in this language not matter what my level is. I’m going to use the amount that I know as well as I can.

I heard his perspective and I want to hear your perspective because you had started from scratch and you made it very far. You said that after a couple of days already you were able to have coherent conversations.

Tim: Yeah, that was fun and Daniel is also an amazing teacher. He’s a very good teacher; really funny guy.

Benny: He had some weird talent that he could write upside down so even though he was facing me, he would write all of the notes from my perspective.

Tim: I forgot about that. I was like, wait a second! What, you can write upside down? He was like, “Yeah,  yeah, I’m very good at it.” Okay, that’s something I can’t do.

My perspective was – and this is just how I am with everything – I’m either on or I’m off. And if I’m gonna do Indonesian, I’m gonna do Indonesia. Bu doing Indonesian I also mean doing “Indonesia”. I feel like the only way I can appreciate the culture is if I have a linguistic context because words are thought. Little kids can’t label things because they don’t have the words.

When you learn how people label thing and organize language, you understand how they think and that gives you the culture, the shared behaviors and beliefs. So it’s very hard to understand a culture…

Japan’s a great example. There’s so many myths about the Japanese that are completely untrue, and it because westerners who usually write about them don’t speak Japanese – totally wrong, all of it’s wrong. Well,  actually not all but a ton.

In Indonesia I basically asked myself, how can I stack the deck so that I can learn as much as possible?

Number one, I narrowed down the schools with help from a couple of people. Number 2, I asked the school to help organize activities that would require me to use Indonesian, so woodcarving, painting, etc. I also found a host family to stay with, so I lived with a farmer and his family…

Benny: Wow!

Tim: …in this communal living environment and they had roosters right next to my room which was actually a big problem because they woke up at like, 4 in the morning and just started going berserk!

I remember my first night; I got there like 2 in the morning and I was like, thank God! and I lay down. Two hours later, “flap-flap-flap…” what is that? Then “ Cukooo!” Right through the wall! There’s a big hole in the wall, no screen, no door, nothing. This rooster’s going completely bananas. Then they had pigs on the property and everything.

But I got to interact with the father, the patriarch of the family. I got to interact with all the older women, the aunts and mother and so on, then the younger parents who are my age or a little bit younger who spoke some English and then the kids who were very playful and had their own linguistic idiosyncrasies. So I got to practice at all these different levels – and I was a curiosity so people were really fascinated to talk to me. There was one person there who spoke just enough English where if I was completely lost in the woods he’s be like “This…this” and he’s explain it.

Bali’s just an amazing environment. People are so accommodating and friendly and for that reason there are certain languages that are good maiden voyages for people who are nervous about learning languages. Bahasa happens to be one of the,. The grammar is pretty straightforward.

There are complex aspects of all languages but Indonesian, pretty straightforward. Spanish, pretty straightforward for the most part.

Out of curiosity, what have been the easiest languages for you to pick up? This is a bit of a trick question because you’ve learned so many languages…

Maybe I should rephrase this. As an English speaker, if you were sending people off on a maiden voyage and they wanted to cram for a given language and experience some success, what are the languages that you think give them a good shot?

Benny: For me this is very easy because I actually found a study that corroborated this; the language Esperanto which is an invented language. They did a study where they had a group of students learn just French; I think they were from Sweden or Denmark or something. They learned just French for 2 years as the controlled group.

Another group learned Esperanto for one year and then French for one year, so they learned less French. And yet, the second group did better in exams. And the reason is, Esperanto is designed to be the easiest language in the world. The grammar is extremely simple; there’s like one page that explains all the rules. There are lots of words sprinkled from many European languages.

Effectively what you do is focus on the lack of vocabulary that you need to learn so you learn a few words, but you can piece together logical grammatically correct sentences very quickly and you gain that confidence.

For me, the question of hardest language and easiest language is a very personal thing. And one reason is because whatever the first language you put the most time into is probably going to be your most difficult one because you have to learn an approach that works for you.

You have your advice and I have my advice but ultimately, each person needs to find what techniques help them with their particular gals. This means the first language is going to be more difficult.

That’s why I generally recommend people whether they’re native English speakers or not, I would recommend them to learn Esperanto not for a year but for just 2 weeks. I wool say try to cram it for 2 weeks and then get on to the language you’re genuinely passionate about, whether that’s Japanese or German or Spanish or Turkish.

You will notice the difference because you will have that little boost of confidence. You’ll have tried to have spoken Esperanto online and there’s great free resources for it.

It’ a different kind of direction and I think it’s great. There’s a great community behind it, lovely people, millions of speakers. It’s one of the biggest languages in Wikipedia as it happens.

But If somebody was no, I don’t like artificial languages then my second choice would have to be Indonesian because. As far as languages that are not related to English, it is one of the easiest languages grammatically to learn. It’s very consistent. The little I learned from it, I went through a grammar book and I found it to be very, very logical, It didn’t have the many grammar issues that you would have if you were learning some other languages.

But generally whatever the first language is, that tends to be the hardest. People are always when I tell then the hardest language I ever learned was Spanish. Since then I’ve learned a great range of languages but Spanish was the one that caused me the most stress because I felt, “I’m not worthy of speaking this. They’re all gonna laugh at me. If I don’t conjugate this subjunctive perfectly then I’m gonna be the laughing stock of the country…” all of these kinds of doubts that people would tell themselves.

Tim: {Laughs} Yeah, it’s like si tuviera un millón de dólares… that’s always the example, if I had a million dollars. That’s the subjunctive. I very language that’s the example. that’s very interesting. I never thought of Esperanto that way, as the dress rehearsal, as a prep. That’s very interesting advice.

