You can learn any language in an enjoyable 30 minutes a day – Week 36


I am learning Mandarin, and I am having a blast!

I am not taking any classes, I am not studying per se, and I have not even met a single Chinese person.

Last night, I watched Eat Drink Man Woman, and the night before, Wedding Banquet, two critically acclaimed Ang Lee comedies. (A couple of weeks ago, I enjoyed Ang Lee’s thriller Lust, Caution). On average, I spend just 30 minutes a day watching Mandarin movies or TV shows.

If I can learn Mandarin this way, you can learn any language, despite your busy schedule and limited energy. All you need to do is starting downloading movies in your desired language (with English subtitles is fine to begin) and find some shows on YouTube (I recommend children’s programming). In short, this is what my experiment sets out to prove.

No, this is not the fast way to learn a language[1]. The fast and most effective way to learn a language is to completely immerse yourself in it. Go live in a country where it is spoken, make a lot of native friends, listen to countless hours of radio and video, devour the literature, speak all you can, and get a private teacher to correct your structure, pronunciation, and the pages of essays you should write each day.

What? That is not an option for you? You are extremely busy and have a series of professional and personal commitments that keep you otherwise engaged from sun to sun and well into the night? Even the thought of scheduling regular class times with a teacher over Skype is daunting? Welcome to my world. I have three jobs, a family, and I study Law.[2]

Of course, like you, I do need a little time to wind down. I used to do that by playing pointless blitz chess online[3]. But watching films in Mandarin is my new way to relax at the end of a long day. I often do that by myself at one o’clock in the morning. However, depending on the genre, my wife will sometimes enjoy Chinese movies with me (at a more civilized hour). My daughter, who does not mind subtitles, will watch movies like Finding Nemo or Mulan with me in Mandarin.

I am not making fantastic progress. After eight months, I estimate that I understand about four percent of the dialogue in a brand-new Chinese soap opera episode, without subtitles. At this rate, at the end of six years, my listening comprehension will probably be at a low- to mid-intermediate level. However, I am having fun, so I am very likely to stick with it. Beyond my experiment, my guess is that within a decade I will understand Mandarin quite well, and within two decades, I will speak and read Mandarin fluently. I will have surmounted the ultimate language acquisition challenge without giving up anything except pointless online blitz chess. I will reap a series of benefits, such as improved brain power, deep insight into a culture that is incredibly rich and highly relevant to contemporary society, and renewed professional horizons.

So what are you waiting for? Start your own language acquisition adventure today and learn Mandarin, Arabic, Japanese, German, or might I recommend Brazilian Portuguese?


(Please note I have updated my Chinese films table and my graphs).










[1] In addition, at some point you will need to add other elements to learn to speak, read, and write. However, listening comprehension is an excellent first skill to develop, and mastering it will make acquiring the other skills comparatively easy down the line.

[2] I’m a full-time civil servant with managerial responsibilities and an intense travel schedule, in the evenings I provide support to my small business with its dozens of employees, and on the weekends I manage my tree farm. I’m my daughter’s driver to gym and school in the morning, spend time with my family in the evening, practice meditation daily, and stay in pretty good shape. Next semester I’ll be starting up my Law program at the University of Brasilia again.

[3] Which was likely downgrading rather than improving my game, since I didn’t take the time to play longer matches or to study at all. I was playing 5-minute time controls and even starting to play lightning chess (1-minute per side), which is especially inane. I do love and miss chess, but learning Mandarin is more rewarding for me.

4 thoughts on “You can learn any language in an enjoyable 30 minutes a day – Week 36

  1. Greta Browne says:

    Your argument sounds convincing. I wonder if there are any TV series in Guarani. I’m not really serious – I think I’ve learned all the languages I want to learn, but I’m impressed with your program and would love to hear of others who try it out.

    • Author says:

      Believe it not, I asked about that recently in Paraguay! It would certainly be a challenge to find a lot of good programming in Guarani, but there are some movies and TV shows in Paraguay in Guarani!

      I also hope other people will try out my program – or variations of it. Most importantly, that language learners in general, even beginners, will incorporate a lot more listening to authentic audio and video that they enjoy into their learning routines.

  2. Bete Browne says:

    4% is impressive!! I imagine that at some point comprehension will increase at a faster rate as your base of knowledge grows and there is more “surface” for new information to latch onto.

    • Author says:

      I hope so! On the one hand, having more puzzle pieces in place and having my ear increasingly well tuned to the language certainly makes it easier to decipher more. On the other hand, at least strictly in terms of my estimated percentage, once I’ve learned very high frequency vocabulary such as pronouns, “yes” “no” etc., new vocabulary that I assimilate comes up much less often and impacts that percentage a lot less.

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