Why you shouldn’t follow TIM FERRIS APPROACH to “deconstruct” German
Tim Ferriss has managed to create some buzz by writing books with promising titles like “The 4 Hour Work Week”, “The 4 Hour Body” and “The 4 Hour Chef”. He seems to have a huge amount of faithful followers. Now, while Ferriss might be good at what he is doing, whatever that is, he also claimed to have found a way to easily learn a by deconstructing it with the help of eight’ish sentences. The problem with his approach is that he claims to be able to gain quick and useful insights into any language. I took a closer look at his approach from the viewpoint of a German tutor and can only warn you to stay away from it as far as possible. Let me explain his approach first and then deconstruct his idea of deconstructing the German (or any other) language.
Ferriss’ Approach to Language Learning
In his article titled “How to learn but not master any language in one hour […]” Ferriss says that by getting just 8 sentences translated and by analysing them, one can gain useful insight into the German language. I quote from his article mentioned above: “These six sentences alone expose much of the language, and quite a few potential deal killers.” Here are eight of his “favourite” sentences:
FERISS’ ORIGINAL 8 SENTENCES
The apple is red. Der Apfel ist rot.
It is John’s apple. Es ist Johns Apfel.
I give John the apple. Ich gebe John den Apfel.
We give him the apple. Wir geben ihm den Apfel.
He gives it to John. Er gibt ihn John.
She gives it to him. Sie gibt ihn ihm.
I must give it to him. Ich muss ihn ihm geben.
I want to give it to her. Ich möchte / will ihn ihr geben.
According to Ferriss these sentences help language learners
“to see if and how verbs are conjugated based on speaker (both according to gender and number)”
to immediately identify [… ] placement of indirect objects (John), direct objects (the apple), and their respective pronouns (him, it).”
to see if [negations and different tenses] are expressed as separate words […] or verb changes […]”
to analyse the fundamental sentence structure
to see if auxiliary verbs exist, or if the end of the each verb changes
He also admits that German causes him headaches and calls it “one of the reasons [he] continue[s] to put it off”. I assume that is because it won’t really fit into the system above and will show you why in the following minutes.
A Closer Look at Feriss’ Claims
His claim is tempting. Just analyse a bunch of German sentences with their translation and you’ll gain deep insight into the German language. Who wouldn’t want such a smooth approach to language learning. But it isn’t that simple. While Ferriss’ idea might yield some benefit for Spanish learners it is bound to fail for the German language (and certainly also for French and other more complex structured languages). Let me “deconstruct” his claims in the order I listed them above:
Conjugation “These sentences show how verbs are conjugated based on speaker (also considering gender and number).”
The eight samples above would provide you with the following conjugations:
der Apfel ist
Ich muss geben
Ich möchte geben
If his claim is valid, you should now be able to conjugate the following German verbs:
du + machen
er + fahren
sie + gehen
es + müssen
Sie + wissen
I predict that you would fail bitterly if you tried without any prior knowledge of German.
2. Placement of objects and pronouns
The following sentences contain objects and pronouns:
C. I give John the apple
D. We give him the apple.
E. He gives it to John.
F. She gives it to him.
G. I must give it to him.
H. I want to give it to her. <— has anyone ever mentioned the second meaning of this sentence? By looking at these sentences you should be able to put the following objects and pronouns in their proper order. Give it a try. I have already taken care of the order of the main elements and the grammar so you can focus on the object and pronoun order: You give it (the apple) to your mother: Du gibst - deiner Mutter - ihn. You give the apple to your mother: Du gibst - deiner Mutter - den Apfel. You want to give the apple to her: Du möchtest - deiner Mutter - den Apfel - geben. You want to give it to your mother: Du möchtest - deiner Mutter - ihn - geben. I made this very simple. Did you get everything right? Could you sort this last sentence out completely from scratch? Today you give it to your mother: Heute - deiner Mutter - ihn - gibst - du Or would you be able to translate the following sentences? You are allowed to use a dictionary: You give the lamp to your mother. You give the lamp to her. You give it to her. You give it to your mother. You give the car to your mother. You give the car to her. You give it to her. You give it to your mother. [You’ll find the answers at the bottom of this article.] 3. How to express negations and tenses You won’t find any examples among Ferriss' 8 basic sentences, so let me provide you with a few samples of mine: NEGATION Ich esse kein Fleisch. I don’t eat meat. Fleisch esse ich nicht. I don’t eat meat. Fleisch esse ich keins. Meat I don’t eat. Ich esse keine Bananen. I don’t eat bananas. Ich habe keinen Hund. I don’t have a dog. Ich esse nicht nach Mitternacht. I don’t eat after midnight. Ich habe noch nicht gegessen. I haven’t eaten yet. Ich habe noch nichts gegessen. I haven’t eaten anything yet. Ich habe kein Fleisch gegessen. I haven’t eaten meat. Please write down the rules for negation that you can derive from these sentences. 