Setting the scene…
If you were to use generative AI to blend the French new wave star Jean-Paul Belmondo with American jazz performer, Chet Baker, the result would look plausibly similar to the person sitting in front of me, Etienne Genvrin.
He was explaining to me his radically inverted theory of learning languages. This happened a few nights ago. We were sitting together in London, in a dark room, late at night. I had just come back from a few weeks in Japan and the experience had revived some of my old ideas of the structure of language, how it related to the structure of story, and how both related to the structure of music. As a high school student, in a time before the internet, I had written a Japanese word processor so that I might write poems in a language I found more interesting than English. Today, of course, any modern AI could do this task for you in a few seconds, but back when all programming was learned from books with no helper tools to guide you or libraries to fork or built-in inline type-ahead-assist, only inscrutable and brutal trial and error… the feat of coding a Japanese word processor was unreasonably precocious.
My accomplishment was nothing, however, compared to Etienne. He learned 12 languages in 8 years. He has analyzed 24. He used what he had learned to create an app loved by millions. And then, based on all of this research and work, he wrote a book.
We had a long night in London, hidden in the speakeasy-themed room of a restaurant that once had been the courthouse where Oscar Wilde had been on trial. At one point we found a piano in a hallway between the speakeasy and the other, larger areas for dining. Etienne flipped open the lid and started playing improvisations as a man who understood jazz, not as one who merely practiced. This made the Chet Baker side of his face come even easier to the imagination. Jazz, it was revealed, had been a large part of his life for years.
A few weeks earlier, back in Japan, while the other people in my group were drinking and playing cards, I had found a beautiful, unlocked, Yamaha grand in the top floor of the Four Seasons Tokyo and had played blues-structured progressions and background fills to match the 90s hip hop on the sound system. My playing was not remotely at the level of Etienne’s, if fact, if I were to be honest, I was mostly stumbling through it, but watching him play that night in London caused me to wonder if I followed his rapid learning technique for languages could I also find a way to extend it to playing jazz? Sitting around talking to Etienne, anything seemed possible.
Thirty hours after chatting with Etienne I was back in the US and I got a moment to try his method for learning French. He had made outrageous claims… that I could become basically competent in seven hours. And quite good in seven days. He was fluent in 12 languages, had studied 24, and could play jazz like a bird could sing. So why not try? I was hooked on his story. After seven hours of study…
Je peux parle français. Oui, mal... et pourtant… J’ai commencé à traduire son livre du français à l’anglais. And am here to tell you what I learned.
The Etienne Method
The problem with how we try to learn foreign languages is that we think of them as foreign. This immediately sets up resistance in our minds as we see our first language as normal and natural and everything else as a violation—an error—that we must overcome through extensive exception-handling and inelegant memorization. When we try to memorize the new words, there is just nowhere for them to go, so we have to first build buckets in our minds to make sense of the otherness before we can begin to learn. The traditional method can work, eventually, but only after many years of slow, grinding work.
Etienne’s radically inverted technique is to first reframe our understanding of the task as learning more language, not learning a foreign language. We do this by starting with our mother tongue and first recognizing its structures and methods, and then learning all the parts of the new language that map easily back onto the one we already know. When we do this—when we learn more language instead of a foreign language—everything feels incredibly reasonable and familiar. Our brains already have a place to store the new information. It’s almost easy. It still takes some effort, but not even remotely as much. The technique comes down to starting with what is common, instead of starting with everything that is different.
According to Etienne, the second mistake we make when we try to learn a foreign language is we try to be exhaustive. Etienne will tell you being exhaustive only makes the process more foreign, and makes you more exhausted. This is because every little sub-case is treated with the same importance as the most commonly used elements. Our brains don’t have a place for the foreign information to go and all of the exception-handling means many new buckets of incomprehension. The jumbled emphasis hierarchy of “all rules are equally important” destroys and hope for learning. This makes the task very difficult.
Exhaustive is the enemy of rapid, initial progress.
We fall into these two traps because foreign languages are usually taught by experts for whom the language is no longer foreign and already know all the exceptions. For these special people, it feels like a failure of the job to leave out all the obscure details and special cases. As a result, the common way to teach a foreign language is to dive into everything, even the bits that rarely matter.
While explaining this, he gave me an example. English doesn’t have a sense of gender in its nouns the way French does. So for an English speaker trying to learn French, if they do it the traditional way, the whole system immediately feels confusing, foreign, and slightly wrong. Everything feels like an error. Etienne’s advice—radical advice—is to pick a gender and only learn one. Sure you’ll skip half the words at first, but that’s ok. Once you’ve learned enough that the language is no longer foreign, you can start to add in what wasn’t an immediate match to your mother tongue.
The second piece of radical advice he gives is to skip all the complexities of conjugation. Instead, only learn I and You. Why? When you first start to communicate you’ll use sentences about yourself and the person with whom you are speaking. You won’t know enough to really be in a position to speak for or about some other third person or be the representative of some group (either formal or casual).
In this light, we are now only learning I and You forms of verbs and only one gender of nouns. Suddenly everything is easier for a native English speaker to navigate. This, of course, is only the starting place. After the first seven hours, it becomes easier to expand to everything else, because you’ll have a big section of your extended understanding of language that can be seen as “French” and so adding in words, tenses, conjugation, genders, etc. will be more natural and an extension of the extension.
I did my initial seven hours. I learned several hundred words. I mapped them into a matrix of structure to see how they might remix into larger and larger conversations.
The next seven hours brought new tenses and genders and a few of the strange exceptions… but these were manageable, as I now had enough of a home base to extend what I knew to include the variations. And this in the end is the secret to Etienne’s method. You extend your knowledge base… You grow what you know. Nothing is foreign, it’s merely an extension.
I’ve been translating his book from French to English. It’s filled with words I haven’t yet learned, so I still look up a fair amount as I make my way through it. But the new words feel like they have a home in my head, even if I didn’t actually know them before looking them up. His method taught my brain how to think about learning French, not merely to memorize a bunch of words. And now my brain became happy to learn more and more… to grow what I know… to expand my understanding just like how a child might.
It feels wonderful. I even had a dream in French… musical sentences that played with the building blocks of his method to move me through an adventure. Remixing and expanding. Learning and understanding.
Next time I see him I’m hoping he’ll teach me how to play jazz… It’s a lot to ask… but maybe he will if I ask him politely… in French.