How to Learn a Language in an Hour

by Keith Kahn-Harris on 19 June 2022
How to Learn a Language in an Hour
Is it possible? Is it even advisable?

Philip Larkin once remarked ‘’I wouldn’t mind seeing China if I could come back the same day”. In the same vein, a nervous linguistic traveller, daunted by the sea of languages, might also wish to learn Chinese – but only if they could do so within one hour. The ubiquity of ‘language hacking’ courses (Duolingo, Rosetta Stone, etc.) pander to the fantasy of a simple and easy fix to the lengthy process of language learning.

Despite knowing that learning a language takes considerable time and effort, during my research for my book The Babel Message: A Love Letter to Language, I decided to conduct my own experiment in finding a short-cut. I attempted to try and translate a short message into three languages I had no former knowledge of within an hour.

My book is, as the title suggests, a celebration of linguistic diversity. More specifically, it is a celebration of one short message (what I call the Message) – the warning message found in Kinder Surprise Eggs. For those who don’t know, these are chocolate eggs containing a capsule with a self-assemblable plastic toy (famously, they are banned in the US for safety reasons). In English, the Message reads as follows:

WARNING, read and keep. Toy not suitable for children under 3 years. Small parts might be swallowed or inhaled.

The warning message sheet contains versions of the Message in 34 languages, from Georgian to Albanian. For my book, I commissioned translations into dozens more. I loved seeing what the Message looked like in Zulu, Klingon, Middle Egyptian, Cornish and many more. But I also felt a little jealous that I could not add to the growing list of translations, as ‘official’ translations already existed in the languages I know (Hebrew, French, Spanish and a bit of Finnish).

The obvious next step? I needed to learn an obscure language (i.e. not one of the 34 already translated) to the level needed to translate the Message. It was a daunting challenge. Albeit a short brief, such a translation would need to find equivalents or replacements for a number of grammatical features: nominalisation (“WARNING”), imperative tense or mood (“read and keep”), participles (“swallowed or inhaled”), conditionals (“might be”) and more. There is a lot of groundwork to cover before you encounter these aspects of language in a course of study.

In my experiment I sought to learn only those features of a language that would be necessary to translate the Message. In fact, I decided to go even further, giving myself a limit of one to two hours per language. I eschewed buying books or paying for courses, relying solely on what I could glean from the internet. To avoid the temptation to cheat, I chose languages that aren’t options on Google Translate.

So did it work? Well… Sort of. You will have to read my book to find out the whole sorry story. What I can say is that I did manage to produce three translations that looked like they were in languages previously unfamiliar to me. See what you think:

This is Munegàscu, the Romance dialect of Monaco that, while severely endangered, still has a few speakers and is taught in schools:

ATENÇIUN, lese e cunservà: Giüghetu non adatáu per fiyoei suta 3 ane. E peçe picenine pureressu iesse avalà o inalà.

I managed this in an hour, aided by the French Wikipedia page on the language and a near-illegible scan of a grammar downloaded from Monaco’s Académie des Langues Dialectales. As a speaker of French and Spanish I have a feel for how Romance languages work. The problem was that I never managed to get a Munegàscu-speaker to respond to an email beseeching them to check it for me. So I still don’t know how close I came to an adequate translation.

The next language I tried was Tok Pisin, the creole language that is one of the main lingua franca of Papua New Guinea:

Tok lukaut, ritim na holim: Toi no inap long pikinini yanpela yet tripela yia. Ol inap daunim o kam insait long maus hat liklik.

I assembled this from scanty web-based material and an online dictionary and it took me 90 minutes. I was quietly confident that I had done well here. Alas, I was guilty of hubris. The lack of inflections in Tok Pisin meant that I was lulled into complacency. When an academic expert on the language checked it, he pointed to mistakes in word choice, syntax and grammar. My translation looked like an English-based creole language, but it’s not a language that anyone actually speaks.

Volapük was my third choice. This constructed language – briefly popular in the late 19th century before being supplanted by Esperanto – has a complex, yet systematic and regular grammar and there was lots of free material online to help me with the translation:

NUNED, reidsöd e kipsöd: Tupit binon nelöwedik pro ciles dis 3 yels. Dilis amlik palugonsöx u panünatemönsöx.

This one took me two hours, much of which were spent puzzling over suffixes. When I shared it with the small community of Volapük loyalists, I was told that what I had produced was understandable – which I took to be a triumph. However, I was also told that I had drawn on two versions of the language. One was the ‘original’, published in the 1880s by Volapük’s creator Johann Schleyer. The other was the ‘revised’ version, published in the 1930s. For example, the potential mood marker -öx in the final word was invented by Shleyer but never actually adopted by Volapük speakers.

What I learnt

So what did I learn from this unusual exercise? I learnt that translating a message of this kind (into a language that you do not know) demands more than one or two hours of work. But I also learnt that it’s possible to get closer to a kind of literacy than you might imagine in such a short time. And I also learnt something a bit subversive: a poorly translated message in a language you do not know looks the same as a well-translated one. If you think that’s simply a truism, consider this: it would be possible to identify the first message as being in a Romance language, the second in an English-based creole and the third in an agglutinating language even if they are not ‘correct’.

And that last point is why I haven’t included the corrected versions of the messages in this article. Of course that’s partly to get you to buy my book, where you can read them. But it’s also to remind you that you can get to know something of a language without even understanding it. Even bad Tok Pisin still tells you something about Tok Pisin. We can become familiar with languages just by hearing and reading them and that is a form of language-learning that can be done in an hour.

Refusing the zero-sum, comprehension-incomprehension binary also means refusing a larger dichotomy, in which one either understands or doesn’t understand the ‘other’. This is, of course, a false dichotomy; understanding is never complete. Likewise, not understanding is never total. Even an alien being would signify something to us; humans simply cannot help finding meaning.

To be able to identify a language but not speak it, to be familiar with its sounds and writing without being able to parse them, allows us to develop an appropriate attitude to those who do understand that language. They have something unique and precious that is their own, that I can recognise and appreciate while knowing that it is not mine.

This attitude has helped me in navigating the horrific war in Ukraine. I don’t speak Ukrainian or any other Slavic language. But I do know this: Ukrainian writing includes the dotted ‘і’, which Russian doesn’t. When I see that letter, I am reminded both that there is a Ukrainian language that is separate from Russian.

It only takes a minute to find such little details that differentiate languages and their writing systems from each other. This is a form of language learning that is open to all of us.

Keith Kahn-Harris is a sociologist and writer based in London. His book The Babel Message: A Love Letter to Language is published by Icon Books. His website is and he is @KeithKahnHarris on Twitter.