Benny: I wanted to ask you just in the last couple of minutes before we sign off. Like you were saying, you were intensely learning poker and all these other things so you are very experiences in a lot of things. You have a very successful website, you’ve been published several times so you’ve achieved these things. But then you get to starting from scratch with a language, you have to essentially be a bumbling idiot on day one.

I wanted to know from your perspective how you feel about that. For a lot of people, they may look at this from the outside and think, “Oh, he’s done this a million times; it’s very easy for him.” But do you have that experience that you are just as nervous and just as set back and frustrated with your own limitations when you’re starting off?

Tim: Oh yeah, absolutely, and I should say a couple of things. I’m a bumbling idiot most of the time anyway. People find that hard to believe, sometimes because they see the highlight reel of things that I do or they read mu bio. Let’s face it, if you write books, you get really good at writing your own bio so that it seems really awesome.

There was one book called “Productivity hacks for the neurotic, manic depressive and crazy (like me)”

I have constant battles and a lot of insecurities that I need to address. Those are all exacerbated and multiplied manifold when you’re on camera doing all this stuff. The Tim Ferriss experiment is intended to show a very human set of foibles and challenges.

When you watch these things, they don’t all turn out well. There are some real catastrophic accidents and messes that are created. Tone of injuries, lots of embarrassing moments for me. But there are occasional miracles. In those cases I’m like, look; this is how this happened. This is how the miracle was engineered and this is how you can do the same thing.

So I definitely feel the same way and had tremendous self-doubt and anxiety because on top of just being a normal human, I had cameras in my face or obligations that kept me from being able practice.

That was the biggest ‘Oh, shit’ moment for me, was doing the first episode in June going, oh, my God. I had budgeted for all these skills. I assumed I would have at least 8 hours a day or 12 hours a day to practice and I actually have 2-4. What am I gonna do? This is a disaster.

It was too late. You can’t be half-pregnant with that stuff. I was already committed so I had to make it work.

Benny: The great thing about that is it makes it more relatable for other people because most people when they want to do anything including learning a language intensively, they don’t have 8 -12 hours free a day because they’re working fulltime jobs or whatever it may be. So for a lot of people, they can theoretically find that 204 hours even if it’s over the weekend, they can do these intensive things so it kind of shows what you’re doing in the episode. It’s not about you have all the free time in the world, camera crew do everything for me. There is this sense of realism that within 2-4  hours over a few days you can do something very intensively.

Just for people interested, how can they find out about the Tim Ferriss Experiment and what kind of stuff other than your project with Tagalog that I was corresponding with you and giving some feedback and advice before you started – what other intensive learning missions did you have during the season?

Tim: One of my secret agendas is also to do skills that would help me become Jason Bourne. And these are with some of the world’s best performers in all these skills. So among the Jason Bourne and also among the James Bond skill set, you have the language learning, rally car racing for you know, escape scenes. Then you have professional poker in Vegas, tactical gun shooting and competitive shooting which was awesome; that was actually really fun.

The dating game…becoming a ladies’ man which I’m terrible at! One of the most embarrassing episodes imaginable. It was with Neil Strauss who wrote The Game; really funny episode, a lot of good takeaways not just for men but for women. I had a computer hacker help with all the online dating stuff, which was fascinating.

We did surfing with Laird Hamilton, one of the legends of the sport. There were also a few episodes where I helped students. I said look, I’m not gonna be the guinea pig this time. I’m gonna prove to you that we can do this with other people, not just me. So we had how to build a business episode as well as a long-distance swimming episode for someone who couldn’t swim one lap. The goal was to get her in about three days to swimming a half-mile track in the open ocean in 50 feet of water within three or four days.

Benny: Wow! there.

Tim: That’s a no-joke challenge right there. There was drumming which was hilarious. I had to play to a sold-out crowd, playing with Foreigner at the end of the week; thousands of people. Had the founding drummer of The Police, Stewart Copeland-  one of the to 10 of all time typically is how people think of him – helping with that.

You can find all this stuff and a lot of bonus footage a well, I’m going to be putting out lots of bonus footage, extended interviews with all these people and so on, at fourhourworkweek.com/tv and also on iTunes so if you go to iTunes/timferriss or just search the Tim Ferris Experiment, it should pop right up.

Benny: Excellent! I’ll make sure to put the links in the description. I saw the episode you did on learning the language and I’m looking forward to seeing everything else. It’s crazy to see what the human mind is capable of in a short space of time.

Like you said, we can all dream to be like Jason Bourne but what if you just try to do it? Even just in a weekend, you could take that 2-3 hours and try to cram something. You’re not gonna master it but maybe you will get to a very impressive level in a short time.

This is something I always like to get people doing, just to consider kick-starting whatever you’re passionate about. That’ll open the road up to later on, continuing your learning process.

Tim: Absolutely. I just think about all the hours that everyone wastes on completely nonsensical, trivial matters. If you just allocate a time percentage of that; I mean literally, if you just cut back on the time…if you removed two hours of social media r you’re just – let’s face it – not doing anything terribly productive, just consuming random bits of news and sound bytes, you could literally become a proficient swimmer in that amount of time or get over a lifelong fear of swimming which I literally did in one session with the right techniques, which is namely total immersion  – and the founder Terry Lochman helps in that swimming episode.

Like you said, the capacity of the human mind is just incredible and hopefully this will get people to realize that what they thought were their limits are nowhere close to their limits.

Benny: Great stuff! Thanks a lot for coming back on my YouTube channel and I

I'll give everybody all the links. It was great chatting to you again. I’ll see you soon, Tim.

Tim: All right, buddy. Thanks very much.

author headshot

Benny Lewis

Founder, Fluent in 3 Months

Fun-loving Irish guy, full-time globe trotter and international bestselling author. Benny believes the best approach to language learning is to speak from day one.

Speaks: Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Esperanto, Mandarin Chinese, American Sign Language, Dutch, Irish

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