9 examples should be enough right? TENSES Ich habe noch nichts gegessen. I haven’t eaten yet. Ich aß nur Fisch. I only ate fish. Ich habe Fleisch gekauft. I bought meat. Ich kaufte Fleisch. I bought meat. Ich habe das nicht gewusst. I didn’t know that. Ich wusste das nicht. I didn’t know that. Ich habe das Buch nicht gelesen. I didn’t read the book. Ich las das Buch als Teenager. I read the book when I was a teenager. Ich habe das Buch nicht lesen können. I wasn’t able to read the book. Ich bin um 8 Uhr aufgestanden. I got up at 8am. Weil ich um 8 Uhr aufgestanden bin. Because I got up at 8am. Please write down all rules for the use and construction of the German past forms that you can derive from the sentences above. 4. Fundamental Sentence Structure Take a look at Ferriss' sentences and then at the following sentences. Do you get the feeling that his samples cover the German sentence structure sufficiently? Ich liebe dich. I love you. Heute liebe ich dich. Today I love you. Ich liebte dich. I loved you. Gestern liebte ich dich noch. Yesterday I still loved you. Ich habe dich geliebt. I loved you. Ich möchte dich lieben. I would like to love you. Weil ich dich geliebt habe. Because I loved you. Weil ich dich nicht lieben durfte. Because I wasn’t allowed to love you. Weil ich dich nicht lieben durfte, weinte ich. Because I wasn’t allowed to love you, I cried. Ich werde dich immer lieben. I will always love you. Ich werde endlich geliebt. I am finally being loved. Und dann liebte sie mich. And then she loved me. Sie könnte mich geliebt haben. She could have loved me. Sie hätte mich lieben können. She could have loved me. Also try to write down all rules that you can derive from these sentences and try to create new sentences. 5. To see if auxiliary verbs exist or if the end of the each verb changes Well, Ferriss doesn’t really provide us with any examples as “must” and “want” are modal verbs and no auxiliary verbs. But let’s not be picky and assume that’s what he meant. Then among his eight sentences we’d find two that we could use: I must give it to him. Ich muss ihn ihm geben. I want to give it to her. Ich möchte ihn ihr geben. OR: Ich will ihn ihr geben. So, yes, you can see that at least two “auxiliary” verbs exist, should you happen to know what an “auxiliary” verb is. You wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between an auxiliary (helping to construct a tense or mode) and a modal verb (setting the mode of a sentence, hence modal) but might think that it doesn’t matter. I guess it really doesn’t but you’d not see the four (eight) other verbs of this group that work in the same way. And what Ferriss means by “to see […] if the end of the each verb changes” is unclear to me. Maybe he means that auxiliary verbs and modal verbs might be expressed by a verb ending or part of a verb like in Turkish: Gide.bil.irim. = I can go. (<— please don’t nail me down to this, my Turkish studies finished 9 years ago). I’m not sure whether that information alone has any significant value when learning on your own. Why I consider Ferriss’ approach dangerous Those were Ferriss’ points and if you find his approach helpful then I congratulate you. You are an outstanding individual. I mean this in all honesty. But I fear most of the (potential) German learners out there would fail quickly and rather get confused and demotivated due to the problems they would soon encounter trying to approach German with help of Ferriss’ logic. And demotivation is the last thing you want to experience when learning a language which takes years to master, especially at the very beginning. Those among you who manage to make some sense of the above are most likely highly analytical thinkers or “just” gifted language learners or both. But that only means that statistically you belong to less than 1% of this planet’s population and your experience is not transferable to the other 99% of German learners. Tim Ferriss’ problem & Conclusion Ferriss problem might be that he is most likely very smart and good at figuring things out. What he might not realise is, that his experiences are not transferable to the masses and might cause the opposite effect of what he promotes. I might be wrong though, as I don’t follow him that attentively, but I find this the problem of many self-taught (language) learners or enhance or simplify your life promoters. An excellent (language) learner doesn’t automatically make a good (language) teacher. Tim Ferriss might be what he claims to be but he is very certainly not a good German teacher which is why I advice you to take his suggestions on learning languages with thorough care. Also not every language learner is familiar and comfortable with grammatical terms or even with analytical thinking. While we are all pattern seeking organisms, we constantly fail to see patterns in fields that we are not familiar with. And although most of us have managed to learn at least one language in our lives, language analysis is quite a sophisticated skill that doesn’t come to us with our mother’s milk but requires lots of training which 99% of German learners simply don’t have. Another quite obvious flaw of this approach to language learning is that it leaves way too many gaps which leave too much room for speculation. Language learners tend to fill such empty spaces with rules and observations on their own which often leads to serious problems in the long run. Once bad language is established, it is incredibly hard to fix. If you want to learn German, things need to be done right straight from the beginning. I also stripped the German grammar down to its core, but I left the core intact. Ferriss' sentences leave the core incomplete and therefore are likely to cause more harm than benefit. ———————————————————————— Answers to the sentence structure exercise above You give it (the apple) to your mother: Du gibst ihn deiner Mutter. You give the apple to your mother: Du gibst deiner Mutter den Apfel. You want to give the apple to her: Du möchtest deiner Mutter den Apfel geben. You want to give it to your mother: Du möchtest ihn deiner Mutter geben. Today you give it to your mother: Heute gibst du ihn deiner Mutter.